Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Feedback for Freebies

If you’re trying to obtain important items – everyday necessities, survival gear, food, whatever – on a small budget, you can save some money by sending positive feedback to the companies that sell what you need. Doing this will score you discounted, or even free, stuff. I’ve been doing it for months, and have a small pile of coupons and freebies to show for it.

The process is simple. Let’s take my favorite gel-ink pen, the Pilot G2, as our example. I love this pen – have for years. I’ve spent only goodness knows how much on refills, and new pens, over the several years that I’ve been scribbling with this brand. I’ll gladly spend money on this particular product as long as I have hands to hold the sucker, but getting a free pen or two isn’t bad at all.

So, I went to the Pilot Web site and looked for a contact form. I spent about two minutes writing a couple of paragraphs to the company. This quick message told the company why I like the G2 pen so much, and why I’ll continue buying it instead of a different brand or type of pen.

Here’s the important part: be sure to include your mailing address on the contact form. If you don’t, the company doesn’t know where to send your goodies. I included my P.O. box, along with my e-mail address.

Soon – about a week later, actually – I received several G2 pens in a padded mailing envelope. Free pens! Score! They’re all different colors, including blue, black, red, green, et cetera. The red and green will be great for editing my writing, as will the blue.

Earlier this week, Ziploc sent me a coupon for a free box of Big Bags. The coupon was good for up to six bucks and change, and the local Walmart wants seven and change for one box of the bags. So, I didn’t actually get the product for free, but I did get a really-good discount. I’m not going to complain about saving a few bucks, especially when I had to invest only a few minutes of my time to get it.

Other companies have also sent me free stuff, just because I took two or three minutes out of my busy life to send positive feedback about their products. Free food, in particular, is really sweet, because any help with the groceries is a big deal in my family. After I had all my teeth pulled, the discounts on soups and other such foods were really nice, considering how much my family had just coughed up to the dentist for all that work.

When I don’t score freebies, I usually receive coupons. I’m going to buy X brand peanut butter anyway, so why not save a few cents on it, right? Right. Some companies send better coupons than others, so your results will be all over the place if they’re anything like mine.

I’m sure, by the way, to give honest feedback. If I really do like or love the product, I say so. If there is a problem, or if I have a suggestion, I mention that in my message. I’m not going to blow smoke up some company representative’s rear end just to get a little free stuff. Honesty is important to me, after all.

Why do companies give you freebies? Because you’re telling them that you’re a loyal customer. They spend very little on the coupons that they send you, but it’s a wonderful goodwill gesture. Yes, I’m going to spend money on the products that I love whether I get these benefits or not, but the company gains something by being nice to me. I’m likely to tell family, friends, blog readers, et cetera that X company sent me free stuff, and that their stuff rocks even when I have to pay for it. It’s cheap advertising, and it works.

So, start looking for company Web sites, and start sending feedback. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Unfortunately, I have no delusions that I’ll receive a new sedan if I write Mercedes-Benz to tell them how much I love heated, leather seats. Sending feedback to various companies won’t result in really-valuable freebies. But saving a little here, and a little there, adds up over time, and I can’t complain about that one bit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stealthy Shopping (How to Disguise Your Stockpile)

People love to comment on your grocery-store purchases for reasons that I can’t even begin to understand. Though I’m well aware of my surroundings in public, and therefore do notice other people and the contents of their carts, I don’t comment on them. Frankly, I don’t care what other people – particularly strangers – do enough to say anything to them about it. This is especially true when we’re talking about shopping. Spend your money however you want, people: that’s your concern, not mine.

Some shoppers do comment, though, and ask questions. This is particularly true if you regularly load down your cart with lots of food. My family and I have almost always done just that, because there are seven people in all. (One of my brothers left this part of Texas not too long ago, though. We’re down to six people living at home, which is still a rather-large number.)

We live in a small community, so we do run into friends, coworkers, fellow church members, et cetera at the store. They all know that we have a lot of people to feed. But strangers will ask us why we have so much food. Are we shopping for the whole year? Are we having a big party? What’ s the deal here?

