Here’s How to Turn a 15-Minute Phone Call Into $555 Cash

Generally speaking, I pretty much detest talking on the phone. But if a 15-minute phone call could net the kind of financial reward Matt writes about, I could manage a change of heart.


Dear Mary: I don’t have cable TV in my house but I do have Internet. I’m one year into a two-year contract (which is fine with me since I’m happy with the service) and noticed this month’s bill went up $20 since I’m no longer in my first year promo period. I called the company and told them I was looking to cancel because “I found a better rate.” I must have said the magic words because the rep forwarded me to the retention team.

After speaking with the retention team member I was able to negotiate my Internet bill at the original monthly promo rate for the next two years (I did have to agree to extend my contract for two years from that day, which really is fine with me). And they also gave me a $75 credit spread over the next three billing cycles.

So all in all, that 15-minute phone call saved me $25 over the next three months plus $20 a month over the next two years, for a total savings of $555 over the two year contract period!

I am pretty proud of myself. It just feels good to take control of my expenses as opposed to feeling like a pawn on my service-providers’ chess board.

Now I’m thinking about ways I might be able to use this tactic to rein in other expenses. Matt


6 Stores with the Best Layaway Programs

Layaway, for those not old enough to remember, is the way lots of people shopped for Christmas back before credit-card debt was fashionable. Or shall I say, tolerable.


With layaway, instead of bringing all of your purchases home and then paying on the credit-card bill for many years to come, you leave your selections at the store, making a down payment at time of purchase.

Then you make regular payments to the store (no interest). Once you’ve paid in full, you get your stuff out of layaway. The benefit is that you can shop early at your leisure, make regular payments, and pick up items once they are paid in full.

Years ago layaway programs were designed for people who could not get credit cards. And as plastic became more available to the masses, layaway became unnecessary so many programs disappeared.

As the economy has been going through such an upheaval, causing so many to flee from using credit, other smart retailers like Sears have dusted off their layaway programs in hopes of attracting customers like us who would enjoy that debt-free convenience. And to shore up their bottom lines.

TOYS R US. Not only makes layaway possible for the hottest toys and game consoles of the season, but also holds items for you so curious children can’t find them in your closets. When you deposit 10% of the total cost of your purchase and the $5 service fee will be waived. All payments can be made at any register or online, 24 hours a day. Make your final payment in store, and take your items home right away. Or, if you make your final payment online, you will be notified of the earliest time you can pick up your items.

WALMART No set-up fee, but there’s a $10 or 10% down payment (whichever’s greater), and a $10 fee if you cancel. Individual items must be $10 or greater, and your total purchase must be at least $50. You can’t layaway wireless phones that require contracts, and you can’t put anything on layaway 11/24 (Thanksgiving 2016). Layaway is available for Electronics, Toys, Infant Toys, Infant Furniture, Small Appliances, Large Furniture, Auto Electronics, Select Sporting Goods, and Jewelry. You can use coupons on layaway items at Walmart.

SEARS.  For an 8-week layaway contract, pay $0 down in-store, $0.01 online, a $5 set-up fee, and a $15 fee if you cancel. For a 12-week layaway, pay $0 down in-store, a $10 set-up fee, and a $25 fee if you cancel.The only items available for layaway online will be marked as “Available for Layaway” on the individual product page.

KMART. For an 8-week layaway contract, expect to pay a $10 down payment, $5 set-up fee, and a $10 fee if you cancel. For a 12-week layaway contract, you’ll have to pay $10 down, a $10 set-up fee, and a $20 fee if you cancel. No down payment is required when you start a new contract between 9/15 and 11/26, and only one penny is required down for online layaway.

BURLINGTON COAT FACTORY.  Offers 60-day layaway for clothing and household goods, and 90 days for Baby Depot items like baby furniture and strollers. Buyers must stick to a payment schedule, deposit at least 20% and pay a $5 service fee. There is a $10 cancellation fee if the layaway purchase is canceled and not completed.

TJ MAXX AND MARSHALLS.  Only offer layaway at certain locations and have quite a few rules and restrictions. Where available, you must make a 10% down payment for layaway on brand-name and designer items. Jewelry and clearance items cannot go on layaway. The payment term is 30 days and because the program is only offered at certain locations, it’s best to call ahead to inquire.

Question: Have you ever used layaway programs? Will you this year? Do you know of other stores offering layaway programs this year? What is your favorite? Respond using the comments feature below.


Upgrade that Wobbly, Hard-to-Read Oven Thermometer Plus More

I’d had the same oven thermometer for at least a hundred years. The thing had been splattered on and dropped more times than I could count. If that wasn’t bad enough, the splatters had become hopelessly baked on, making the thing nearly impossible to read. When I got a message from Naomi about her oven thermometer, I knew exactly what she was talking about—and the upgrade she should make to fix the problem.


Dear Mary: Every oven thermometer I have ever had was difficult to use. The base was always too small, and they tipped over. It was difficult to set it upright when it was hot, and using hot pads or tongs or whatever was mega-frustrating. In the past, you have recommended a model that has a hook at the top but then that would mean the rack is above it thus making the thermometer difficult to see. Can you recommend a decent oven thermometer that has big numbers and won’t tip over? Naomi


Gift Baskets for the “Tremendous” Cooks on Your Gift List

If the idea of gift baskets for the cooks on your Christmas list piques your interest, you’re going to love this gift-guide, which continues to be very popular having posted last year to rave reviews and many notes of praise.

