Jamie Cattanach - The Penny Hoarder

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: School’s out, the sun is hot, and the tans are fresh.

And you know what that means: It’s Slurpee season.

To celebrate, 7-Eleven is hosting a two-day Bring Your Own Cup Day -- again.

After a successful celebration in the past, the company’s bringing back everyone’s favorite deal.

On May 19-20 between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time, you can fill your cup with delicious Slurpee goodness for just $1.50.

The best part of the deal? It doesn’t have to be a cup.

7-Eleven’s Bring Your Own Cup Day

7-Eleven will honor the #BYOCUPDAY deal for almost any vessel you can reasonably imagine filling with a Slurpee. According to the rules, it just has to be:

  • 10 inches in diameter or smaller
  • Food safe
  • Watertight (duh?)
  • The only one you buy -- the deal is only good for one “cup” per person.

That leaves a lot of leeway. Fishbowl? Check. One of your lucky sneakers? Not so much… but that couldn’t fit a lot of Slurpee, anyway.

Toasters are prohibited, but pineapples are totally cool.

So grab your favorite flower vase -- or secretly flush your child’s goldfish (don’t really) -- and hit your local 7-Eleven this Friday and Saturday for a sweet treat on the cheap.

You might want to check your blood sugar afterward, though.

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Roads & Kingdoms, the BUST blog, Ms. Magazine, The Write Life and elsewhere. You can learn more and wave hello on Twitter: @jamiecattanach. Kelly Smith, junior writer and engagement specialist, contributed to this post.

When you’re a college student, everything is expensive. Even cheap stuff.

I mean, how many times have you eaten your ramen off a Frisbee or rinsed and reused a red Solo cup?

But you do get one very valuable thing -- aside from your degree, of course -- for the cost of your tuition: your .edu email address.

When it’s not delivering you updates on the haps around campus or the insane amount of homework you have due this week, that baby does double duty as a veritable savings factory.

12 Student Discounts You can Get with your .Edu Email Address

To help you get the most out of your golden years, we’ve compiled this list of sweet student discounts you can score just by using your college email address.

And if you’re reading this after turning the tassel, don’t worry: We won’t tell anyone!

If your old student email address is still active, you can certainly try to get these discounts… even if you haven’t been to a college class in ages.

Some Penny Hoarders have reported successful use of old, but active, college email addresses in signing up for discounted services. This is especially true if you had the discount while you were a student, and simply never unsubscribed.

(Note: This “just keep doing what you’re doing while you’re in college” tactic works with very few things in adulthood. Especially not hangovers.)

That said, some people have also encountered companies that found undisclosed ways to verify whether or not that student email address is still assigned to a legitimate student. We’re looking at you, Amazon Prime!

Either way, if you have a .edu address to your name, you may be entitled to the following 12 discounts.

For Pretty Much Anything

1. Amazon Prime Student

Not only will your free shipping and streaming be free for the first six months, but you’ll also get the service at a discounted rate of just $49 (as opposed to $99) per year once your paid subscription kicks in.

Digital Goodies

Want streaming music, digital storage space and more? Get it on the cheap with these services:

2. Spotify

[caption id="attachment_38064" align="aligncenter" width="639"]student discounts Paul Bradbury/Getty Images[/caption]

Get 50% off Spotify Premium by signing up with your .edu email address.

3. Apple Music

Love Apple’s fully integrated set of software?

You can get your tunes through Apple Music for just $4.99 per month -- about half off its regular rate of $9.99 -- by registering with your student email.

4. Microsoft Office

Students are lucky enough to get online versions of Office for free -- plus 1TB of online storage. This almost-30-year-old could really use that space!

5. Dropbox Pro

When you store your stuff on the cloud, you’ll never have to freak out about losing a paper at the last minute again.

Students get 2GB free storage space on Dropbox when they sign up with their college email addresses -- and you’ll earn more space as you refer friends.

6. Prezi

[caption id="attachment_38061" align="aligncenter" width="640"]student discounts monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images[/caption]

Have a big presentation coming up?

Prezi is a great way to impress your professor and keep the class interested, even if your subject matter is -- through no fault of your own, of course -- totally dry. And Prezi’s Edu Enjoy product is totally free to students.

7. Github

Developing is just too useful of a skill not to add to your resume while you’re in college.

And with Github’s free Student Developer Pack, you’ll have tons of resources to learn pro tricks -- without paying a dime.

8. Microsoft Imagine Design Software

[caption id="attachment_38068" align="aligncenter" width="640"]student discounts sam74100/Getty Images[/caption]

Want to get your hands on the latest and greatest software design and development tools? You can download a ton of Microsoft products for free with your .edu email address.

9. Norton Antivirus Software

Don’t lie: Your computer is everything to you.

Keep it safe and virus free with Norton -- for just half the price.

Periodicals

Staying up-to-date is critical, and not just for that professor who insists you talk about current events every Friday.

Here’s where to get your news for cheap or free -- because you’re not just a college student, you’re a student of the world.

10. The New York Times

Want to be able to comment on current events with information from a definitive source?

You can get a subscription to the New York Times for just $1 a week for as long as you’re a student -- and it’ll even deliver the goods right to your mobile device.

Although you’ll probably get serious hipster cred if you pull out a legit newspaper in the dining hall. Just saying.

11. The Wall Street Journal

[caption id="attachment_38065" align="aligncenter" width="640"]student discounts Jupiter Images/Getty Images[/caption]

The business-minded among you will be thrilled to know you can get your paws on The Journal for a buck a week, too -- and you might even get some networking out of it.

Your complimentary WSJ+ Membership gives you access to “exclusive events” where you can meet other Journal subscribers.

Miscellaneous Shopping

Even if you live on ramen and duct tape, there’s some stuff you’ve just gotta buy. Luckily, your student email address gets you some sweet freebies at the following outlets.

12. Sam’s Club

Get a $15 gift card when you sign up for a Sam’s Club membership with your student ID and .edu email address.

Hey, buying in bulk saves everyone money -- students included!

Your Turn: What’s the best freebie you ever got with your .edu email address?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

Kelly Smith, an editorial intern at The Penny Hoarder, contributed research to this post.

For some folks -- self-proclaimed “preppers” -- being ready for anything is an obsession. For others, it’s an afterthought.

It’s Hurricane Preparedness Week so this is an excellent opportunity to take stock of your situation now instead of waiting for the next natural disaster to make headlines.

Are you ready for an emergency? Preparing doesn’t have to be expensive.

How to Build Your Emergency Kit for Less

Sure, you could plunk down more than $200 on a one-size-fits-all emergency kit filled with stuff you probably won’t need.

Or, try the budget-friendly option: build your own customized, cost-effective kit. Here’s how.

1. Decide What You Need

First of all, know what you need.

The Red Cross suggests keeping these bare essentials on hand, mostly common-sense items: food, water, extra clothes and medicine.

You definitely need a stash of those. But what other goods make sense for where you live?

In my part of Florida, I can’t think of a disaster scenario that would necessitate the hand chain saw or rope in the $200 kit I mentioned, but maybe I’d feel differently if I had to deal with tornadoes or earthquakes, or if I lived in a wooded area.

Figure out what your kit needs and prioritize those items. And don’t get carried away -- you probably just need to be able to feed yourself for a week or so, not build a shelter on a desert island.

2. Prep for Free

Some of your preparation won’t cost you a dime. It’s all about gathering stuff you already have, like important documents, cell phone chargers, maps and spare emergency cash.

You can even stock your stash with free items -- Raven signs up for free samples online and uses some of the giveaways toward her emergency kit.

