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Worry about saving first. Then your investment performance.

Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 in Investing, Saving | 6 comments

Investment returns are important. No doubt. Just a few extra percentage points compounded over time can add tens of thousands to your portfolio or retirement nest egg. But sometimes we get too caught up in the numbers, and chasing investment performance, when we lose site of what’s arguably more important – how much we’re saving. And other times we just lose site of what we’re really getting.

The 100% return

I was having a conversation with a friend who was complaining last year when he got his annual investment performance report from his company that his investments in his company’s defined contribution retirement plan weren’t doing all that great. Now most defined contribution plans that company’s offer here in Canada seem to be restricted as to the funds they offer. My last company plan was like that. You had to pick from a pool of a little over 20 funds – of which maybe 5 were balanced funds, 5 Canadian equity funds, 5 U.S. equity funds, 5 global, 5 fixed income and so on. On the one hand it’s a good idea for the average investor, in that they don’t offer terribly risky funds – this is your retirement nest egg after all – but you also get handed a limited (crappy) selection of funds that you would probably never pick yourself. So, in the end, the returns never end up being that great, or are they?

So he was complaining about a 4% return. Not a great return. But not a terrible one either. So I joked “well, at least you’re not losing”. But I wasn’t really joking and he didn’t really seem all that amused. So I told him, “you’re not making 4%, you’re making 104%, and that’s a pretty good return to me.” He laughed, “what do you mean 104?” Most people forget that in defined contribution plans / 401k’s, where the company matches up to a certain percentage of what you contribute, they are doubling your investment right off the top. Where else can you get a return like that? I can be happy with that.

We’ve gone through a few years now of great returns. Markets across the world are at all time highs now, and continue to rise, ignoring all sensible market indicators. Low interest rates have definitely fuelled a lot of it. Where else is someone to park their money? But what happens when interest rates rise? Or are we headed for a big correction before then? No one can say for sure, and it’ll differ depending on where you live too.

If we look at the US S&P 500, since 1960, there have only been 3 years when the market did NOT experience a 5% correction. So for my defined contribution plan, I’ve been slowly moving to more conservative investments for now, preserving some of my capital. After all, I’m already getting a 100% match dollar for dollar, up to 3% of my earnings.  Sure, it would be nice to get a few extra percentage points above that. But as long as I’m not losing, I’ve already doubled my money. I’m not all that worried about a percentage here or a percentage there.

Why what you save is more important

Is what you save more important than your return? Absolutely! Let me paint this simple example. Let’s say you set aside $100/month, Warren Buffet lent you his good luck shoes and you make a great 10% return, compounded monthly. At the end of the year you made $1,256.56. Let’s say you decide to double your savings and put aside $200/month, but instead are weary of the market and decide to lock it into a safe 1-year Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) bearing a paltry 2% return (compounded annually). Can you guess who comes out ahead. Right, of course, the paltry 2% GIC. At the end of the year, you’ll have accumulated $2,421.92, and all with no risk. Extrapolate both numbers 10 years, that works out to $20,484.50 and $26,519.36, respectively. A 2% return trumps the 10% return.

Now of course this may sound overly simplistic and you’re probably thinking, okay, but you’re asking me to double my savings. But you don’t have to double your savings. All I’m really saying, is if you focus all your energies on how well your investments are performing, and don’t pay attention to what your saving, you’re really not coming out any further ahead.

Of course there is the flip-side argument that if you can generate a larger return, you don’t have to save as much. And this is true. But what kind of returns are you chasing? In most cases, buying index funds, have been shown to outperform the majority of management-led funds and investment earnings are not guaranteed after all. Savings can be.

I’m not disputing the fact that investment returns are important nor that you shouldn’t try and get the best return on your investments. But I’m always cautious when the markets reach these peaks. And if you want to really bump up your investment returns, just start saving more. Save early, save often.

