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Frugal Living Tip – Manage the Big Expenses

Just as you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, it’s not easy to find savings by looking at portions of your life where you don’t spend very much.

That’s why G.E. Miller writes at 20somethingfinance.com about the importance of seeking savings where you spend the most money.

Miller cites a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that the average household devotes more than half of its annual expenditures toward two categories – housing (34.1%) and transportation (17.6%).

So if you really want to live more frugally, suggests Miller, it makes sense to take a hard look at your housing and transportation expenses.

For instance, if you live in or near a big city, using public transportation, walking or bicycling might be able to save you a big chunk of the $8,758 that the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the average family spends on transport.

Of course, as many of Miller’s readers point out, people trying to reduce both housing and transport expenses may encounter a Catch-22 scenario. You can usually find cheaper housing in an exurban or rural area, but those places tend to have poor public transport options. Or you can move closer to a big city and cut your transport expenses but have to contend with an expensive housing market.

How can you get around this dilemma?

On the transportation side, even if you need to drive a car, the type of car you drive can have a major impact on your finances. If you drive a large gas-guzzling SUV, you may be able to trim your fuel bill by downsizing to a compact or mid-size car.

Even if that’s not realistic because you need to transport a lot of people and/or packages in your vehicle, you might be able to still find savings either by choosing the most fuel-efficient car in its class (check the U.S. Government’s Fuel Economy website to compare mileage ratings) or by shifting to a less luxurious nameplate. For example, the Ford Motor Company owns both the luxurious Lincoln and mainstream Mercury brands. Buying the least expensive Lincoln SUV (the MXK) would require more than $38,000, but you could save a boatload of cash by choosing the Mercury Mariner instead for as little as $23,000 and change.

Similarly, even when it comes to housing costs, you can often find deals (especially in this real estate market) if you’re willing to be flexible. Are you willing to sublet part of a house from a homeowner having trouble making payments on her mortgage? If so, you could potentially do a good deed (helping the homeowner avoid foreclosure) while simultaneously getting a good deal on a home in a good location.

Loans can be hard to get in this climate, but if you have the cash, you might also be able to find good deals on housing in prime locations by including short sales, foreclosures and real estate auctions in your search.

Have you successfully figured out a way to lower transportation and/or housing expenses? Or do you think that lowering expenses in those areas is unrealistic and that people are better off applying frugal habits in other parts of their lives? Have your say in our Comments section below!

January 29, 2010   1 Comment

Get a 4GB Coby MP3 Player Today

mp3-player

Are you in the market for a great new mp3 player? Coby’s mp3 player is an incredibly affordable option that gives you the sleek look and great sound quality of an iPod without the large price tag.

This sleek music player features nearly 2 inches of screen real estate, a built-in fm radio and will play non-stop for 8 hours on a full charge. Coby’s MP3 player makes a great, affordable gift. Or, if you’d rather, get it for yourself. Either way, we know that whoever gets this music player will fall in love with it.

DollarDays wants you to have music you love at your finger tips, and that’s why this 4GB Coby mp3 player is our product of the week.


January 26, 2010   No Comments

Small Business Advice – Pay What You Wish?

On the surface, it sounds crazy, but these days various types of businesses are experimenting with a format where customers are allowed to pay whatever they want for a service or product.

The trend has been going on for years, as can be seen in this 2007 Springwise trendspotting article about restaurants in cities including Denver, Salt Lake City and Vienna allowing customers to choose their own prices (and sometimes even portion sizes).

Today, it looks as if each of those restaurants is still going strong, which is some accomplishment in the unforgiving restaurant industry, especially in a recession.

Some of the restaurants in question do seem to have combined the pay-what-you-wish concept with progressive social activism, which may help them attract a clientele willing to engage in good faith and support the concept rather than freeloading and mooching of the proprietors.

In any case, the concept is not limited to restaurants. The best known example of pay-what-you-wish might be the opaque pricing site Priceline.com, where customers can bid for hotel rooms and rental cars by offering to pay whatever price seems fair to them.

Of course, Priceline is not a true pay-what-you-wish concept since there is a hidden price for each city or category below which rental car companies and hotel chains will not provide inventory. You can offer to pay $5 for a 4-star hotel in New York City, but the hotel is under no obligation to accept.

