Things to Sign Up For

Common Sense With Money has a great post about great deals that restaurants are offering now. Everything from Wendy's to The Melting Post to Texas Roadhouse to Dairy Queen. Be sure to check out her site and sign up for what you want. 

Remember, it doesn't just help us out. It helps out the servers and other people that make their livelihoods working in the restaurant industry. Times are tough and no one is say to make it your mission to eat out around the clock but by using the free options out there when you do eat out or by making them Adventures with your kids every little bit helps.

Also,  if you like to read romance and women's fiction, consider signing up for Writerspace e-newsletter. Not only will you get new information about authors new releases but you can enter contests for - you got it - FREE BOOKS. Now, isn't that a Very Cool Idea!

Freebies for Wednesday!!

If you don't already have a subscription to PARENTS Magazine - here you go!! You'll need to be signed in to Start Sampling [which is free to register] to take advantage of this offer.

In case you haven't noticed it in my Blog List on the right hand side - be sure to check out The Freebie Blogger. Wendi keeps track of some great stuff and the site is updated daily. Check it out.

And there you go!! Have a Cool Idea Wednesday!!

Mystery Shopping update

I had a huge week with Mystery Shopping! Some of it was scheduled and one was picked up at the last minute. Woohoo!! Here are some things I need to remember:

  1. Keep better track of the parameters of the 'shop'. I misjudged the timing for one of them and it'll cost me part of the reimbursement.
  2. Checking some of the sites on a regular, even daily basis, can be beneficial. I got a backup 'shop' opportunity that came open at the last minute and was able to get free groceries. It pays to be available.
  3. I'm still learning and maybe four 'shops' in one week wasn't my best idea. It made for a lot of paperwork on top of everything else. I know I'll be extra careful next time, though!! 
Never doubt that Mystery Shopping is fun, but it is work and there are lots of details to keep in mind. If you can't keep up with the details it's not the job for you. If you can Mystery Shopping is definitely a very Cool Idea!

I don't speak "Starbucks"

I feel like I never completed my foreign language requirement in college because I didn't get to study abroad. I did technically complete my requirement but I did not get to study abroad. I took Russian and the summer I was supposed to go to Moscow they had a coup so the trip was cancelled. Good for my safety. Bad for my language retention. However, I've always been good at languages yet somehow the language of Starbucks alludes me. 

The main reason is likely because I don't drink coffee. I've given up caffeine for health reasons so coffee is not at the top of my list of favorite beverages. But there are times, when I'm out shopping or with friends that we stop in a Starbucks and I try to order something and here is where life comes to a screeching halt.

It didn't used to be this way. I had a standby drink order - Grande Decaf Mocha Frappacino. I knew what it was and what it tasted like and I liked it. In fact, the moral of this story is from how I came about this drink order. I walked into a Starbucks on Saturday morning while waiting for a friend. It was cold and raining outside and everyone was huddling at tables and I walked in and said, "I don't drink coffee and I don't really like the taste, but I do like the taste of coffee ice cream and oh, by the way, it has to be decaf." The guy behind the counter grinned, rattled off some words, rang up my order and I fell in love with a coffee confection that probably contained more calories than the the entire daily food pyramid. 

Fast forward several years and Starbucks in their infinite wisdom stopped making decaf Frappacino's. I guess the measly little market for it didn't make sense and I stopped going to Starbucks all together because I didn't have another order ready. But yesterday I was at the mall to get my computer fixed and had several 15-20 minute time slots to walk around and I took a chance to go get a drink.

I knew this would be bad when I saw how crowded it was but I took a chance because I actually was thirsty. When it was my turn I explained that I would like something decaffeinated and cold. They explained that they didn't carry iced decaffeinated beverages. I told them I was aware of that. I asked if I could have some decaf coffee on ice. She said they don't have decaf coffee in the afternoons anymore and I would have to wait for it to be brewed. I'd heard of this recently but I have to tell you - at 3p and not having eaten lunch and facing a hard drive crash on my laptop I didn't want to hear that someone wasn't listening to me. I took a deep breath and asked "Is it possible to get some kind of decaf drink on ice?" "I guess I could make an Americano-". I interrupted, which was likely rude and explained that I would get served elsewhere.

