To me, nothing is more important than family and friends. One small way I can show them I care is to acknowledge birthdays and special occasions with a card. There is just something special about getting plain old snail mail.

I love cards and paper products, and there are some really cool cards out there. I could spend all day in the card section at Target alone. However, many of the cards that really catch my eye are upwards of $4, $5, and even $6. Sending around 50 cards a year, that really adds up.

With inspiration from a good friend who makes her own cards, I set out to cut down the card cost in our budget. I picked up a great box of 50 cards at Michael's for $10, along with two packages of accent cards for $8 and two sheets of co-ordinating stickers from Target's scrap book section for $4. So, for a grand total of of $22, I had all the materials to make cards for the year.

Old cost per card (avg.): $4.00
New cost per card: $.44
Savings per card: $3.56
Yearly savings for 50 cards: $178
On top of the great benefit of saving, I have found there are lots of other great things about making your own cards.

Creative outlet
I like crafts and making cards is a nice way to get the creative juices flowing. It's not a huge endeavor, and can be a quick way to get the crafting fix in, unlike the mounting baby scrap book project looming in the closet.

It's an original
It's a great feeling knowing that the envelope you drop in the mail contains a one-of-a-kind creation and was hand-made with love. Really, can any store-bought card compete with that?

Genuine sentiments
When you make your own blank card, the words inside come from you, rather than those great card writers at Hallmark. Sure the verbiage might not be as polished, but taking the words out of your own head means the cards will probably mean more to the person getting them.

If you don't like crafts, maybe this isn't the area for you to cut back. But if you do, don't let the time you think it will take stop you. If you do a batch of cards for the next 3-4 months of occasions, it probably won't take you any longer than it would to pick them out at the store.

More personal, more special, better with less.

With gas prices at an all-time high, I wanted to tell you about a little car-related bright light in my life: my commute to work.

Bright light, you might question? And a fair question it is. I did a quick google search on commuting and happiness and found the following:

  • A study by researchers at the University of Zurich that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being.
  • A 2007 article in Canada's Globe and Mail cites that studies on life satisfaction show commuting makes people more unhappy than anything else in life.
Reading those bullets, you might be wondering how I could possibly be using the term bright light to describe my commute. The reason is carpooling.

Carpooling is something my husband and I have done for a long time, even before we had a baby and started really cutting back. However, we take two cars less often and work at home one day a week since I started working part-time.

The benefits are many, and are so much more than saving money.

Save big
Sure it's a big factor, but it's not just about the gas savings. We also save on wear and tear on the car, and pay lower insurance with only one primary vehicle used for commuting.

Lower your carbon footprint
One car burns less than two. Enough said.

Get things done
With one person driving and the other one free, it's amazing what you can get done. I keep a list of to-dos that I can do in the car—like holding on a customer service call, or making that doctor appointment that has to be done between 8am and 5pm. Since I am usually the grateful passenger, I can also go through mail, knit, file my nails, you name it. On the flip side, sometimes I can just zone out and do nothing, which can be a welcome break in a busy day.

Spend time together
I have heard many people complain that they don't have enough quality time with their spouse after babies come along. I haven't really had that feeling, and I think the commute is a big part of the reason why.

Three days a week we spend 30 minutes each way together. We can laugh. We can talk about the challenges or frustrations of the day and get to a better place before picking up the baby. We can listen to a radio show or audio book and learn something together. We can just "be" together without saying a word.

It's amazing that something known to be one of the biggest contributors to unhappiness might just be the one thing that makes our marriage stronger each day.

Maybe this is totally unrealistic for your life. But maybe, just maybe, you can take a little piece of it and reap the rewards. Could you carpool with your significant other one day a week, even if it is slightly more miles than each of you would drive alone? Could you carpool with a close friend and make that friendship stronger? Could you take a bus or train and get things done you couldn't do while driving?

Try something small and see if the payoff might just be bigger than you could have imagined.