Instead of buying it by the flat, consider bottling your own water. Use bleach-purified, leftover two-liter bottles and treated municipal water. Just don’t use milk or juice cartons, which can harbor bacteria. Date your bottles and replace them every six months, and you’re good to go.

If you’ll need water for hygienic purposes, clean your bathtub, then fill it with cold water. It won’t be potable, but you can use it to flush toilets and keep yourself clean.

Don’t forget your protein! Beef jerky is a great survival snack -- but it isn’t cheap. You could dehydrate your own and save money and sodium content. Plus, you get to make your beef jerky the way you like. Check yard sales or Craigslist to find a dehydrator on the cheap.

Whenever you’re doing your own food prep, make sure you’re meticulous. Items undergoing long-term storage can get contaminated if they’re not perfectly sanitized and sealed -- and you don’t want to discover your food stash is useless when an emergency arises.

3. DIY to Save

In my area, hurricane shutters are important, but expensive.

The good news is you can make your own out of plywood or polycarbonate from Home Depot -- just make sure to factor in the cost of waste when you’re doing your comparison. You may not be able to find much use for raw material scraps once you cut out shutters.

4. Collect Cost-Effective Items

When you have to buy items, use coupons and your penny-hoarding knowledge to your advantage: Shop on the right day, use cash-back sites to earn rebates and use hacks to get the best deals at stores like CVS and Walmart.

When you pick up batteries, hydrogen peroxide, bleach and bandages, make sure to buy generic -- they’ll work just as well as the brand name stuff. Check out the dollar store for these items, and while you’re there, pick up some emergency entertainment: crayons and coloring books for the kids, and a pack of cards for adults.

You probably already know how much you can save by buying in bulk. Emergency rations of paper towels, toilet paper, canned goods, batteries and bottled water are a perfect opportunity to take advantage of those savings.

Finally, consider battery-free emergency additions, like wind-up flashlights and weather radios. If you’re going to be without electricity, you’ll definitely want a handheld cell phone charger, which you can keep charged and prepared beforehand.

5. Plan Ahead

One of the best ways to save money on disaster preparedness is to play the long game: Look for sales in your day-to-day life and stock up, way before your storm season approaches. Cans of tuna on BOGO? Put your “get-ones” into your stash.

The more you can avoid a last-minute disaster-prep rush, the better: Vendors do price gouge. Here in Florida, the price of canned goods and gallons of water goes up in June and falls steeply in December, after hurricane season ends.

In case you do need a last-minute item, include disaster prep in your savings budget. Set aside $20 a month or so, and consider it part of your emergency fund -- because that’s exactly what it is.

Stay safe, Penny Hoarders -- and don’t forget your can opener!

Disclosure: A toast to savings! Thanks for allowing us to place affiliate links in this post.

Jamie Cattanach is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

“Wait -- so you don’t eat bread?”

This is generally the first question I hear when my low-carb, high-fat diet comes to someone’s attention, usually by way of my turning down an invitation to pasta or pizza.

But once I explain the lack of grains on my menu -- and the surplus of meats, eggs and fresh veggies that replace them -- there’s a follow-up query I also hear pretty frequently.

“But how do you afford it?”

Eating Paleo Doesn’t Have to Destroy Your Budget

I’ve been eating something close to a paleo diet for about three years now, having slashed carbs to finish up the last few digits of my 80-pound weight loss. (I say “close” because I still, and will always, eat cheese.)

Once I learned how good eating this way made me feel, I never looked back at the fried rice, cupcakes and ramen I’d left behind, regardless of what the scale said.

Well… almost never. I might be lying about the cupcakes.

Although I feel amazing, eating a low-carb diet can be pricy. After all, many of the cheapest, most versatile kitchen staples -- like rice and noodles -- are off my menu now. Fresh produce can be expensive and finicky, apt to go bad quickly if you don’t properly store it. And meat, of course, is always relatively costly.

The thing that really tripped me up, though? The prepared, packaged snacks specifically marketed to low-carb and paleo dieters, which are delicious, convenient and almost always prohibitively expensive.

But if you want to give the paleo lifestyle a try, you shouldn’t use expense as an excuse. You can just as easily waste money on standard American diet traditions -- like a weekly or biweekly pizza night, for example.

What’s more, most of those fancy paleo snacks are actually super easy and cheap to make at home.

Here are a few of my favorite paleo snack recipes -- and how much money you’ll save by making them yourself.

1. Kale Chips: Save $2.50+ (and get *way* more chips!)

[caption id="attachment_55221" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Paleo snack recipes Jaynerr/Getty Images[/caption]

My favorite brand of kale chips runs about $5 for 2.2 ounces (i.e., a one-sitting, gone-in-five-minutes serving) at my local Walmart -- and I’ve seen them at specialty stores for even more.

But kale chips could not be easier to make at home, and you’ll get a whole lot more than a paltry couple of ounces. You can also easily customize them any way you like by adding different spices -- the possibilities are endless.

The basic recipe calls for very few ingredients: kale, oil, garlic powder and salt. Just chop up the kale, toss it in your oil and topping, and stick the chips in the oven.

Although the price of the veggies will depend on your market, everything else costs only a few cents, so your whole batch shouldn’t cost more than $2.50.

One bunch kale: $2 (approximately; will vary depending on your market)

Two tablespoons olive oil: $0.35

Salt, garlic powder, and other spices: $0.15 or less

You can also chip-ify carrots, squash, zucchini and sweet potatoes in a similar fashion -- just make sure you slice ‘em nice and thin!

2. Pasta Alternatives: Save $2 per serving

[caption id="attachment_55219" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Paleo snack recipes ALLEKO/Getty Images[/caption]

Giving up pasta is a deal-breaker for many would-be paleo folks. I ate so much of it growing up that I wasn’t too heartbroken… but I was pretty thrilled to discover shirataki noodles, a plant-based pasta alternative with nearly zero carbs or calories.

I was not quite as stoked to discover that a single package of shirataki noodles sells for more than $3, however -- because no matter what the label says, that 7-ounce package is only one serving.

Luckily, there’s a crazy-cheap, versatile and easy alternative.

Next time you’re craving noodles, just spiralize some zucchini -- or another favorite vegetable or fruit. (You do have to go in for the one-time price of the spiralizer, but you can find them for $10 or less.)

Shirataki noodles have a totally neutral flavor, making them more or less an expensive vessel for your favorite sauce. But vegetable noodles are flavorful and nutritious, and you can come up with some really creative dishes.

They’re also super cheap.

I often find large zucchini on a 2-for-$1 sale at my local Publix, which is a relatively expensive grocery store. But even if you paid $1 for each vegetable you spiralized, you’d save at least $2 compared to shirataki noodles.

3. Low-Carb Sweets and Cookies: Save up to $1.20 per serving

[caption id="attachment_55231" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Paleo snack recipes AnjelaGr/Getty Images[/caption]

I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to eat sweets very often if I wanted to stick to my diet.

Paleo-friendly treats like Emmy’s can run almost $1 per bite, and low-calorie, low-carb ice creams like Halo Top run $6 per pint (and also aren’t technically paleo-friendly).

But if you have a raging sweet tooth, you can still get your fix while eating paleo -- without paying a punitive amount for the privilege.

Allow me to introduce fat bombs. Don’t let the name fool you; you can actually lose weight while eating them.

Used by those on extremely low-carb, ketogenic diets to satisfy cravings, these sweet treats make up for their lack of sugar in richness. One of my favorite recipes is simply butter, coconut oil, cocoa powder and your favorite nut butter -- a couple drops of stevia are optional.

Even if you use all the fanciest, most expensive ingredients, the math comes out to about $3 for a batch, or 12 cents per bomb.