Image courtesy of scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Trick yourself into saving more

Posted by on Jun 12, 2014 in Saving | 8 comments

Why is that when people start the discussion about saving more money, their first inclination is to put up barriers as to why they can’t save? It seems as if the more time we have to think about saving, the more time we have to talk ourselves out of it. Yes, life is expensive. But that should be even more of a reason, to start saving more. After all the expenses, sometimes finding the money can be tricky. But here are a handful of ways to trick yourself into saving more.

Sometimes it’s easier to save big

Research suggests that people may spend small bills more freely than large bills. And when I think about it. It’s often the case for me. I have had a $50 bill in my wallet for months now. I feel bad about breaking a $50. But in the meantime, $5, $10, and to a lesser extent, $20 bills, have come and gone. Of course you could forego using cash altogether, but that opens up a whole other can of worms.

Getting credit for using cash

As many already know, there’s a lot of evidence that points to consumers spending more money when paying with credit cards than when paying with cash. But by how much? Well, in one study by Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester, randomly selected participants were told they would be offered the opportunity to purchase sold-out tickets to an upcoming pro basketball game. One group had to pay in cash, the other by credit card, and were then asked how much they would be willing to pay for the tickets. Those who were told they would have to pay by credit card were willing to pay over twice as much on average, as those who were told that they would have to pay by cash. Sometimes it pays to leave your credit card at home. Especially for larger purchases, cash is still king when it comes to bargaining.

Round up your spending and bank the rest

If you’re already using cash to pay for your purchases, carry bills and toss the change into your piggy bank. Or every time you make a purchase, round up to the nearest dollar or nearest five and deposit the difference into your savings account. So if you spent $18.98, throw an extra $1.02 into the piggy jar. Some debit cards now allow you to round up your spending. The only debit card that I’m aware of in Canada that does this, is the Scotiabank Bank The Rest savings program, where they automatically deposit the difference into a savings account.

Automate your savings

Whatever your goal, the simplest and by far, the most rewarding trick in the book is to automate your savings. Set aside a certain amount to be deducted from every paycheque to go towards saving for an upcoming vacation, child’s education, retirement, or whatever it may be. But unless you make it automatic, you’re relying on your memory and your motivation to save. And even in my case, that’s not a good thing.

You can set up a savings account at a small bank, virtual bank or a credit union that offers no ATM machine near you and where you do not have a checking account. This will force you to think about taking money away from your savings. I have my short-term savings going into an ING (now Tangerine) account. It has limited branches and ATMs around. And while I still can transfer freely among my online accounts, it still takes a couple days for transfers to appear. So it takes a bit a planning. Who knew hassles could be a good thing?

Bank your raises

If you get an increase in salary or wages, and just leave it in your checking account, some other expense will soon take it over. Instead live like you’re living now and bank your increases in a separate savings account. Even a paltry 2 or 3 percent raise might not seem like much now and on each paycheque. But at the end of the year, you’ll probably earn a healthy sum you can put towards an emergency fund, add to your retirement funds, or put towards that trip that you’ve always wanted.

Turn habits into dollars

Smoking, drinking, or expensive hobbies, you get the point. They all add up. Some habits/hobbies are more difficult to bury than others. But cutting back even one cigarette a day, one drink a week, or limiting your hobby spending can put a few more dollars in your pocket. Just save the extra savings, and in this case, what’s good for your wallet is also good for your health.

Snowballing your savings

Once you’ve paid off a debt, car loan, student loan, what have you, continuing making those payments – except this time – to your savings account. And watch as your previous debt payments snowball into savings rewards.

How about negative incentives?

Sites like StickK have popped up to help you track your goals. Except it’s a goal-tracker, with a bit of a twist or shall we say, penalty kick? You set what your goal is (i.e. to lose 30 lbs or pay off $1,000 in debt) and a time limit (i.e. in one month, one year, etc.) But if you fail to meet your goals you can StickK penalize you. For example, you can have it deduct $10 from your credit card, every week that you miss your goal, or some people are penalizing themselves by having it donate to an organization, political party or corporation that they really hate, if they fail. That way they’re motivated to keep on track of their goal. This is probably one of the most unorthodox ways I’ve heard of motivating you to save money. But, hey, whatever works.

