This Week’s Readers’ Tips

by Dollar Stretcher Reader Contributors

Readers Tips photo

Each week we publish a new batch of money-saving tips from our frugal readers that can help you stretch your dollars and live better…for less.

Mashed Potatoes at the Ready

I love to have mashed potatoes as a side dish, but I hate taking the time to make them. And I hate the taste of instant even more. So, now I make extra large batches of mashed potatoes and freeze them. I use freezer bags and flatten the contents as much as possible.

When I am ready to use them, I can break off as much as I need for the meal, pop them in the microwave and voila! I have mashed potatoes that taste as good as freshly made and they take less time than even the instant potatoes.
Carolyn in Chicagoland

additional TDS resource: How Potatoes Can Reduce Grocery Bills

Gourmet Hot Chocolate for Less

I love Ghiradelli hot chocolate, but don’t like the price. I found a solution. I mix the Ghiradelli mix with the cheapest mix I can find. About 1 part to 4 of the cheap stuff. I get the same taste at a price I can afford! Great for these cold, cold nights!

Yogurt My Way

I buy plain yogurt by the quart and add my own fruit. I buy fresh fruit in season, and canned and frozen fruit on sale. I divvy up the fruit into small plastic containers (enough for several servings). Then I refrigerate one container and freeze the rest. This way, I get variety, and nothing goes bad before I can eat it. There is less sugar, and it’s cheaper to boot.
Donna T. in Staten Island, NY

Garden Exchange

I like to garden but right now I’m really short on cash. Then last week I was Zooming with a friend who gardens. We were both complaining about not having enough money to get our gardens started this year. But as we talked, we discovered a solution. I had some of the things that she needed but couldn’t afford. She had some things I needed. So we decided to swap! Now we’re busy networking with our gardening friends. We may even have a Zoom meeting where everyone can say what they could trade or give away to a gardening friend. We may not have money. But we still have friends!

additional TDS resource: The Ins and Outs of Bartering

The Cost of Late Fees

When I was digging myself out of credit card debt, I made sure to look at the interest on my cards and late-payment fees on utilities and other bills. For example, late fees for cell phones were $20/mo, electric was $5/mo, and interest was piling up, too. 

It motivated me to get rid of my debt and pay my bills on time. My total of my interest and late fees for the year was a whopping $900, which is about three and a half car payments for me. 
Teresa in MO

additional TDS resource: Reduce Your Debt With a Sinking Fund

Maximizing Your Gift Cards

I took some time right after Christmas to round up all of my gift cards and store credits and put them into a spreadsheet. Some of the gift cards had been used and had remaining balances and some were brand new. I also added the gift card number/pins so they were all in one place. Lo and behold, the amount of the remaining values added up to over $325!

Now when I need to buy a household item or gift, I go to that list first to see if a gift card or credit fits the bill. During this exercise, I learned that the best way to deal with small amounts (less than $10) on VISA or Amex gift cards is to purchase an Amazon gift card that you can apply to your account. Target also has a good system for taking multiple cards, including gift cards, for purchases. Happy frugal shopping!

Small, Custom Counter-Top

We needed a small piece of countertop for a project. My husband took me to the local shop that produces counter tops for Home Depot in our city, but any cabinet making shop would do. They had a number of large leftover pieces in the back. We only needed four feet so there was a lot from which to choose. We paid $2 per foot for a piece that normally sells for $25 a foot, plus $50 for cutting our piece.

additional TDS resource: A Budget-Friendly DIY Kitchen Remodel

Seed Starters

When I buy a bakery or produce item that comes in a clear plastic package or has a lift-off clear plastic lid, I save the package. They make great greenhouses for starting seeds for the garden. I have them in different sizes. Depending on the size of the container, the requirements of the seeds, and the number of plants needed, I either put the soil directly into the bottom of the container and seed directly or use peat “pop-up” disks that expand into a pot when wet. It gets one more use out of plastic before recycling.

additional TDS resource: Creating a Labor-Saving Garden

Help With Pet Care

With such tight money times, it can be stressful to provide the care needed to keep our pets healthy. If you are anywhere near a Humane Society animal shelter, give them a call. Vet checkups, spay and neutering services, shots and even flea and heart worm preventative medications can be purchased for about half the price of the neighborhood vet. Support your vet when you can, but if the choice is find a cheaper way or neglect your pet, call the Humane Society.

I have also heard that many food banks are now providing dog and cat food. If you are really in a bind, give them a call and get some help to keep your loved ones healthy.

additional TDS resource: Reduce the Cost of Pet Healthcare

Frozen Meats

My brother used to work for a major food corporation. Conversations with him, along with a work-related project that involved the food industry’s “bible” of perishable food storage guidelines, taught me a lot about storing meats and other items.

Basic rule of thumb is that meat doesn’t deteriorate or “age” in a deep freeze – a freezer that never cycles off to prevent frost build-up. However, meat and other items do age in a frost-free freezer; every partial thaw during an “off” cycle ages the food. So (barring poor storage conditions prior to your purchase), even if you buy those pork chops, that sliced ham, or those hot dogs on their “best used by” date, you can store them up to a year in a deep freeze or up to three months in a frost-free freezer.

You can actually store stuff in the frost-free freezer for up to six months, but their age will begin to show in their taste after about three. Naturally, how you store the food also makes a difference in both environments.

Is Your Safe ‘Safe’?