Was the issue that I wanted coffee? Yesterday, it was. I was thirsty and tired. The actual point was that I wanted someone who could speak the language I couldn't and translate for me. I'd just been at the Apple Store and they don't have any trouble translating technical jargon for their customers. They don't have trouble listening to me and my non-technical language when I explain that I'm seeing the blue screen and swirling kaleidoscope of death all the time.  It's what they do best. That's why even though my hard drive crashed and my laptop died on the table I'll be replacing it as soon as I can with another Mac. I wanted someone at Starbucks who could listen to what I was saying - what I needed - translated that into the world of coffee. 

There's a story here and there's a lesson to be learned and it's not just about Starbucks. It's about how to listen and hear what people are really asking.  That's good customer service and good customer service is definitely a Cool Idea!

Free Books!

These are two of my favorite words!! I love books and I love things that are free and if you love to read these are close to your heart as well. Here are a few ways to get some free books:

Harlequin Books is celebrating 60 Years and offering readers 16 full books as free downloads. Go to Harlequin Celebrates to download your books today.

Nicole's Nickels posted about Harper Collins First Look program and Random House Read it Forward. Check out her post and learn how to get books for review on your website or for book clubs just by signing up with the publisher. 

Oh, and for today only is offering $25 certificates for $2!! Is that Cool or What!! Use the code DINE and save today. 

Freebies for a Winter Wednesday

Printable coupon for FREE Victoria's Secret Pink Lotion

Cutting Expenses! Snip! Snip!

Let's revisit expenses since it's such a fun topic:) First there are the environmentally-friendly things that 'we' all know we should do at some point to help the world and our own pocket:
  1. Lower the temperature on your hot water heater to around 120 degrees F. Not only is this good for your utility bill but it's also safer if you have small kids in the house since there's less chance for scalding.
  2. Change out your incandescent light bulbs for CFC light bulbs. They'll last 8,000-10,000 hours and use 75% less energy. Wow!
  3. Contact your utility company and see if there is a way to benefit from using non-peak time energy. We participate in a pilot program with Dominion Power in Central Virginia and get a great break in our power bill if we are aware of the times that we consume our power. [This is a huge topic so I'll re-address it fuller in a later post.] But seriously, it can't hurt to ask since many power providers around the country are looking for ways to cut their own expenses. Be the one to help them out and be the one to get the break yourself. 
So, these are some of the things we have already done around our house to cut our expenses. I can't claim them as new for the purposes of this forum but I will add another that I have been working on to see if it would work for us. 

You know I love milk. It's a huge consumable in our home and a corresponding expense. I also love to bake and it dawned on me that when I'm cooking and baking with milk I was removing our beloved milk from our mouths - literally. It was through reading a few of the frugal mom blogs that an idea - a classic Cool Idea - came to me to try. Powdered Milk.

I remember when my mom 'made' us drink powdered milk when I was little and I remember not liking it at all. I must admit that I have not tried it since. Not even now. I know. It's silly. But I have made up a quart sized bottle of powdered milk to keep in the fridge and I've been using this to make our muffins, or scrambled eggs, or whatever else we needed. No one, not even me, has noticed a change in taste. It's been great to be able to consistently know when we'll need milk - we go through 3 gallons a week just in drinking alone. And in that consistency we are keeping our expenses consistent as well. That is great idea and adding Powdered Milk to our life has been a wonderfully Cool Idea!

Celebrate with Abe and George

Today is Presidents Day in the US and here are a few ways to enjoy the day -

First, enjoy a nice deal from - use the discount code PREZ until February 19, 2009 and get a $25 certificate for $3.