On the other hand, Priceline does seem to have carved out a sustainable niche that allows customers access to good deals while also simultaneously giving hotels and car rental chains the ability to dispose of excess inventory without eroding prices across the board.

The question of course is whether pay-what-you-wish pricing makes sense in the big picture. A recent article on Inc.com’s Retail blog by Tom Szaky, co-founder and CEO of TerraCycle, shows that the concept may have relevance for the general retail world. Szaky reported on his blog that TerraCycle had moved from a pure dot.com model into the brick-and-mortar retail world by opening a pay-what-you-wish retail store.

In defending/justifying his decision, Szaky pointed out that the concept has worked in other industries, including music where bands like Radiohead have managed to make money by selling digital albums and letting users choose whatever price they think is fair.

The model may work best where the incremental costs of each additional product sold are very low or even non-existent (i.e. digital content) or where brand loyalty (rock bands) is high.

On the other hand, one could argue that auction sites like eBay prove that retailers don’t need to set prices to make money. As long as buyers are operating in a situation of perceived or real scarcity, they will compete among themselves to set a price that may in fact be higher than what a retailer would get if he/she had set the price to begin with.

What do you think? Would you ever let your customers choose their own prices for some of the products or services you sell? Have you participated as a seller in any auction sites such as eBay? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

January 25, 2010   1 Comment

Frugal Living Tip – Does Prepaying a Mortgage Make Good Financial Sense?

Those who enjoy living a Frugal live generally try to avoid debt.

Debt is bad financially of course because it involves paying interest, thus ensuring that whatever you’ve purchased ends up costing more in the long run than it would have if you paid the whole price up front.

Debt can also make you feel bad, knowing that if a financial emergency like a job loss occurs, you’re still on the hook for whatever you owe (plus interest).

So, if you have a mortgage or any other large debt such as a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC), you might be tempted to prepay the mortgage/debt in order to reduce your debt as fast as possible and save money on interest payments.

But is that always a wise financial decision? The author of My Life ROI financial blog writes in his post “To Prepay Your Mortgage Or Not” that it might make better sense from an economic standpoint to resist the temptation to prepay your mortgage (provided that you have a reasonable mortgage interest rate, of course).

For example, if you have the investment skills to earn 8% in the stock market, why would you want to prepay a mortgage that cost you only 5% interest? (Remember that if you itemize your tax return, you may get a deduction on home mortgage interest too.)

So does the argument on not prepaying a mortgage hold water on close examination? Perhaps, but even the My Life ROI blogger acknowledges that completely paying off a big debt can have major psychological benefits for lots of people.

It’s also important to note that lots of people end up losing money investing in stocks, commodities and other financial interests. If you opt to play the stock market instead of paying off your mortgage and your investments go sour, you’ll still have to make your mortgage payments plus work harder to make up your losses in the market.

Ultimately, the choice depends on individual psychology and risk tolerance. If you have an iron stomach for debt, a low interest rate mortgage and good investment skills, opting not to pay off your mortgage early could make sense. But for many people, the prudent, safe and frugal thing to do would be to put at least some extra cash toward paying down your mortgage early when possible.

Does prepaying a mortgage make sense to you? Or would you rather use free cash toward investments? Make your case in the Comments section below!

January 22, 2010   No Comments

Peter Shankman, founder of Help A Reporter Out

Dollar Days Blog is pleased to share the expertise of Peter Shankman, founder of Help A Reporter Out (HARO).

HARO Founder, Peter Shankman

HARO Founder, Peter Shankman

Dollar Days Blog (DDB) – Please tell us a little about yourself and HARO.

Peter Shankman – Since I founded HARO in 2008, it has become one of the fastest-growing social media companies in North America. Every day, HARO brings nearly 30,000 bloggers, reporters and journalists, over 80,000 news sources and thousands of small businesses together to tell their stories, promote their brands and sell their products and services.

Since its inception, HARO has published more than 60,000 journalist queries; has facilitated nearly 7,000,000 media pitches, and has marketed and promoted over 2,500 brands to the media, small businesses and consumers.

