Save with old gift cards at Brookstone

Brookstone e-mailed me this week that they will take any old gift card (from another retailer … in any amount) and turn it into 15% off your purchase.

I wish I had known this when I bought the item that put me on their mailing list. But if you are looking at buying one of their luxurious, $1,500 massage chairs, you could save a fortune.

This is a great opportunity for those really old cards … like the one my daughter has left over from a toy store purchase, with a balance of $0.98 on it.

One could argue, however, that smacks of desperation — so you would be wise to be cautious about buying new gift cards from this retailer.

Here’s the original notice they sent to me:


Planning for home expenses

The worst aspect of homeownership is the continual parade of unexpected expenses — a headache made more specific in this article about planning for expenses that will arise when you buy a home.

Looking at homeownership as this article does makes it plain that the “unexpected” expenses really aren’t unexpected — just unplanned and significant.

I disagree with some of their time frames:


Life Expectancy
Roof 10 $2,524 $21.00
HVAC 13 $5,461 $35.00
Refrigerator 6 $820 $11.39
Oven 6 $984 $13.66
Washer 8 $591 $6.16
Dryer 8 $535 $5.57
Exterior paint job 6 $4,100 $56.94
Windows 15 $15,002 $83.34
Doors 15 $6,876 $38.20
Driveway 9 $4,802 $44.46
Heater 8 $1,013 $10.56
* Current cost plus 1.5% annual inflation over life expectancy.

Perhaps we were just fortunate, but at our previous home the furnace was 27 years old and going strong. I believe our current furnace is somewhere in the 15-20-year range and operating almost flawlessly (we’ve had one minor, easily fixable problem in three winters of use). So eight years before replacement seems a little high. I’m not so sure about a new refrigerator every six years, either.

But the monthly set-aside is a great concept. If nothing else, it is probably wise to add to your emergency fund by a middling amount, so that you have some kind of cushion if a major cost arises.

Next year, we’re looking at replacing a driveway and possibly revamping our back yard landscaping. But I’m not yet sure what it will cost – or how we’ll pay for it.

In the past, we’ve typically done a combination of saving for and sucking up big home costs. We took a home equity line at our old house to replace the windows, which paid for itself when we sold the house (the windows were a good selling point and increased our insulation and therefore comfort, too).

Now, odds are good that it’s time for us to create a real savings strategy to pay for home expenses — along the lines of the Christmas, tuition and camp monthly savings accounts I started in January.

How do you handle home expenses?

Deals of the week

We haven’t had a deal of the week in a long time! But there are a few deals out there too good to pass up.

  • It’s spring clearance season. If you need winter items (stock up for next year!) check out these great bargain sites: Land’s End, LL Bean, Campmor and Sierra Trading Post. You can get good deals on expensive long johns, winter gloves, fancy sandals, hiking socks, etc. that you or kids might need next year. For extra savings, do a search for the retailer and “coupon” or “code” — you might find a discount you can apply for a percentage off or free shipping.
  • The Upromise toolbar. You might be familiar with Upromise, which lets you register cards (grocery store cards, credit cards, etc.) and earn college savings. You can open a 529 account and tie it to your Upromise account. The toolbar tells you about deals on the Web sites you visit — for instance, you see at a glance that one travel site gives you 10 percent back, while another gives you $3. Where to buy your plane tickets if the cost is the same?
  • The American Express Blue Cash card. If you charge $6,600 a year or more, you get 5% cash back at the end of the year. That’s over $300 for the math-impaired. It’s a great deal! No annual fee. Just pay everything off each month. If you can’t be trusted to pay it off monthly, better not do it.
  • Compass Bank is running a promotion to open a free checking account with a $25 deposit and get a free 2 GB iPod shuffle (which sells for at least $49 depending where you look). A nice Christmas gift … but unfortunately only available to those in certain states.

Happy saving!

Answers – Anniversary Questions – Part 1

I got so many great questions from readers for my one-year anniversary last week – not to mention all the sweet comments. Thank YOU all for reading and making this blog so much fun. Your being here helps motivate me to keep on keepin’ on — even though things feel a little dark at times in terms of our environmental/economic future.

Now for the questions – and my best shot at some answers for you. Here are the first three! More to follow on Tuesday.

What’s your take on unplugging appliances when they aren’t been used? Does turning a light on and off consume more electricity than leaving it on (I don’t mean all night!). What about the energy use of a computer in sleep mode versus the energy of booting up?

This first question was a three-parter.