4 tablespoons grass-fed butter: $0.70

8 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil: $1.11

4 tablespoons natural peanut butter $0.37

4 tablespoons dark cocoa powder: $0.39

1 packet or a few drops stevia: $0.45

Total: $3.02, or 12.6 cents each, if the recipe turns out 24 fat bombs

You can find all sorts of fat bomb recipes online, some of which will call for artificial sweeteners or even sugary additions like maple syrup, which people debate about including as a paleo-friendly food. You can adjust the ingredients to your specifications and comfort level -- and your budget.

Perhaps the most basic and inexpensive “fat bomb” of sorts is simply eating your favorite nut butter with a spoon, which costs fraction of a cent per serving and is totally paleo-friendly. (Just don’t overdo it!)

The Best Way to Save Money on Your Diet… is to Eat It

When following any specialized diet, you can go to all sorts of acrobatics trying to find ways to “replace” the foods you’ve given up. Think of vegetarian “meats,” dairy-free dairy products and the whole slew of gluten-free baked goods.

But these specialty items are almost always expensive, and usually not actually as healthy or beneficial as simply following the diet’s actual rules.

At the end of the day, I can afford to eat paleo simply because I usually just… eat paleo. I buy fresh produce, meat, eggs and nuts, and little else.

That means actually living without bread. Or rice. Or ice cream. But it also means not buying $7 gluten-free, nut-flour bread on the regular.

Don’t get me wrong: This diet (or any other) isn’t for everyone.

But the advice to stick to whole, fresh foods instead of trying to hack the system with fancy, overly-adjectival packaged goods will help keep your wallet healthy, no matter your dietary preferences.

Your Turn: What special dietary needs do you have, and how do you afford them?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

Nurses, you definitely deserve appreciation.

After all, who else regularly works 12-hour shifts in which duties include not being overtly grossed out by a variety of bodily fluids?

That’s why we’re pleased to share some great deals with you in honor of National Nurses Week. No number of freebies or deals could adequately show how grateful we are for your care!

National Nurses Week 2017 Deals

National Nurses Week runs May 6-12. It’s a little odd to start it on a Saturday, but nurses do work odd shifts!

When you’re finally off call, check out the deals below. You deserve them!

1. Cinnabon

Show your health care ID badge at your local Cinnabon to get a free Cinnabon Classic Roll, MiniBon or a four-count of BonBites any time between May 6 and May 12.

2. EVOS

If you go to EVOS with a friend between May 8 and May 12, you’ll get a free meal or salad when they purchase theirs.

3. PDQ

Sick of the cafeteria food?

Flash your valid work ID at PDQ on Tuesday, May 9 and get half off your bill. Teachers also get 50% off.

4. Free Webinar and Giveaways for Nurses

The American Nurses Association hosts a free webinar each year for National Nurses Week. The ANA will host this year’s webinar, which focuses on preventing compassion fatigue, moral distress and burnout at 1 p.m. EDT  Wednesday, May 10. To get in on this webinar, you must register by 7 p.m. EDT May 9.

Registering for this webinar also enters you to win one of 36 prizes, including a spa package, Blue Apron gift card and fitness kits.

Your Turn: Are you a nurse? Which of these deals will you take advantage of this week?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose creative writing has been featured in DMQ Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere. Editorial intern Jacquelyn Pica updated this post.

Teachers, you guys have really, really hard jobs.

You have to explain what colors and shapes are and the sounds that letters make. (Non-teachers: Go ahead, try this on a friend. It’s not that easy.)

You have to learn, like, 60 new names every single semester.

And perhaps most horrifyingly, many of you have to grade final papers -- a task I found so onerous when I was a teacher that I quit after just one year. Sorry, not sorry.

But much like Pretzel Day brings a joyful reprieve to the hard life of Stanley Hudson from “The Office,” Teacher Appreciation Week has the potential to make all that tough work worth it.

Because during this one week, people finally recognize that a pop quiz means more work for you, too. Because they recognize that summers off only barely begin to make up for your job: trying to talk sense to hormone-fueled, not-yet fully developed brains all day.

Because you deserve it.

… and mostly because free food.

Teacher Appreciation Week Freebies and Deals

Teachers touch everyone’s lives, so lots of vendors are showing their appreciation with freebies and discounts.

Many deals take place on National Teacher Appreciation Day -- Tuesday, May 9 -- while others last throughout the whole first full week of May, which is Teacher Appreciation Week.

So once the final bell rings, get your hardworking butt out of the classroom and take advantage of some of these eight rewards! Heaven knows, you’ve earned them.

1. A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts

Need craft supplies for the classroom? A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts will give you 20% off your entire purchase through May 6 -- and yes, that goes for sale items, too!

2. Aerosoles

You’re on your feet all day long, so you’d better have comfortable shoes!

You’ll get 15% off any footwear items priced $39.99 or higher at Aerosoles -- either make your purchase in store or phone in the order.

3. Chick-fil-A

Because this Southern fried chicken joint is franchised and each location is privately owned, there’s not an overarching deal -- but we’ve seen lots of branches offering free or discounted food in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day.

Check with your favorite location to see what they’re up to! And if they don’t offer you free food…Well, you know where you keep that ruler.

4. EVOS

Here’s one our local readers will love.

Grab a friend and head to EVOS between May 1-5. When they buy one meal or salad, you’ll get yours for free in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day.  

5. Greene Turtle

Live near a Greene Turtle sports bar?

This Wednesday, May 3, enjoy a free meal of up to $12 in value, or $12 off a more expensive menu item with the purchase of a beverage.

6. Major League Baseball

Hey teachers! Who wants to take me out to the ball game?

Most major league baseball teams are honoring teachers with ticket discounts, deals and freebies. Teacher appreciation nights include the Chicago Cubs on May 2, Washington Nationals on May 12, and San Diego Padres on May 19. Check your team’s website for details.

7. PDQ

Sick of the cafeteria food?

Get 50% off your bill at PDQ on Tuesday, May 9, with a valid teacher ID.

8. World of Beer

Need to unwind from a tough day of teaching?

Get a free Angry Orchard or Sam Adams draught at World of Beer (or $5 off your check) any time on Tuesday, May 9.

Want More Awesome Teacher Discounts?

These 21 discounts are in effect all year long.

And hey -- seriously -- thank you, teachers. For all you do.

Your Turn: Who was your favorite teacher?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer was not at all tough enough to make it as a teacher. Her creative writing has been featured in DMQ Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere.
Editorial intern Jen Smith (@savingwithspunk) contributed to this post.

Moms are probably the hardest-working people in the world.

Many of them hold down full-time jobs on top of another way-more-important job: Raising human beings.

And the day-to-day process of raising the future -- while it sounds romantic -- really boils down to a whole lot of never-ending dirty work: dishes, dinner, laundry…

That’s why you should go out of your way to treat mom like royalty on Mother’s Day. Every. Single. Year.

But what if you don’t have a whole lot of cash?

You can still put together unique Mother’s Day gifts that’ll let her know how much you appreciate all she does. Here are 10 ways to do it.

1. Make Her Breakfast in Bed

Classic, right? There’s nothing quite as luxurious as waking up to a fresh breakfast you don’t even have to get out of bed for.

But if you have basic ingredients in your home, you can do it without spending anything… and even if you do have to make a supermarket run, eggs are pretty darn cheap.

Make it extra indulgent by paying attention to detail: Fold the napkin nicely, and garnish the meal with a splayed strawberry or orange slice.

Make a creative meal she hasn’t had before -- it doesn’t have to be difficult to be new! Here’s a five-ingredient recipe that looks scrumptious and easy to make.