HARO is entirely free to sources and journalists. Unlike a majority of social media companies, HARO is independently owned and funded and has been profitable since day one. HARO’s tagline, “Everyone is an Expert at Something,” proves over and over again to be true, as thousands of new members join at helpareporter.com each week.

Beyond HARO, I would describe myself as an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and worldwide connector.  In addition to HARO, I am founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique Marketing and PR Strategy firm located in New York City, with clients worldwide.

DDB – It sounds like HARO is meant mainly for reporters. What are the advantages for small business owners?

Shankman – HARO provides small to mid-size businesses with 75-80% open rates on the ads that headline each of its thrice-daily email digests containing reporter queries. HARO also helps many small businesses directly market to their key audiences and make money. Everyone who receives the HARO newsletter must opt-in, meaning they choose to receive the e-mail. The advertising messages are custom-written either by HARO founder Peter Shankman or by a HARO family member and presents the product or service in a fun and positive light that highlights its importance and utility. Furthermore, since HARO is a digital newsletter, hyperlinks are directly embedded within the message.

DDB – How can media exposure help a small business? Do you have any success story examples from your clients?

Shankman – Media exposure pushes a product or service into the spotlight, instantly gaining consumer focus and attention. The best way to demonstrate HARO’s success is with by citing the successes of our users.

For example, Michael Jordan, owner of BullyStickDirect.com, called the response to his ad ‘overwhelming’ and noted that he received about a 2,000% increase in website hits the afternoon his ad appeared and into the next day. Not only was HARO the most successful advertising venue Mr. Jordan had tried, he’s also used HARO to achieve additional visibility by getting quoted in a book and major publications simply by responding to HARO queries.

Another HARO user, Jason Sadler, has called his HARO ad the ‘tipping point’ for his website, IWearYourShirt.com. Sadler said his first ad helped him sell 2-3 months worth of shirts in days, moving $8000 worth of merchandise and generating ‘a ton’ of press exposure.

DDB – Since HARO is itself a small business, what are some of the decisions you’ve made that enable HARO to compete with larger players?

Shankman – HARO was originally conceived as a Facebook group. Since Facebook caps group emails at 1,200 people, an e-mail newsletter was started. As HARO’s readership grew, HARO realized that there was great potential to include a simple, subtle, and creative ad at the top of each message.  As a small business of its own (HARO has only 6 full-time staff members), HARO has generated $1.4M in revenue in 14 months. By utilizing technology and automatic distribution services, HARO is able to keep its overhead low while, at the same time, continually offering high yield ROI on its ads.

DDB - What are some of the best decisions you’ve made as a small business owner?
Shankman -

A) Hired people whose skills complement my own.

B) Listened to people I trust; ignored the naysayers I didn’t.

C) Believed in my idea.

D) Listened to my customers and audience. Constantly.

January 18, 2010   1 Comment

Frugal Living Tip – Sometimes it Pays to Spend

We spend a lot of time talking on this blog about ways to save money, stay out of debt and live frugally.

Living within your means is important, but it’s also good to have some balance in your life. Over at Personal Finance Advice, guest writer Rebecka O. delves into the issue of excessive saving.

In her article “Why I Don’t Save Money,” Rebecka shares a story about her mother who died with more than $1.5 million in savings — along with unfulfilled dreams of visiting Europe, attending a Broadway show, gazing at the Pacific Ocean and seeing penguins in the wild.

Rebecka says that her mother lived frugally and that she herself shared those frugal tendencies until her mother’s death, at which point she came to question the value of saving money if it meant missing out on longed for experiences.

So Rebecka devoted herself to fulfilling her most important lifelong dreams. In about six years, she blew through her entire share of the inheritance – about $300,000.

The responses by readers to Rebecka’s story are interesting in their own right. Some people questioned whether Rebecka should have spent the entire inheritance. Other readers were OK with her spending the inheritance, but criticized her choice of even delving into retirement savings to fund her goal of fulfilling all her dreams. Several readers suggested that Rebecka should have sought some balance or moderation, splurging on some dreams while saving some of the inheritance.

Be sure to read Comment #13 by Pat Merritt which contains a nice story about Pat’s own experiences with saving and the satisfaction she has received from spending on time with her family and a special artwork purchase. Here is an excerpt from Pat’s comment -

“You see, frugality is not just saving for retirement, or a nebulous future that may not come. It’s also getting the things that you really want now. It’s a decision making mechanism that lets you decide what is important to you and to set out and get the things that really matter.”

