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Going Broke Saving Money: Part II

Going Broke Saving Money: Part II

Oh, Yes You Can Can—But Should You?

It’s harvest time and many of us, especially those with access to free produce from home orchards and gardens are “putting up” jars of canned goods. There are many reasons why people can: to avoid waste, to have control over the contents and quality of their canned goods, and because they believe the results of home canning taste better than what they can buy at the store are just a few. One of the most frequently cited reasons is to save money, which is certainly possible although how practical it is for you is another matter.

Canning is one of those mysterious arts that, up until recently, I didn’t have the nerve to try. Maybe it’s because the Bon Vivant botulism case occurred near where I lived and at a time when I was particularly susceptible to media generated hysteria (I was 13). Botulism contamination is extremely rare in a commercial setting, less so in a home setting, yet easily avoidable if one follows recommended procedures. Still, home canned goods that are unsafe are a concern for many people. If you have trouble reading a thermometer or like to have your cat (gerbil, boa constrictor, etc.) sit on the counter while you cook, you may want to skip it.

In the last few years, since I’m not working outside the home and I have an avid desire to spend less, I decided to give it a try. Last year, I put up about 12 quarts of pickles, tomatoes, pie filling, and jam. The produce was from my garden and from that of a friend but my set up costs for equipment more than wiped out any money I may have saved. This brings up a good point. Saving money by canning is a long-term proposition. The more you do it, and the longer you do it, the more you will save.

Have You Got the Goods?

If you want to save money by canning, the most important factor is sourcing your produce. It’s got to be free or lower in cost than what you can buy at the supermarket to make canning cheaper than buying commercially canned goods. A case in point: I buy canned tomatoes for a family dish we eat frequently called Irish Spaghetti. It takes about three pounds of tomatoes to fill a quart jar. Since my garden has not produced anything close to the amount required for a single batch of canned goods, I purchased 22 lbs of tomatoes from Dan’s Produce for about $10 (in season) which yielded seven quarts of canned tomatoes for about 5 cents an ounce. The cans of tomatoes I normally buy for this recipe are currently selling at Safeway for six cents an ounce, if I use my Safeway Club card. So, my seven quarts represent a savings of $2.24. Factor in the cost of running the gas stove for several hours to sterilize the jars and lids and then can the tomatoes, and the savings are even less spectacular.

Tools of the Trade

Set-up costs are a consideration. If you add in the cost of the jars, lids, and rings I used canning my tomatoes (which I already had from last year), a little more than a dollar a jar, I would actually have spent more on my canned goods than I would if I had purchased the store-bought variety. People tell me you can find jars and other supplies at yard sales for next to nothing, but that takes some dedicated effort. A friend alerted me to a steam canner at a yard sale once, but it looked like it might be damaged, so I passed. Blowing up the kitchen would no doubt cost a lot more than buying my own.

A good source of information on the myriad array of home canning equipment available is Lehman’s. A favorite vendor among the Amish community, Lehman’s has pretty much everything you need to jump neck deep into the Urban Food movement and possibly drown. Marie Antoinette who is said to have kept a farm near Versailles so she could play milkmaid would have loved these guys. Yes, they even have milking equipment. (Tip: Check zoning laws before purchasing lactating livestock.) A quick look at their prices can be off-putting, but the basic equipment (home canner, jars, and a few simple tools) can be picked up at grocery, hardware, and even big box stores like Target.

The initial investment of the canner, jars, and tools is greatest the first year. In later years, you mostly pay for the lids, which typically are not reusable, and replacing broken or cracked jars or adding to your jar supply if your output increases.

The Bottom Line

My garden is small, and the output due to weather conditions here on the Isle of Style and Gracious Living has been disappointing for the past two years, so for me, the savings have been slim to none. On the other hand, canning in moderation is kind of fun and it makes me feel virtuous, so at least I’m saving on entertainment. It gets better if you have a friend, like I do who has a veritable orchard of fruit trees on her property and is willing to share in exchange for my help with canning her yield.

It is time-consuming, and I should report that my husband and son hate it because it turns the house into a steam bath, often at the hottest time of the year. Does the food taste better? I think so but that’s pretty subjective. If you’re looking only to save money, and don’t have a ready source of free produce, it’s probably not worth the effort. If you like having control over what goes into your canned goods, need to keep busy, and or if you just like doing this sort of thing, it’s worth a try. There are books you can buy, but if you’re just getting your feet wet, check out websites like Backwoods Home Magazine for tips and instructions.