As you can see, there are countless ways you can trick yourself to save, when the motivation just isn’t there. Longer-term savings take a lot more discipline, but that’s why it’s always important to give yourself little rewards along the way. Make saving fun, and the money will follow.

What methods or motivations do you use to save?

Copyright: voronin76 / 123RF Stock Photo

Spring cleaning your finances

Posted by on Feb 27, 2014 in Organizing, Saving | 4 comments

Spring is just around the corner (although for many of us, it couldn’t come soon enough). As the buzzing of the bees, birds, crispness of the breeze, flowers and freshly clipped trees, signal the start of a new season, chances are your house and your finances have seen better days.

When most people think of spring cleaning, they attribute it solely to cleaning their home, but it’s also as good a time as any, to get your financial house in order.

Organizing your finances

Before you can begin to tackle any big financial moves, like paying off debt, you need to know where you’re starting from. Do you really know how much debt you’re in, for example? Or how much money you have aside in savings?

Gather all your documents. It’s important to gather and keep all your documents in one place, whether that be your trusty filing cabinet or on your computer. So you’re not racing around trying to find the latest bill, receipt, invoice or tax returns.

Sort it out. Group all your documents in a way that make sense to you. My filing cabinet looks something like this:

  • Credit card bills (with separate folders for each)
  • Home (includes all my house-related expenses such as mortgage, maintenance, etc.)
  • Insurance (separated by whatever type of coverage you have: health, company group plans, home, auto, life, disability, etc.)
  • Investments (retirement accounts / RRSPs, child education funds / RESPs, and any group and personal investment accounts),
  • Other Liabilities (all outstanding loans, other than your mortgage and credit cards – lines of credit, student loans, etc.),
  • Savings (TFSAs, GICs, or any other savings accounts),
  • Tax returns, and
  • Warranties (for large purchases)

Self-employed? Try this: My wife is self-employed too and we implemented this method a few years ago and it’s helped her business and us out tremendously, especially during quarterly or annual tax time. We use a 3-ring binder with plastic sleeves and tabs to separate each quarter. So when there’s any bill that comes in that’s related to her business in any way, or can be claimed as a deductible expense, it’s shuffled into those sleeves. As organizing business expenses by their tax deduction can get quite complicated, originally, we used the inside binder pocket to hold all our bills and receipts until each one was manually entered in our system – and then once it was all entered, it went straight into those sleeves. But even now, as we hand off our binder to an accountant, we put them directly in their sleeves. Which not only makes his job a whole lot easier, but we know now, when one of the sleeves is empty, we can easily tell which receipt was taken out and not put back. It keeps us organized.

Implementing a system

Now’s the time to go through the piles you’ve made and throw out what you don’t need, categorize them in a way that works best for you and print out what’s missing or look at other ways to minimize all the paperwork.

Automating bill payments. Early on, when we first bought our home, I missed a couple of payments. It’s inevitable. Or is it? By changing the majority of my payments to automatic/pre-authorized billing, I’ve never been late for another bill. I’ve switched just about everything to automatic billing, aside from credit card billing, which some months can fluctuate quite a bit. Just avoid using automatic billing (or credit for that matter) for smaller service contracts such as house cleaning, lawn maintenance, etc. as some of the smaller companies make it much more difficult to cancel a contract. Make it cash or cheque.

Paying your bills as soon as you get them. If you choose not to automate your billing, or for any other type of tax or credit bill, pay your bills as soon as you get them. Chances are, if you leave them till the payment due date, you’re going to forget.

Consolidating accounts. Are you paying bank fees on accounts you rarely use? Now might be a good time to take a good look at all your accounts and see if you can combine any or cash out and shut down the ones you’re not using. Keep it simple.

Track your spending

Most people don’t even know how much money they actually bring in. The only way to ensure you’re not spending more money than you’re taking in, is to create a budget to track what your spending. They don’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s better that it be simple, flexible and that you make some room to budget in the fun stuff, to reward yourself for sticking to it.