Do you agree with Pat’s definition of frugality? Do you try to minimize expenses in order to save the most possible money – either for a rainy day or to build an estate for your family? Or do you believe that money should be used sooner rather than later to fulfill your most important dreams? Or is some compromise path the best? Share your perspective in the Comments section below.

January 15, 2010   1 Comment

Small Business Advice – Save Energy, Save Money

Last year the government’s Cash for Clunkers program got plenty of attention for giving individuals financial incentives to trade in gas guzzlers in exchanger for newer, more fuel efficient replacements.

Cash for Clunkers was then followed by in many parts of the country by other programs that promoted energy efficiency by giving rebates that encouraging consumers to upgrade from old appliances to more efficient Energy Star-rated models.

Why should government support efficiency programs? The idea is that everyone wins when the government helps consumers trade up to newer models of cars or appliances. Consumers get lower electric or fuel bills. Manufacturers are able to move products that would otherwise be harder to sell in the current economic climate. Governments benefit in a couple of ways. If manufacturers can stay in business, the government has fewer unemployed people to support. And if overall energy or fuel usage declines, the government feels less pressure to build new power plants or fuel refineries.

So how does all of this help small businesses? Well, as a recent article in the Small Business Trends blog pointed out, businesses too can benefit from government support for energy efficiency upgrades. The article highlights benefits in several states including:

  • California, where Pacific Gas & Electric Company offers rebates of $10 to $125 for installing high efficiency light bulbs.

and

  • Indiana, where Duke Energy gives small businesses up to $50,000 in annual rebates for high-efficiency improvements to HVAC-type systems.

Even if a power company won’t subsidize the actual cost of upgrades, it might still help businesses figure out how to make improvements. That’s what Minnesota’s Xcel Energy does by covering  most of the cost of heating-optimization studies.

The important thing for small businesses is to check for special offers and promotions in your state, city or local community. For instance, small business owners in Austin, Texas not only qualify for a general commercial rebate, but also an additional special 30 percent bonus rebate, plus a lighting program that covers up to 70% of installed costs.

Other small business energy efficiency grant and rebate programs exist around the country from Pennsylvania to Arizona (where the state subsidizes up to 90% of incremental measure costs).

Rather than hunting all over the Internet, you can save yourself time and energy by using the handy guide from Business.gov that provides links to state and local energy efficiency programs for small businesses.

And remember, in addition to up front savings from rebates or other forms of assistance from government and utilities, any energy efficiency improvements you make to your business should end up helping your bottom line by reducing recurring expenses.

If you really go all out and achieve superior efficiency to the point where you’re powering your business with solar or wind energy, your efficiency could even become a marketing point among Green-minded consumers. It’s a message that has worked for businesses from New Belgium Brewing to Horizon Organic.

Has your small business benefited from any government or utility-sponsored energy efficiency program? Or have you seen bottom-line savings from energy efficiency improvements. Share your experiences in the Comments field below!

January 11, 2010   No Comments

Small Business Expert Interview – Shel Horowitz

Dollar Days Blog is pleased to share the expertise of Shel Horowitz, ethical/Green marketing expert.

Author and ethical marketing expert Shel Horowitz

Author and ethical marketing expert Shel Horowitz

Dollar Days Blog (DDB) – Please describe your background and business expertise in a nutshell.

Shel Horowitz – I founded my own business in 1981 with a total investment of $200, of which $12 went for initial marketing. I am still in that business, although it has morphed several times and bears no relation to its original incarnation. These days, I break down the bulk of my work into these areas:

* Marketing consulting, strategic planning, social media/PR strategy, and copywriting, emphasizing frugal, ethical, green approaches. My clients are primarily authors and publishers, small or micro businesses, and nonprofits.

* Helping unpublished writers become published authors.

* Writing and speaking about frugal, ethical, and green marketing and/or book publishing and marketing.

DDB – You describe yourself as an ethical/green marketing expert. How does ethical/green marketing differ from ordinary marketing?

Horowitz – Ethical marketing does not overhype or mislead.  I help companies find and harness the marketing value in the green initiatives they’ve undertaken/could undertake.