Second, Kids off the Couch has some wonderful ideas for how to have fun with your kids and learn about Abraham Lincoln. There are links to the Gettysburg Address, Fords Theatre, movies and books and podcasts. There are so many great ideas that it'll take more than just one day to do them all. 

Third, it may be too late in the day to take full advantage of this but keep it in mind for next year  if you are in the Metro DC area -- Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, has free admission on President's Day. You probably need to plan to go early to avoid the crowds but it's definitely a Cool way to celebrate the day.

The Newseum online site has a great online exhibit about Abraham Lincoln. Check it out!! You won't be disappointed. Happy President's Day.

Adventure Girls!

What do you do with your kids when it's cold or hot or raining or - well, you get the picture... This time of the year we stay off the beaten path so that we're not picking up every germ imaginable. But before I go on...

 I should introduce to you my kids, which for the purposes of this forum I will be keeping anonymous. So, my oldest daughter "Comfort" is 3 years old. She is super chatty and says the craziest things like 3 year olds are known to do. One thing that she started, and that the rest of the family has adopted, is that stores and restaurants are now known by what she eats or buys there not by their names. We have 'cheeseburger house', 'pizza house', 'restaurant house' - because it looks like a restaurant apparently - etc.  Our youngest daughter "Joy" is 2 years old and doesn't talk much so we are happy to hear anything she says. In fact, we often create adventures in order to provide the opportunity for her to practice her words. 

Fish and aquariums have been a favorite of our kids for a long time. Recently a Bass Pro Shop opened north of town and it is monstrous! Embarrassingly so. We've gone to visit the 'fish store' probably once a month because there's an aquarium with fish that look like Dory and Nemo and another with a couple of catfish that dwarf our toddlers. There's also a trout stream in the middle that they can lean down toward - carefully - and there's the scary anticipation of walking by the bear on our way through the cave. 

But all through the store there are turkeys, deer, moose, fish and other game that a kid from the 'burbs like me has difficulty recognizing outside of a National Geographic documentary. This, however, is an opportunity for our kids to practice their language skills during an adventure that doesn't cost us anything - much as I'm sure the store would like for us to buy something each time we visit.

Adventures with your kids don't have to cost you anything. It can be right in your own neighborhood, or next door to where you shop, or across town. Mostly, I think these adventures show that there is a Cool Idea - a capital "A" adventure - in many things that we already do. The key is to tap into it, to do it intentionally, or to refine it so that the really good stuff is polished to a nice glossy shine. That's the really Cool Idea!

iTouch Giveaway Just in Time for Valentine's Day

It's a rhyme:) Maybe I should look into working for Hallmark. heehee.

Do you have someone hard to shop for on your list and you'd like to surprise them with a super cool gift? Well, I can't guarantee you'll win this but head on over to The "Cent"sible Sawyer to enter her giveaway for an iTouch + iTunes gift card. 

All of the Walmart Eleven moms had giveaways but hers is the easiest to enter. Check out the 'rules' and don't forget to subscribe to her blog. There are some wonderful Cool Ideas

Freebie Fun and Coupon Sources

FREE subscription to Martha Stewart Living

Two FREE issues of Family Circle Magazine

FREE subscription to Woman's Day Magazine

10 Day Supply of Bare Escentuals and Free Kabuki Brush

Sample of Pantene Shampoo and Conditioner

Also, the coupon site has great coupons including - you guessed it!! More FREE TP!! Yep, you can print 2 Cottonelle coupons out from that site, too. Get 'em while you can.

Valentine's Date Night out at 60% off - Grab it Now!! is offering 60% off for the Valentine's Day Holiday - offer ends 2.15.2009. That means that a $25 certificate will only cost you $4! And to make this an extra-Cool Idea if you meet their terms and conditions you can also get a FREE $15 FTD gift with your order. Now wouldn't that be fantastic.