Set financial goals

Where do you want be a year from now, 5 years from now and beyond? Debt-free? Retired? Or maybe it’s a much-needed vacation next year. Whatever you have your heart set on, your budget is the roadmap to get you there. And depending on what goals you set, you may need to massage your budget, to get it realigned to your new program.

Prioritize your goals. Once you have a list of all your short- and long-term goals, take the time to think about what areas are most important to you. If that vacation means it’ll take one year longer to pay off your debt, is it worth it? Maybe it is, but it’s something you need to evaluate.

Dig deeper. Okay so you want to pay off debt. But where do you start? There are many different strategies to pay off debt, find one that works best for you. Have a vacation in mind? Lay out all the costs involved. Your vacation costs don’t end at the flight and hotel, think about any new clothes, spending money, travel gear, sun gear, travel insurance, etc.

Spring your goals into action

Find your hidden savings. Assess your situation. Is there anything you could reduce or eliminate, that could get you one step closer to reaching your goals? Check out my post Ways to uncover your hidden money for an assortment of ideas. Or do you have any talents that you could be using to earn extra money?

Automate your savings. Once you’ve set your goals, it’s easy to forget to put aside money in your savings or investment accounts, if you have to think about it each time. If you haven’t already, most online banks now allow you to open multiple savings accounts that you can target to specific goals and automate your finances.

Don’t let the groundhog dictate how many more weeks of winter you have left. Set a game plan in place and start spring cleaning your finances today!

Image courtesy of scottchan and dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Buying a used car: lessons and lessons learned

Posted by on Jan 30, 2014 in Saving, Uncategorized | 4 comments

Both my wife and I have been driving 13- and 14-year-old used cars, almost as long as we’ve been together. But my wife’s relationship with her vehicle hit a bumpy road last month, when her 2000 Honda Civic and muffler parted ways. We took it to a few places that found cracks in the whole exhaust system and the best quote we got was about $650. Ouch! On a car worth maybe $1000, it made our decision pretty easy.

We knew our vehicles were getting old, so we’ve been looking at newer, more ‘family-friendly’ models for a while, and luckily we put a savings plan in place about a year-and-a-half ago. We researched many vehicles in our price range and in the end, we bought a 2012 Mazda5. My first thought, was ‘Oh, no, I’m a van owner.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are lots of perfectly older dads riding in vans. Ha! I’m kidding!

It’s actually a great vehicle, and I would love to say that we paid it fully in cash, but we fell just a few months shy of our savings goal, so we took out a small loan and we’ll have that fully paid off in a couple months. We could have went with a more inexpensive car, but an extra 2 months of payments didn’t seem like a lot to get a one year newer vehicle.

This week, after reading ‘Don’t wait for life’s big moments to save for them‘ from Kayla’s  I’ve Worked Too Hard To Be Poor blog, in retrospect, the smarter thing would have been to start saving before our vehicles got too old. And I could have got away with making smaller payments for a longer period of time, instead of forcing ourselves to put so many other things on hold for that year-and-a-half we were saving up for the car. But we don’t always think about what could happen until it does, or it’s too late. Which reminds me, I should probably start saving up to replace my own 13-year-old car.

But here are some of the things we did right and some simple things to keep in mind, when buying your next vehicle:

Have a max budget in mind

I can’t stress this point enough. Before you even set foot into a dealership. Before you even start searching. You should always have a number — the maximum amount you can afford and are will to spend on a vehicle. The dealer will always try to upsell you, so it might be a good idea to tell him that you’re looking for a car $1000 below your ‘real’ max budget.

Remember your max budget should include all taxes and fees. This includes all federal and provincial or state taxes, any freight/delivery fees, auction fees (if bought at an auction), licensing fees, leasing/financing fees (easily avoided if paid in cash), and environmental fees for things like A/C, tires and emissions testing. There may be others and the costs will vary depending on your location. But it never hurts to ask a friend, neighbor or family member that’s recently purchased a vehicle, what to expect or at least get an idea of taxes and fees for a vehicle in your price range.

As soon as you have a max budget in mind, start saving! You never know when your car could end up at the scrapyard, so start as early as you can.

