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My Cheap but Awesome Tree Topper and Skirt

I started decorating for Christmas yesterday.  My roommate, Mandy, was helping me and we kept talking about things as they came out of the box.  That’s when she met my tree topper and skirt…

My Tree Topper and Skirt

Mandy saw me take Santa’s hat and a fitted sheet with a snowflake pattern out of the ornament box and looked a little quizzical.

I replied, “Oh yeah, that’s the Santa hat for the top of the tree and a fitted sheet for the tree skirt.  I didn’t have a star or angel or skirt the first time I decorated this in my first apartment in 2004, so I stuck the hat up there and the fitted sheet down there.  It’s been a tradition ever since.”

Our Christmas Trees

This is the same tree that I decorated growing up with my sisters.  I love the Santa hat topper and the fitted sheet as a tree skirt.

The hat was about $3 and the fitted sheet was part of a hand-me-down set that was too warm to use.  They have made a great tree topper and skirt for 10 years now.  If you like this idea, you can find $1 Santa’s hats at Dollar Tree and probably other dollar stores.

For the fitted sheet, just take a look at your extra sheet sets.  You may also find them at garage sales or resale shops for less than you’d buy them retail.  Or if that is a bust, buy some cheap fabric and you can cut out your own tree skirt pretty easily.  No reason to spend a ton on something that will be covered in wrapped presents anyway.  :-)

Overall, decorating your Christmas tree doesn’t have to cost you a chunk of your holiday budget.  It’s about having fun, celebrating the holidays, and finding your own traditions.

What sort of holiday decoration tips do you have for all of us?  Please share!

Do You Prioritize Sleep?

Over the last 4.5 years of blogging, a bunch of you have asked about how I keep up with it all.  My responses have all boiled down to making and following lists and many nights with about 5-6 hours of sleep.  Well, I’m getting a little older every day just like you.  It may be time for me to admit that I need to prioritize sleep.

The Power of Sleep

If I get 7+ hours of sleep, I don’t feel like I need a nap right after lunch.  That mid-afternoon sluggishness just disappears.  It feels like my head is clearer, I can accomplish more in less time, and I can stay perky pretty much all day.  When I get 5 hours or less of sleep in a night, I feel like a sloth on and off all day, my lack of productivity turns me into a whiny grouch, and I have fallen asleep at my laptop before…


Tricks to Sleep

The first step for me was to consciously acknowledge that I need more sleep.  Then I had to mentally place sleep time before other things in my daily priority list.  Here are some tricks that I am using to carve out at least 7 hours a night (usually 2am through 9am):

  • I have an 11pm alarm to remind me to start wrapping up my evening.
  • I try not to eat after 11pm (3 hours before bed) since I can’t fall asleep well if I’m full.
  • I make a list of everything bouncing around in my head so it’ll be there for me in the morning.
  • If I am exhausted at 1am and still haven’t finished all that I need to do, I pick the most important task left and go to sleep when it’s done.  I then play catchup in the morning.
  • If I have random bursts of energy during the day, I ride them out and relish the productivity.
  • If I just feel blah, I force myself to do all of the daily minimums plus at least 1 bonus item from my lists.
  • If my sleep is interrupted, I allow myself to sleep later if I don’t have a pet sitting job scheduled or take that much of a nap after my morning jobs.
  • When I am ready to go to bed, I lower the temperature for the night since I sleep better when I can stay cool all night long.
  • If I can’t fall asleep, I try thinking of a recent dream.  That seems to help me fade off faster.
  • When I’m too excited to sleep, I think of dream situations like winning $10,000,000 and what I would do first.  That seems to help me fade off too.
  • Last resort, I do a shot of rum.  I’ve only had to do this about 3 times in the last 5 years.  It works but I rather not depend on any drug or sleep aid, even small doses of alcohol, LOL.