Use discount code TREAT and hit 'APPLY'. Now you are the recipient of a much less expensive night out for you and your Valentine. 

The benefit here isn't just for you and your Valentine. Although, it's hard to pass up a deal like this! But one aspect of the downturn in our economy which I'm sure a lot of us are well aware of is that people are eating out less. We're saving money by staying home. Whether we're doing this because we've already lost jobs or in anticipation of job loss or just 'because' - it has already had an effect on the restaurant industry.

NPR had a piece last week about how with each layoff that the government counts there's another layoff in the service sector that isn't counted. This is because we don't go out to eat, or go shopping, or grab a cup of coffee, etc., like we used to when we had extra bucks in our pocket. I've worked in the restaurant industry and it was my only means of support at the time so I am a kind and gentle person to have at your table. Perhaps that one of the reasons that I like the idea of using the certificates - I get a good deal and I help out a restaurant and the server. It's a win - win - win situation. And in my book that's the essence of a very Cool Idea!

Community Service no Matter the Season

Winter is turning to spring early - or at least briefly - here in central Virginia and with that our hearts and minds automatically turn to Community Service. How can we lend a helping hand to those around us in need? Right?

Oh, you already did that. When? At the holidays. I'm glad. I really am. But non-profits still need help all through the year and it's important for us to remain engaged and continue to participate and give both our time and our energies. 

If you have a non-profit that you work with but haven't been in touch yet this year give them a call and see what they need. See what their programming is like during this time of the year. See what you can get involved with. You might be pleasantly surprised.

If you don't have a group that you stay connected with this could be a great opportunity to reach out into your community and find a group that does work that you admire or that you wish you could help with. If you want to help kids learn to read try calling the elementary school in your neighborhood. If you think kids need time to learn art, then try the local arts council. If you want to teach ESL try a church in your area. If you want to help animals, try the SPCA. 

If you want to do something physical and also connect with people then this is the time of the year for you. Check out March for Babies for an event in your area. Or Race for the Cure. Or the Avon 3 Day Walk

There are literally thousands of ways in which you can bring your life into the community. Find at least one and build a habit. Being part of the solution is always a Cool Idea!

How will you Go Red for Women?

If it feels like we go through the calendar based on a color scheme you may be right, but that's okay. According to the American Heart Association, over the past six years the National Wear Red Day Campaign has not only raised awareness to the fact that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in America, but it has also raised $153 Million towards research!!  Holy Moly!! Clearly, a lot of good work has been done, but - as they say - a lot more can still be done. So, grab something red to add to your ensemble for the day. 

Listen in to BlogTalkRadio and get a Bonus

Mercedes [Common Sense with Money] and Tara [Deal Seeking Mom], two of WalMart's ElevenMom's, have a BlogTalkRadio show and if you haven't found it yet you should really give it a try. This week's conversation was on eCoupons and paper coupons and included an interview with another ElevenMom - Erin Gifford of Coupon Cravings. She discussed her relationship with and how ecoupons work, in general. 

Also - and here's the really cool part. Each of the Elevenmoms has an Apple 8GB  iTouch to giveaway. Because this is such a fantastic giveaway we have to do some work for it. Tune into Mercedes and Tara as they talk to Erin. Sometime during the show there is a 'code word'. Enter the code word and your contact information into both Deal Seeking Mom and Common Sense with Money and you have two entries for the giveaway. If you subscribe to their email feed you get additional entries. You should do this anyway, because it's such a Cool Idea. They both have fantastic tips that they pass along to their readers. 

Their giveaway ends on February 13th so head on over and listen!

Shopping for Money

Mystery shopping isn't a new concept and I've done it a few times over the years but starting last summer I began making a concerted effort to find some companies that I wanted to work for long-term that included stores that I enjoyed. It's been a slow process and I still have a ways to go but I have had some success. 