  1. Unplugging appliances: I did write about this in December, briefly, and referred readers to a site to learn more about standby appliances and appliance energy. See that post here. In brief, unplugging appliances saves energy – not usually a lot, but if you are being tough, it can add up.
  2. Turning lights off/on: Turning lights off saves energy, period. The Straight Dope covered this concisely (apparently in 1980). But the gist is that the idea that you use more energy to turn a light off/on comes from fluorescent bulbs, whose lives are shortened by flicking them on and off (because of an “inrush” current or higher needed energy to turn the lamp back on). The U.S. Department of Energy goes further to point out that:

In any case, the relatively higher “inrush” current required lasts for half a cycle, or 1/120th of a second. The amount of electricity consumed to supply the inrush current is equal to a few seconds or less of normal light operation. Turning off fluorescent lights for more than 5 seconds will save more energy than will be consumed in turning them back on again. Therefore, the real issue is the value of the electricity saved by turning the light off relative to the cost of relamping a fixture. This in turn determines the shortest cost-effective period for turning off a fluorescent light.

In brief: Turn them off to save energy. It might cost you slightly more in bulbs purchased over the long haul, but savings appear to be negligible.

  1. Computer asleep or off: (sorry, folks, can’t figure out how to number this “3”!) An EnergyStar computer in sleep mode uses about 15 watts of energy (if it is “napping,” or in that lighter sleep mode) or 8 watts (in the deeper sleep mode), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It does take a little more energy to boot up — but not enough to make up for eight to 14 hours of “off” time overnight, for instance. Turn it off if you will be away from it for several hours or overnight (turning it off at a power strip will ensure it’s really off — as with the “standby” information above, computers take some energy when they are plugged in). Let it sleep if you are just going to be away briefly. And use a laptop if possible — they consume less energy.

We’re heading out for a two-week vacation in early July. We have 2 cats, so don’t want to totally broil them. What do you do when you travel? Water heater? AC temp? Appliances?

I meant to turn off our hot water heater last time we left, but I definitely will remember when we go away for a whole week next month, and for two weeks, it’s a great idea. If you have an electric hot water heater, turn it off at the breaker. If you have a gas hot water heater, look for the “vacation” setting on the thermostat. (Leave yourself a note to turn it back up when you get home!)


-Close curtains and drapes to keep sun out and reduce A/C cycling on.

-For the refrigerator (a big energy user), GE has some recommendations:

· leave refrigerator running

· remove perishable foods

· if refrigerator and freezer are less than 1/2 full, plastic gallon jugs of water may be placed in the refrigerator to assist in maintaining the proper temperature and run time. A few bags of ice or plastic gallon jugs of water (not too full, as the water expands when it freezes) may be placed in the freezer. Cold items help maintain a cold internal temperature when the compressor is not running, thus reducing the amount of time the compressor has to operate.

· leave temperature controls at normal settings, or if all food is removed and you want to save energy, control may be set to low setting (2) during the absence.

-Unplug other appliances so they can’t use electricity (and as an added bonus, you’ll remove bizarre fire risk).

As for the cats and A/C, I’m no expert, but consider how hot your house gets. Most of us aren’t comfortable at 90 degrees, but it’s not necessarily life-threatening. 100 might be another matter. Be sure they have plenty of water and a cool place to hang out (basement?). I’m sure someone will be checking on them with that long absence. If you are really worried, ask your vet! Consumer Reports has general info on air conditioner savings here.

Does Little Cheap create a lot of art on paper? We are a bit overwhelmed with paper art. If you have it, what do you do with it?

Ay yi yi. Do we have art on paper. Not to mention handouts from school. I approach this in several ways:

Our household purchases recycled paper.

I encourage her to use recycled paper (printed on one side) for artwork.

We try to purchase less-bleached paper (like “manila” paper) for larger sheets that she wants for drawing/painting instead of bleached paper.

I encourage her to give away her old drawings as gifts, use them as wrapping paper, etc.

I throw her best work into a bin and go through it every year or two to decide what to keep. I have even gone so far as to photograph some stuff and save the photos instead of the pages.

I use the backs of school handout papers in my printer. The school is working on going green, and posting more things online only.

I usually recycle the art when its interest has died out, although some of it we’ve composted. Newspaper also can be layered with clay soil to break it up — it will biodegrade over time — and paper art, especially construction paper, also might be a candidate.

To some extent, I suck it up and remember she won’t be going through paper at this rate forever — and trees are, at least, a renewable resource.

After pondering this question we thought about painting one wall of her playroom with chalkboard paint to minimize the paper usage. (Although I’m still not sure if that’s more eco-friendly or not … between the chalk and its dust and the paint.)

Please add any of your own tips or experiences below – and watch for more next week!