I love the beach. The smell of the air, the feel of the salt water on my skin, and that general ahhhhh feeling I get just from looking at the ocean — it doesn't get much better than that.

In the past, we would usually go to the beach once or twice a year and either pay an arm and a leg for a hotel on the beach, or get a much cheaper room in-town and drive to the beach. Both were great in different ways, but with a toddler needing a nap in the afternoon, the drive didn't seem like a great option. And with the new budget, the price tag staying on the beach was prohibitive for us.

Then I found out the secret that made for a perfect vacation for us: off-season.

Lower rates
When shopping for the hotel room online, I was amazed to see that the price for one night's stay dropped by $100 two weeks after Labor day. For $141 per night we got an ocean front suite with kitchenette. That was less than the in-town hotel we used to get in August.

Better rooms
Because the hotel was far from capacity, we were offered a corner room with extra windows and the best view up the beach. Not to mention, no neighbors making noise on one side of us.

Perfect weather
Of course there are no guarantees, but mid-September was still plenty warm for bathing suits without the sweltering summer heat. High of 90 degrees with a breeze was just about perfect.

Warm ocean
Why go to the beach for Memorial day and freeze yourself in the water? The incredibly warm ocean temperature in the fall is enough reason alone to put off the beach trip until the end of the season. I could have stayed in the water all day.

No crowds at the pool
Taking my timid toddler in a crowded pool is just asking for an emotional meltdown. Not a problem on this trip. We had the pool practically to ourselves, and enjoyed every minute of it.

No waiting
To save money, we cooked dinners in our room, but we did eat our for lunches. Surprise — no waiting for a table. Smaller crowds during off-season mean you can get seated right away and the food doesn't take forever to come out. These two criteria haven't mattered as much to us in the past, but with a hungry toddler soon needing an afternoon nap, the speedy lunches were a huge perk.

Of course, in certain areas, off-season can mean taking a risk on the weather. With September being hurricane season in our neck of the woods, we knew booking the trip was a bit risky. But, way put down the $100 non-refundable deposit and hoped for the best. It payed off big time.

So, the next time you are planning a vacation, roll the off-season dice. You might just win big too.

As we've started to live with less, a funny thing has happened: I am getting hooked on less (at least when less is better).

Paper products have quickly become a target for reduction. The cost combined with the waste, has driven us to look for new ways to cut back.

However, I wasn't so sure about using cloth napkins on a regular basis. I have great friends and neighbors who have long been cloth napkin families. But neither using one a night, nor re-using for several nights, was sitting quite right with me or my husband.

Washing two (and eventually more) napkins per meal seemed like a similar quandary to the cloth diaper debate. By the time you use all that water and soap, are you really cutting costs and helping the environment?

Then comes the question about using a napkin more than once? It is hygienic? The idea of wiping last nights dinner across our faces the next night wasn't too appealing either.

Then I really thought hard about it. Would possibly a few crumbs or dried sauce from the night before really hurt us? There is plenty of surface area to use after all. And what about those nights where nothing drops, but a crunched up paper napkin still gets tossed? And so we decided to give the cloth napkins a shot -- after all, we had them sitting in our china cabinet.

Turns out that there is a certain refinement to using cloth napkins vs. paper ones. You feel like dinner is more civilized, less rushed, more special, or at least I do. All of a sudden these napkins that sat waiting for company or holidays, brought new polish and pleasure to our weeknight table.

When they are dirty, new ones come out, and with an average of a few days per napkin, I would be surprised if they added up to much more than a load or two of laundry for the year. Make that load cold and I am sure that we are coming out ahead in the financial and environmental departments.

I know you have them hidden away. Come on, let the napkins out to make your weeknights more special and save a tree. At least give it a try, you might be surprised what a little cloth napkin can do.

When I started this journey of cutting back to accommodate a part-time salary, I thought our monthly bills were pretty much fixed. But as I examined with a more critical eye, something once considered a reasonable necessity - cable - made its way to the chopping block. Did we really need to spend $81.25 a month on TV?