And one more thing? Make sure you only fill her coffee and orange juice halfway.

Waking up to coffee burns is no one’s idea of a great gift. Just make sure you bring the rest of the pot along, too.

2. Tell Her What She’s Taught You

This idea is one of the more creative Mother’s Day gift ideas, and comes from TPH Senior Editor Heather van der Hoop -- or, more accurately, her mother.

One Mother’s Day, her mom asked her children to write down just one thing they’d learned from her.

“That email chain got really mushy, really quickly,” van der Hoop said.

I can only imagine.

Make this gift even more of a tearjerker by presenting it in a beautiful, handwritten card. You can stick with just one important life lesson, or make a whole list.

3. Make Her Favorite Meal

If taking mom out to Sunday brunch or dinner at her favorite restaurant is too pricy an option, consider preparing her favorite meal -- or some doable facsimile -- yourself.

Want bonus points? Make it with her.

Even if it’s something new and complex, you’ll have a blast laughing at your clumsiness together in the kitchen… and eating the result, even if it’s not Pinterest-ready.

4. Give Her Flowers -- Yourself

There’s absolutely no reason to pay for overpriced delivery flowers when you can probably walk outside your door and find something beautiful to gather. Just make sure you don’t grab anything poisonous, or to which mom might be allergic.

Plus, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or sweet, those professional bouquets and greeting cards were put together by hands who know nothing about your mom.

Take advantage of your opportunity to personalize your gift, and to put in the time and effort that make it more than just a decoration.

5. Clean the House

Yep, the whole thing. Heaven knows mom’s probably done it thousands of times.

Heck, you could even give her the gift of cleaning the house, say, once a month for a year. It’ll make her feel awesome -- and it still won’t even come close to how many times she’s done it.

6. Get Creative

Remember when mom used to pin your crayon drawings up on the refrigerator? Take advantage of your talents and make something she’ll cherish for years to come.

If you can’t draw, maybe your way with words would make for a beautiful poem. Who knows? It may just end up on the refrigerator alongside your shoddily drawn Kindergarten efforts she still loves so much.

7. Have a Spa Day

Even if you don’t have $100 or more to blow at a fancy salon, pampering mom is a great way to show her how much you care. Paint each other’s toenails or give one another a spiffy new hairdo.

You can even try out some of these great DIY facials and scrubs to get even more luxurious and indulgent.

8. Host a Movie Night

Do you know what your mom’s favorite film is? You should.

But if you don’t, find out -- and then spend an evening watching it with her. Provide popcorn, candy and wine. Definitely wine.

You could even binge a few episodes of that favorite show you always chat about on your weekly calls.

(P.S. Call your mother.)

9. Get Playful

Is your mom less about sitting back and watching a film and more about getting in the game?

Grab her favorite board game, and maybe a few neither of you have tried, and set up a family game night -- or gather around a chessboard, just the two of you. Either way, you’ll spend an evening chatting and laughing.

10. Go Over Old Family Photos

This is my very favorite option on the list. Grab those dusty albums and take a walk down memory lane.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you: Make sure you have some tissues handy.

Happy Mother’s Day!

It turns out money-free, unique Mother’s Day gifts might just be better than the uninspired chocolate and flowers you might go for otherwise.

They’re creative and thoughtful. Best of all? They’re all about spending time together.

That’s probably what mom really wants this year, anyway.

Your Turn: What are you doing for your mom this Mother’s Day? If you’re a mom, what’s the best money-free Mother’s Day gift you’ve ever received?

Jamie Cattanach also writes creative nonfiction and poetry, some of which has been featured in “DMQ Review,” “Sweet: A Literary Confection” and elsewhere. You can follow along at jamiecattanach.com.

When it comes to comfort food, it’s pretty hard to beat good old spaghetti and meatballs.

From romantic date-night meals to easy family dinners, this simple (but delicious!) dish has a way of improving life’s best moments.


via GIPHY

Better still, this time-honored meal is just about as affordable as it is tasty. As everyone who’s ever so much as spoken to a college student knows, pasta is dirt cheap -- and the fixings don’t have to break the bank, either.

But they don’t call us Penny Hoarders for nothing. We’re always looking for the best possible deal, and dinnertime is no exception.

So we cooked up some money-saving tips to help you make your favorite pasta dish easier on the grocery budget. Here’s how to make spaghetti and meatballs even less expensive… and even better.

How to Make a Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe as Affordable as Possible

So, how do we make this beloved, frugal staple even cheaper?

Well, first of all, it helps if you already practice thrifty grocery shopping habits, like couponing and checking for cash-back rebates on apps like Ibotta.

But what about for this dish, specifically?

Let’s break it down. Three basic elements go into spaghetti and meatballs:

  • Pasta
  • Sauce
  • Meatballs

To make the meal as affordable as possible, we need to get the best price on each individual part.

Let’s start at the bottom, shall we?

The Pasta

Obviously, spaghetti noodles are pretty cheap: You can usually find a pound of dry pasta for about a buck and a half. With a two-ounce serving size (which yields about a cup once cooked), that means you’re looking at about 19 cents per plate. Not bad!

But you can do better -- and it’ll taste way better, too.

Homemade pasta is so good it’ll make you wonder why you ever ate the dried stuff, and it costs literally cents to make. This basic recipe from The Prairie Homestead yields about a pound of fresh pasta, and calls for exactly four ingredients: flour, eggs, salt and water.

You can buy a 10-pound bag of flour for less than $5, so this recipe uses about 14 cents’ worth. The water is free, and we’ll use about 1 cent worth of salt.

And unless you buy the fanciest pasture-raised eggs produced by the most spoiled chickens in the business, you probably don’t spend more than $3 per dozen. That brings the total price of a pound of homemade pasta to just 90 cents, or 22.5 cents per generous 4-ounce serving.

It’s true that the process of actually making the pasta is fairly labor-intensive. Rolling dough takes a lot more time and effort than simply opening a box.

But seriously -- seriously -- trust me on this. Do yourself the culinary favor of eating freshly made pasta. It’ll blow your mind.

The Sauce

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an inordinate portion of my life pacing the pasta sauce aisle, at a loss for which one to choose -- and totally shocked that a single jar can cost up to $10!

A basic red sauce, at its heart, is simply a mix of tomatoes and Italian spices. You may already have everything you need to whip one together in your kitchen: tomatoes (canned or fresh), garlic (or garlic powder), salt and maybe some sugar.

Other popular ingredients are nearly as inexpensive: dried thyme, oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes and Worcestershire sauce appear in many recipes. If you want to be fancy, you might spring for red wine, fresh basil or a sauteed onion.

Of course, spaghetti sauce recipes can be much more complicated, but you might be surprised what you can make with what you already have. The biggest investment is likely the tomatoes, which cost less than $2 for a big can.

You can always skip the work and go for the bargain jar, which sometimes costs even less than dried pasta… but won’t measure up to even the simplest homemade sauce, taste-wise.

And although it might seem like the cost of ingredients adds up quickly, a simple scratch-made sauce is cheaper than most pre-made options, as Beth at Budget Bytes discovered -- hers was just 29 cents per hearty half-cup serving. (The same size serving from the fancy jar I considered above costs $1.60.)

Your best bet? Check out your pantry (and garden!) and compare what you have to your favorite recipe. Don’t be afraid to improvise. It’s comfort food -- it’s supposed to be rustic!

The Meatballs

Now we’re cooking.

Hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meatballs are the star of this dish, and certainly its priciest component.

But never fear. You can have your meatballs and eat them, too.

Most meatball recipes call for ground meat, garlic, onions, spices, and binding agent like eggs, bread crumbs and milk.