DDB – People tend to think of ‘Green’ anything as being more expensive and more complicated. Is that the case when it comes to marketing?

Horowitz – Nope.  Done right, green and ethical marketing can cost less, build customer loyalty, open doors to strategic partnerships, and even turn marketing from a cost that brings in income only from its results into an actual revenue stream that brings in income through both the marketing itself and its results. For instance, you can get paid for speaking and writing, and those activities can lead directly to attracting more clients or customers.

DDB - One of your boldest arguments is that companies shouldn’t worry about market share because ‘market share doesn’t matter’. How can you say this? Shouldn’t small businesspeople be focused on becoming major players in their market? Or is this a comforting message for small businesspeople who generally don’t have the lion’s share of their markets anyway.

Horowitz – Look at it this way. There are millions of people who need quality copywriting or who are trying to organize their thoughts into a published book. I can only serve the tiniest portion of them anyway. If my calendar is full, what does it matter how much market share I have? This is true for all service businesses, and many product businesses. The former CEO of Southwest Airlines criticized his competitors for chasing market share at the expense of profitability. Maybe it’s not a surprise that his was the only airline to stay profitable in the aftermath of 9/11. And yes, I think small businesses can take comfort from that.

DDB – Next year you have a book coming out called Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. First of all, please explain a bit about the definition and history of guerrilla marketing. Next, what does Green guerrilla marketing look like?

Horowitz – Guerrilla Marketing is a concept invented by my co-author, Jay Conrad Levinson, in the mid-1980s. It’s the idea of being nimble in our thinking and our actions, seizing opportunities that are not open to big, cumbersome organizations that lack the agility to move fast. Guerilla marketing is cheaper, more efficient, and makes it easier to build relationships with customers.

For instance, I can demonstrate guerilla marketing in action by seizing this opportunity to tell your readers that they can get notified when the book is available by leaving their e-mail address at http://www.guerrillamarketinggoesgreen.com.

Green guerrilla marketing takes it a step farther: as consumers become more aware of issues like climate change, buying local and so forth, they want to patronize companies that understand these green priorities. The new book shows a whole lot of ways to use green principles and commitment to ethics in order to place your company front and center in the prospect’s mind, so when that prospect is ready to become a customer, you’re the company that gets seen as green. If the customer knows your company is concerned about doing the right thing, you are well-positioned to get the sale.

DDB – You claim that businesspeople can slash their advertising costs while seeing better results. How?!

Horowitz – I discuss many, many ways to do this in the book, and in my individual consulting. Here’s one of my favorites: find a company or organization that already reaches your perfect audience, and show that company why they will benefit from exposing that audience to your message.

DDB – Let’s say I am a small businessperson who wants to try something Green in my marketing efforts, but I don’t where to begin. Where should I start and how can I get my customers to notice and to care?

Horowitz – Start with an initiative that not only wins your customers’ hearts and minds, but also saves you money. For example, the hotel industry has successfully positioned their don’t-change-the-towels initiative as a Green move, but it also gave them enormous savings on energy, water and labor costs.

January 4, 2010   3 Comments

Frugal Living Tip – Saving for 2010!

Happy New Year! Hopefully this year will bring you health, happiness and good fortune.

Now let’s start talking about saving for 2010.

But the year just started? That’s right. That’s why this is the perfect time to start socking money away in a special savings account so that you have cash when the holidays roll around next year!

This article at eHow.com has lots of useful advice on getting out of debt incurred from excessive holiday shopping, but of course it’s much better to avoid going into debt in the first place.

How can you avoid holiday-related debts? LaToya Irby has written a useful article at About.com with 8 suggestions for avoiding holiday debts. Some of her bright ideas include shopping with cash rather than credit (that way you can’t spend more than you have) and focusing on buying gifts for others, not for yourself.

Irby suggests saving well in advance to make sure you have enough cash to buy gifts without resorting to credit cards. If you’re very disciplined with money, you be able to store that cash in your regular savings or checking account, but it might also be useful to open a special (interest-bearing) account devoted just for holiday expenditures or any other special splurges.

Read more about the benefits of this approach in the “Open a Holiday Savings Account” article in the PT Money blog.