Do your own research

When I started looking for my first vehicle, I remember coming up with an exhaustive list of potential cars that fit within my budget. Now, I’m not saying you go to the crazy extent that I did, but I think it’s important to not be tied to one make and model year, because although you may want that vehicle, it might not be one you can afford.

  • List it. I liked to draw up a dream list with about 5 makes and models with the preferred year. By this time, you should have already thought of which vehicles are the best fit for your lifestyle or family. For example, a 2-door sports car might not make much sense with two kids. Searching through car forums will also give you a good idea as to the type of issues, if any, that customers of that vehicle have had.
  • Price it. Once you have your list in mind, there are many sites like autotrader.ca and autotrader.com, cars.com, etc., that can give you a pretty good estimate on what you’re expected to pay before taxes and fees. If some of the models go over your max budget by a lot, you know these aren’t contenders. If it’s by a little, would you be happy going to a model one-year older to make up the difference?
  • Ensure it insures well. Once you have your list narrowed down to the best of the best, call up your insurance broker or agent. Most people neglect this step, but insurance can add big monthly costs to your car, and depending on the type of car you drive, you could be in for a rude awakening. When I bought my first car, a 2001 Nissan Altima, I had to neglect my previous choice, because the insurance costs were too high.

And once you’ve met your savings goal, you’re ready to shop.

Never take the car dealer’s word for it

A friend of ours is a dealer and helped purchase our car through a private auction, so we really lucked out. Whether you know someone or not, here are a few things to do to ensure you’re not leaving your money behind in the dust:

  • Get the report. Not 100% foolproof, but you’d kick yourself, if you could have caught a red flag and you weren’t bothered to. Reporting services like CarProof and CarFax are only as accurate as the information provided to them. So, If no one reports an accident to an insurance company, there’s a good chance it might not show up on there. Nonetheless, it’s a good place to ‘start’.
  • Get an inspection. If you’re not able to take the car somewhere for an independent inspection or have a mechanic tag along with you, at the very least ask someone who knows about cars to assess the vehicle. And especially if you’re buying privately. It’ll be worth your while. Also just because it says it’s certified (from dealer) or certified pre-owned (manufacturer) doesn’t mean it will be problem-free. Inspections and warranty coverage vary greatly from brand-to-brand.
  • Test-drive it. Take a friend along for a second opinion and test the vehicle on the open road. Aside from how well it drives, is it comfortable? Does it fit your baby seats? Does it meet your needs?
  • Negotiate it. A dealer’s price is always flexible. Be prepared to walk away if you’re not getting what you want. If you’re paying in full, you’ll always have more leeway.

Buying used vehicles are not without risk, but my family has bought many used vehicles, without any major issues, aside from the same issues that plague any car. Buying a used car can save you thousands over a new car and can last you for years as well, but it’s important to take your time and do your own due diligence – never buy a used car on impulse and let your emotions drive your decisions for you.

Photo credit: lleugh / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

More ways to save money on groceries

Posted by on Jan 16, 2014 in Food, Saving | 8 comments

We’ve all heard the same money-saving grocery tips like: look for the sales, shop with coupons, buy the private label brands, and shop the perimeter of your store.

While these are no doubt, great ways to save money on groceries, it’s often the little things, the little changes in our smallest of habits, that can make a world of difference. So instead of rehashing the old, here are a new handful of tips or reminders to help you on your way to a better, healthier grocery budget.

Buy only what you need

By being conscious of what we buy, planning our meals and shopping with lists, you’ll not only be able to minimize the majority of the food waste in your household, but you’ll be saving quite a bit of money by tweaking your habits. But if you’re on a really tight budget, here are a couple of other nifty tricks to help you reduce your waste, squeak out some more savings, and keep you on budget:

Do the banana split. Some fruit and vegetables such as bananas and grapes are sold as bunches and priced by weight. If you can’t eat 8 bananas in a week, don’t take the 8 bananas! Yes, it’s perfectly okay to split a bunch of bananas and make your own bunch. Same goes for grapes. Grapes are sometimes shipped and sold in pre-packed large plastic bags. We can never go through them all, so we separate the bunch and only take and pay for what we need. And there’s nothing wrong with sneaking a grape or two in store. You want to make sure it’s worth buying.