Whether or not we have extra food in the cart to put in the stockpile, a smile and a, “Nope – there are six people in the house. This is the usual shopping” satisfies the curious strangers. They don’t know if we’re shopping for the week, or for two weeks. They don’t know how fast we’ll go through all the cans of chili in the bottom of the cart. All they know is that we eat a lot of food because we have a lot of people in the house. Our answer is polite, but vague, which satisfies them and keeps us from having to explain things that aren’t their business.

Because our community’s small, we don’t necessarily want even strangers to know what we’re doing with the extra food – or that we even have extra food. Strangers aren’t really strangers in small areas like this one. That guy knows this guy, who knows us. People love to talk about things that don’t concern them one bit, so it wouldn’t take much for one of our friends, coworkers or fellow church members to find out that we have food here. “Loose lips sink ships” and wipe out your stockpiles if you’re very unlucky.

If you can get away with it, use the “large family” excuse. Even if you have only one child, well, you can fudge a little bit, now can’t you? Of course you can. Tell the inquisitive shopper that a whole bunch of relatives are flying in from wherever to visit for the week. Obviously, you’ll have to have plenty of canned food in the house to feed all those children and adults.

Sometimes, that won’t work. Maybe you’ve run into a coworker who knows that you’re about to fly out of town to visit your relatives in their home city. Fortunately, there are all sorts of fibs available if you want to use them. Perhaps you’re donating all those extra canned goods to a local food pantry or food bank. Maybe you’re stocking up for the house sitter’s convenience. Or, hey, you’re just grabbing these because they’re on sale and you need to save as many of your precious pennies as possible for traveling.

Any excuse that doesn’t hint at long-term storage or stockpiling will work provided that it fits your circumstances. You don’t want to tell a church member that you have four kids at home, because the membership directory tells him or her otherwise. But you can easily tell casual friends that you’re having family over for the week, and they’ll believe it because they probably don’t see you often enough to know any better.

Now, I’m a conservative Christian – and I just recommended telling lies. In the book of Joshua, Rahab lied to the men who were trying to grab the Israelite spies. God blessed her for protecting His people. This tells me that God knows the difference between lying to harm other people and lying to protect somebody. Think whatever you will about the religious or spiritual aspects of telling people that you aren’t really stockpiling food for the end of the world, but know that there is a reason why some of us choose to keep our mouths shut about our long-term planning.

This untruth, of course, leads to the question of whether my family and I would share with others or not should we meet people who are hungry. The answer: that’s entirely possible. However, that’s a case-by-case judgment call, made with God’s guidance. If He leads us to help, we’ll do whatever we can, because we know that He’s got our back in that situation. But if He leads us to send the person on without our assistance, that’s what we’ll do, because God knows what’s going on even when we have no idea of what to do or say.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Kid Sis Gets a Snarky Lesson about Credit

My kid sister is nineteen and works in retail. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these things. However, these two facts about my sister are vital to what happened last month, so keep them in mind while you read.

Kid Sis and I were in Walmart, spending some of my money. We went to the electronics department to find a digital recorder for one of our brothers, who started college a few days after this shopping trip. (We’re very proud of him, by the way!) While we were in that department, Kid Sis suggested that we go look at the video games.

Being a bit of a video-game fan myself, I agreed. We didn’t have to get out of the store at any particular time, either, so I pushed the cart over to the consoles and wandered over to have a look. By the way: I emphasize “look.” Looking is free. I can afford to look. I’m happy to look.

“Hey,” she said, as we walked to that section. “If they have a Wii, will you loan me the money for it? I’ll pay you back.”

My jaw? Not closed after I heard that. There was my sister, who’d been reared by the same two “Don’t get credit for anything that you don’t have to have” parents who’d reared me, asking me for a loan so that she could buy a video-game system.

“Did I hear you correctly?” I asked. “Did you really just ask me to loan you nearly three hundred dollars for a VIDEO-GAME SYSTEM?”

“Uh, yeah,” she said.

“Are you joking?”

“Uh, no.”

I blinked a couple of times. “Then there’s your answer. You really think that it’s a good idea to get a loan from me, which is a line of credit, for something that you don’t have to have?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, you’re the only one I know who has that much money.”

“Tell you what: instead of getting that tattoo you keep babbling about, buy the Wii yourself.”

“But I want the tattoo and the Wii.”

