Budget Travel

December 18, 2009

It’s a Crafty Chirstmas

By Meg Hoppe

My best friend and I decided that this year, we would each make our gifts for one another. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on thrifty Christmas gift ideas. I have been scouring the homemade gift websites, craft magazines, and craft stores to find the perfect gift idea for her.

Luckily enough for you, this means that I have an amazing list of thrifty, easy-to-make, and fun gift ideas for the last-minute giver.

A homemade Stupid Sock Creature is a great monster to find under your tree

Stupid Sock Creatures: These little monsters are absolutely a blast to make. In fact, my friends and I had a Stupid Sock Puppet party last year. We sat, laughed, drank some wine, and made these great little creatures. It’s definitely an activity that’s geared towards an older audience as the puppets are much more involved than  sock puppets you might remember from childhood.

Aside from the book with patterns in it, most people have all of the tools needed to make the puppets. Grab some old socks, buttons, thread, a needle, scissors, a ruler and you’re set to go. Most bookstores carry the Stupid Sock Creatures book. These little guys are great gifts to give friends of all ages. They have character and are absolutely adorable. [Price: $10.00-$15.00]

Book: I am in the process of writing and illustrating a story book for a friend. The process can be a rather long one, so if you’re short on time I wouldn’t opt for this gift idea. However, if you have children, time, and are looking for a lasting and meaningful gift, I think making your own book is a great idea. There are so many ways to go about this. One of the simplest is Blurb.com. they give you a program to download that is PC/Mac compatible and all you need to drag and drop, you can see the product before you buy, and then you can order it. Typically you need to allow about 1.5-2 weeks for shipping on your book so plan ahead. Overall though, books that you create yourself whether it’s a story book, photo book, or small book of affirmations make great gifts that last forever. [Price: $15 and up]

Obviously not the words I'd choose, but a Wordle is a great gift for anyone you think deserving of compliments

Wordles: Can you think of a friend or family member who just loves to sit there and compliment themselves? I know that I can. Go to Wordle.net to make them a personalized “word cloud.” Essentially you think of words that remind you of that person, phrases, jokes..anything..and you plug it into this site and it comes up with a creative layout and great typography. This can make a really nice art piece if you get it printed out and framed. Makes a great and thoughtful gift. [Price: $10.00-$15.00-printing & frame]

Cards: Get creative with your Christmas cards folks. Make a collage on the front of your card, take a funny photo, add some ribbons or just plain flair. I’ve always preferred the handmade card to the store bought one, they are just better. It’s always a nice touch to any gift that you give. [Price: $5.00-$10.00]

Recipe Booklet: I make a mean cheesecake. In fact, I’ve been asked on countless occassions for my recipe. This holiday season, get together your favorite recipes [or most asked for] and compile them together in a little recipe booklet. It’s a nice way to pass some lasting gifts onto people that they can make their own in the future. [Price: $15.00-$20.00]

Secret Hollow Book: For that special boy on your list who asked for ninja throwing star, try this great secret stash box instead. It’s an all around great gift. From when he opens it and really thinks you bought him a book to when he realizes what it is and loves it. [Price: $5.00-$10.00]

You can make any photo a marble magnet

Marble Magnets: These simple gifts are great stocking stuffers for people your list making their way to college or their first apartment. The magnets are so easy to do you can easily make enough for everyone on your list in no time. Check out the rest of the Not Martha site for other awesome crafty things that us Non-Marthas can easily accomplish! [Price: $10.00-$11.00]

Check out some of these sites for more great homemade and thrifty gift ideas:
Disney Family Fun
Roxycraft Blog
Tidbit Bakes

*Meg Hoppe is a freelance writer and marketing professional from Chicago. Visit her other blogs here and here and follow her on Twitter @CallMeHoppe.


December 16, 2009

Getting Home for the Holidays the Budget Travel Way

Every year I try to beat the holiday rush. And every year, I fail.

Every year, I try to beat the holiday rush. And every year, I fail.

By Meg Hoppe

When I was in college, my friends talked about this great bus that took them home for $1. Yes, one bonafied US dollar to take a bus from Chicago, IL to Clevland, OH. Completely floored and excited that I could traverse the open Midwest for $1, I did some of my own research on this mythical Megabus.

