Grad Guide to Having Fun With Your Money
What's the best way to book cheap travel? How can you snag discount tickets to concerts, plays and other events? Should you go into debt to buy an engagement ring? We help you make smart decisions when love, travel and entertainment are on your mind.
Q. What's the best place to find cheap airfare?
A. Do you Kayak? We're not talking boats and paddles here. Kayak.com and SideStep.com are so-called "site scrapers" that troll hundreds of other Web sites looking for the best travel bargains out there. Check out our list of the 30 Best Travel Sites for more tips on where to find the best flight, hotel and cruise deals online.
Q. Do you have travel ideas for someone on a tight budget?
A. When you're strapped for cash and want to get away, going somewhere close to home -- say, within driving distance -- can save you a bundle, especially if you bring along a friend or two to split the cost. Plan your trip around inexpensive lodging too, such as campgrounds or hostels.
Once you're out of school, you're no longer tied to vacationing during the summer months or spring break. Travel during the off-season to save money, avoid crowds and soak up local events overlooked by most tourists. See Penny-Pincher Vacations for more cost-cutting tips.
Check out our collection of travel slide shows for location inspiration. You can also find ideas and the latest bargains in the student travel section of SmarterTravel.com. (You won't qualify for student prices now that you've graduated, but the site will give you an idea of where bargains are turning up, as well as inexpensive itinerary suggestions.)
Q. How can I find cheap -- or free -- lodging on vacation?
A. If money is particularly tight, consider staying at youth hostels or camping. And travel with a friend. You'll not only have someone to share your adventure with, but also you can split the cost of lodging, gas and taxi cabs.
And for a free place to stay, check out CouchSurfing.com, a network of more than 1 million people in 231 countries who are willing to open their homes (and their couches) for you to stay on your next adventure. This method helps you meet the locals and experience what life is really like in that part of the world. Stick to "vouched for" and "verified" members for safety. The average age of the site's members is 27, and nearly half are between ages 18 and 24.
Q. What if I'm too young to rent a car?
A. It's a sad reality of young adulthood: You're old enough to drive, vote and drink, but until you hit 25, you don't get full rental-car privileges. Some companies, such as Alamo, Avis, or Hertz, won't rent to you at all. Budget, Enterprise, Dollar and Thrifty will, but they may charge an extra $10 to $25 per day for drivers age 21 through 24. So if you're traveling with an older friend, list him or her as the driver and pitch in the cash to cover your share of the ride. But if you're by yourself, you'll have to suck it up and pay the extra fees.
Q. How can I take someone out on a date when my paycheck is so pathetic?
A. We feel your pain. But look at the bright side -- this is a prime time to find people who like you for you, not your money. Plus, you get a chance to explore your creative side. Anyone can go out for dinner and a movie. Instead, you'll stand out from the pack with one of these ideas:
Attend a wine tasting. These can cost less than $10 each.
Have a picnic and explore a state or national park. Admission is usually less than $10 or free.
Play tourist. Live in New York but never been to the Statue of Liberty or ridden up to the top of the Empire State Building? Make it a date.
Have a food theme night (like Mexican, Italian or Chinese) and cook each other dinner at home.
Hang out on campus. If you live in a college town, take advantage of student art shows, musical concerts and theater productions. Or do some stargazing at the college observatory. These activities are often free or very inexpensive.
Volunteer together. Spending quality time together for a good cause -- what could be more romantic?
For more ideas, look no further than cyberspace. Google "cheap date ideas" and you'll get a plethroa of suggestions.
Q. How can I pick a good bottle of wine?
A. The binge drinking college days are over, and you're ready to show a more sophisticated side. First, consider what food with which you'll be drinking your wine. You generally want a red wine with beef, lamb or pork. Pick up a bottle of white wine for chicken or fish. And if you're having pasta, match the wine to the color of the sauce. For specific bottle recommendations, see About.com's list of the best wines under $10. You can also browse recommendations and shop by price at Wine.com.
Q. Cable TV is pricey. Do I have other options that will satisfy my inner couch potato?
A. You needn't shell out $60 to $100 for a cable TV subscription. There are plenty of places to get free or super-cheap TV shows and movies for a fraction of the cost. Hulu.com offers a plethora of free TV shows and movies new and old for your viewing pleasure. Network such as CBS and ABC are also increasingly posting episodes on their own Web sites.
For movies (and TV seasons on DVD), consider Netflix's unlimited plan (starting at $8.99 per month) which gives you unlimited rentals, plus instant gratification via on-demand streaming to your computer. Or check out Redbox DVD kiosks, which charge $1 per day for rentals. And, of course, don't forget your public library. See Cut the Cable Cord for more tips.
Q. How can I score free stuff?
A. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? We maintain a list of our favorite freebies from free movies, music and sporting events to free credit reports and budgeting software. Put your wallet away and check it out.
Q. What books do you recommend for people starting out?
A. We enjoy the latest John Grisham as much as the next person, but nothing gets our hearts pumping faster with excitement than learning how to be successful and make a lot of money. First, pick up a copy of Life After School Explained from Cap and Compass. A funny and incredibly helpful resource on just about everything you'll encounter in your first year out of school: credit cards, student loans, taxes, savings accounts and which fork to use first at your first business dinner. Then, to take your money savvy to the next level, check out The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke by Suze Orman, or Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner. (See more of our favorites.)
Q. How much should I spend on an engagement ring?
A. Well, how much can you afford? You should never go in debt for an engagement ring. The money-hungry diamond industry has perpetuated a myth that you should spend at least two months of salary on an engagement ring. But, come on. Do they really have your best financial interest at heart (cha-ching)? Take an honest look at your budget and see where you might have some wiggle room to start saving toward your purchase. There's a lot of emotional baggage wrapped up in a ring because of what it's supposed to symbolize. But you don't want to give your fiancée the gift of debt upon saying "I do."