Avoid the pre-packed produce, where you can. While this seems pretty obvious, we almost all do it, to some extent. Yes, it may seem obvious to avoid buying the pre-sliced, seedless watermelons, but sometimes we all reach for that bag of apples, oranges, or carrots or the pre-packed, pre-washed salads. I’ve found, while they can sometimes be cheaper in price, they usually have a shorter shelf-life than the un-bagged. When you start seeing best before dates on your produce, it makes you wonder how long they’ve been in transit and on shelves.

Toss them on the scale. When you’re trying to stick closely to a budget and your produce is sold by weight, use the in-store weight scales. Growing up, my parents always weighed their items. I rarely see anyone using them anymore and to be honest, it has been a while since we’ve used them ourselves, but if you’re living on a tight budget, try tipping the scales in your favour.

Get to know your food

You have to know how to hold’em. Choosing the ‘right’ fruit and vegetables is just as important. Learn how to pick the perfect apple or pear, or whatever it is you’re buying. Most produce are easy to tell, but some are more difficult than others. After throwing away many bad apples in the past, I think I’ve got it pretty down pat to picking the perfect apple. And regardless what many sites say, I’ve found colour really has no bearing on the apple’s quality. It really all comes down to the skin and its texture. The degree of roughness depends on the variety, but it should never feel slick or moist to the touch in any way. Pineapple is another one we’ve learned to pick right. To test its ripeness, first make sure it smells like a ripe pineapple, then try tugging on one of the center leaves from the top of the pineapple. If it lifts easily, then you have yourself a winner!

Wisebread has a pretty good article on choosing your fruits and vegetables. But if you’re at store and not really sure how to pick a certain fruit/veggie, and you see someone thoroughly inspecting their fruit, ask them what they look for. We’ve been asked on a few occasions, even how to use certain groceries we were buying. It always pays to ask.

You have to know where to store’em. One of the best tips I got on storing produce, was to store them away like your grocery store would. In other words, if the store doesn’t refrigerate their tomatoes, why would you? Keeping asparagus in a small cup of water will ensure they will last longer and root vegetables like potatoes, beets, onions and garlic are best kept in a cool, dark place. TheKitchn.com has a great guide to storing all your other fruits and vegetables.

Clear the clearance shelves

I’m not talking shampoos or paper products here — many grocery stores sell carts full of food that are about to expire in a day or two. Food items like breads, bananas, tomatoes, etc at often a 50% markdown! We keep an eye out for these, and for food items that we know we’re going to use up soon, or that freeze well. For example, bread can last weeks in the freezer and be perfectly fine. Or we’ll buy a bunch of ripe bananas to make a cheap and delicious loaf of banana bread.

You had me at meat

We all know meat can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Vegetarianism isn’t for everyone, but knowing what to look for when shopping for a cut of meat is key.

Inexpensive alternatives. There a lot of relatively inexpensive cuts of meat that can be just as delicious. Many of the top chefs have recommended flank and skirt steaks as good, less expensive alternatives. They can be a little tougher, but marinate them overnight and they’re perfect for the grill or throw them in a slow cooker for a hearty stew. If chicken is your go-to meat, one of our favourite parts of the chicken, is also one of the least expensive — chicken thighs. They have quite a bit of meat on them, are flavourful, and are fantastic in the slow cooker.

Buy it whole. If you’re looking to save a lot, just skip all the skinless, boneless chicken breasts and either buy bone-in, or buy a whole chicken and learn how to properly joint a chicken. There are plenty of good resources and videos online. Obviously, this only makes sense if you intend to use other parts of the chicken. We come from a pretty big family, so my parents have actually bought half a lamb, and veal and have had the butcher divvy it up, so that they can make the most of all their meals, at a fraction of what it would cost, if you bought all the cuts separately.