To be honest, the idea of cutting down on cable surfaced in my head a few times before I gave it real consideration. After all, the shows on Bravo alone (Top Chef, Project Runway) brought me such pleasure. And my husband lives for the Tour de France each July.

I would love to say we are the kind of people who could just throw the TV out the window and gaze at each other over a board game every night, but we just aren't. It's a relaxing escape sometimes, so our quest was to live better with less cable.

We went down to "basic" cable. Not standard, but basic. Here's what the before and after expenses look like:

DIGIPic 1000 package - $68
HD DVR service - $7.95
Universal Remote Control - $0.31
Netflix (1 at-a-time, 2 a month) - $4.99
Monthly Total - $81.25

Basic Cable - $12.95
iTunes purchases - $12
Netflix (2 at-a-time, Unlimited) - $13.99
Old Replay TV DVR - Free
Monthly total - $38.94

Monthly savings:
Annual savings:

I thought I would share some points/counterpoints that we went through as a family to finally get okay with "pulling the plug."

Point: We can't live without the DVR.
Counterpoint: Of course you can't! It's just plain uncivilized.
Recording quality shows that you enjoy and watching on your own time is a necessity in our house. But instead of paying for the cable package that gets you a DVR from your cable company, consider some cheaper options. We hooked up our old Replay TV DVR, which has a life-time subscription attached to it. I would highly recommend hitting eBay for one of the 5040 (not 55xx) models which even have a commercial skip feature. If old Replays don't turn your crank, TiVo is another great option. At $150 for the intro-level box, and $13 a month, it won't take long to break even with the cable bill relief.

Point: I NEED Bravo (Lifetime, HBO, Food Network, HGTV, insert network here)
Counterpoint: Buying/renting the shows you love is much cheaper than paying for a zillion channels you never watch.
I admit it, I am addicted to Army Wives on Lifetime. I now buy the episode each Monday morning from iTunes. With a NetFlix account and the iTunes store, there seems to be an endless supply of high-quality programming available. With NetFlix, we have started enjoying great shows like The Wire, Weeds, and Arrested Development. And really, it's so satisfying to have a DVD of shows with no commercials -- you can just watch the next episode right away.

Point: I will stop watching so much TV on my own free will.
Counterpoint: No you won't.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop myself from watching garbage from time to time. I think I could feel myself getting dumber watching The Girls Next Door. I wanted to watch less TV, but I just couldn't stop. We had a "no-TV Tuesday night," which lasted two weeks. Alas, it was time for tough love. Now without the garbage, we just don't watch garbage -- plain and simple.

Point: We need mega cable to take advantage of our HDTV.
Counterpoint: You can get all the major networks in HD for free.*
Did you know that HD is free over the air? Yep, all you need is an antenna, which doesn't cost much. Also, if you stick with basic cable, you get the HD versions of your channels included. I am not the techie, but if you have an HDTV, chances are your TV can tune to the HD version of the major networks.
*Not including cost of antenna :-)

If you are considering cutting down your cable bill, but are scared, please know, it's okay to be scared. In fact, from idea to final execution, it was several months before we took the plunge. We looked at it as an experiment, and knew we could always turn it back on. No regrets here, I promise.

Better shows, less junk, and more money. What have you got to lose?

I've been a fan of menu planning for quite some time, and it does save a lot of money compared to eating out. However, before my part-time salary, I didn't spend a lot of time looking for sales. Sure, I would scan the shelf and buy the cheapest version of whatever was on my list, but I really didn't think that coupons and buying on sale would be worth the time and energy they would take. Boy, was I wrong.

If you are trying to get in the routine of menu planning and cooking at home each week, I suggest checking out simplemom's article on the topic. If you have the cooking thing down, read on for how to make it cheaper and better.

Flash back to the full-time work days:
I would sit down each weekend with all my cookbooks to plan the meals for the week. I always hated this task. While my husband waited for the grocery list to go shopping with his brother, I would crankily try to pick from a seemingly infinite array of recipe possibilities. I would often default to the same recipes over and over, because it was a quick way to decide. I hated this weekly task with a vengeance.