We know your special someone deserves the best, so start saving the little that you can each month (you can save $1,000 in one-year's time by saving just $83 a month or $11 a day. And you don't have to go for the "wow" factor right away (if she's the right one, she won't care about how much you spent on her). You can go understated for the engagement ring, and wow her with a one- or five-year anniversary ring down the road.
Q. How much ring can I get for the money?
A. Here are some general guidelines from Deborah Fowles, author of Everything Personal Finance in Your 20s and 30s, and financial planning guru for About.com:
$125 to $500 for a quarter carat or less, set in 10 to 14 carat gold
$500 to $750 for a slightly larger stone or possibly an 18 carat gold setting
$750 to $1,000 for stones between .3 and .5 carats, some with a platinum or 18 carat gold setting and possibly AGS/GIA-certified
$1,000 to $2,000 for AGS/GIA-certified, high quality stones between .30 and .57 carats or mid to high quality stones up to .75 carats
$2,000 to $3,500 for stones from .4 to 1 carat in 14 or 18 carat gold (the 1 carat stones may have inclusions or other imperfections)
$3,500 to $5,000 for quality 1 carat stones in 18 carat or platinum setting
"If you're considering spending more than $5,000, I hope you have inherited a large sum of money and already own your own home," says Fowles. "Otherwise, your money would be put to better use on a down payment for your first home together as a couple."
Q. What are some inexpensive but thoughtful wedding gift ideas?
A. When all your college buddies start walking down the aisle, the wedding gift bill can really add up. But you can keep costs to a minimum with a little creativity. Rule number one: You don't have to buy something off the registry. Instead, use the personal knowledge you have of the couple. For example, you may know that the bride and groom share a fanatical addiction to Oreos, so you buy them a year's supply -- for less than $40. (The gift will certainly stand out among the standard-issue toasters.) Or, how about a gift subscription to Netflix for all those romantic nights in? Another idea is to build the couple a theme basket, such as a "breakfast in bed" basket with pancake mix, syrup, a couple of mugs and a bag of their favorite coffee.
If you have your eye on a bigger-ticket gift, go in on it with some friends. If three of you kick in $40, you can spring for a $120 gift. And whether you go with a group or fly solo, find a way to make gifts off the registry personal -- especially if it's on the cheap side. For example, if you get them the blender they wanted, throw in a couple of your favorite smoothie recipes and a small gift card to the local grocery store to buy ingredients. See Avoid Overspending on Wedding Gifts for more tips, and our slide show of 10 Inexpensive Yet Thoughtful Gifts for specific ideas.
Q. When is it OK to go into debt for purchases?
A. Before you whip out your plastic or fill out a loan application, ask yourself: Will this purchase appreciate in value? If so, the debt may be worth it. If not, you should save up your money ahead of time.
For example, going into debt for education or a home can make sense. But enslaving your finances for travel, furniture, electronics or even an engagement ring is not a good idea. Ideally, you wouldn't go into debt to buy a car either because it depreciates in value over time. But when you're starting out, scraping up enough cash to buy your first set of wheels to get you to and from your job can be a tall order to fill. See When is it Worth Going Into Debt to learn more.
Q. Is a gym membership worth the cost?
A. That depends on whether you'll actually use it. The true value of a gym membership lies in the variety of machines and activities. You could spend thousands of dollars outfitting your home gym to match the club's offerings. If you get bored with one workout, you have plenty of options you can try to keep active, including group classes and personal training sessions. Get bored with your home treadmill, and you basically have a $2,000 clothes hanger.
Spring and summer are prime times to join a health club because the burst of new-year's-resolution sign-ups has fallen off. Shop around, visit clubs and don't be afraid to haggle with a sales rep.
But you certainly don't need a gym membership to get a good workout. If you aren't confident in your motivation to drive to the health club regularly, don't waste your money. You can get fit at home for much less. A good pair of running shoes, a set of hand weights and an exercise mat may be all you need. See Get Fit for Less for more information and product recommendations.
Q. How can I snag discount tickets to a concert, play or other event?
A. One way to get a bargain is to wait until the last minute. When it gets down to a couple hours before the performance, the theater may start selling "rush" tickets at a fraction of the price -- it would rather sell the seats at a bargain than let them go empty. Consolidated discount ticket booths are popping up in cities nationwide, including Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Or call your favorite home-town theater to see if it offers price cuts directly to the public right before show time. Of course, bear in mind that if you're trying to get last-minute seats to a popular show, there's a good chance it'll sell out. So it pays to keep your plans flexible.
It's also a good idea to ask about other discounts, such as standing room only, matinees and pay-what-you-can nights. Or, team up with a group of friends and co-workers to get a group ticket rate. See Entertainment for Less for more cost-cutting tips.
Q. How can I see a performance for free?
A. Consider getting an evening job as an usher at your favorite concert hall or theater. Or, some venues may take you on as a volunteer. In exchange for passing out play bills at the door, for example, they'll let you sit in on the performance when your work is done (though you may miss the first 15 minutes of the show).
Q. How can I throw a party on a budget?
A. You don't have to break the bank to host a great get-together. After all, it's the company of friends that matters, not how much money you spend (or don't). Start by making it a team effort. Share hosting duties -- and budgets -- with a friend. Or, involve your guests (and alleviate your financial burden) by asking them to bring a favorite dish, dessert or wine to share. Borrow decorations, linens and dishes from friends or family, and expand your music selection by visiting your local library.
Get creative and plan a party that speaks your and your friends' personalities. Here are 10 affordable party ideas to get your creative juices flowing.