It’s still summer, but not too early to start planning for Christmas. If you’re ready to make this year a debt-free Christmas, I’ve got three very useful ways to find the extra cash you’ll need to do that.

Time is of the essence because Christmas will be here before we know it!

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Rather than choose one of the following options, I suggest you consider doing all three. Don’t let that intimidate you.  And don’t worry about having to start up a side business or make any kind of upfront investment, either. The options that follow are all free and require nothing but your spare time to begin racking up extra cash.

SWAGBUCKS 

Swagbucks is an online rewards program that gives users points (“Swag Bucks,” or SBs) for various tasks—100 points = $1.00. Points can be traded in for eGift cards for more than 1,500 popular merchants like Amazon, Target, Starbucks and Walmart. Don’t want gift cards? Redeem your points for cold, hard cash via PayPal.

Swagbucks rewards members for the everyday things they already do online like shopping, answering surveys and polls, watching entertaining videos, discovering videos, searching the web and even playing games. 

Members can earn SBs using the mobile app and from their computers. 

To get started, create your free Swagbucks account. Once verified (you’ll get a verification email message) you’ll get your first 5 SBs. Then take a quick survey or watch a 5-minute video. The opportunities to earn SBs will be endless. Do as little or as much as you want. 

Swagbucks is super easy to use and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn SBs. We have EC readers who earn hundreds of dollars every year that they earmark for Christmas shopping!

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There’s only one thing I love more than readers asking for my opinion on stuff.  It’s when they act on my advice and then write back to tell me how happy they are. I don’t boast 100% success, but getting close 😉

Today, enjoy two inquiries and one follow-up report.

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Wesley writes: Which home security system do you recommend, both for economy and efficiency?

The company SimpliSafe has revolutionized the home security business, in my opinion, for these reasons:

  1. It is a system you own and can easily install yourself—designed to be DIY.
  2. It’s wireless, which means no drilling in window and door frames, no need to fish wires through tiny holes.
  3. Includes a back-up battery that kicks in and protects you for a full 24 hours in the event of a power outage.
  4. It’s a system that can be expanded easily, which means you can start with basic and then expand it with additional sensors, a camera, etc., later.
  5. Monitoring (optional) is $14.99 a month, which is a real bargain.

The SimpliSafe Alpha (basic system) is my pick for Best Inexpensive™ home security system.  About $200. 

Tom asks: What is your opinion of a wireless charging pad for mobile phones? I have a Samsung Note 8 but don’t want to shell out Samsung’s hefty price to try it out. Any thoughts? 

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These days its nearly certain that there’s a pricey product available to clean just about anything. But why spend the money when you can make your own homemade products that perform just as well from ingredients you may have already in your cupboards and pantry? I’m talking cheaper, faster and quite possibly better!

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What is the best and most effective way to clean a steam iron?

You need to clean both the inside and the sole plate of a steam iron regularly to keep it in tip-top condition. Before you proceed with my cleaning suggestions, make sure you read the owner manual that came with your iron to make sure there are no instructions or cautions that might preclude the following.

INSIDE: To remove build-up from the inside of the iron, which over time can really clog things up, pour equal amounts of white vinegar and water into the iron’s water chamber up to the maximum fill line. Turn the iron on to “steam” setting and iron a soft clean cloth to clean out the steam ports. 

Depending on how clogged up the iron is, it make take several attempts for the steam to bust through. It’s the vinegar that will break down all of that hard-water scale and buildup inside the iron. Read more

If you’ve ever experienced the heartbreak of shrinking your favorite pair of jeans to a length that would make them perfect to wear to a flood, you’re going to be particularly fond of today’s first great reader tip. And like me, you’re probably going to wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that!”

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My mail doesn’t arrive one message at a time. It comes in piles. Think: avalanche. While I have recently hired an assistant (yay me, and welcome Suzanne), the piles remain deep and wide. But I have big plans and high hopes.

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I must have the most patient readers on earth, understanding, too, because while I read every single message, I am unable to reply personally. That’s why I look forward to Ask Me Anything day.

Today I reached in and pulled out these questions…

Barbara writes: We need a new vacuum that is lightweight and easy to carry. We have three flights of stairs in our townhouse and our current vac is super heavy and difficult to navigate—and it doesn’t do a very good job. My new vacuum needs to have attachments including a long wand to dust door frames, drapes and artwork. A bagless vacuum would be ideal. We have a dog and a cat, so cleaning pet hair is an almost daily requirement. My husband and I always read your hints for saving money and we’re confident you can point us in the right direction!

You won’t find a better vacuum than a Shark. I’ve tried just about every vacuum out there, so I say this with supreme confidence.

There are several Shark models available currently, and my recommendation for you is this Shark Navigator Upright Vacuum for Carpet and Hard Floor with Lift-Away for deep cleaning stairways and carpeted steps. But there’s more.

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Do you wonder why you never have enough money to save some? Why there’s always so much month left at the end of the money? Maybe it’s time to consider that you’ve been handing over your savings to local restaurants, drive-thrus, diners, and coffee shops. Think about it.

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What if you didn’t eat out so often? What if you were strategic in buying basic ingredients and then cooking great meals at home? What if you had more of your money tucked away in savings rather than in the coffers of local eating joints?

