Living Below Your Means is the Only Way to Live

Being thought of as cheap was to me the ultimate insult. I equated frugality with digging through dumpsters in search of food and who-knows-what-else.


To me cheap people skipped out without leaving a tip. They were slovenly in appearance, lacking dignity and self respect. Cheap people were just plain tacky. I couldn’t bear the thought of living that way and to make sure I would never be mistaken for someone who did, I charged my way through life, bent on proving to the world (and more likely to myself) that I was not cheap.

I accepted the offers of freedom that credit-card companies offered to me. It was so simple. I could have a $200 outfit and pay only $10 a month. I could fix up the house, treat the kids, have new clothes, drive nice cars—just about anything I could think of. And it worked for awhile.

I know you’re way ahead of me. You know what happened. By the time I came to my senses I wasn’t experiencing freedom at all. It was all a lie. I sold myself into bondage one dollar at a time. 

The Fine Art of the Effective Complaint

Are you ever frustrated with customer service? Have you been ripped off, taken to the cleaners, hung out to dry by a store or service provider? To claim the title of savvy consumer you need know-how and confidence to make sure that no matter what, no one ever gets your hard-earned money without your permission. It’s all about the fine art of complaining.


START EASY. Make at least one good-faith attempt to reach a resolution for your problem at the customer service level. Don’t threaten, simply state your case and the resolution you expect. Take notes, keep a paper trail that includes the names of the people you speak with, their titles and phone numbers.

BE NICE. No matter your method of communication, do not make threats or use foul language. Wait until your anger subsides. Stay calm, keep it professional.

WRITE TO THE TOP. If you cannot reasonably resolve the issue, head straight to the top. Find the name and address of the highest level person in the company—the president or CEO. Don’t waste your time working up the ladder.

How to Beef Up Home Security on the Cheap

As a kid growing up, I lived in a house with security that rivaled Fort Knox. Every exterior opening was fitted with an old-fashioned hook and eye latch, which my mother would latch from the inside each and every time someone left the house.


As one who would leave from time to time, I can report that it wasn’t easy to get back in. I would have to knock and wait for her to come to the door to unlatch it, let me in, then she would re-latch the door behind me. While my mother’s security system was never breeched, it made for an annoying way to grow up.  

Thankfully, these days, there are much better ways to make our homes safe and secure that are also friendly to all who live therein.

While it’s impossible to put a price on the value of protecting your home and family, there are inexpensive yet highly effective ways to beef up security to create a strong defense against intruders.


Door Stopper. Very much like The Club that millions use to keep their cars secure, The Club Door Stopper secures any exterior door in your home so that it will resist more than two tons of force. That’s a lot of security for less than $25. This device is easy to install, a cinch to engage and offers tremendous peace of mind.

Hail Damage is Bad but Better than Owing Money to the IRS

Dear Mary: I was wondering how you feel about depending on homeowners insurance for getting a roof replacement. I have had State Farm homeowners insurance since 1995 and have never made a claim. But now, the 20-year old roof on my house has suffered hail damage. Should I pay for the roof or should I file again insurance to have it fixed? I’m concerned about the risk of having my premium increased or the insurance canceled? Any advice would be very helpful. Thanks and keep up the great work. Mark


Dear Mark: First, make absolutely sure that the damage is more than cosmetic. If you determine that in fact the hail damage is significant enough to require repair or replacement to preclude further harm, I suggest you file a claim. Find out how much the insurance company will cover for repair and or replacement.

If they base the claim on depreciating the value of the 20-year old roof (most likely) you may decide against going through with a claim because the damage amount they will pay is lower than your deductible. If, on the other hand, you have full replacement coverage (not likely, but possible) and this will preclude you from having to cover the cost out-of-pocket once the deductible is met, I’m pretty sure I would go for it, all things considered.

You can file a claim, receive the insurance company’s offer and at that time decide which way to go.