What tips or tricks help you sleep?  I’ve heard that meditation can do wonders – I think that is similar to what I’m accomplishing with day dreaming.  But let me know if it’s significantly different.  :-)



Writing a Will

A cold front swept through Houston when Mr. BFS and I left for our cruise.  My mother-in-law, who pet-sits our two dogs at her house when we are out of town, wanted to warn our roommates about the freeze.  But she realized that she didn’t have their contact info.  Luckily, she had the email of our other friend, who gave her our roommates’ phone number.  They appreciated the call and were already running the water to protect the pipes (which were well-wrapped by the builders in late 2012).

No issue this time, but I was reminded that our parents need our friends’ contact info and vice versa.  So I went to work and created an emergency contact list for everybody and wrote out a will for Mr. BFS and me just in case.

Emergency Contact Sheet

This was pretty simple.  Type up a sheet of the contact info for your closest friends and family.  If there is an emergency, the people on this sheet can reach each other and spread the word.  I included each set of our parents and a handful of close friends.  Between that group of 7-8 people, they could reach everyone we know one way or another.

Once the sheet was done, I emailed it to everyone that was on it.  They all confirmed that they had it and would keep it around in case of emergency.  Easy.

Our Will

We don’t have kids and are still pretty young ourselves, so I did not get a legal will done with a lawyer.  But just in case the worst happens, I did type up a will for Mr. BFS and me.  I wanted to make it a little easier just to give a heads up to our loved ones if we do die at the same time. I did some quick research online and decided to include:

  • A named executor of our will.
  • Quick section on what to do with our remains.
  • A small section that simply states that if one of us dies, the other one gets everything.
  • A list of assets including our homes, cars, saving and checking accounts, stocks, life insurance policies, and retirement accounts.
  • A section explaining what to give away and what to liquidate.
  • A few sentences about where our pets will go.
  • Who to pay with the remaining cash assets.

Over the next week, I’ll be looking up all of the account numbers to include in the blanks that I left when I didn’t know it off the top of my head. Then we’ll both read and sign it.  We’ll let our parents know where we are keeping it just in case.

I truly hope we’ll never have to use this.  I sincerely doubt that we will.  But it is a good idea to have a little plan in place just in case.  A will is an easy way to let your wishes be known.

Do you have a will?  Did I forget anything?

Scoring $1200 in Travel Vouchers

Fly for Free - Airline Vouchers
The following is a guest post from John at Travel Rinse Repeat.  John is a business traveler who now spends the majority of his life on the road meeting with clients all over the United States.  Please check out his site and thanks for the tips, J0hn!

The Oversell Issue

It’s no secret that most airlines oversell their flights anticipating a certain number of no-shows. And if more customers show up than the airplane has seats available, then the airlines are forced to clear room on the plane by giving travel credit vouchers to volunteers who give up their seat and take the next available flight out. The value of these vouchers can be high and competition for them can be fierce.

One Sunday in March of this year, I was able to ride a wave of oversold flights, getting bumped from flight after flight, in the end collecting $1200 in free travel vouchers from Delta Airlines. This story is about that day, my biggest windfall to date.

My $1200 Day

Fly for Free - Airline Vouchers

When I travel for work, I typically fly out first thing on a Monday morning. However, due to an unusually expensive ticket price for my standard Monday morning flight to Atlanta, I had to book a cheaper Sunday morning flight instead. It was bad enough that I had to cut my weekend short, but to add insult to injury, it was a 7:00 am flight.

Despite the early wakeup call, I knew I’d have a certain level of flexibility to work with since I didn’t have to be at work until Monday morning. I arrived at my gate right when it opened (an hour before departure) and asked the gate agent if the flight was oversold.

Yes, as a matter of fact it is.” she replied. Still drowsy, I perked up at the thought of a hefty travel credit. I told her I was flexible and asked her to add my name to the volunteer list.

You’re #1 on the list” she replied.

I knew having my name added to the list was no guarantee of getting a voucher. The airline was counting on several people missing their flights and if that were the case, then there would still be plenty of room for me on the plane.