What I found out was that this awesome service not only could cost as low as a dollar, but they provided free Wi-Fi, it was an express bus, and it was clean. I kept envisioning this tattered old beater sputtering around the Midwest. Imagine my surprise when I got quite the opposite.

For budget travel over the holidays, there is really no other way to go. Now, you’re not gauranteed a ticket for $1 or a spot on the bus. The tickets are bought out quickly, and you only get the steeply discounted ticket if you buy a month or so in advance. However, if today I were to book a one-way ticket on the Megabus, leaving December 21st from Chicago Union Station to Kansas City I would pay between $51.00 and $58.00. Whereas that same ticket with Amtrak would cost between $68.00 and 116.00.

The MegaBus serves states in the Midwest, Notheast, and some of Canada.

The holidays are supposed to be relaxing and full of laughter. You have enough stress at home; everyone has those awkward uncles and socially strange cousins. I really see no point in making traveling to get to them all a hassle. Personally, when my mom guilts me about not coming home to celebrate the small holidays like Columbus Day, I know that ditching Christmas will nix me from the birthday call list for a year or so.

So look for alternate ways home. Flights can be expensive and sometimes you can find a great deal with a great story somewhere else. Car pool with friends, grab seats on the Megabus, or Amtrak your way back. Any way you can, get home for the holidays and enjoy the laughter and jokes that will be told every year after.

Happy Holidays everyone!

*Meg Hoppe is a freelance writer and marketing professional from Chicago. Visit her other blogs here and here and follow her on Twitter @CallMeHoppe.

September 18, 2009

Going Green to Save the Green

By Meg Hoppe


Save money the green way!

I know, I know, I just posted a list of money-saving tips. And I know, I know, I always complain that they’re not that helpful. But I found a great list that I wanted to re-post on principle alone; because it’s green! Anytime I can do something to help the environment I go out of my way. If I can help myself at the same time, then I am absolutely game. So here are “Eight Green Money Saving Tips” from EcoVillage Green [a great eco blog that I suggest everyone check out].

Buy Used Instead of New: Personally, I think that used items have more character. That said, there are some things that I won’t buy used, no matter how environmentally friendly they are. Use your imagination and get back to me. Truthfully though, buying used saves a ton of money. Especially if you have kids. I know, that when my brother was growing up my mom went through clothes and shoes weekly for him. The boy just wouldn’t stop growing. So why even bother buying new? There are lots of re-sale stores that have great clothing in fantastic condition. Look into them and save.

Look Online for Free Items: Listening to the news, you would think that Craigslist.org is nothing more than a prostitution hub. But I will tell you that it’s one of my favorite websites [no, not for the prostitution]. When I’m not perusing Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, or Anthropologie for things I cannot afford, I love looking at the free section on Craigslist. That and the apartment section for places I cannot afford. People give things away for so many reasons; they’re moving, divorcing, getting married etc. Often times the things that they have a really nice. For example, my mother [she seems to be a trend in this blog and the last], bought a really nice bunk bed set for my old room from Craigslist. It was in great condition and she got it for a steal. Check out other sites like Freecycle.org to see what else you can find.

Eat at Home Instead of Eating Out: A few friends and I have a weekly

Sunday Dinner NEVER looks this nice

Sunday Dinner NEVER looks this nice

Sunday Night Dinner ritual. Every Sunday around 6p.m. we all congregate at a friend’s apartment and each of us brings something that we made or bought. There is normally a theme for the night [last week it was Cashews; there was Cashew Chicken & I made delicious Caramel Cashew Cookie Squares & brought Chianti]. Sunday Night Dinners are something that we all look forward to and it is a far cheaper option for us to eat in. Honestly, you can cook a meal for a family of 4 on $30.00. You can also buy for several meals instead of just one, it’s win win.

Form a Hand Me Down System w/Friends & Family: Sharing is caring, that’s what I’ve always said. Granted, I normally don’t always care to share, but that is irrelevant. For people with children, you know how quickly the grow out of things. So instead of just throwing clothes and other things away, share them with friends and family who also have children. It saves a lot of hassle and money if you know that you have a network of people to go for something.

