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Spending money to save money

Last month our budget billing for our electric bill reset, and I got a pleasant surprise. The monthly bill is $7 less than last year. That’s $84 a year, which isn’t huge, but it’s significant–especially considering I never hear anyone say their electric bill went down. Only up. I had an idea in the back of my mind to spend the savings on another energy saving project, to keep the momentum going in the right direction.

Then my wife mentioned she’d like some new blinds. And the timing could scarcely have been better.

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Cyber Monday is a myth

First things first. Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for those of you who’ve stuck with me all these years, and those of you who’ve come back in the past year.

And the times are changing. I think there used to be something to Cyber Monday. But we’re rapidly approaching Cyber Thursday, if we aren’t already there.

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How I shop on Black Friday

Tonight I was getting my hair cut, and the stylist asked if I shop on Black Friday. I said I have in the past, but probably will sit this year out. She asked what it’s like, especially in light of the trampling incidents in recent years. I said it can get kind of crazy, but it’s bearable with a plan. Here’s how I shop on Black Friday.

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Top posts of 2010: A retrospective

I don’t normally do this, but then again, I’ve never had these kinds of statistics at my disposal either. So I’m going to take a minute to look back at the most popular posts of 2010, and pontificate a little about what I think each one might mean.

I really only have good statistics since October, so it’s a little unfair, but incomplete stats are better than none. I see some interesting patterns in what people ended up reading, some of it surprising, some less so.

We’ll take it from the top, rather than like a DJ.

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Are Black Friday computers a good deal?

Black Friday is going to be here before we know it. And historically, that’s been a good day to snag a deal on consumer electronics. But does that hold for computers?

I’ve studied many Black Friday computers–I have two Black Friday specials from years’ past sitting in the basement as I write–and I have to say that when it comes to those, you’re getting what you pay for. Yes, they cost less than computers from September and October. But there’s a good reason for it.Read More »Are Black Friday computers a good deal?

The joy of monitors

One of my monitors died this week. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to, which is a good thing. Flat panel LCDs are more reliable than CRTs were. The dead monitor is an LCD, but it was a cheap and nasty Dell 15-inch made in 2001. I bought it used, and for much less than it was worth (even if it was made for the modern-day equivalent of Packard Bell), so I got my money’s worth out of it.

This weekend I went monitor shopping, with a budget of one hundred bucks.When buying new or semi-new, $100 is pretty much the lower limit. Nobody wants to sell a monitor for any less than that. Historically that’s usually been the case anyway. What’s amazing is what $100 will buy. 19 inches is pretty standard, although you’ll have to shop around a bit, and what you’ll buy will probably be a closeout.

Still, that’s remarkable. I remember paying more than $400 for a 19-inch CRT that dominated a desk. This would have been in 2001 or 2002.

And I remember talking with a champion Black Friday shopper several years ago bragging about how many LCDs he was able to scoop up for $200 apiece. These would have been 15-inch models, at best.

My timing turned out to be good though, as was selling a refurbished, debranded HP 20-inch LCD for $99 yesterday. I picked one up. I would have been satisfied with a 19-inch model, but the local stores had sold out of their 19-inch HP monitors. I’m not terribly picky about monitors, but I’ve really come to like the current generation of HP displays.

Will this monitor still work in 2017? I don’t know. But I have two other LCDs from 2001, both of which work fine. So it might.

Back in the CRT days, I wouldn’t buy anything but an NEC, because I’d never seen any other brand consistently last 8 years. It’s nice to be able to buy any old brand and expect that kind of lifespan today.

How to clean up your computer before you sell it

I went to a huge garage sale this morning. I walked home with a 7-year-old Dell 15" LCD monitor. What I paid for it wouldn’t buy lunch for my wife and me. When I got it home and saw how well it worked, I felt guilty.

So if you’re thinking of selling some computer equipment, take my tips (as someone who attends literally thousands of garage sales every year) for getting decent money for it.The main reason I got this monitor for so little is because it looked like it sat in a dusty garage or attic for several years. It was filthy. I’ve seen identical monitors sell for 50 bucks as recently as June. Identical except for the dirt, that is.

I cleaned the monitor up using nothing more than an old dish towel and some all-surface biodegradable cleaner I buy at Costco. But dish detergent would work in a pinch. Dampen the towel, wring it out, add a bit of cleaner, and clean all the surfaces except for the screen. You’ll get more money if it looks like the unit was taken care of. You want it to look like you just bought its replacement yesterday.

You’ll also get more if you can demonstrate it works. Run an extension cable or two if necessary, and hook the stuff up so shoppers can see it in action. Many shoppers assume bargain-priced computer equipment at garage sales doesn’t work. In my experience, about half of it does. So I pay accordingly.

Finally, price realistically. These are the same people who get up at 4am the day after Thanksgiving to wait in line until Office Depot opens. I know because I do that too, and I see the same people I see every Saturday. So you’re competing with Black Friday’s prices, with used equipment.

That said, a working computer that runs Windows XP decently (and has a legal copy of XP on it) should fetch $75-$100, depending on its speed. A 1 GHz PC will run closer to $75, while a 2 GHz PC will fetch $100. And at that price, it should sell fairly quickly.