Going Broke Saving Money: Part I

Everywhere you look, somebody wants to show you how to save money by spending it. Suze Orman wants you to buy her books. Dave Ramsey wants you to attend his seminars. Countless others want you to subscribe to their websites and newsletters, invest in their discount cards, coupon organizers, and home canning kits. I am by no means immune. There’s something about buying this stuff that makes us feel thrifty without having to follow through and actually be thrifty. It’s kind of like writers who buy books and pay for seminars on how to write a screenplay or novel in an effort to distract themselves from the fact that to be a successful writer, you have to actually write. Well, to be successful in the thrift game, you have to stop spending money needlessly. In the following weeks, I will discuss ways in which I have spent money in an effort to save and how it worked out. I’ll be the doofus, so you don’t have to be. This week, we’re talking coupons.

Crazy for Coupons

Coupons, from the French coup “to cut”, (which is why it’s properly pronounced “koo-pon” not “cue-pon”), have been around since the late 1880s when the makers of Coca-Cola distributed cards entitling the bearer to  a free sample of their new soft drink. It worked out well for them, and it was not long before others followed suit. Appearing in newspapers and magazines, coupons offer a discount on items the vendor hopes you will buy. Just cut them out, present them at check out and you are ahead of the game. Today, you can also access online coupons and even coupon apps for your smart phone. So, where’s the risk? Coupons are free, right? Well, that depends. If you really get into collecting them, and it can be addictive, you may find yourself spending as much or more than you save. One way is by subscribing to newspapers and magazines specifically to get the coupons they carry. In lieu of subscriptions to publications, you can also buy the coupons themselves. That’s right; people actually buy what companies are giving away for free. A quick search on eBay brought up over 88,000 listings of coupons for sale. (One can only speculate on how much dumpster diving is involved in becoming a purveyor of coupons.) For the truly smitten, a whole host of coupon organizers are on the market guaranteed to “help” you save money. The Coupon Magic Organizer with Case-it Binder will set you back $44.99 plus shipping. (It weighs 4 pounds, so shipping is a pretty significant addition to the cost.) Now, I’m not a big enough sucker to buy one of those. No, sir, I got the more modest, highly-rated, Couponizer  for a mere $19.95, plus $6.95 for shipping. As a system, the Couponizer worked pretty well, but frankly, there wasn’t anything included that I couldn’t have put together myself with materials I had lying around the house. The instructions and advice the manufacturers of these organizers include, sometimes in the form of an instructional DVD, are comparable to that given in free online articles. They do not have a secret plan that will save you more money. In fact, the trick to saving money with coupons is simple: only use coupons from sources you already have and for things you already buy. Finding these is time consuming and a lot of work. Of course, coupons are designed to get you to buy things you otherwise wouldn’t. The mere fact that a coupon is offered for a product should be a heads up that it’s something you don’t need or could get cheaper by buying a different brand. You can sign up for free online coupon sites like Coupons.com or subscribe to Groupon or Living Social  and have deals emailed to you on a regular basis, but the danger in doing this is that you will be constantly tempted buy things simply because they are a great deal. You also run the risk of being talked into upgrading the original offer, which is every one of these vendor’s evil plan. Here’s an example. My husband purchased a deal for having a family photo printed on canvas for 50% off. I chose a pony picture I had taken of my son years ago. When the proof was sent to us, however, the size of the scan specified in the deal resulted in an image that cropped the pony’s legs off half-way down. It looked weird. It cost me an additional $15 to upgrade to the larger size, and oh, by the way, wouldn’t I like to have the canvas stretched so I could hang it without having to pay for framing? I balked at the $44 extra until I considered that, if I didn’t go for it, I’d have to pay more for the framing after the fact. More likely, I would end up with the damn thing rolled up in a drawer until one of my descendants threw it away. So, I ended up paying more than double the 50% I had already “saved”.

The Bottom Line

A rip-off? Not exactly. There were disclaimers that we ignored in our eagerness to save money. Let the buyer beware. The point is, I had no desire, and certainly no need to transform my family photo into a “work of art” until the offer hit my inbox. For me, Groupon and Living Social are a little too tempting. Many of their offers lead the buyer directly down the path of upgrading the offer and spending more than they originally saved. As for the Couponizer, it slipped off the mountainous pile of unclipped coupons that had accumulated on my end table, into the wastepaper basket and got taken out with the trash. I can’t afford to buy another one.

A Golden Opportunity

A Golden Opportunity

With gold prices at an all-time high, many Americans are trading in their bling for bucks at pawn shops, jewelers, gold shows, and the like. Others hesitate. Is it worth the effort?  Do they have enough gold to sell? They worry about being cheated or regretting their decision down the line. These are all valid concerns and ones that I mulled over seriously before taking the plunge. This week’s post is about my experience and some tips I picked up along the way.

After researching online and talking to a local jeweler, I decided to use Goldfellow, an online buyer. Goldfellow has a good reputation and I personally have had a positive experience with them. (I’ve sold gold there four times now.)  How you decide to dispose of your unwanted gold is up to you. If you have a jeweler or pawn dealer you trust, that may be the way to go, but those who don’t may want to consider an online buyer, just be careful. All gold buyers are not created equal.