Just as with the other ingredients, the vast majority of those components are pretty darn cheap. But the meat itself is a different story.

Ground beef isn’t prohibitively expensive, but let’s say you buy a one-pound package of lean beef for $5.

Considering the pasta and sauce alone cost just 51.5 cents per serving, adding a 4-ounce serving of meatballs could raise the price of the dish to $1.77 per serving -- an increase of more than 340%.

So what’s a hungry Penny Hoarder to do?

Clearly, you’re not forgoing the best part of dinner. You’re gonna have to find a cheaper meatball. (And don’t you even think about reaching for that bag of pre-made ones in the freezer aisle!)

Luckily, there are lots of ways to save money on meat. In fact, it might be as simple as switching to a different animal -- ground pork and even ground turkey are sometimes less expensive than super-lean ground beef, and arguably better for you.

You could also buy a fattier package of ground beef (like 80/20), which tends to be cheaper, but since some of that fat will drain off in cooking, you’ll be left with less meat in your final product.

Or you might try your luck at a discount chain or ethnic grocery store, where prices tend to be lower overall.

But if you want to get serious about saving money on meatballs, the best way is to buy larger chunks of the animal at wholesale prices and then grind it down yourself, or ask your butcher nicely. That KitchenAid mixer you bought on Black Friday can fit a convenient meat-grinding attachment. It’s not as scary as it seems!

It might sound intense, but you’ll have a lot more control over the quality of meat in your finished product -- and if you have the freezer space for it, buying meat in bulk will save you money on more than just spaghetti night.

You could also -- *gasp* -- go for homemade meatless meatballs.

Tons of amazing, creative vegetarian meatball recipes replace meat with everything from quinoa to eggplant to cauliflower. And since they all omit the most expensive ingredient, you’ll save some pennies and a life.

The Penny Hoarder’s Favorite Frugal Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for getting the best deal on every component of your go-to Friday night comfort food, here’s our very favorite, knock-your-socks-off, super-thrifty spaghetti and meatballs recipe.

Note: We’ve included a classic meatball recipe... But even if you’re a die-hard carnivore, don’t be afraid to give alternative meatballs a try. You might just be surprised by how much you like them -- and your wallet certainly won’t complain!

Abe’s Fave Spaghetti and Meatballs

This recipe is adapted from those shared by our friends at The Prairie Homestead, Budget Bytes and Carla at Food.com. It serves four people for about $3 per serving, and takes about 70 minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients:

Fresh pasta

  • 2 cups flour (14 cents)
  • 3 large eggs (75 cents)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (1 cent)
  • Water as needed

Simple homemade marinara sauce (makes 6.5 cups, so you’ll have leftovers!)

  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes ($1.84)
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste (58 cents)
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic (12 cents)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil (16 cents)
  • 1 tablespoon mixed Italian seasoning (or whatever dried Italian herbs you have, to taste -- oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, etc.) (5 cents)
  • Salt and pepper to taste (3 cents)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (3 cents)

Easy meatballs

  • 1 pound ground beef or pork (about $3-$5)
  • 1 large egg (25 cents)
  • 1/3 cup breadcrumbs (70 cents)
  • 1/4 cup milk (10 cents)
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (4 cents)
  • Salt and pepper to taste (3 cents)

Fresh Parmesan, for garnish (about $1, depending on fanciness of cheese and market price)

Nutritional information (per serving):

495 calories; 20g fat; 38g carbohydrate; 5g fiber; 16g sugar; 38g protein

Total cost:

About $8.83-$10.83 for the meal, or $2.20-$2.71 per serving.

Method:

Begin with the sauce. Finely chop the garlic and saute it in olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. (If you like, you can skip this step and simply add garlic powder to the sauce later.)

Add the remaining ingredients and allow to simmer, loosely covered, for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning to taste.

While the sauce simmers, start the pasta. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl, and make a well in the center for the eggs. Work them together by hand until the mixture becomes a dough. Continue to knead for 8-10 minutes, adding water as needed if the dough won’t stick together. (If it becomes too wet, add flour.)

Knead the dough well: The better-incorporated it is, the smoother your pasta will be. Once it’s assembled, smooth and satiny, roll the dough into a log and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Allow it to rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Now, begin your meatballs. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Mix all ingredients by hand in a large bowl until they come together. Shape into 1-1/2 inch balls and place evenly on a large baking sheet or pan. (Meatballs will drain, so line the pan with aluminum foil to catch the drippings!) Bake uncovered for about 25 minutes, until light brown.

While your meatballs bake and your sauce simmers, roll out and cook your pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Then, cut the log of rested dough into smaller sections to make the process easier.

Roll the dough using a pasta roller or by hand, ensuring it’s thin and even. If working with a rolling pin, start from the inside and move out toward the edges. Cut the dough into thin, even strips using a knife or a mixer attachment.

Check on your sauce and meatballs, as the pasta only takes about 3-4 minutes to cook in boiling water. Once the meatballs are brown and cooked through, drain off the excess fat for serving, and allow them to sit for two to three minutes. (Leftovers will freeze well in a zip-top bag once cool!)

Ladle marinara and meatballs onto the pasta and garnish with a fresh-grated hard Italian cheese, like Parmesan.

Pair with a good, cheap wine -- which you can score for less than $15 per bottle, or $3 per 5-ounce serving -- and toast to living the good life for just $3 a plate.

Buon appetito!

Your Turn: What’s your favorite spaghetti and meatballs recipe? How do you make it as affordable as possible? Let us know in the comments!

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Roads & Kingdoms, the BUST blog, Ms. Magazine, The Write Life and elsewhere. You can learn more and wave hello on Twitter: @jamiecattanach.

Upon my recent transition from a full-time, salaried position to the #freelancelife, I quickly discovered I needed an education in investing.

Having left a company with a generous 401(k)-matching program (*cough* The Penny Hoarder *cough*), my small nest egg and I were suddenly on our own.

My retirement is important to me, so I wasn’t going to let the money languish. I did enough research to figure out I should roll the funds over into a Roth IRA, but when I opened the online interface of my brand-new brokerage account, I was overwhelmed.

How should I “allocate my assets,” as the friendly adviser had put it over the phone? What were my options in the first place?

What’s the Difference Between Stocks and Bonds?

When it comes to investing your retirement savings, you have two main options: stocks and bonds.

Stocks are small portions, or “shares,” of a company. They’re also known as “equity.” (Because investing wasn’t confusing enough already.)

For instance, let’s say you buy a share of Lululemon. Congratulations! You now actually own a piece of the business.

The company then uses your investment to help its growth efforts. As a result, your stock increases in value if the company does well, which means you can sell it for more than your original purchase price down the line.

Of course, the opposite also holds true. If the company goes under, your money goes with it.

Bonds, on the other hand, are actually a form of long-term debt issued by either a company or a government.

As Lifehacker’s Kristin Wong puts it, “When you buy a bond, you're basically buying a debt and loaning a company (or government) money.” The growth comes in because the seller agrees to pay you interest on the loan at a fixed rate (also called a “coupon”) and schedule. The borrower must repay the entirety of the loan by a given “maturity date.”

Since you know the interest rate and term ahead of time, bonds are a much more stable, predictable investment -- and for this reason investors also call them fixed-income securities.

They do, however, tend to yield less return for investors.

Which Should I Invest In: Stocks or Bonds?

A quick caveat before we go any further: I am not a professional investor nor any kind of finance expert.

All the advice you’ll see here is from folks who, presumably, have a better idea of what they’re doing than I do.

That said, there’s no way to tell you the magic ratio that will make your investment portfolio blow up -- or fizzle, for that matter. (And even if there was, it would be super illegal to do so.)