Questions About Down Comforters and Inexpensive Vacuums

Dear Mary: I love your articles, and I have learned so much from you about which products to purchase. I don’t know if you have ever written anything about down comforters, but I am looking for one that is machine washable, not too expensive, can be used year round and has a lot of loft. Jackie


Dear Jackie: I’m humbled by your trust in me to make a recommendation for an excellent down comforter. The first thing you need to know is how to rate “down.” Down is the layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers of ducks or geese. It’s the good stuff! A down-filled comforter is, not surprisingly, filled with down and quite luxurious. Down is a very lightweight insulator against cold and also against heat. It is a natural wonder and makes for a fantastic blanket, year round.

Some “down” comforters are filled with a combination of down and feathers, while others are only feathers, which can be stiff and “pokey,” albeit less expensive because they are of a lower quality.

Then comes a new version known as “down alternative” comforters. These are filled with polyester and have no down or feathers in them at all. And as you would expect, the price of these alternative models are considerably less. Make sure you keep your eyes open for that word “alternative.”

How to Bring Back Applebee’s® Crispy Orange Skillet

Not long ago I got a desperate message from C. J. Coffman who lives in Michigan. It seems that he and his family are crazy about a certain item that mysteriously disappeared from the Applebee’s® menu a couple of years ago—Crispy Orange Skillet.


Coffman is not the first reader I’ve heard from about this turn of events. Early on, readers wanted to know how to make this entree themselves, as it could become pricey to eat out as often as their cravings dictated. But then a couple of years ago, this hugely popular dish just up and disappeared from the menu! Applebee’s response continues to be that they appreciate customers’ feedback, but that they make changes to their menus from time to time and we never know when favorites will make a come back.

Coffman closed his letter by telling me what a big fan he is of this column, which was a good move on his part. I’m not above a little flattery from time to time.

Forget the Dry Cleaner: How to Wash a Down Comforter

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s okay to wash your down comforter without taking it to the dry cleaners, the answer is yes. You can absolutely wash your down comforter without spending upwards of $60 (depending on the size, where you live and how dirty it is) to have it dry cleaned professionally. All you need is a mild detergent, wool dryer balls (or tennis balls), a few hours to spend at a laundromat and patience. And if yours is a king-size comforter, a lot of patience.

A row of industrial washing machines in a public laundromat.

A row of industrial washing machines in a public laundromat.

To do this, you’ll need mild detergent (our homemade detergent is ideal, or Woolite), wool dryer balls (or tennis balls work well), an extra-large front loading washing machine (most home models are too small for this task) and an extra-large dryer. Here are step-by-step instructions:

Step 1. Load your down comforter into the largest extra large front-loading washing machine at your local laundromat. The less crowded the comforter is in the washer and dryer, the better the results.

Step 2. Add a small amount of mild detergent. Be careful here as too much detergent will strip the down or feathers of their natural coating that makes down or feathers such a wonderful thermal insulator.

Step 3. Select the gentle or delicate setting on the washer and two rinse cycles. It is very important that the last bit of detergent to be rinsed out.

Make Your Kitchen Look Like New for $300 and Some Sweat

Recently I walked into Amy and Justin’s kitchen and my jaw dropped. It was like I’d stumbled into the wrong house. The gorgeous new cabinets and countertops made it look brand new. You could have knocked me over with a feather when these friends told us they weren’t new cabinets and counters at all. They’d refinished them themselves—all for about $300.

photo credit: Critter-Cozies

photo credit: Critter-Cozies

You may think that kitchen projects need to be left to the professionals, which of course is fine provided you’ve got thousands of dollars to work with. But if your budget is slightly under that—and you’re willing to contribute some sweat to the project—new products and methods now available can bring do-it-yourself options to any kitchen.

CABINETS. Our friends refinished their existing cabinets (the doors and face frames) with Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations Kit about $75 that covers 100 square feet.

The thing that gave Amy and Justin the courage and confidence to tackle this project themselves was the Rust-Oleum promise of no stripping, no sanding, no priming and no special skills required. While their cabinets are made of wood, this product will also transform melamine, melt and laminate cabinetry.