31 Ways to Save in 2011: Six ways to "fund" your Amazon addiction!


If you’ve been reading my blog for long, then you know I have a bit of an Amazon addiction. I cringe when I hear people say that they have Amazon gift cards that they won’t use because “they can’t really find much on Amazon.”  Over the past year, I’ve bought all sorts of things our family “needs” ranging from diapers and Pull Ups to batteries, a booster seat, over the counter medication, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and razor blades along with some fun things like toys, movies, and books!  The best part is that I’ve spent very little out of pocket on these items because I’ve been able to pay for them using gift cards!

Here are some ideas for ways that you can earn gift cards to fund your Amazon addiction and stick to your budget, too!

1.  Change jar ~ Since we use cash only, last year, my husband and I decided to start a change jar where we would keep all of the change we earned from purchases.  We were very surprised that we accumulated almost $200 last year by doing this!  Part of it went to help pay for a family vacation we took last summer.  The rest of it was “cashed in” for Amazon gift cards to buy Christmas gifts.  When you visit a Coinstar machine, you have the option of “cashing out” but then you have to pay 9.8 cents per dollar. They also have an option where you can get “free coin counting” if you opt for a gift card or gift certificate instead. Amazon is one of the choices and the e-certificates you get for Amazon never expire! They also offer gift cards for Albertson’s, Borders, Cabela’s, CVS, Eddie Bauer, iTunes, JC Penney, Lowe’s, Old Navy, Overstock.com, Regal Entertainment Group, and Starbucks.  We’ve already started filling our change jar again this year and my husband got me a cool digital coin counting cup as a stocking stuffer.  I can’t wait to see how much money we save this way this year!

2.  E-Poll ~ Epoll.com is a survey site that I have been with for several years now.  The surveys are typically fairly easy and usually relate to TV shows.  I usually get 2-3 surveys each month.  You earn points for completing the surveys which can then be exchanged for gift cards to Amazon and a number of other retailers including Best Buy, Target, Home Depot, and Red Lobster.


3.  My PointsMy Points is an easy way to earn gift cards for Amazon or a number of other retailers.  All you have to do is read the e-mails they send, print and redeem coupons, shop through links on their site, or submit Bzz Agent reports.

4.  My Survey ~ With My Survey, you earn points for completing surveys.  They will send you a short screener, which is usually worth 5-30 points and then, if you qualify for the actual survey, it is usually worth anywhere from 150-400 points.  I have also done product testing for them for everything from cleaning products to diapers.  You can “cash out” your points for a check (in $10 increments), merchandise, or gift cards.  Some of the gift cards that they offer are:  Amazon, Paypal, CVS, and Bath and Body Works.  They also offer gift cards for restaurants such as Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Cracker Barrel.

5.  Opinion Outpost ~ Opinion Outpost is a survey site.  They will send you links when you potentially qualify for a survey.  Complete the screener and if you qualify, you will be able to complete a longer survery and earn points. You earn points for completing surveys and for every 50 “opinion points” you earn, you can choose to cash out for a check, a $5 Amazon gift card, or a $5 Citibank pre-paid credit card.  I joined last March and earned $272 just for completing surveys throughout the year!  You can learn more about Opinion Outpost here.

6.  SwagbucksSwagbucks is one of my favorite “rewards” sites.  You earn points just for searching the web, which is something you do are probably doing on a daily basis anyway!  You can find out more about Swagbucks here.

Also, check with your bank to find out if they offer rewards if you use your debit card.  We recently found out that we were earning points from our bank for using our debit card and one of the participating retailers that we can cash out for gift cards with is Amazon!

By doing these simple things, you’ll be well on your way to cutting your budget on household expenses or funding your 100% cash Christmas!

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to my disclosure policy for more information.

31 Ways to Save in 2011: Menu Planning


Next to creating and sticking to a budget, which I discussed in this post yesterday, menu planning is the greatest recommendation I have when people are looking for ways to cut their spending.

I started getting serious about menu planning about two years ago.   It took some time to get used to in the beginning, but it has definitely been worth it.  Before I started menu planning, I would often get home from work too tired to even think about cooking and since I didn’t have a plan in mind, it was easier to just resort to fast food.  Now that we’re menu planning, I am spending less money overall because we are not eating out as much and because we are using the food that we have.  I’ve cut my spending for eating out and grocery shopping to 1/3 of what it was when I was starting out!  I also love that we have time together as a family each night to talk about our day.  Research has shown the kids who eat with their families on a regular basis have higher grades in school and are less likely to take drugs.  It also is an important contributing factor in younger children’s language development!

Here are some times to help you get started with menu planning:

1.  Make a list of your favorite family meals ~ Sit down as a family and let everyone share a few of their favorite meals.  Make a list of everyone’s ideas so that you have something to start with!  You’ll be amazed at how quickly the ideas come.

2.  Don’t be afraid to try new things ~ Since I started menu planning, I have really enjoyed trying new recipes and finding things to add to our list of favorite meals!  I like to try at least one new recipe each week to avoid getting in a cooking “rut.”  Browsing recipe blogs, cookbooks, and other online resources really helps with this.