“Well, I want a male harem, preferably Chippendale dancers, to follow me around, but that’s not happening in this lifetime.”

She wisely shut up at that point. The kid who was standing nearby, playing the demo XBox 360, just stared at me. Yeah, I guess that I’d eyeball me too if I were that kid. I was being kind of snarky, after all, and that usually attracts a bit of attention, I’ve noticed.

What I really want to know is: how does my sister expect to repay me approximately three hundred dollars when she works as a cashier? She earns minimum wage, and does not have full-time hours (she averages about thirty hours per week). Her bills aren’t too high, because she lives here at home. But she does have to pay for her cell phone, auto insurance, other car-related expenses, et cetera. Her paycheck just won’t stretch far enough to repay me in a reasonable amount of time.

So, no loan, especially for an overpriced video-game system. She already has a GameCube, so it’s not like she’s been deprived of the usual, American luxuries. And it’s not like I ever, in the entire time that the Wii has existed, told her that I’d acquire it for her. I didn’t break a promise, or get her hopes up, or anything along those lines.

Kid Sis is not usually the sort of person who relies on credit – not even loans from family members, who don’t believe in usury – to acquire toys. But lately, she’s been spending obscene amounts of time with The Boyfriend: an overly materialistic twit who is, even as I type this, upset because the muscle car he’s thinking of buying has “cheap” rims.

He’s upset because the OEM rims aren’t “nice” enough to suit him, even though he’d be looking at the stinking things for only a few seconds every day when he walked toward the car. And even then, who cares what the rims look like as long as they’re functional and not falling apart? Really, they’re just rims. They attach your tires to your vehicle. They don't have to be insanely expensive, or continue spinning when you've come to a complete stop, or blind nearby drivers because the sunlight's reflecting off the highly-polished chrome.

The worst part, though, is that The Boyfriend has a reliable vehicle. He does not have to buy another car, but he wants a muscle car because that’s cooler than the coupe he’s driving now. Because he’s obsessed with how things look, and with impressing complete strangers, and Kid Sis is absorbing his crappy attitude toward finances. This is The Boyfriend who, recently, tried to secure a loan to buy some other little rocket of a car that he wanted. The bank turned him down (smart move, bank – this 19-year-old guy has a minimum-wage, part-time job), though, so he spent a few weeks moping and whining about that horrifying, traumatic rejection.

I’m getting tired of Kid Sis’ attitude, though. The Wii is not the first thing that’s driven me crazy. Oh, no. She’s spent the last few months annoying the snot out of me with her increasingly-materialistic drivel.

All I can say is that a) I’m not loaning or giving her money unless she really needs something, and b) if she gets herself into debt for stupid reasons, I’m not helping her. She knows better – or did, at least, until things with The Boyfriend started to get serious.

So, instead of buying my little sister a Wii, I picked up a Food Saver. We had to replace the old, broken, first-gen model that we’d had for years, and the later model that I bought on this shopping trip is very much improved. This was, if you ask me, a much-better investment than a video-game console, especially with the economy sucking like it is at the moment.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Temporary Toothache Relief

I have dentures because I inherited rotting teeth from my Mom’s side of the family. Yes, I’m only twenty-seven, but I’m actually happy to have a full set of false teeth. They don’t rot out in my mouth, abscess, or cause me any other excruciating pain, unlike the real teeth they replaced.

However, my family and I had to wait a long time to get my bad teeth out of my mouth. We don’t have much money, and don’t qualify for Medicaid, so we had to scrape together cash and pay the dentist a little at a time. He wouldn’t do the work until the bill was paid, because he couldn’t exactly chase me down and put my bad teeth back in my mouth if I skipped out on him. Fair is fair, if you ask me – but while we were working and paying him off, I was miserable.

Toothaches, particularly abscesses, are not fun. If you have the ability to see a dentist, do so. I’m terrified of these professionals, having had more than my fair share of nasty experiences with them over the years, but good ones will fix problems. You can’t eat properly with broken teeth, and suffering through an excruciatingly-painful abscess pretty much shuts down anything that you would be doing with your life if you weren’t in agony. I spent plenty of time flat on my back, with an ice pack or heating pad covering my face, instead of going to classes or doing some other, productive thing with my time.