Boarding time came and I checked in with the agent again. She informed me that they wouldn’t be needing my seat and to board as usual. I boarded the plane, settled into my seat, got out my book, and tried to relax for my flight to Atlanta.

Right before the boarding door closed, a gate agent boarded the plane and announced the flight was oversold; she was frantically looking for a few volunteers. My hand quickly shot up, but she had already chosen others who were seated closer to her. As she walked by my seat, I quickly grabbed her attention. Upon seeing me, she instantly remembered that I had first volunteered to give up my seat. She agreed to let me come off the plane.

Had I not spoken up in this instance, I not only would have lost out on this voucher, but the others to follow as well. This underscores the importance of speaking up in similar situations. There is no need to be rude or mean, but a polite reminder is certainly worthwhile when several hundred dollars of travel vouchers are at stake.

I gave up my seat and was rebooked on a flight later that morning. The total reward for a few additional hours spent in Denver? $400.

Fly for Free - Airline Vouchers

Repeat…and Again…

After grabbing breakfast and killing some time at the airport, I returned to the gate for my next flight an hour before departure. I was the first in line when the gate opened, and once again, I asked the gate agent if the flight was oversold. It was. I wasn’t getting my hopes up, but I did think of how nice it would be to double my $400 voucher, and I added my name to the volunteer list again.

This time I never made it onto the plane – before boarding started they informed me my seat would be needed and I was rebooked onto another flight that evening. Once again, Delta rewarded me for the minor inconvenience with another $400 voucher, bringing my total for the day to $800 in flight credits – and it wasn’t even noon.

After losing myself in my computer for the afternoon, it was time to head back to the boarding gate to go for the hat trick. Like every other flight before it that day, it was once again oversold. I added my name to the volunteer list, and if I did get bumped, the next flight didn’t leave until 6:15am the next morning – the flight I originally wanted to book anyways.

I waited on edge to see if enough customers would show up to necessitate bumping me off the flight. Just like the two times before, I was bumped once again and given another $400 voucher, bringing my total to $1200 in less than 12 hours spent at the airport.

This time, the flight I was booked on wasn’t until the next morning – the Monday morning flight I originally wanted to take. Because it was an overnight delay, Delta also put me up in a hotel by the airport (in my hometown, nonetheless) and gave me meal and transportation vouchers.

When Monday morning arrived, I had run out of flexibility and had to go to work. However, I can’t help but think how long I could have ridden this particular wave of oversold flights. It was clear that Delta had made a serious miscalculation regarding how many people would be on their flights that day, and I was able to take advantage of it.

Anybody Can Do It

The best part about this is that ANYONE can have a $1200 day like I did – you don’t have to be a frequent flyer. In fact, the heaviest travel days around the holidays (offering the most oversold flights) are often avoided by the seasoned business travelers. These are the best days to go for the vouchers; the day I earned $1,200 was on the tail end of spring break when Colorado has an influx of skiiers and snowboarders.

  • Show up to your gate early – Get to your gate an hour or more before your flight departs and ask the gate agent if the flight is oversold. If it is, tell them you’d like to volunteer to give up your seat.
  • Pack carry-on luggage - Giving up your seat gets complicated when your bags are still getting on the plane. Pack carry-ons and make sure your bags end up on the same plane as you.
  • Be nice and smile - Ultimately the gate agent has final say on who gets the valuable vouchers. Despite their external steely demeanor, they’re people too, and a smile and a little friendliness can go a long way.
  • Fly on Heavy Travel Days – Days with a significant amount of travelers will also have a significant amount of overbooked flights.

With a little forethought and planning when booking a ticket and on the day of your flight, you can reap some serious voucher value from the major airlines.

Crystal’s Comments:  Mr. BFS and I have volunteered for staying off a flight once but they didn’t need us.  Most of the time, I am really, really looking forward to getting to whereever I am going, so I do not volunteer.  But I am usually flying for pleasure, not business.  I would be way more likely to stay behind and blog at the airport while waiting for another flight if I was just rushing to work, lol.  But I will totally keep these tips in mind on my next flight since a free flight would be awesome!