Here are some of my favorite blogs for dinner inspiration:

All Recipes – You can search for recipes by category or search by the ingredients you have.  When I need some inspiration, this site is always a great resource!

A Year of Slow Cooking – I would be lost without my crockpot and this blog has some great recipes! She spent an entire year cooking every day in her crockpot! If you’re looking for gluten free recipes, so has tons! I got her cookbook for Christmas and love it!

Favorite Family Recipes – Lots of great family friendly ideas!

On My Menu – When I get in a “rut” and am looking for new ideas, Marci’s blog is always an inspiration for me. Plus, there are great pictures and our kids are similar ages, so I figure if her kids like a recipe, mine will probably like it too!

Our Best Bites – Our two favorites so far from this site are the Cashew Sweet and Sour Pork and the Spicy Honey Chicken. These recipes are practical and family friendly!

The Menu Planning Monday posts at orgjunkie.com are also a great resource because you can browse hundreds of meal plans each week!

Here are some of my favorite cookbooks right now:

The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook:  200 Recipes for Quick, Nourishing Meals that Are Easy On the Budget and a Snap to Prepare (I love this book because the recipes are practical and she makes suggestions for side dishes, too – she has a new book:  The $5 Dinner Mom Breakfast and Lunch Cookbook that I want to check out, too)

The $7 a Meal Slow Cooker Cookbook:  301 Inexpensive Meals the Whole Family Will Love

Biggest Loser Family Cookbook:  Budget Friendly Meals Your Whole Family Will Love

3.  When planning for the week, consider what you have on hand and browse your weekly grocery store ads to see what is on sale ~ I meal plan one week at a time using this method, which helps to cut down my grocery expenses.  I usually sit down and plan for the upcoming week on Friday nights or Saturday mornings before I go grocery shopping so that my shopping list is based on the meals we are having during the upcoming week.  Using this method helps me to rotate my stockpile and since I’m using items from my stockpile, I’m also spending less at the grocery store.

4.  Plan a variety of meals ~ Plan a variety of meals each week rotating beef, chicken, pork, and pasta.  Sometimes, we also have “theme” nights such as taco bar, potato bar, or breakfast for dinner.  Planning a variety, keeps meal planning fun and helps you to avoid burn-out.

Here are some printable worksheets to help you with your menu planning: (all are free!)

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu planning form (includes room for a grocery list)

Printable Excel template menu planners (includes weekly and monthly worksheets)

Printable Weekly menu planner (includes room for a grocery list)

5.  Be flexible and figure out what works for you ~ Your menu plan is just a guide.  It doesn’t have to be an absolute.  Sometimes what you have planned for Thursday sounds better on Tuesday and that’s OK.  Some people don’t even menu plan for specific days.  They just come up with options for the whole week.  I usually do all of my meal prep work before I go to work (putting everything in the slow cooker if I’m using it that day or cutting up meat, veggies, etc. so I just have to cook it all when I get home), so things go quickly once I get home.  Even during the summer, I like to do my prep work early in the morning, so I’m not as stressed trying to put dinner together in the evenings since that’s the time of day when my kids seem to go crazy!

If you’re looking for inspiration to help you get started with your menu planning, check out my weekly Menu Planning Monday posts!

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to my disclosure policy for more information.

31 Ways to Save in 2011: Make a budget!



One of my goals in creating this blog has always been to help people find ways to save more money, cut their budgets, and if needed, get out of debt!  My goal this year is to bring you a different “themed” series each month with ideas for cutting your expenses in specific areas.  This month, my focus will be on “31 Ways to Save in 2011” and I’ll give you simple ideas for making a little extra money on the side along with ideas for how you can cut your current expenses.  I hope you’ll join me on this journey.  Start tracking what you’re saving right now – there is a great free downloadable spreadsheet here that you can use to track your shopping savings!  If you’ve got ideas about how you can save more this year, please link up below and share.

My first suggestion on your journey to savings is to create a budget.  When you create a budget, you know exactly where your money is going which also helps you to pinpoint where your “leaks” are so you know exactly where you need to make cuts.

My husband and I took Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class almost two years ago and it was truly life-changing.  If you are able to, I recommend checking it out.  It’s often offered at local churches and the fee is normally $99, which includes all of the materials and thirteen classes.

Here are some of the things that have worked for us in creating a budget!

Find out where your money is going

Spend a few weeks or even a month tracking EVERY penny you spend (yes, that’s right EVERY penny…even that change you spend here and there at the vending machines at work should be included). This will help put you back in touch with your finances and will help you understand where your are spending your money. Many times, it is pretty shocking to realize how much you have been spending and what you have been spending it on.

Create a budget

Once you have an idea about where your money is going, you can begin to create your budget.  I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they are creating a budget is that they don’t account for all of the categories where they actually spend money, which inevitably leads to a budget crisis.