All investment comes with some risk. You’re putting your money into an intangible entity, like ownership or debt.

But obviously, some investments are riskier than others. (R.I.P. Pets.com.)

As we established above, stocks carry more risk than bonds -- but also have a greater potential to earn you profit.

Thus, most finance professionals advise younger investors to allocate more of their funds to stocks, since they have a longer stretch of years separating them from retirement. All that time gives you a margin of error, allowing you to ride out short-term fluctuations in the market.

But if you’re a little longer in the tooth, you might want to shift your portfolio to include proportionately more bonds. They’re a surer thing and have the added benefit of an exact time frame for payoff -- useful if, for example, you know you want to retire in the next 10 years.

Of course, even bonds are not guaranteed. Occasionally, an issuer will not be able to pay off the loan.

The Motley Fool offers this guideline to help you figure out the right ratio for your retirement portfolio based on your age:

As a general rule of thumb, subtract your age from the number 110 in order to determine your target stock allocation. For example, if you're 35, this rule says that approximately 75% of your assets should be in stocks.

It’s no silver bullet, but it’s a start, and you can adjust your personal ratio from there as you see fit. For instance, if you’re willing to gamble a bit in pursuit of aggressive growth, you might change the number to 120. If you’re more conservative, you might knock it down to 100.

No matter what ratio you choose, it’s definitely a bright idea to buy a little bit of both. “Diversify!” is perhaps the most common investment advice -- and for good reason.

It’s just like that old saying about eggs and baskets. And when it comes to your retirement, you don’t want to end up with yolk on your face.

How to Get Started on Your Retirement Portfolio

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to investing than we can outline here.

And luckily, there are lots of great, free resources out there to help you. (The Penny Hoarder is one of them!)

If you’re looking for the right IRA, check out NerdWallet’s top picks for 2017. Many brokerage accounts and management companies offer free advice and guidance, even if you’re not an account holder. All you have to do is pick up the phone.

And if you work for a company that offers a 401(k), don’t be shy about asking the company accountant for details... and for goodness sake, if there’s a match, take the money.

No matter what you do, just make sure you do something. That retirement isn’t going to pay for itself.

stocks vs bonds

 

Your Turn: What’s your preferred ratio of stocks to bonds?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer who *just* became enough of an adult to start investing. Her work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

There are lots of things to love about Trader Joe’s, and its collection of awesome, affordable wines is high on the list.

But what about the house blend?

Charles Shaw wine, also (infamously) known as “Two-Buck Chuck,” is certainly a cultural touchstone. Introduced in the early aughts at just $1.99 per bottle, the colloquial moniker isn’t quite as accurate today: The wine usually sells for $2.99 to $3.79, depending on your market.

Either way, a bottle of the stuff obviously isn’t going to break your piggy bank. But at that price, is it even drinkable?

Is Two-Buck Chuck Any Good?

Let me lay it on the table: Wine is a hobby of mine.

While I’m not an actual sommelier (yet!), I’ve studied wine extensively. I’ve even got a certification that required me to identify wines after a blind tasting. Fancy, right?

Basically, I’m a committed amateur. That said, I’m not actually a snob: My favorite wines are ones that exhibit high quality at surprisingly low prices. Heck, I even like boxed wines -- so much so that I once strong-armed the whole TPH office into tasting a bunch of them to see which one was best. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t really require much strong-arming.)

So I’ve decided to do something similar to figure out how to get you the most bang for your two-or-three Chuck bucks.

I’ll taste all the Charles Shaw varieties to see which ones are worth your money.

That’s right: I’ll drink a whole bunch of really cheap wines just so I can tell you which ones suck the least… if I live to tell the tale.

What can I say? I’m not afraid to make sacrifices when it comes to helping you save money. ;)

Two-Buck Chuck: A Close Reading

[caption id="attachment_54013" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Before we dive into the actual tasting (no, I’m totally not procrastinating), let’s take a moment to look more closely at some of the bottles’ subtleties. Even if you’ve been drinking Two-Buck Chuck for years, some of this might surprise you.

Here’s a telling detail: When I went to the store, I bought seven bottles of Trader Joe’s proprietary Charles Shaw, and one bottle of wine I actually wanted. The $30 total purchase price was about equally split between those two categories.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t good, cheap wine out there. There is.

But in most cases, extremely cheap products achieve those low prices by cutting at least a few corners. And it’s especially easy to do with wine, since labeling laws in the United States are less strict than those in most of the rest of the world.

Notice, for example, that the wine is called Charles Shaw Blend. Indeed, the wine you’re drinking is almost certainly not entirely made of the advertised varietal (that is, grape type) -- which, in the U.S, can be true even of pricy wines, since law requires the bottle’s label to display only 75% of the grapes in the bottle.

Another sneaky detail: although the bottles do technically feature the words “Napa” and “Sonoma,” these are definitely not Napa Valley wines. If they were, TJ’s could display those words on the front of the label, which, you’ll notice, instead reads only “California.”

That means the winemaker could have grown the grapes that make up the wine anywhere in the state and shipped them to Napa and Sonoma to be vinified (made into wine) and bottled.

Which means the producer can pick the cheapest -- i.e., lowest-quality -- grapes from around the state.

And, hey, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Vintners can work impressive magic with their blending skills, and these methods are a good way to get you a whole bottle of wine for less than $5.

But you should at least know what you’re drinking. And now that you do… I guess it’s time to get to it.

Heart (and liver), don’t fail me now.

Two-Buck Chuck: The Whites

[caption id="attachment_54005" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

As in normal wine-tasting protocol, we’ll start out with the whites.

Generally, there’s less quality discrepancy between cheap and expensive white wines than red ones. That’s because whites are (usually) less complex by virtue of the fact they lack tannin and are traditionally served chilled, which cuts back on our taste perception.

(Related: If you have a terrible wine you need to get rid of, just serve it really, really cold.)

Pinot Grigio

Cracking into this first bottle, I notice Two-Buck Chuck offers another perk besides its price: You don’t have to cut the foil. It has a little pull tab, which seems both convenient and somehow condescending.

Taking a deep breath, I pour myself a glass.

The wine is very pale in color, which is normal for this grape. The nose is pretty mild, but I take a sip…  and find it’s not bad at all.

Unlike other cheap pinot grigios I’ve had, this wine isn’t overbearingly acidic, although there is a pleasantly juicy quality. It’s got a nectarine, almost honeyed-apricot flavor that’s a lot riper and richer than I would have expected.

Pinot grigio isn’t my favorite varietal by a long stretch, but next time I want it, I see no reason to spend more than Trader Joe’s $2.79 per bottle.

Score: 9/10

Honestly, to me this is indistinguishable from a more expensive pinot grigio.

Sauvignon Blanc

Moving right along, I get ready to taste my favorite white varietal. With its fresh citrus quality and herbal undertones, sauvignon blanc is almost always my go-to glass of white wine.

I notice Charles Shaw’s version has a slightly deeper color than I’d expected -- it looks more like a chardonnay in the glass. The nose reveals a few classic notes, like taking a whiff of lime rind and grass.

On the palate, it’s less juicy than I’d imagined; it needs a bit more acid to be balanced. It’s also lacking that slate quality sauvignon blanc sometimes has, but there’s definitely an herbaceous flavor over top of a sweeter fruit -- maybe lemon. Again, not bad.

Score: 8/10

Although it’s missing some of my favorite varietal characteristics, this sauvignon blanc holds its own.

Chardonnay

OK -- this one, I’m skeptical of. While chardonnay is an incredibly versatile grape, the American version is generally well-oaked and complex, creating a flavor that’s hard to imitate cheaply.