Right before Thanksgiving I got some of my groceries for free. At Christmas, I got presents for my mom and my mother-in-law at a high end cooking store AND I was paid for my time.  Last month, my family went to a nice steakhouse in town for dinner. This month I have four shops set up already: two restaurant shops, one retail shop and one banking shop. If I'm diligent I might be able to add some more before the month is over, too.

The thing I like about mystery shopping is that it fits in my schedule. It's hard, as a stay at home mom, to find a 'job' that will bring in income that fits in our daily schedule. I need something that I can either do alone in the evenings or with a toddler in the mornings since afternoons are reserved for nap times. Mystery shopping allows me to pick shops that work to the schedule I need since they are self-scheduled and that is definitely a Cool Idea.

Another very Cool Idea is that many will pay via PayPal, although one I have one company that only pays by check. Either way, it's an opportunity for me to add to our income in a way and sometimes we get a nice dinner or an item reimbursed as well.  

If you are interested in learning more about companies that I have worked for, leave me a message in the Comments section. I'd love to pass along Cool Ideas!

He's Just Not That Into You Widget

Box Tops and eLabels and Escape from Winter!

Lots to share with you today, so let's get started: 

First of all, Winter is upon us in a big way - in fact, I just saw about 3 flurries when I took out the trash a few minutes ago! Become a member of Right@Home [an SC Johnson program] and if you are one of the first 10,ooo people to sign up you can get a FREE Escape from Winter which includes: Glade PlugIns Scented warmer, Hawaiian Breeze refill and a coupon good for future refills.  Definitely a Cool Idea to lift our spirits as the weather gets wicked.

Box Tops for Education have been around for years and odds are that you have seen them on items that you purchase even if you don't have school aged kids. I find them on the Huggies and Pull Ups I buy, muffin mix, frozen biscuits - everywhere - and even though our kids aren't in school my husband is a teacher and I send them to school with him. I'm also registered online with Box Tops and during the month of February they are having the "I Love My School" sweepstakes. You can enter every day until March 1st for a chance to win an additional 1,000 Box Tops for your school. 

What do you need to do? If you are already registered with Box Tops, all you need to do is go to the site each day and login, fill in your information and enter. If you are not registered, you'll need to do that and I think you might have to assign your Box Tops to a school in your area. There's a zip code look-up feature if you don't know the exact name of the school or the address. It's easy. Really. And definitely a Cool Idea even if it's a long shot that you're school might win. Spread the word because the more moms and dads and grandparents and friends and adopted aunts and uncles that are entering the sweepstakes for our kids the more likely they might be the beneficiaries of the extra 1,000 Box Tops that are being given away this month. There are 28 schools that will get these Bonus Box Tops so enter every day!!

Campbell's Labels for Education has been around for 35 Years and has given "families and community members a way to support support their local schools".  Labels are found on Campbell's soup can's, Goldfish crackers and other products and are collected and turned in to schools the same way that Box Tops for Education are. One additional opportunity with Campbell's is the eLabel. If you register your Kroger card on their site they will track your relevant purchases and credit your account so that you don't have to clip the labels.  eLabel points are credited to your school on a monthly basis and the account says to continue to clip labels and barcodes - so I don't see anything wrong in doing both. 

Once again, if you don't have kids in school or preschool yet go ahead and register and send these label to your neighbors school and register your Kroger card to pick up the extra eLabels. Currently, the eLabel program has been extended until June 30, 2009 which makes me pretty happy, especially since as the mom of two toddlers we pretty consistently buy Goldfish crackers which are an Campbell's label product!! 

These companies are trying to help make it easier on our schools and if we are buying these products anyway take the extra moment to clip the Box Top or Campbell's logo respectively and turn it in to your school of choice. These are Cool Ideas that will benefit us as parents and as a community.

Don't miss out on new Coupons

It's the beginning of the month and is restocked. You can print them out at their site or using the widget on the right hand side of the page. Check 'em out and print out the ones you'll need before they're gone. There are some great ones for Betty Crocker, Big G Cereals, Pillsbury and Yoplait. Also, there's $1 off Velveeta and $.50 off Wacky Mac - sounds like a nice and yummy mac and cheese [product] to me!