People typically remember the “big” things when creating their budget like: mortgage/rent, car payments, utility bills, groceries, and eating out, but often forget the “little” things like gifts, hair cuts, clothing, entertainment money, and auto or home repairs. I have heard people say that they don’t “need” some of those things, which may be true, but sooner or later, you will have to buy a birthday gift or a baby gift or a Christmas gift. Unless you cut your own hair, at some point, you will need a hair cut. Unless you sew your own clothing, you’ll probably want or need something new. And…inevitably, something will go wrong with your home or car and you’ll have expenses there. It’s better to be prepared for these things ahead of time than to be scrambling trying to find the money when the need actually arises because chances are at that point, you won’t have the money.
Some people prefer to create an Excel spreadsheet to track their budget.  Others just write it on a piece of paper.  There are some great free tools online to help you create a budget. Here are a few:

*Basic Budgeting Worksheet from BetterBudgeting.com

*Quickie budget and Monthly Cash Flow Planning from DaveRamsey.com (I personally use his “Gazelle budget program” for planning our budget. You can access a “lite” version or sign up for a free trial here.)

*Easy Budgeting Tools from Mint.com (you do have to register)

*Create a budget and manage your online envelope system at MySpendingPlan.com (you do have to register)

Once you’ve created your budget, stick to it!

Creating a budget isn’t the “hard” part. The hard part comes in actually sticking to the budget you’ve created. Dave Ramsey recommends a “cash only” system.  For our family, one of the best moves we have made was going to a cash envelope system. Research shows that the average person spends 12-18% more when they are using “plastic” to pay for things. From personal experience, I can tell you that this is true. When you’re using plastic rather than cash you have a tendency to remove yourself from what you’re actually spending…until the bill comes in the mail, of course!

When our family switched to a cash envelope system, it was surprising that we actually had money left at the end of the month most of the time. Suddenly expenses that had seemed “important” in the past really weren’t as important when we were spending real money to pay for them.

When people are first starting out using the envelope system, I often have them ask which categories we use. We actually have quite a few envelopes, and it took some trial and error to get to the point where we are at now, but I like to know exactly where our money is going and this is what worked out best for us. Here are the categories we use:

*Allowance (this is money my kids can earn for completing weekly jobs)
*Auto repairs/maintenance (this is for things like oil changes and minor things that come up…if there is money left at the end of the month, it goes into our “sinking fund”)
*Blow money (this is money that my husband and I each get to spend on anything we want, no questions asked)
*Clothing (any money left goes into our “sinking fund’)
*Eating out/restaurants
*Gifts (anything left goes into our “sinking fund”)
*Hair care
*Home repairs/maintenance (this is for things like replacing light bulbs, AC filters, etc…if there is money left at the end of the month, it goes into our “sinking fund”)
*Miscellaneous (this is for paper goods, diapers, etc. I look at this as my “CVS” and “Walgreens” filler money)
*Pet Care (this is for dog food and dog treats, anything left goes into the “sinking fund”)
*Prescriptions and over the counter medications
*Toiletries (this is for those little “extras” that come up ~ toothpaste, toilet paper, contact solution, etc.)

If you’re wondering what a “sinking fund” is, it’s basically money that you save for an expense that you know is going to come up. For us, we have sinking funds for things like auto registration/repairs, Christmas, vacation, clothing, escrow/property taxes/home owner’s association fees, and home repairs.

We do not pay for our gas using cash. We use our debit cards for this for convenience (it’s no fun to drag two small kids into the gas station and wait in line to pay cash and then drag them back out and get them strapped back into the car).  We also use a rewards credit card to pay for our routine monthly expenses (utilities, etc.) and then we pay it off at the end of the month.

We do not carry our envelopes with us all of the time. We keep them locked up and only pull cash out when we know that we’re going somewhere and will need it. If we don’t have enough cash for something, we either go home and get more (it’s amazing, though, how you start to re-evaluate whether you really “need” something when you’re making that extra trip) or we don’t buy it.

If you’re looking to make some really trendy envelopes for yourself, there’s a really awesome template and tutorial here.

Revisit your budget

At the end of a budgeting period (we budget from the 15th to the 14th of each month rather than from the start of a month because that’s what worked out best with the way we get paid), make sure that you revisit your budget, especially in the beginning, so you can figure out what works and doesn’t work.  As you create your budget each month, make sure you consider special circumstances that may take place during that month (for example, school supplies during August or September).

I promise you that knowing where your money is going and accounting for every penny really will make a difference!  It’s amazing how you become more conscientious about your spending when you know where your money is going!

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to my disclosure policy for more information.

31 Ways to Save in 2011


One of my goals in creating this blog has always been to help people find ways to save more money, cut their budgets, and if needed, get out of debt!  My goal this year is to bring you a different “themed” series each month with ideas for cutting your expenses in specific areas.  This month, my focus will be on “31 Ways to Save in 2011” and I’ll give you simple ideas for making a little extra money on the side along with ideas for how you can cut your current expenses.  I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Start tracking your expenses and let me know how much you’ve saved by following some of these simple steps!

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to my disclosure policy for more information.