Just think – if you set aside $100 a month, you’ll have more than $1000 for presents and gifts by the time the winter holidays arrive. Not to mention a few extra dollars in interest income.

What if you have some extra cash on hand right now? Well, you could take advantage of post-holiday sales and stock up on presents early for next year. Or you could look into buying a short-term 3-month or 6-month CD. Sites like Bankrate.com let you find the best CD interest rates.

But depending on how much money you’re looking to sock away for the holidays, you may get a better return by looking for special offers that banks sometimes run offering cash bonuses of $100 or so for opening new checking accounts. Just be sure to read all the fine print. Sometimes you’ll need to make a couple of check card purchases (even small ones) within a certain time frame to qualify for the bonus.

Why does the bonus make sense over the simpler CD or interest bearing savings account? Well, imagine that you put $1200 into each account on January 1st. With the bonus offer, you get $100 and perhaps spend $2 on little debit card purchases. You then have $1298 by December 1st for holiday purchases.

With interest rates so close to historic lows, you’d be very lucky to find a CD or interest savings account paying anywhere near 2%. Even with 2% interest, you would only earn around $20 by keeping your $1200 in the bank until December.

The math works out even better if you can find a deal that lets you open a new account and get the bonus with a small opening deposit such as $100. In that scenario where you’re gradually building up your holiday shopping account incrementally, you’d get much less than $20 at 2% interest, but you’d still get all $100 from the new account bonus, making that clearly the best choice.

And if you don’t end up spending all the money in your holiday spending account? Well, you can easily transfer most of it into your general savings account as a special ‘Happy New Year’ bonus to yourself in 2011!

Have you tried creating a special savings account for holiday purchases? Or do you have some other strategy for maintaining spending discipline around the holidays? Share your experiences and ideas in the Comments section below!

January 1, 2010   4 Comments

Small Business Advice – Getting Exposure through Blogs

Sure, it would be fantastic if your small business was featured on Good Morning America or in the pages of People magazine.

But let’s be realistic — the odds of getting covered in such a mass-market publication are low simply because of the massive level of competition for scarce pages or airtime. Good Morning America‘s producers need to attract the maximum number of viewers and if it comes down to a decision between an interview with you or Brad Pitt, well, let’s just say that the bookies won’t be taking bets in your favor.

But these days there are lots of other ways to get exposure for your business, especially online where more and more people are turning to business blogs for information, news and advice.

John Jantsch from Duct Tape Marketing has put together a good article for American Express’s Open Forum called “5 Tips for Getting More Exposure from Bloggers, Tweeters and Fans.”

John shows that with a bit of effort, your odds are good of getting covered in a respected, well-read business blog. One of his best ideas involves using sites like Digg, Stumbleupon and delicious to try to find up-and-coming blogs that aren’t yet inundated with pitches.

When you do find these blogs, John warns against simply firing off a press release and hoping for the best. The Internet is all about interactivity, participation and relationship-building. A far better approach would be to become a regular reader of the blog, subscribe to its RSS feed. If a blogger has a Facebook page, join her fan group. If a blogger uses Twitter, start following him.

One of the best ways to show a blogger that you are an engaged reader is to make useful comments (not promotional fluff) and help stimulate conversation on her posts.

Finally, when you have established yourself as a credible and engaged reader, that’s the time to pounce and send along a brief pitch for a story, explaining why your idea would be a perfect fit for the blog and its readers.

Sure, such a strategy takes an investment of time and energy, but it could be worth it to establish yourself as a go-to source for a rising-star blogger. These days, the line is thinner than ever between traditional media and the blogosphere. Bloggers are invited to participate in White House news conferences and cover political campaigns. Blogs sometimes break major news stories that have offline papers scrambling to keep up. And since bloggers have an insatiable need for content, getting known as a valuable source of good story ideas could lead to extensive ongoing coverage for yourself and your business.

Also note that blog exposure can be especially valuable for companies that sell products or services direct to consumers via the Internet. A consumer reading a blog that mentions you or your company is just a few clicks away from making a purchase…

Have you had any luck getting exposure or sales through a blog? If so, what strategies did you employ to get noticed? Share your advice and help establish yourself as a respected source right here at Dollar Days Blog by leaving a comment below!

December 28, 2009   No Comments