If a computer is decent but doesn’t work, it won’t sell for much. I’ve paid $10 for computers that need hard drives before, and I’ve passed on $10 computers that need hard drives. Sometimes I regret not buying that Pentium 4 that worked except for the hard drive, but my back hurt that day and I didn’t feel like lugging it home.

CRT monitors are hard to give away these days, but if you can demonstrate it works and it looks presentable, a 17-inch monitor is worth $10-$20. Your best bet for getting rid of one of those, though, is to bundle it with a working computer that runs Windows XP.

A working 15-inch LCD monitor should sell for $50 without any trouble.

Keyboards and mice are giveaways. I literally wish I had a dollar for every time someone’s tried to give me a keyboard. Anyone who wants one already has too many. The lone exception to this rule is an optical mouse. But a new, mid-range Microsoft optical mouse sells for $20-$25 on sale, so don’t expect to get more than $5-$10 for one. I paid $2 for one this year, and it didn’t work. I was willing to take a chance at that price, but no higher.

What I learned today about Black Friday sales

Although a lot of people, including money saver types, recommend against buying anything at all on the day after Thanksgiving, I rolled out of bed and fought the crowds early this morning.

I think I came out ahead.Having the ads ahead of time helps to plan out strategy. I don’t read Fat Wallet religiously like some people do, but earlier this week I found a link to a nice spreadsheet on Digg that listed all of the available deals, sortable by category, store, and everything else imaginable. That helped immensely.

A big part of the key is knowing what you want and sticking to it. Get into the store, get the biggest item right away, then go get the smaller items.

I nearly got burned by not planning for traffic. I figured since I left my house before 6, I should be able to zip through the commercial area to get to Office Depot in about five minutes. I was wrong; with the stoplights all on flash, it was worse than rush hour. My five-minute trip took more like 30, and the store was open by the time I got there.

I went in, but it was a waste of time. There were three things on my shopping list, and all of them were gone, including the little things. I grabbed a ticket for the printer I wanted, but when I took it to the register, I was told they were all gone, after I stood there by the register for 15 minutes. "Well, we’re a little busy now," was the smart-aleck reply I got from the stock guy when I asked why it took 15 minutes to tell me they were gone.

Lesson learned: If it doesn’t look like they have what you want and someplace else has it, leave. Immediately. It’s more productive to stand in line at a store that hasn’t opened yet.

I somehow managed to get to Office Max about half an hour before they opened. The line was already wrapped around the side of the building when I got there, but by the time the store opened, the line was much longer.

I know Office Max’s layout a lot better than Office Depot’s layout, so I actually managed to get everything on my list and get out of there quickly. The item I really wanted–the printer–cost $20 more there, but it was still a good deal at the higher price, and there weren’t any rebates for me to mess with.

If I’d been going to more than two or three places, it would have been a good idea for me to map out my route using Google Maps to eliminate any backtracking. That way, if two stores I wanted to visit were going to open at the same time, I could get to the nearest store.

The Office Max trip really drove something home: If you’re really serious about getting something, it helps to visit the store earlier in the week to get familiar with the layout, so you can get to the items on your list quickly.

Another important point: I didn’t mess with anything not on my list. Everything I bought came at a substantial discount. Part of the idea of Black Friday doorbuster sales is to get you into the store to buy other things because you’re there anyway.

And about that list: Before you put something on your list just because it looks like a good deal, ask yourself if you’d still buy it if it were full price. Last year I bought a USB flash drive and a spindle of DVD recordables because I needed them. This year I bought a bigger USB flash drive because I keep filling up the 1 GB drive I bought last year. These are things I would have bought anyway, but it was worth waiting for a good deal.

If you only use a printer once, it’s not a bargain, whether you pay $99 or $249 for it.

I also checked to make sure the price really was a good deal. Sometimes the prices at Newegg, Amazon, or some other online vendor are lower already. I didn’t buy anything that I could get cheaper online from the comfort of my living room.

Finally, you need to make sure you save enough money to make it worth your time. This year I saved more than $200, so it was worth getting up at 5:30 this morning to go do it. It’s not worth getting up at 5:30 and standing in line for 30-45 minutes to save $6 on a USB flash drive. Last year, since my savings amounted to about $20, I bought my stuff online and saved the trip. Of course the stuff ended up being backordered, so it took nearly a month for it to arrive. I was willing to live with that.

Today, I was home with my loot by 7:30. That’s as good as making $100 an hour. Actually it’s better, since it’s tax-free.

So, to recap:

1. Make a list of the things you want.
2. Make a list of the stores you’ll visit, based on the things you’re going to buy. Start with the store opening the earliest.
3. If possible, visit the stores earlier in the week and find the items on your hit list, so you’ll be able to find them quickly on Black Friday.
4. Locate the addresses of all of the stores, and plot out your route using Google Maps to avoid backtracking if possible.
5. Try to arrive at each store half an hour early. The less time you actually spend inside each store, the better. Most of the killer deals are gone within 20 minutes.

Some people recommend buying online instead of going to the stores, or buying the item earlier in the week and then price-matching it on Friday afternoon when the crowds are smaller. Make sure you know the rules; some stores won’t do this.

As for buying online, Office Max was selling its items at full price this morning. Office Depot’s web site wasn’t working, so they probably were honoring their prices but I wouldn’t have been able to buy them. Keep in mind that if you buy online, you’re at the back of the line, so you won’t get the item quickly and the store may weasel out of giving it to you at all.