Many people have home security lock boxes that are supposedly fireproof, waterproof, etc., in which to store their valuable papers. A friend of mine recently opened hers and found everything in it covered with mold. How this happened is not certain, but she cleaned all the papers up as best she could and put the moldiest papers in a 170 degree oven for 1 hour (supposedly 160 degrees will kill the mold). After this, she individually vacuum sealed (using a vacuum sealer meant for food products) each set of papers, passport, etc., before putting them back in the thoroughly-cleaned lock box.

Supposedly, some boxes have a note on them suggesting that owners check the box every month or so. I am sure most people don’t access their boxes that frequently. Who would imagine that a box that seems to be so tightly sealed would have this problem!

additional TDS resource: 7 Low Cost Home Security Tactics

Finding an Honest Auto Mechanic

After reading your article about finding a good mechanic, I thought I’d share how my husband and I found our mechanic. We have a local place that is actually a tire franchise that does routine car maintenance. We noticed on occasion that they would have local police vehicles parked waiting to be serviced. My husband talked to one of the officers and found out that our police dept. preferred and trusted the owner of this tire franchise. We started taking our cars there and have been completely satisfied.  We also make sure to tip the mechanics.

Another thing people should be aware of. Fixing cars isn’t just about “mechanics” anymore. Cars have gotten more complicated with all the new technology. That is another layer of training/education needed to fix cars. People need to recognize and appreciate that. 

The Best Shower Soap

This is a comment on an article I saw on your site regarding shower cleaning. The writer recommended to only use liquid soap to prevent build up. It’s true that bar soap leaves a film in the tub/shower. But a few decades ago, I discovered that glycerin soap leaves no residue. We have been using glycerin soap for decades, and I also made the connection that if it leaves no residue on the shower walls, it doesn’t leave a residue on hair. As a result, we quit using shampoo, and use glycerin soap to also wash our hair.

I used to have a hard time finding it, but about 15 years ago, I discovered that Dollar Tree carries it. Not only is it good for the shower, the skin and hair, but it’s also kind on the budget.

Controlling Online Shopping

One trick that I used before COVID was to curb impulse buying by going to the stores very close to their closing time. That way, I only had time to get what’s on my list.

But now I’m doing most of my shopping online. And online shops are open 24/7. What’s a girl to do? I set the alarm on my clock app for 20 minutes. Usually I can control myself for that long. When the alarm goes off I stop shopping even if I had something in the cart!

additional TDS resource: 8 Ways to Overcome Retail Therapy

Stretching De-Icing Fluid

Here’s an idea for the cold winter months. Windshield washer de-icing fluid is a great help for those freezing winter months, but it is usually two to three times the price of regular fluid. Instead of filling the washer reservoir with the de-icing fluid, which can waste quite a bit of it, I fill a squirt bottle with the fluid and keep it inside the car. After a few quick squirts, turn the wipers on. The windshield will be clear! Using this method can make one gallon of de-icing fluid last quite a long time.
Paul I.

Prolong the Life of Your Water Heater

Anyone can add years of service to their water heater. And the only thing you need is a garden hose! Just attach the hose to the faucet near the bottom of the water heater and open it. Drain the tank and the sludge and scale that collects on the bottom. If you do it twice a year – I do it around Easter and Halloween – you’ll postpone a major household expense.

Petite Clothing Savings

My short legs prove costly as petite clothing is usually sold out and only the average-size items go on sale. I have saved hundreds over the years in pant and skirt purchases by buying clearance in average sizes and hemming them myself with my sewing machine. Even if you don’t sew, you can use the fusible tape to hem them. Just be careful to not use a super hot dryer or the tape will let loose. So, if it fits but is too long, you can usually shorten it easily and quickly.
Joyce G.

additional TDS resource: 9 Ways to Extend the Life of Clothing

Quality Furniture for Less

One way to get good, even great, quality furniture is auctions. You can find solid wood dining and living room sets from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Maybe Grandma has passed on and relatives don’t want it (they would rather spend thousands for particle board). With a little Old English scratch polish, you have a beautiful set that still has value.

Inexpensive Medical Equipment

A place to check to borrow a wheelchair is a local loan closet. Many churches, fire departments, and not-for-profits have all sorts of first aid equipment to loan. And this is usually free.
Annette H.

Organizing Online Recipes

I get most of my recipes online, and happened upon a clever, easy website for saving them called Copy Me That.  It’s a free program, and it puts a cute tiny spoon and spatula on the toolbar.  When I see something I like, I click on the icon, and it copies it to my page on their website, then click “confirm” to save it and the tag symbol to categorize it (of your own creation).  It will also create a shopping list.  If the recipe is on a social media site – even a photo of a handwritten recipe! – all that has to be done is to highlight one ingredient, then click the icon.  Sounds long but it’s actually accomplished in seconds.

Help Your Tax Preparer

I have prepared taxes for many years, and have several suggestions for those that go to a tax preparer.

  1. Always go back to the person who did your taxes, if possible.  They have your prior return on file, so they know if you have forgotten to bring in a document, and if there are any deductions that are to be taken this year that were also taken last year.
  2. If you can’t go to your prior preparer, then when you go to a knew preparer, bring in last year’s return.  If you can bring in at least the last 3 years, that would be better.  A new tax pro will be able to spot if there are deductions from last year that are supposed to go on this year’s return, and they may also spot mistakes that were done on a prior return.  This may get you a bigger refund!

Tax preparers are trained to get you the biggest refund that you are legally entitled to.  The above steps will help you get that refund.

Do you have a money or time-saving tip you’d like to share? Just click here to submit your suggestion.

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