Ask your butcher. A good butcher can be your best friend, who can recommend a delicious cut of meat and give you the best advice on how to prepare it. But more than that, a good butcher will know how to stay within your budget. Instead of just picking a piece of meat from the display counter, next time try asking the butcher that your looking to cook __________(insert meal) and would like to spend around $X.

Grow your own

Okay, okay, I know. But everyone thinks they need a large outside garden to have a few vegetables. There are plenty of vegetables that can be grown indoors. But even if you’re not willing to do that, growing fresh herbs at home is easy-peasy and can save you quite a lot. Packaged herbs can be quite expensive at the grocery store when you figure you can buy a pack of seeds for literally, a couple of dollars, that will net you more than a years worth of fresh basil, sage, or whatever it is you’re wanting to grow. All you need is a small pot or mason jar, a little soil and a window.

If you do end up buying a bunch of fresh herbs like parsley, for example, when you get it home, freshly cut the stems and get it in water. My wife has even found some may sprout roots! Plant that sucker and put it to work! Even if it doesn’t root, keeping it in fresh water will make it last that much longer.

Only take what you can pay for

I remember going to a grocery store in Florida about, oh, I don’t know, 20 years ago, that had built-in calculators on their grocery carts. I thought that was pretty neat, I’ve never seen that here, but nonetheless, you can always bring a calculator with you and do the math yourself.

But I know it’s sometimes difficult and time consuming to calculate every item. So here’s one final tip taken from mom and dad. They always paid in cash (even to this day), but I distinctly remember after ringing everything through and when they saw the final tally, if there were items that were too expensive or pushed them over their budget, they weren’t afraid or embarrassed to ask the cashier to refund/leave behind the few items that pushed them over. Only take what you can pay for.

Cheers and Happy Shopping!


Use email alerts and save

Posted by on Dec 12, 2013 in Saving, Technology | 6 comments

Well, the early shopping numbers are in and while most brick-and-mortar retailers have had a tough time this year, online shopping sales have soared. U.S. Black Friday sales topped $3 billion during Thanksgiving and Black Friday, $1.93 billion on Black Friday alone — a 39% increase over last year.

I’ve talked about various online shopping tactics in a previous post, that you can use to make the most of your holiday shopping. But one that’s often missed is the email alert. I’ll show you some of the free online tools, of which I use, and methods that can help you keep track of your money, spend less of it and ultimately spend less time searching — by having it all delivered to your inbox.

Good old-fashioned email alerts

Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you’ve received some type of email offers about an upcoming promotion. Emails like that can get quite annoying when they’re not what you’re looking for. But there are many tools to manage and direct the right stuff into your inbox.

Google Alerts

When it comes to combing the web for info, no one does it better than Google. Businesses have turned to Google Alerts to help monitor their brand’s online activity and influence (as well as their competitors). Google Alerts sends out emails to notify you whenever your company name or your tailored set of keywords is mentioned. But many don’t realize its full savings potential.

Google alerts can also be a great tool to monitor any new promo codes for sites you frequent. As a graphic designer, I’m frequently sourcing images through iStock or Dreamstime. So I’ve set up an alert to notify me by email every time the words “iStock” AND “code” appear in the search results.

Another hidden Google Alerts gem is that it can also be customized to notify you of price drops. So let’s say you’re searching for the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone, you can set an alert for the keywords “Samsung Galaxy S4 $1..$500”. That gives Google a price range between $1 and $400 to look for. If the price drops to $400, you’re sent an email. Just remember to include the two dots between the numbers.

Unfortunately, since Google has last updated the tool, it’s been a hit-and-miss. Other alternatives such as Talkwalker, have popped up — and I must say, it does a pretty good job.

If this, then that

If you haven’t used IFTTT (If This, Then That) before, it’s worth a look. You can schedule tweets to be posted on Facebook, StumbleUpon a blog post as soon as it’s published, or have your new RSS feeds bookmarked on Delicious. And vice versa. And a multitude of possibilities that allow you to use one event to trigger another.