Fast forward to part-time salary living:
An online buddy told me about a web site called The Grocery Game (thanks K.C.). Here's the description from their site:

What is The Grocery Game?
The Grocery Game is a website that can save you hundreds of dollars on your grocery bill each month. Log in, spend a few minutes with a pair of scissors, and you're off to win The Grocery Game!

When you play, you'll get a weekly list (called Teri's List) of the lowest-priced products at your supermarket matched with manufacturers' coupons and weekly specials -- advertised and unadvertised. The Grocery Game does all the hard work and research, and presents it to you in a straightforward format.

Seems too good to be true, right? Well, it's not.

Nowadays, each Sunday morning I wake up and get our Sunday paper and log-on to thegrocery I get a list of all the items on good or great sale at my local grocery store, along with coupons to use from the Sunday paper. The list tells me which items are a good price if you need them, which are priced to stockpile, and which are free. Yes, just free. I got free salsa just last week.

So instead of an infinite number of recipes to pick from, I choose the recipes based on the fresh meat/fish/produce on sale, and based on what I have stockpiled in my freezer. All of a sudden picking recipes is quick and easy. We make dinners from the fresh sale items early in the week, then make recipes from the freezer later in the week.

Then the real fun begins. I used to hate shopping for groceries so much, which is why I never went with my husband. Now we go as a family and love to find the items on the list, and become giddy with anticipation waiting at the cash to see how much we have saved. We started shopping with "the list" at the end of January, and our sale and coupon savings to date are $795!

Not only are we saving money, but I am saving my marriage by not being a cranky B*%$# each weekend while I plan meals for the week.

Now it's your turn -- Do you have tricks for saving money on groceries? Are you finding benefits besides the $ savings?

No, I didn't sign up for a get rich quick scheme, but I did make a lot of money very quickly.

Last week I was on vacation from work and decided to shop for insurance, to further chip away our fixed monthly expenses. With my husband working, and my baby napping, I spent about three hours total over the course of two days on this endeavor.

I have been a loyal Allstate customer for 8 years, and loved our agent, so I hadn't really shopped around much. However, I had a small accident last fall that doubled our car insurance, so the rates were starting to become a bigger focus. I wasn't sure I could get a better deal because of the accident, but I thought I would give it a try.

I spoke with local agents for State Farm and Nationwide. They were both very friendly and helpful, and had much lower rates than I was paying now. I was honest with them that I was shopping around from the get-go, so I didn't feel guilty when I let them know I was able to get an even better price.

I also went online to get a quote from Progressive, but after entering all my data, I got an error on their site, and was directed to a local agent. Their rates were not as competitive as State Farm and Nationwide, and they wanted to charge me an application fee! No thanks.

My last stop was to to see what he said about insurance. There I found that the consumer reports top rated insurer is a company called Amica. However, Clark's site also said that "They will only take you if you have no tickets or accidents." I was bummed.

Later that day I spoke with a friend about my insurance shopping. She is with Amica and loves them (Thanks for the tip, S.W.!). She said she had had accidents in the past, and Amica took her, so I decided to give it a shot.

I had never heard of Amica before this, since they don't advertise. However, they have the following ratings from J.D. Power and Associates:

  • Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among National Auto Insurers, Eight Years in a Row.
  • Highest in Customer satisfaction Among National Homeowners Insurers, Six Years in a Row.
They took me! I was able to get much more car insurance liability coverage ($250/$500/$100 instead of $100/$300/$50), added uninsured/under-insured coverage, the same homeowners insurance coverage, a new $1 million umbrella policy for $1,100 less per year than I had been paying with Allstate.

I also learned an important lesson: loyalty doesn't pay with insurance -- you need to shop around regularly.

So, that's how I made $366/hour in three hours for my family to spend on other things. We got better coverage for less cash out the door. Time well spent, if I do say so myself.