How about you?  Do you all play the travel voucher game?

Need to Save Some Money on Your Wedding?

The following is a guest post from Jon from Reed Reads.  Check out his site for some great quotes and book lists!

My wife and I got married last October, and our wedding and honeymoon (which, let’s be honest, is basically part of the wedding cost) was paid off by the time we got back from our honeymoon. That’s right, no lingering credit card debt, and it wasn’t like we saved for years for the wedding. We exercised some restraint and cut costs where we could, which was a necessity since we had 200 people attend the reception. We used a basic financial principle preached by many… spend money on the things that are important to you, cut costs mercilessly on the things that are not.

Know What’s Important to You

The first thing we had to look at was deciding exactly what was important to us, and what we were OK with cutting costs on. Like Crystal and her new house, we were happy to spend a little extra money on something if it was something we (or, more specifically, my wife!) had always dreamed of in our wedding.

  • We wanted it in the mountains, so we picked a reception hall that was in the mountains. Obviously we could have gone cheaper there, but it was important to us, so we worked on finding the best deal on a place in the mountains.
  • We wanted our honeymoon to be something we would always remember, so we stayed for a week in a hotel where our room overlooked the ocean, though certainly there could have been cheaper options.
  • At our reception we got an add-in for the milkshake bar, which we thought would be a fun personal touch, and which many people mentioned they really enjoyed.

These were things we identified as being important, and so we were happy to splurge a little.

Know What’s Not as Important to You

There are a lot of things that we saw as being items we could go a little cheaper on.

  • Instead of getting a tux (and making all of my groomsmen rent a tux), we bought suits for half the cost (which had the added benefit of owning the suit afterwards!).
  • Instead of a big fancy wedding cake, we bought cupcakes from Sam’s Club for a fraction of the cost.
  • We were fortunate to find a reception place that also catered (meaning it was a bundle package), and provided things such as tables and silverware, which was a huge cost saver.
  • We didn’t want an open bar or tons of alcohol, because it just didn’t fit our personality, so we just bought a few cases of beer and bottles of wine, so everyone could have a little alcohol if they wanted, but we had no interest in paying for them to drink all night.
  • My wife was amazing with finding thrifty ways to cut costs on things such as centerpieces and flowers… things that I had no interest or expertise in (am I right, guys?) but that she took control over and cut costs very well.

Use Friends and Family

We found that friends and family were very happy to help out, and obviously this would be a lot cheaper than hiring professionals!

Instead of getting a professional DJ, we had a couple of our most musically inclined friends use their IPods to play music for the reception and dance (and they wouldn’t even let us pay for their hotel rooms as thanks!)… not only did we save a bunch of money, but it was a lot more special for us to have them help out. We had one of our friends be the photographer and paid her a bit for the time and effort. It wasn’t quite as professional as, well, a professional photographer, but we were happy to save $2,000 or so. We used a friend to design our invitations, which again cut costs in a large way.

Having a wedding with 200 people attending and coming out of it with no debt is not an easy thing to do, but it is manageable if you really focus on the things that are important to you, and then look for any possible way to cut the costs on the things that don’t matter as much to you. You’ll be thanking yourself profusely if you are able to accomplish this goal!

Crystal’s Comments:  Wow, 200 people?!  I was hard pressed to come up with more than 75 for us to invite to our wedding and only 40-50 showed up, lol.  But I am really happy you didn’t go into debt.  And yes, like everything in life, it’s all a matter of what you value.  Priorities are personal, money is money, so as long as your bills are paid and your future is covered, have some fun!

8 Ways to Save Some Dough on Thanksgiving Meals

The following is a guest post by YFS from If you want relevant, witty and easy to follow financial guidance subscribe to his newsletter by clicking here!  And yes, YFS guest posted last week too – that’s what happens when you send me posts – consider this a call to arms to fellow bloggers!  :-)

Is it your turn to cook the Thanksgiving dinner this year? Maybe it is your responsibility every year to cook this large dinner. If you have a large family, it can be quite expensive to cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, the average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people cost about $44. ( Even if you have a small family, you might be interested in reducing your Thanksgiving dinner costs, and many people tend to overspend when it comes to preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. The following are a few tips that you can use to have a fun, affordable Thanksgiving dinner.