One of the benefits of dealing with Goldfellow is the excellent job they do of educating sellers about the process. Their website is a good place to go to educate yourself even if you decide to sell your gold elsewhere.

What Have You Got?          

When you sell gold this way, it is important to understand that it is going for scrap. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for it, how fine the workmanship is, or how dear it is to you. It will be analyzed for content, melted down, and processed to remove base metals. Despite grandma’s insistence that her bracelet is “solid gold,” jewelry never is. Pure gold is too soft and always has a little something added for strength. Higher karat weight means greater gold content. If you have an antique necklace, by a known designer, you may do better selling it as jewelry on eBay.  Gold coins are also tricky. Some are currently not worth as much as they once were for their rarity as they are for their gold content, but this is not always the case. Consult a coin dealer before selling old coins for scrap. Sure bets are broken or damaged items, earrings that are missing their mates, gold fillings (hopefully ones that have already fallen out), or pieces that are so ugly that you don’t want them and neither would anyone else. There is also great satisfaction in getting cash for an item that has negative associations—wedding ring from a disastrous marriage for instance—and buying something that makes you smile instead.

If you have a number of items with which you are willing to part, a jeweler’s loupe can help you get a heads up on their content. Some things look gold but are actually sterling silver with a barely-there gold overlay. These are often stamped with “925” whereas gold is indicated in karat weight such as 14K or 18K.  I bought a loupe on eBay for about $3.00 that is adequate for my purposes. This is not necessary, the buyer will test the item and let you know the content before you agree to sell, but it’s kind of fun anyway.

How It Works

NOTE: This description is based on my experience with Goldfellow. Others may charge for shipping, etc. Make sure you understand the terms of the transaction before agreeing to sell to anyone. Enthusiastic though I am about this company, I am not a paid shill for Goldfellow, much as I might like to be!

  1. Go to the Goldfellow website to register.They will provide you with a pre-paid FedEx packing slip, a packing list to fill out and enclose with your items, and a list of shippers near you who will accept the package. This process costs you nothing but the paper and printer ink you use to print out the documents.
  2.  Sort items by type. Write in the number of  rings, bracelets, coins, etc.
  3.  Provide your driver’s license number and sign the packing form.
  4.  Put the form along with the items in a Zip-loc bag or an envelope.
  5.  Pick up a Fed-Ex envelope that accommodates the packing slip and put the items inside. The package is pre-insured by Goldfellow for up to $1,000.
  6.  Drop the envelope off at any Fed-Ex shipping location. You do not have to pay anything.
  7.  In a couple of days, Goldfellow will either call or email you that they have received your package.
  8.  Shortly thereafter, in my case it’s usually in 3 to 5 hours, Goldfellow will contact you again to tell you your settlement is ready.
  9.  Sign in on their website and see what they have determined you have in terms of gold content and weight and how much they are willing to give you for it.
  10.  If you’re satisfied with the offer, click on the appropriate box and they will mail you a check. If not, indicate that you don’t want to sell and they will return your items to you unharmed. The return shipment does not cost you anything either.

I live in California and Goldfellow is in Florida, yet for me, the entire process takes less than a week. Goldfellow is especially sensitive to the fact that many of their customers need money yesterday and do an outstanding job of turnaround. In fact, in one case, I had trouble with a damaged check and they reissued it immediately and even offered to wire me the funds if I didn’t want to wait.

Is It Worth It?

In my case, absolutely! I’m not typical in the sense that I have inherited the result of my mother-in-law’s home shopping sprees and so have a fair amount to liquidate, but one example is the 18K gold chain, medium width, choker length, that netted me over $500. The price of gold was much lower when my MIL originally purchased it, so I’m sure I ended up getting more than she paid for it. (A similar chain bought today might be better sold as jewelry.) A friend of mine sold a gold filling for $50. Creepy? Sure, but hey, 50 bucks! Goldfellow buys sterling silver, too, but the pay day is a lot less. Personally, I’m waiting for the price of silver to rise before selling any of that. In any case, it costs you basically nothing to find out if you’re sitting on a gold mine or at least a golden egg, and if you get cold feet, you can always decline the offer.

The Last Word

You will no doubt check Yelp! and other reviews to see if Goldfellow has had any complaints. It’s important to realize that this is a competitive business and fictitious online complaints are often posted by other gold buyers hoping to lure you away. Other complaints stem from ignorance about the process: “Gold is selling at $1,700 an ounce. My item weighed a half an ounce but they didn’t offer me anywhere near $850. What a rip-off!” No, your item was not 100% gold and they have to charge something for the service or what would be the point of being in business? Smelting ain’t cheap. For my money, the service and convenience that Goldfellow provides is well worth it. The bottom line:  if you don’t like it, use it, or need it, and if it doesn’t make you smile, get rid of it. I guarantee that check will cheer you up.