But the really great one - I think - is the $.50 off coupon for Cottonelle toilet paper. Yeah, I know. I didn't used to get that excited about coupons or toilet paper:) But my Kroger carries the Cottonelle 4-pack for $.99 and doubles coupons up to $1. I've explained I'm not a math whiz but I've seen this done and experience it real life and this makes the toilet paper FREE!! That's just too good to pass up. I mean, here is something you flush down the toilet and now I don't even have to pay for it! Fan-TASTIC! Just so you know, you can only print that one twice.

Tara, at Deal Seeking Mom, has a link that you can print additional coupons off the Cottonelle website. I've tried it a couple of times. Once this week and once a week or so ago. It's never worked for me. Give it a try if you've got the time and let me know if you have success.

Using the Cottonelle coupons, as well as, coupons in general has begun to shift my focus from purchasing all of my non-perishable and bulk needs at Costco. I'm keeping an [unofficial] eye on the budget to see if we spend more than we did before. No chance to give up the weekly trip to Costco all together since they still have the best deal on organic milk anywhere but I think we'll find that by blending our normal bulk purchases into the regular shopping I'll be spending the same amount of money at the grocery but getting our 'bulk' purchases in there as well. Either way free toilet paper is such a Cool Idea is definitely bears repeating!! Print 'em out before they're gone.

Just what the heck is a Swagbuck?

If you've taken a tour of my blog - and, hey, who hasn't:) You might have noticed that there's a banner at the bottom for Swagbucks - the "premier digital dollar". If you haven't started doing your searches through Swagbucks I highly recommend signing up and giving it a try. 

First of all, let me explain what Swagbucks is. Swagbucks is a search engine. Sort of. That's what you're going to notice first. It's powered by Google and and you're going to get the same quality of information that you would get if you just did your search through the Google or Yahoo home page. The difference is that you will randomly get rewarded with Swagbucks in random denominations. The more searches you do the more opportunities you have for earning Swagbucks.

Secondly, You can get Swagbucks for shopping through the Swagbucks stores. You get 1 Swagbuck for every $5 spent. If you're going to spend the money anyway through these online retailers this is another way for you to get some extra credit.

Thirdly, you can "Go Green" by recycling your old cell phones. I just looked up the cell phone I just replaced and it appears I could get 47 Swagbucks for it. Sweet!

Fourthly, there are occasionally free Swagcodes sent out on Facebook, the Swag Guy blog, and Twitter that you can snag and add to your account that will net you some extra 'bucks. Oh, and if you sign up through my banner at the bottom of the page I can benefit by telling a friend. Just spreading the word gives you some Swagbucks.

Oh, there's more - and there's less - if you want. There's an IE toolbar if you want your Swagbucks search at your finger tips. There's also a plugin for Firefox. If you're using Safari you'll need to just manually put in on the toolbar and make sure to do searches from there.

So, why would searching through Swagbucks be a Cool Idea? If you do nothing but a few searches a day, like I do, in a few months you could have around 100 Swagbucks. For this I could get 2 - $5 gift cards to Amazon and have a bit left still in my account. Or I could get 2-$5 Starbucks cards or a $10 Barnes and Noble Card. It's not going to make me rich but I'm already doing the searches so why can't I get something extra for it if it's being offered. 

I'm not talking about expectation here. No one owes me for the things I look up online. No ones me free Swagbucks when I go to the fan site on Facebook. I'm talking about being thankful that I can take advantage of the opportunity that exists for as long as it's able to exist. 

So, check out Swagbucks. Pick up some Stuff We All Get. Pass it along and help out some friends, too. We're all out there Googling - see, it's a verb already! Swagbucks is just helping us with a bit on the side and making it a Very Cool Idea.