Look for Opportunities to Barter: Again, I will point out the amazingness of Craigslist. They have a barter section already on the page. Come on, you can’t hate the site now. If you tactfully barter, chances are you will be able to knock quite a bit off the price. Just make sure you know when to quit.

Be a Frequent Yard Sale Shopper: I love yard sales. Hands down, I love them. Flea Markets are in that vein as well. You can find the coolest one-of-a-kind things at yard sales and flea markets. These are really good places to haggle and get a good deal. But you just need to be prepared to find something that you might have to store for awhile. What you find will be unpredictable, but completely worth it.

Go Green

Go Green

Have a Yard Sale: My mom had a yard sale once when we were little. It’s a great way to make sure that items you loved will pass into the hands of someone else who will enjoy them as much as you did. Even if you just get a couple bucks, it’s a couple bucks that you didn’t have before.

These are some great tips that I enjoy because they stress being green. Take all of the money that you save with ALL of the money-saving tips I find and deliver to you to do something fun and green with your family or friends!

*Meg Hoppe is a freelance writer and marketing professional from Chicago. Visit her other blog here and follow her on Twitter @CallMeHoppe.

September 11, 2009

College Money Saving Tips

By Meg Hoppe


"Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the Peace Corps."

If there is one thing I know how to do, it is budget in college. During my undergrad I was a pro at paying little to nothing for amazing things. Since I made next to nothing working my 3 jobs, this was a good thing. So here are some tips for all you college students out there on how to save money at school.

Buy Books Online/Rent Them: My freshman year, I paid about $500.00 for books in one semester. After that, I never spent more than $200.00 on a semester’s worth of books. In fact, after that I went back to my campus bookstore probably less than 5 times to buy a book for class. My solutions: the library and the Internet. It is a little known fact that your universities’ libraries will most likely have your class books on the shelves. If they don’t, your school is probably a part of an inter-library web with other schools so check them out too. It is super simple, just go to their website and search online. Simple, easy, and most importantly it’s free.

The second option that I mentioned is the online option. When I started looking online for books, I hit the proverbial jackpot with this website [formerly campusi.com]. The great thing about this site is that it’s not an actual vendor. You type in the title, ISBN # [uber helpful by the way] and the site pulls up all of the online vendors who have it and how much they are selling it for. So, instead of shopping around for an hour, you can spend 5 minutes and get the information you need to buy the cheapest book.

Save and then Splurge: My best college friend has over $7,000.00 in credit card debt alone. According to American Progress, in 2008 American credit card debt had raised 8.2% to $951.7 billion. When you graduate school, you have a 6 month grace period before you have to start paying off your loans. The last thing that you want to have to worry about is a mountain of credit card debt. Instead of charging everything that you do, save up for what you want and pay in cash. If you really want a new game system, start saving and then buy it when you have the cash. I cannot tell you the grief that saved me in college.

Go to Campus Activities: I don’t just think this is a good idea because I was Homecoming Chair one year and Mainstage Co-Chair another year for my Campus Activities Board. Campus Activities is a great way to participate in some really awesome events that are predominately free. I cannot tell you

Hokey logo, yes. But welcome to college. The club logos are bad, the food is bad, but the events are pretty good.

Hokey logo, yes. But welcome to college. The club logos are bad, the food is bad, but the events are pretty good.

the amount of free singers, comedians, mentalists, etc. that we had during my undergrad. The events were always fun, included free food [it is a time honored fact that free food brings students], and often left people walking away with something. What more can you ask for,  free night out with friends and dinner. Both of which are hot commodities in college. Don’t just assume that only freshmen and dorks go to campus events. They are planned to be fun and free for you. Take advantage.

Local paper to track down free events: I will have it be known that I still do this. Local papers, Time Out as an example, will always list free events in your area [you can always check out MetroMix.com for cool things too depending on where you go to school]. You would be surprised how cool some of these events can be and how cheap they can be too. For example, I once got two free tickets to a Shiny Toy Guns show just for being a Chicago native. The show was in an art gallery and had an open bar. It was absolutely amazing, and absolutely free. It’s also great to become a fan of local places on Facebook or follow them on Twitter because so many businesses advertise free events or discounted rates on those sites.

Alcohol: I can sit here and tell you not to drink, but I think we all know that you’re going to. What you might not realize is just how expensive alcohol can get and how quickly it can add up. So you need to know a few tricks to keep your bank account satisfied with your vices.