However, I know good and well that not all of us have money lying around for dental appointments. Dentists are expensive, especially if you don’t have insurance. Even if you do have coverage, major dental work – like dentures – is often a 50/50 deal (you pay half and the insurance company pays the other). I understand not being able to afford dental work, and I understand the misery that you might suffer while you’re trying to reach that goal.

If you have a toothache or an abscess – you just might have to deal with it at home as best you can because of that whole lack of money thing. This sucks, but you can do a few things to try and alleviate some of the misery. This is not a substitute for a dentist: rather, this will make you somewhat more comfortable until you can scrape together the money to get into the office.

Clove oil is a fantastic thing. If you dribble a little bit of this over and around the affected tooth, it will draw out the infection. This is one of my favorite alternative remedies, because clove oil is inexpensive, easy to find, and extremely helpful.

I also got good results from tea-tree mouthwash. This stuff has natural, antiseptic properties. And unlike the chemical-laden, prescription mouthwash that my dentist prescribed when I saw him about an abscess, the tea-tree version did not make me hurt even worse. Seriously: the large bottle of Colgate prescription stuff was horrible. I hurt so badly after I swished the first time that I started throwing up. The tea-tree oil didn’t do that to me – and that stuff’s only about ten bucks a bottle where I shop.

Swelling and Puffiness
Moist heat can be your friend when your tooth’s trying to murder you. I have a moist heating pad, which is a fantastic investment if you ask me. I found mine in Walmart’s pharmacy section for about ten, twelve bucks. When I curled up with this sucker pressed to the affected area, I usually felt better. This takes some time, and it doesn’t completely eliminate the pain, but it helps. (This pad was also, incidentally, the only thing that enabled me to doze off the day that I had all of my teeth pulled in one sitting. Not even the Vicodin was as helpful as this.)

Side note: if you don’t have a moist heating pad, get hand towels from your kitchen or bathroom. Dunk them in the hottest water you can stand, wring them out, and press them to your face. You will have to change out these compresses fairly regularly, but they do work when they’re what you have on hand.

You can also try alternating between heat and cold. I sometimes did this, with good results. Just be sure that you don’t leave either one on your face for more than five to ten minutes, as that can be painful.

Sometimes, getting into a hot shower and letting the water hit the affected side of your face helps. This wasn’t helpful every time I had a toothache, but there were times when curling up in the bottom of the bathtub, with the shower head doing its thing, did help.

Nausea and Vomiting
When the tooth’s abscessed, and you’re busily throwing up everywhere, get some Emetrol. You know: the nasty-flavored anti-nausea medicine that’s loaded down with sugary syrup? That stuff. Walmart’s store brand is pretty good, and a lot cheaper than actual Emetrol. Take as recommended to keep the puking at bay. Throwing up makes things worse: the force of your vomit washing over your bad tooth is…just…miserable.

If the Emetrol doesn’t work by itself, take a dose of it and chase it with the appropriate amount of Pepto-Bismol. During one miserable abscess, I did this three times within forty-five minutes. After the third dose, the vomiting finally stopped long enough for me to start taking the antibiotics and Vicodin.

Orajel works really well on tooth pain. This is another case where Walmart’s store brand does a good job for less than the name-brand version. I used to stick the tube into my mouth, near the bad tooth, and just squeeze. There were times when I’d squeeze out a good one-eighth of a tube all around the tooth. This isn’t recommended as a long-term solution, but it does help relieve some of the pain for a while.

If you happen to have some Vicodin in the medicine cabinet, left over from that sprung shoulder last year, take it. I’m a big fan of stashing my leftover pain pills. I very rarely need them all for the actual problem, so I rathole the leftovers. More than once, they’ve been handy for other problems.

Ideally, you'll be able to find, and pay for, a dentist in the near future. However, things go wrong. Maybe you can afford the bill, but live in the middle of nowhere (like I do) and all three dentists in the area are off for the weekend. Maybe society's gone right down the toilet and dentists aren't affordable, if they're still in business where you live. Maybe something else has gone wrong. Being able to relieve at least some of your misery is a vital skill, because a toothache will flatten you.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
-George OrwellAnimal Farm