No matter your lifestyle, I am confident that with the right strategies, you really can reduce the amount of money you spend on food in order to have more money to save—and still eat healthy, satisfying meals.

MORE TIME THAN MONEY

If yours is a single-income household struggling to survive in a two-income world, keeping food on the table and the bills paid can be quite a challenge. The good news is that time is on your side. The one not working outside the home has the time—it takes time to carry out the best strategies—to keep the cost at rock bottom without sacrificing quality.

MULTIPLE STORES. All grocery stores and supermarkets have tremendous weekly sales—even Whole Foods and Sprouts. And they announce these details in their weekly flyers—in print and online.

MORE: 25 Ways to Chop Your Food Bill

EAT THE SALES. Buy only loss leaders and items that are on sale. You won’t starve and you’ll have a huge variety of food items to choose from and in every department. All food stores, even Whole Foods and Sprouts, have weekly sales. When your budget is really, really tight don’t give in to the temptation to buy more just because it’s on sale.

COUPON LIKE CRAZY. Matching coupons to sales is the best weapon you have against rising food costs. There are free websites like CouponMom.com that will hook you up with the best coupons out there—and teach you how to use them to your best advantage.

BECOME AN EXPERT. Invest five weeks and $39 in Erin Chase’s Grocery Budget Makeover! (she’s the $5 Dinner Mom). You’ll gain expert status in no time—and recoup the cost the first five minutes you put this valuable information to work. Registration for the class closes soon, so if you’re interested, do not delay.

LITTLE TIME, TIGHT BUDGET

For dual-income families with kids, time becomes an especially valuable commodity. It’s scarce. Both of you work full-time jobs. Kids are in school plus all of their extra-curricular activities.

Then there’s church and weekends filled with sports and just playing catchup to get ready for the next week. You don’t have time to visit every store; to take advantage of a variety of sales. But money is still really tight, which makes the challenge even greater.

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Everyone agrees that we should change the filter in our home heating ventilation air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Actually doing that may be something else altogether. It’s all about the where, when and how of doing it that leads us to procrastination and selective amnesia.

It’s not difficult. The problem is in making it a priority. It’s not that big of a deal, right? If the thing still turns on and cools and/or heats the place, who cares?

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UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Consider these three unintended consequences, which should help push this simple home maintenance task up to a respectable place in your list of things that are important.

High energy bills

When the heat, ventilation or air-conditioning is running, 100% of the air in your home passes through a filter, typically twice every hour. When the filter is clean, the air passes through easily. When the filter gets clogged up with all the stuff it’s filtering out, the system has to work much harder to keep air moving.

The dirtier the filter, the less efficient the system can be—and more likely to develop problems. According to the Department of Energy, regular filter changes can reduce your energy bill by 5% to 10%. Conversely, a super dirty filter will send that bill through the roof!

Family health

A quality filter captures the harmful bacteria typically found in sneezes, coughs, viruses, and molds, as well as pollutants like dust and car fumes. If you have allergies or asthma, indoor air pollution can trigger your symptoms.

Most people don’t realize that indoor air pollution levels are actually much higher than those outdoors—two to five times higher, according to medical professionals. When particles become airborne, you can breathe them in and experience an allergic reaction. The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system in your home can harbor and then spread mold and other allergens.

Grimy carpet stains

It’s called filtration soiling and shows up as dark, shadowy, dirty lines on the carpet along baseboards, under doors, beneath draperies and along the edges and in the crevices of carpeted stairs.

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Filtration soil is as ugly as it is gross and comes from airborne pollutants passing through the carpet as the air is drawn through the crack between the carpet and the baseboard, around the drapes or under a closed door.

MORE: What are Those Grimy Black Lines Around the Edges of My Carpet?

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It’s been a few years since I’ve endured back-to-school shopping, all-school fundraisers, and parent-teacher conferences. Still, for me, the end of summer brings a sweet sense of excitement over September’s promise of a clean slate.

I can only assume that having spent so many years in school myself and then doing it all over again with my kids—and now my grandsons—my inner clock is stuck on the school, not the calendar, year.

Gone are the days when back-to-school meant a new pair of shoes. Nowadays, that simple three-word phrase is tantamount to the first domino that starts a chain of reactions into clothes, backpacks, supplies, fundraisers, after-school care, sports, clubs, school parties, nutritious breakfasts, loads of laundry, carpools, mobile phones, parking passes, lunch bags, teacher gifts and on and on it goes.

The challenge for all of us is to find practical ways to save time and money every day in all areas that relate to our kids, school and family life.

MORE: Back-to-School Clothes Shopping

Today, I want to share a story with you to demonstrate a way that you can get your kids’ clothes (yours, too!) and or school uniforms at huge savings—not from the thrift store and not the clothes your kids don’t want but they’re going to get, just because they’re on sale! I’m talking about the stores and style you and the kids love.

Here’s what happened: I asked my daughter-in-law if Eli (the cutest newly-minted fourth grader on earth) needed any school clothes. The answer was “Yes, please!” which gave me a wonderful reason to go shopping. Online. At home from my computer. Eli’s school requires uniforms—for the boys, it’s basic polo shirts and slacks.

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