But I discover, to my surprise, that it smells at least kind of like chardonnay in the glass. There’s definitely a woodsy scent, but it’s almost too pronounced, somehow -- as if it’s been painted on. This likely indicates the use of oak chips instead of barrels to impart those classic, wood-aged characteristics.

When I take a swallow, I find there’s nowhere near enough body and none of the creamy, buttery notes that evidence malolactic fermentation. But it does have the tropical fruit quality many wine drinkers know and love about American chardonnays, with noticeable flavors of melon and banana.

Score: 7/10

Unless you normally buy expensive chardonnay, this wine will probably quench your appetite.

Two-Buck Chuck: The Reds

[caption id="attachment_54002" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

With their dark, complex fruit flavors and sturdy tannin structure, red wines are my favorites -- but they’re also less forgiving to when it comes to shortcuts. Let’s see how Trader Joe’s red fare… fares.  

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is perhaps the most popular red wine in America and one of the best-loved varietals in the world. At its best, it’s rich and supple, with a dark flavor of cassis and a note of vanilla that indicates wood aging.

I’m pleased to see that the wine isn’t too pale in the glass -- cabernet is a dense red wine and should be a deep ruby color.

Smelling it, however, is another story. This wine makes me audibly go “Oof!” on the nose -- it’s way too fruity. And not good fruity. Like, Juicy Juice fruity. It almost has the scent of kirsch you’d expect with Beaujolais.

But I am not weak of heart, dear reader. I steel myself and take a sip.

My very first thought? “This isn’t terrible -- but it isn’t cab.”

The wine has no backbone whatsoever, none of the tannin and acid that make good cabernet such a hearty, steak-friendly quaff. This is more like a grenache: medium-bodied, with light fruit flavors leaning more toward strawberry and cedar. It might make a good base for a sangria, but it only aspires to cabernet sauvignon.

Score: 5/10

Not undrinkable, I suppose… but it has no place being associated with the grape advertised on the label.

Shiraz

Shiraz, also known as syrah, is a dark, thick-skinned grape that can withstand relatively cold temperatures. It’s responsible for creating some of the fullest-bodied, densest, most flavorful red wines in the world, with characteristics ranging from roasted meat to blackberry and pepper.

But what comes from my bottle of Charles Shaw shiraz is… warm grape juice.

Even in the glass, the wine is way too pale and transparent for what should be a robust grape. The nose is simple and not very pleasant, with a scent I can only describe as “rusty cherry.”

Sipping doesn’t help. This wine has absolutely zero tannins and a strangely sour note. The closest flavor characteristic I can come up with is “Robitussin.” (Is that more or less flattering than “rusty cherry”?)

It feels depthless, stunted and flabby.

Looking for commiseration, I run a quick Google search and discover this varietal actually won an award in a past vintage. What?!

Something must have gone seriously awry since 2002, because the only award I could grant this bottle of Two-Buck Chuck is the first-place prize for “Wines Jamie Poured Down the Sink in Disgust.”

I cannot. I cannot.

Score: 2/10

I mean, it’s still technically wine, so it gets a couple of points. Kind of like how you get some credit just for writing your name on the SAT.

Merlot

Oh, no.

I’m already fairly snobby about merlot because unless it’s good, it’s generally really, really bad. And I don’t feel like this is going to be good.

Lifting it to my nose, I find the wine has a musty smell -- like eau de grandma’s closet.

I carefully take a sip.

It’s not entirely without body. Merlot is supposed to taste like chocolate and berries, and spice. This tastes like… wine.

But I mean, I didn’t immediately pour it down the drain. Maybe I’m just getting tipsy at this point, but I’d call myself pleasantly surprised.

Score: 6.5/10

While this is by no means a great example of a merlot, it’s pretty drinkable -- a good wine to turn to if you need an affordable, flow-friendly supply for a party.

White Merlot

While it’s technically a rose, I’ll include this abomination of merlot in its grape’s rightful category.

White merlot is what happens when winemakers allow only very brief skin contact with the pressed grape juice, creating its characteristic pink color. It’s almost always very sweet, very simple and very cheap -- and not very good.

I’ll be frank: This wine was available for purchase, but I did not buy it.

I’m sorry. There are some lines I will not cross. Merlot should be DRY AND RED, DARN IT.

Score: Stop drinking white merlot.

What’s the Best Cheap Wine? It Depends on Your Taste Buds

[caption id="attachment_54007" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Alexandra Vincent/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Here are the winning wines in my estimation:

  • Best White Two-Buck Chuck: Pinot grigio
  • Best Red Two-Buck Chuck: Merlot
  • Honorable Mention: Sauvignon blanc

In general, I’d recommend Trader Joe’s white wines over its reds.

But here’s the thing: Which cheap wine is best largely depends on your personal preferences.

There’s nothing wrong with buying bottom-shelf wine, especially if you can’t tell the difference between it and more expensive bottles. And many people can’t -- in fact, picking out the individual flavor characteristics in wine is a learned skill that takes practice to maintain.

If you’re happy with Charles Shaw or Franzia, that’s awesome. To be honest, I envy you; my wine hobby takes up a serious chunk of my budget.

But dear reader, I must admit: When I was done with my Two-Buck Chuck tasting, I poured myself a swirl of $20 petite sirah from the Central Coast of California. It filled my glass with the scent of plums and chocolate, and it tasted like blackberry pie with a twist of fresh-ground pepper.

Alas. I will always spend my hoarded pennies on expensive wine.

Your Turn: Cheers! What’s in your glass?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer and WSET-certified wino whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.

When I was a kid, you couldn’t even pay me to ride a roller coaster.

Now that I’m a little bit -- all right, a lot -- older, I can totally see the appeal in being strapped into machinery that throws you around at wild speeds. (Adulthood is weird, man.)

But that’s where we run into a problem: The folks who own those contraptions generally ask you to pay them for the privilege of screaming your head off. And in many cases, they ask you to pay quite dearly.

Maybe kid-me was on to something.

How to Save Money on Your Busch Gardens Adventure

Fortunately, high costs don’t have to break a Penny Hoarder’s adventurous spirit.

There are tons of ways to save money on your next trip to your family’s favorite theme park. And if you live near Tampa, Florida, or Williamsburg, Virginia, Busch Gardens might be it.

Each park offers roller coasters, live entertainment, a variety of dining options and even the chance to get up close and personal with wildlife.

At the risk of sounding as cliche as possible, this really is a something-for-everyone scenario.

Unfortunately, that fact is reflected in the parks’ ticket prices, which start at $80 per person in Williamsburg and $89.99 per person in Tampa… just for one day.

So we did some research and spoke to an expert to bring you the very best Busch Gardens coupons, promo codes, discounts and tips for chipping away at that high price on your next trip.

Here they are.

1. Buy your tickets ahead of time.

Let’s get one thing straight right up front: You do not want to buy your ticket at the park.

“Don’t ever buy your ticket at the gate. I’ll tell you that right now,” quipped Busch Gardens Tampa associate marketing manager Stephanie Fred, when I asked her for her best single piece of advice on saving money on park tickets.

That $89.99 I quoted above for a day pass at Tampa? That’s what it costs to buy your ticket online. If you buy your pass when you arrive at the gate, you’ll pay $104.99 -- after waiting through an atrocious line. No, thank you.

Buying online ahead of time will save you time and money -- and it’ll also give you the chance to scout around for an even better deal.

Which leads us to:

2. If you want the best Busch Gardens coupons and promo codes, do your research.

The good news is, you can find tons of Busch Gardens discount tickets, coupons and promo codes.