It is the late humorist and master of salesmanship, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who said one of my favorite quotes of all time: “You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.” 


While he didn’t specify, I’m nearly certain Mr. Jones was talking about cookbooks. Reading cookbooks has changed me. Not only have they made me a better cook, learning how to do it and falling in love with the activity has impacted our household finances, tremendously.

Little by little, as I have become a better cook, we naturally eat at home more. The more I read, the more I cook; the more I cook the better cook I become and the more often we eat at home. It’s a beautiful thing!

The hubs and I have reached the point that eating out has become more of a “Do we have to?!” than a “We get to.” We eat at home, gladly, at least 99 percent of the time.


House Rules for Cleaning Silver in the Dishwasher

I grew up being fearful of the oddest things. I wasn’t bold enough to question why, so I just did as I was told. Here’s one: Never, ever put good dishes or silver flatware in the dishwasher. Ever! I didn’t know what would happen if I did, but you can be sure that my fear of the unknown made certain I didn’t come close to finding out. Until my rebellious years.


Once I had my own china and my own silver, I was reckless enough to believe I wouldn’t go to jail if I violated this particular “Thou shalt not!” I was reminded of what I’ve learned about putting silver in the dishwasher when the following question showed up in my inbox:

Dear Mary: I have a set of silver flatware that I use daily. I notice that after a few times through a normal cycle, the pieces become very tarnished. It is not a particularly good set, just a nice set of flatware for daily use. Do you think that the dishwashing detergent is tarnishing the silver? Anne

Dear Anne: Your silver plate or sterling silver pieces can go in the dishwasher and come out beautiful as long as you follow a few specific guidelines. Case in point: The small pie server in the photo above is one of my favorite things. I love it for its size and just the way it feels in my hand. I use it daily and it goes in the dishwasher every evening—by itself in its own little compartment so that it is not touching any other type of metal. Since I inherited it many years ago I have done nothing to it but use it, clean it and enjoy it.


How a Simple Solution Changed Everything for One Family

Congratulations to Tom P. and Barbara B. for winning copies of Debt-Proof Your Christmas from our recent giveaway!

There are two main types of illness: acute and chronic. An acute illness doesn’t last very long. It goes away either on its own or in response to treatment, such as taking medicine or having surgery. A chronic illness or condition is ongoing. It affects your health over a long period of time—possibly your entire life. That’s the kind of situation EC Reader Gina’s family was dealing with. Then lo and behold ….

Dear Mary: My husband and both of my children have chronic skin problems. One doctor diagnosed them with eczema, but curiously nothing, including prescription medications, have brought lasting relief. We have spent a small fortune going from one dermatologist to another not to mention all of lotions, potions and other medications prescribed. Not once did any of these professionals suggest they might be allergic to laundry softeners. When I read  “Fabric Softeners are the Problem, Not the Solution,” a lightbulb went on.


I’m a serial softener user. For years, I’ve used liquid softener and dryer sheets just to make sure. How could I have not thought about this? It made a lot of sense that they could be allergic to this stuff. I wasted no time getting the wool dryer balls you recommend. I gave up softener products cold turkey and began using the dryer balls instead. I was like a crazy woman washing and re-washing clothes and bedding. I got three gallons of white vinegar to make sure I had enough to add to every rinse cycle. 


I Just Booked Cheap Travel—Again!

The last time I wrote about how I book cheap travel, the response was huge! And some of those messages were from skeptical readers who were pretty sure I couldn’t do that on a regular basis. I’m excited to let you know I just did … again!

I’m on my way out the door, this time headed for California. What could have been a very expensive trip is going to be so cheap, even I am amazed.


This is a last minute trip so I have not had the benefit of being able to book well in advance. In fact, I’ve had only five days advance notice of this trip.

FLIGHT: My first choice in air travel is now Southwest (SWA). I try to keep all of my flights with the same airline to build up my frequent flier miles. Usually that works pretty well. I’ve found that in most cases, SWA is very competitive. The cheapest roundtrip fare for flights that fit my schedule for this trip—a whopping $742. Gulp!  Granted I don’t have the luxury of booking 21 days in advance, but still that number made me wonder if I’d made a mistake. But no, that really is SWA’s best price. I put the reservation on “hold” to give myself time to shop around. Most airlines will do this for 24 hours.


Know Thy Dishwasher

I would like to thank Josephine Cochrane of Illinois. I’d like to, but I can’t. She’s been dead for more than a century. But if I could, I’d thank her for inventing the dishwasher. Personally, I’d give up just about anything before my dishwasher.


I’ll admit to being a stickler when it comes to properly washed dishes, glassware and utensils. If they come out spotted, gritty or cloudy I’m not happy.

If your dishwasher is not turning out beautifully clean, cloudless, spot-free, sparkling dishes, pots, glassware and flatware—without hand washing them first—don’t assume the dishwasher is broken. If it runs, you can make sure it runs well. And you can stop that pre-washing.

Years ago before we remodeled and sold our home in California, I’d lived with a low-end, plain wrap, well-used, 18-year old dishwasher. All was well until I began noticing that it was just not doing well. Dishes came out feeling gritty, glasses were streaked and cloudy, food remained stuck to flatware. Ugh. It was really bad. I assumed my Tappan had lived out its useful life and deserved to be put down.