One of my favourite uses of IFTTT is to monitor stock prices. Because I sometimes don’t check stock prices as often as I should, I set up IFTTT recipe to email me reminders when they get to a certain levels. It’s less hassle than me having to log into my account to see where I’m at.

Now, whenever I buy anything, I have a target sale price and sell price in my head. So you can set IFTTT to send you an email whenever $10 stock XYZ reaches $20 per share and another one, if it were to fall below $12 per share. And you can set this to send you the email ‘as it happens’. I usually set the email triggers slightly off my targets, so I’m notified well in advance, in case I need to react. I realize people have stock widgets installed and you can place stop orders and stop losses on your stocks as well, but not every discount broker I’ve been with, allows you to do that, and I can’t remember the last time I even looked at my stock widget.

Another great use of IFTTT is to use it to monitor deal blogs and websites. For example, I have one IFTTT recipe set up to scour the smartcanucks.ca RSS feed and search for keywords “free samples” or “brandsampler” (which happens to be a free sample site for users of P&G products). Instead of scouring the whole website day-to-day, I let IFTTT do all the work and scan the RSS feeds for me.

Looking to make some extra money this year? How about a raise? You can set IFTTT to shop job boards like Indeed.com’s RSS feed (or job boards like it) and specify keywords related to your job search.

One of its limitations is that it only produces one action at a time. So although it calls its mixes recipes, it only allows for two ingredients. So you can’t, for example, schedule a tweet to be posted on all your social networks at the same time, without creating multiple IFTTT emails. It also has limitations within certain channels, such that you now can’t search anyone else tweets but your own, for example. These do change from time-to-time, depending on the restrictions that Twitter and the other channels place on IFTTT.

Other social triggers

Nowadays, more and more companies are turning to social networks to deliver their promotions — exclusive promotions for those that connect with their business on a social network. Twitter allows you to set push notifications to your smartphone for certain people you follow. But who wants to search through hundreds of a company’s tweets just to find promo codes or whatever it is you’re looking for? Not me!


Enter TweetAlarm. TweetAlarm will scan Twitter and send you emails, as it happens, or once a day on all the keywords you’ve specified.

So now you can enter “Pampers GTG” to search for Pampers Gifts to Grow codes or swagcode for Swagbucks codes or any others you can think of and get tweets about promo codes and coupon codes delivered right to your inbox, without even thinking about it.

Pinterest alerts

As announced back in August, Pinterest now delivers email price alerts on products you’ve pinned. So let’s say you’re doing your Christmas shopping and have pinned a whole bunch of gift ideas to your “Christmas gift list” board. If any of those products have prices attached to them and the price drops, you’ll automatically be notified of the price change. All you have to do is log into Pinterest, go to your Account Settings, scroll down to Email Notifications and make sure you have “Price changes for Pins you add” set to Yes.

As an added tip: Just remember, if it is a gift for a friend or someone that’s following you, Pinterest now allows you to create “secret boards” that keep them from the gift shakers. They’re only visible to you and whomever you invite. So, happy pinning!

Things to look for

Many people are led to believe that price alerts stop when the product is purchased. This is the NOT the case. I’ve actually found I’ve saved sometimes more money, weeks after the product was bought. A lot of retailers now offer price adjustments after purchase, some even more than a month past the purchase date. So if the price falls and you still held onto your receipt, you’re entitled to your money back.

In summary, email alerts can notify you of:

  • Deals at your favourite store(s)
  • Promotional codes for your favourite store(s), as well as free points/offers to loyalty reward programs
  • Price changes on items you’re looking to purchase, or have already purchased
  • New job postings
  • Credit card payments and balances
  • Monitor your stock prices or even your favourite sports teams and most importantly, keep on top of Thrifty Dad’s new blog posts by subscribing to my email alerts at the top of this page :)

So, as you can you see email alerts can be a powerful tool. And if you prefer not to receive them as emails, many of the tools I have mentioned have other options as well, that will post it to an RSS feed or your favourite social network.

So sit back, relax and let the deals come to you. Happy shopping. I meant saving.

Image courtesy of sippakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net