1.  Buy Stuff Early

So many components of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner can be bought days, weeks or even months ahead of time. Canned goods such as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling last for years, and you can start buying them before Thanksgiving. Some stuffing mixes also last for a very long time. By buying some stuff early, you can help spread out the cost over a few months.

2.  Put Your Family to Work

Ask family members to bring a dish to the Thanksgiving dinner, and this will help you to reduce costs. If you have enough family members or if people can bring more than one dish, you might just have to cook the turkey and the stuffing.

3.  Use Coupons and Promotions

Check your paper for coupons especially during November. Stores want to sell their Thanksgiving related goods, and you can often get pretty good deals on certain brands if you take the time to look for the coupons. You can also find coupons online at websites like Some stores run promotions for things like free turkeys or hams around Thanksgiving. Your local paper is a good place to find information about promotions like this.

4.  Try the Local Grocery

Sometimes your local grocery will have better deals, especially around the holidays, than the big box grocery stores like Super Wal-Mart and Kroger. This isn’t always the case, but it is worth it to take a shopping trip to the local supermarket. Even if you do not find that the savings are much different, you’re supporting local business.

5.  Go Veggie

This does not necessarily mean that you need to break out the tofurkey, but having more vegetarian side dishes can reduce your Thanksgiving dinner costs. Meat prices are high, and most of your dinner costs will go into buying meat. So, if you normally have a ham and a turkey every Thanksgiving, why don’t you just try turkey this year?

6.  Decorations

If this is your first time hosting your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, you might feel like you need to go out and buy festive fall decorations. While cute decorations will certainly make your house look great, you shouldn’t have to spend too much money on them. First, you can try borrowing decorations from a friend or relative. Maybe they have some old decorations that they will not be using this year. Second, if you have kids, especially young ones, you can put them in charge of decorating for dinner. Check out this hand and feet turkeys –

7.  Eat Your Leftovers

Get creative with your Thanksgiving leftovers so that you will actually use everything before it goes bad. If you aren’t crazy about eating leftovers for a week, you can also send food home with your family. Check out these turkey leftover recipes –

8.  Don’t Overspend

Try not to overspend on Thanksgiving dinner. You want to know how many people are coming and cook for that many people. If you are new at cooking for large groups talk to friends and relatives who have done it before, and they can help you determine the right portion size for your dishes. You do not want to cook too much more than you need because then you’re stuck with a bunch of leftovers. And one last tip for saving money on your Thanksgiving dinner is to check your pantry before you shop. Sometimes you already have what you need.

Crystal’s Comments:  We have been hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at our house for about 10 people for the past 3 years and it always ends up costing us about $50-$60 since we do splurge on ham AND turkey.  Plus we make our own dressing from scratch, sweet potatoes, pineapple stuffing, and homemade apple pie.  And as if that wasn’t enough, everyone else brings their favorite dish too…yay for potlucks!

52 Free or Cheap Date Ideas

The following is a guest post about cheap date ideas from Kylie Ofiu, the author of 365 Ways To Make Money.  She also blogs about the ways she is making money and her goal to become a millionaire by 2015 at

Often when we get married or have been in a relationship a while, dating sort of gets forgotten. Budget constraints when saving for or paying off a house, or when kids come along, can make it quite difficult to afford dating. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are 52 free or cheap date ideas, so you can have one each week!  (Crystal’s Note:  I’ve put a star next to all of the activities that Mr. BFS and I have done together and liked.)

1.)    Have a candlelit dinner at home. Dress the table nicely, use your best dinner ware, all the nice things you have been saving for special occasions and enjoy each other’s company.