  1. Specials at Bars: If you’re over 21 and you like to go to the bars with friends. Check out the specials. My local haunt [yes my friends and I call our pub our local haunt] has a daily beer and liquor special that is $2 and $3 respectively. Let me tell you, paying $2 for a foreign draft and $3 for an amaretto stone sour is a treat even now. So check and see what kind of specials the bars you’re at have. Most of them will have something on the busy college nights, so ask around why people go to what bars on what nights. I promise you, it isn’t for the atmosphere; it is for the cheap alcohol.
  2. Drink with Friends: If you don’t have the cash to go out, start a fund with friends and head out to Jewel. Believe me when I tell you that you’re not experienced enough in drinking to taste the difference between Ketel One Vodka and Smirnoff Vodka. So get the cheapest that you can. You will be amazed at how much more fun you can have just having a small party with your friends than going out to the bars on “Thirsty Thursday.”
  3. Bring a Budget: If you are going out to the bars, bring cash and pay only with what you have. It will keep you within a predetermined budget and you won’t find yourself hitting your credit limit on your Visa. Not only that, but if you’re aware that you have a budget, you can pace your drinking all night and have a healthy buzz with enough time to sober up for the walk home.

Food: If you want to be able to eat on $.12 I have two words for

Who said Ramen can't look delicious?

Who said Ramen can't look delicious?

you: Ramen Noodles. Granted, they aren’t healthy, but you would be amazed at one can do with them. I liked to cook the noodles separately and put a little olive oil and parmesan cheese on them [clearly the money not used on real food was spent accordingly]. Sometimes I would use the noodles [cooked and uncooked] in a salad. And though it sounds gross, sprinkling a little [I stress little] bit of the seasoning on uncooked noodles and eating them like chips was absolutely delicious. I have a great list of friendly budget recipe books with Ramen Noodles and other college friendly food here:

Check out Local Specials through Your School: When I was in school my Campus Activities Department had one day a month that was called DU Day at the Lake. Basically, if you brought your school ID to the local movie theatre you could see as many movies as you wanted for $3. Let me tell you, classes were barren those days as most students took in every movie that they possibly could. Check out specials that your school has for local businesses. Most of the time the local establishments make so much money from you, they like to give back, whether in the form of coupons, free nights, or discount events.

Movies: Movie nights are a standard must in college. It’s always great to just grab a movie and popcorn with the friends. You have friends, hopefully, who own movies, hopefully. So ask around if someone has a movie that you want to watch before you go out and get it. The most important part of the borrowing system is to remember to return the DVDs when you’re finished. My best friend in college had a problem with people borrowing movies and never returning them. So she stopped bringing the cases to school. She noticed that if people just saw the cases, they would ask to borrow a movie without wanting to watch it that night. Now, if someone came in with a certain request for a movie, she would be more than willing to share.

If you watch movies endlessly and don’t want to ask around, sign up for Netflix. While you might not think it’s more economically sound to sign up for a service like Netflix, it is. I promise if you get movies often, the service will pay for itself after one or two rentals. The best part about Netflix is that you can order them online and just wait a day. It’s so easy and so worth it. The watch online portion is especially phenomenal. I was MIA for two weekends during my junior year because I had found Dexter on Netflix and couldn’t tear myself away. Drop the Blockbuster nights and sign up for a cheaper online service.

Buy Store Brands: I know you think that Keebler cookies taste better than Jewel brand, but I am here to tell you…they don’t. No really, they absolutely do not taste any better. They are more expensive by about $2 but taste the same. So instead of spending an arm and a leg on name brands, stick with the store brands. For the most part, they have the same ingredients. The only reason that “name” brands charge more is because they have a branded image that allows them to charge more for the same product Jewel sells.

Be smart with your money because it goes faster than you think. Work as much as you can so you don’t have time to spend, and take in the cheap things with a group of friends to make it memorable and fun. Being able to remember the fun you had in college is completely worth it. Also, being able to stay in the black with Chase is completely worth it.

*Meg Hoppe is a freelance writer and marketing professional from Chicago. Visit her other blog here and follow her on Twitter @CallMeHoppe.

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