The less-good news is, there’s no easy way to tell you where to find them or which one’s best.

“There are usually about 20 promotions going on at one time,” explained Fred, and they all depend on your individual market.

For example, Busch Gardens Tampa partners with Publix, Firehouse Subs and Dailey’s to bring different discount offers to customers.

You might also find steeply marked-down tickets for either park on Groupon, depending on the time of year.

[caption id="attachment_53253" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Busch gardens coupons Busch Gardens Tampa Bay/Facebook[/caption]

Your best bet is plan well ahead and shop around.

“Definitely do your research online,” Fred remarked.

3. If you’re eligible, take advantage of student, AAA member or active duty military discounts.

To add another complication (but in a good way, because saving money), Busch Gardens also offers a wide array of membership discounts.

For instance, Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers a special discount to university and college students, and Busch Gardens Tampa used to. (The program was discontinued due to alleged lack of interest, but it might come back.)

The parks have also run promotions specific to residents of their respective states, but again, the details change seasonally.

Many SeaWorld-owned parks, including both Busch Gardens locations, offer the Waves of Honor pass, which allows active duty military members one complimentary park admission per year for themselves and up to three direct dependents. This offer is -- you guessed it! -- only available online, and not at the park gate.

If you’re a AAA member, check current club offerings for Busch Gardens discount tickets. They’ve been offered for both Tampa and Williamsburg in the past. Specific promotions vary and are available only to current members, but may beat out the prices listed at the official park website.

4. Consider upgrading your ticket -- strategically.

No matter where you finally end up buying your tickets -- and which promotions, coupon codes and discounts apply -- if you plan on making a repeat trip anytime soon, upping to the next tier might save you a bundle.

For instance, let’s consider a one-day ticket to the Busch Gardens park in Tampa. As mentioned above, that ticket will cost you $89.99 -- and that’s before you pay for parking, which, as I write this post, costs a minimum of $20. Yikes.

If you spend an extra $10, however, you can get a “Fun Card,” which gets you free access to the main Busch Gardens park as well as its associated Adventure Island waterpark for the rest of 2017. (This is a seasonal promotion that ends on April 30, 2017 -- but something similar is bound to take its place thereafter.)

And if you upgrade to an annual pass for $168 (or 12 monthly payments of $14), you’ll get unlimited access to the park with no black-out dates… and you’ll also score free parking.

That means if you visit Busch Gardens four times in a given year, you’ll make up the extra cost of the annual pass in parking costs alone.

Annual pass holders also get a stream of fun monthly rewards -- everything from lanyards to Christmas ornaments to free samples at the Food and Wine Festival.

And if you’re vacationing for several days and want to check out more than just one park, it’s way better to bundle your ticket purchases together than to buy them a la carte.

Both Busch Gardens locations offer discounted packages that include access to other affiliated parks in their area -- like SeaWorld and Aquatica in Florida, or Colonial Williamsburg and Water Country USA in Virginia. If you’ve got more than roller coasters on the brain, Tampa’s City Pass includes a single-day Busch Gardens ticket, as well as admissions for the Lowry Park Zoo, two local aquariums and a museum of your choice.

That said, avoid frivolous upgrades, like the $6 upcharge on the already-absurd parking fee. All “preferred” means is you get to park a little bit closer to the entrance. Since you’re already planning on walking all day long, what’s a few hundred extra yards?

The best advice: Thoroughly review all the upgrade options, and take advantage of the ones you’ll actually use… but only those.

With so many combinations, you might get overwhelmed and be tempted to simply say, “The works.” But take your time and purchase wisely, and you just might save a heap of cash.

5. Get smart about snacks.

One upgrade that may very well be a smart move: the all-day meal deals available at both parks.

Although it might seem like the price of entry is the major pain point, Fred explained, kids get hungry -- and when you see the tempting, carnival-esque offerings in the parks, you might cave in, too.

Both Busch Gardens locations offer inclusive “meal deals” that offer a decent amount of food at a fixed price, so you know exactly what you’ll spend on food ahead of time -- instead of nickel-and-diming yourself to death on turkey legs and funnel cakes.

Right now, it’s $34.99 to upgrade an adult ticket to the All-Day Dining Deal in Tampa, and $19.99 to upgrade a child’s ticket. That might sound steep, but check out what it includes:

  • One entree
  • One side or dessert
  • One fountain drink, iced tea or bottled water

That doesn’t sound great, until you see that you get all of that once per hour at each of the five participating restaurants in the park.

Heaven help you if you need more food than that to get you through a day.

(Do note, however, that “sharing is prohibited,” so each party member will need their own wristband.)

Williamsburg’s current offers are a little more complicated and arguably less exciting.

The main deal gets you a single meal, and it’s just one entree and one snack -- though the adult price of $23.59 includes two alcoholic beverages, so that’s fun.

If you upgrade to the “deluxe” dining plan for $33.59, you’ll ditch the booze but get two entrees, a side and a dessert or snack, as well as a 28-ounce “Drink All Day” souvenir cup, which gets you free fountain drinks or ICEE refills -- but only on the day of purchase. (You can also buy it on its own for $13.99.)

One final piece of advice -- and this is a bit of a gray area -- consider bringing your own food into the park.

Although each park’s official rules say “outside food and drinks are not allowed in Busch Gardens,” Fred says that as long as it’s short of an out-and-out picnic meal, you can probably get away with packaged snacks.

Since some people have specific dietary restrictions that won’t necessarily be met by theme park food (imagine!), it’s more of a “safety issue,” she said. It might be cheating a little… so always let your conscience be your guide.

One thing thing you’re definitely allowed to bring inside, however, is your own water bottle, and we would highly recommend you do so.

Bottled water is always way overpriced at theme parks, since it’s an absolutely necessity. Fill up at the water fountain and quench your thirst for saving both your money and the earth.

Happy adventuring, Penny Hoarders -- hold on tight!

Your Turn: What’s your favorite ride at Busch Gardens?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.

Do you have $10,000?

It’s a lot of money -- but not an unimaginable sum to have in the bank, especially if you’ve been saving for a while.

Well, if you’re looking for a new direction, you might give that chicken sandwich you had for lunch a second thought: It only costs $10K to open a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

Chick-fil-A Franchise Costs are Crazy Cheap

Yeah, you read that right. Although it costs about $2 million to open a Taco Bell, you can be the owner of a brand-new Chick-fil-A for much less than you probably spent on your college degree.

Plus, everything’s included in the Chick-fil-A franchise cost: You don’t need to worry about real estate, construction or equipment costs.

You will, however, have to pay much higher monthly fees to headquarters than industry standard: 15% of sales plus 50% of remaining pretax profit. Compare that to the 8.5-12% McDonald’s owners pay on average, per a 2013 Bloomberg report.

But still -- I mean, it’s 10 grand. And you get to own a business.

Prioritizing Prize Partners

Why are the costs so low?

Chick-fil-A focuses on finding the very best folks for the job -- and its application acceptance rates prove it. It only chooses about 80 new franchisees a year from a pool of over 20,000 applicants.

“The barrier to entry is never going to be money,” company spokeswoman Amanda Hannah told Yahoo Finance.

Finalists can expect a rigorous interview process, which may extend to friends and family members as well as business partners.

Successful Business at a Low Cost

Even with heftier monthly fees than you might find elsewhere, it franchisees should feel confident in the investment they make: Chick-fil-A is the eighth-most successful fast-food chain in the country, according to QSR.

I mean, you have to admit. The food is pretty darn good.

Catch the full story at Yahoo Finance. And if you go through with it… can I get some free waffle fries?

Your Turn: Will you apply to own a Chick-fil-A?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.