2.)    Watch a movie at home. You can download movies for cheap or some store hire DVD’s for $1 or there is even the library.*

3.)    Go to an outdoor market. These can be really interesting and often have street performers to watch as well.

4.)    Have a picnic somewhere with a nice view.*

5.)    Go for a walk together – a bushwalk, hike or along the beach are all nice.*

6.)    Teach each other. If you can play an instrument or surf or do something the other one wants to learn, teach them.*

7.)    Play at a park. Go to one with a big merry go round, swing on swings and go down slides. Have fun like when you were kids.

8.)    Go to an art gallery or museum. Many of them are free and have amazing exhibits.*

9.)    Attend a book or poetry reading together.

10.) Movies in the park. Some areas over summer have free movies in the park you can go watch together.

11.) Volunteer together to be models at a beauty or hair school. You get pampered at the same time for free or very cheap.

12.) Visit a farmers market together. Often you can sample produce and you get to buy fresh, tasty food.

13.) Play cards or board games (or Wii/Xbox/Playstation).***

14.) Go to the snow if you live near it. You can make snow men, toboggan and have snow ball fights.

15.) Have a fire and make smores.

16.) Star gazing. Look up constellations or go to a local observatory.*

17.) Create a treasure or scavenger hunt to go on.

18.) Roller skating or ice skating rinks are often reasonably priced.*

19.) Mini golf (aka Putt-Putt).*

20.) Theme nights – Pick a theme such as Mexican, eat Mexican food and watch a movie such as The Mexican.

21.) Go fishing together, then cook your catch.

22.) Make your own pizza night – have a variety of toppings and create your own pizza masterpieces.*

23.) Sunrise breakfast or sunset dinner.*

24.) Go for a bike ride together.

25.) Have a mystery date. Place some selections in envelopes and pick them at random.

26.) Hire a kayak or paddleboat.

27.) Play spotlight – go to some bush/forest area with torches. Let your eyes adjust to the light then look for animals.  If you see one, flash a torch on it and it’s spotlighted.

28.) Do a dance class – many offer first class free so you can try it together.

29.) Play darts or pool together.*

30.) Go to your local pool or hot tubs.*

31.) Go to a second hand market.

32.) Go fruit picking.

33.) Take a drive with no specific destination, just stop somewhere you like. Or flip a coin – heads is right, tails is left. Do it 10 or 20 times then stop for a picnic or drink at a cafe.

34.) Go to the target range.

35.) Attend a dress rehearsal of a theatre production or go to a school production. They are much cheaper than the full evening productions.*

36.) Go see a local band perform.

37.) Attend amateur mike night at your local comedy club.

38.) Visit a factory such as a chocolate one. You usually get samples or can buy at a discount.

39.) Do a ghost tour. You don’t need to pay for one. Research your area a little and go check out the places that are haunted.

40.) Go rock climbing.

41.) Create art together. Get out some paint and paint an abstract picture together.***

42.) Go see a local game of football or other sport. * If you are in Pennsylvania go grab some Philadelphia Eagles tickets or go to a Phillies game.

43.) Pretend to be tourists in your own town. See what is on offer for free and o do it.

44.) Have a photo session either set up the camera at home or take it with you somewhere nice to take pictures of each other and you as a couple.*

45.) Go to open homes and discuss your dream home.

46.) Volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter together.

47.) Take a dog for a walk. If you don’t have one, walk a friend’s dog.*

48.) Learn another language together. You can get programs from the library then practice with each other.

49.) Do puzzles.*

50.) If you have a GPS, take up Geocaching. People hide little objects for others to find and put in the coordinates. It is worldwide so you can do it anywhere.

51.) Have fondue.

52.) Feed birds or ducks at a lake near you.*

These are just some ideas, but if you look up free things to do in your city you might be surprised at the options.

Crystal’s Comments:  Mr. BFS isn’t the most spontaneous man in the world, but looking at how many stars I was able to put, we have done a bunch of things on this list.  I am making a note to myself about a few of these like rock climbing!

Have you done anything on the list or think any of them look like fun?