Squirreling Gone Wild #17: The Magic Gumball Machine and Free Cookies

The “something for nothing urge” is something that comes up often in the Squirreling Gone Wild series. Frugality run amok! This edition shares two instances which combined  kids AND grown-ups letting their excitement over something for nothing get the best of them. A new generation of extractors has to learn somewhere, right?

The first situation, unfortunately, involved me being the catalyst for craziness. It was just in the last year or two, when we went out as a family for Sunday brunch. As we were on the way out, I looked toward the door, and spotted a gumball machines.  I hadn’t gotten gum from a machine in probably 25 years, so normally I wouldn’t think anything of it.

This time, gum just sounded good, as a taste break. So, what did I do? I walked through the first door which opened to that entryway area, and stood by the gum machine. I then paused and thought to myself: Do I want to act like a child and put my quarter in the gumball machine?

I quickly looked around, and assessed the situation: nobody was watching. So, I put my quarter in, turned the dial, and out came a gumball. I quickly grabbed it while acting nonchalant. I guess it was embarrassing to be a 6’0″ tall grown man who’s a father that’s buying a gumball for himself. I did it anyway, and that gum was as good as I remembered it from the days of youth. 

Then I noticed something else: the quarter was still there! I got the gumball for free. I thought that was strange, but it was quickly exhilarating, and I turned the dial a second time just to see what would happen. Out came another gumball, and my quarter was still there. Another free gumball. YES! I was curious if this was just luck or a case of a broken machine, so I tried again: free gumball #3 emerged.

At that point, a wave of guilt and a bigger wave of maturity came over me, and I stopped. I just hit me that I need to stop, so I did. However, I made the mistake of talking about it aloud with my family.

Apparently, a kid from a different family heard me talk about it, and he excitedly ran over and turned the dial. Never mind that it was my quarter that was still in there, though I didn’t care since he was just a child that was too excited to notice or care whose money it was. The kid was just so excited, and he turned the dial to get the quarter and free gum. It was good theatre, and he was happy to get the gum. Eagerly, he told his parents what happened.

The mom said, “let’s try it again!”. So, the kid does it again, while I watch. He gets more gum. Then he kept turning the dial and collecting gum. Both his parents are then laughing as he’s so excited to get free gum. He turned the dial 5 or 6 times before his parents told him to stop and give the “Nice Man” his quarter back. He grudgingly did that, and then they (and we) walked out. They were laughing about the whole thing, while I was amused by their actions.

The part that was especially funny to me is that they felt bad about him using my quarter. I couldn’t have cared less about that quarter, in reality. To me, what should have been important to them is that they were encouraging the kid to take advantage of the broken machine, and rip off the owners repeatedly. Sure, it was just gum, but they didn’t get that wave of guilt or maturity about getting something for nothing at someone else’s expense. Maybe they thought they were smart and frugal? Who knows.

Do you think that kid noticed his parents’ approach to this? He got extra laughs and attention for his antics. An extractor was born.

The second situation was at a bank, where they kept cookies in the lobby area. These appeared to be super cheap chocolate chip cookies of the stale, generic variety. They were lined up on a plate on counter. A frugal “treat” for customers.

In this situation, I eyed the cookies as I walked in. I have to admit, sometimes when I see free food, there’s some kind of magnetic attraction there. This time, I must have quickly assessed the cookies and decided that I wasn’t interested, as I walked to the rather long teller line. I then heard some commotion, and saw some kids walking in with their mom. They made a beeline for the cookies, and asked their mom if they could have some. The mom said something like “Yes, but settle down!”.

That’s the only discipline that was shown. The kids each must have taken 3 or 4 cookies, and then they sat down while their mom got in line. She said nothing. Now, 3 or 4 small cookies isn’t a big amount, and I’m sure the bank didn’t care one iota. Maybe I shouldn’t either. But to me, it’s the idea that they didn’t just take one, and that they finished off what was left on the plate. They left nothing for other customers.

Two more extractors were created.

My takeaway from these two episodes is that the something for nothing tendency can exist in all of us, and this includes kids.  I can’t blame the kids, but I do think the parents should teach their kids socially acceptable behavior, and not to take advantage of others like that.

Oh well. At least these things were amusing to see :)

When I was a young kid, I remember visiting San Francisco with my parents, and trying to grab pennies from a water fountain in a hotel lobby. I went so far as to step in the water to collect coins. That something for nothing urge was there big time. FREE MONEY!  It was a blast, for that minute I was doing it.

The fun ended when my mom yanked me out of the water. She told me that civilized people don’t do that, and people might have made wishes before throwing the coins in the fountain. I was made to drop the coins back in the fountain. Now that I’m a parent, I would do the same thing. Thankfully, my daughter seems like a more mature kid than I was at that age:)

Here are my questions:

  1. Do you think that these seemingly small examples are good situations for parents to teach lessons to kids, instead of facilitating their shenanigans?
  2. Can you think of any such examples from your own childhood, or from your experiences as a parent?
  3. Am I just getting old? You don’t have to answer that one, I know that I am :)

Squirreling Gone Wild #16: The Crafty Waitress

Most stories in the Squirreling Gone Wild series have centered around interesting measures people take to save money. Usually, these stories have been about people I know or strangers who I have seen trying to save a few dollars or even pennies on food, gas, and other purchases. A few of these stories even involved me:)

This story is in that latter group as it involves me. However, it’s a little bit different because it discusses how someone appeared to keep a few dollars at my expense.

For this story, let’s rewind a few years, when I was doing a little bit more business travel. It’s one that I actually hadn’t even thought about being included in this series, until it popped in my head at a restaurant recently when trying to pay for a meal.

Anyway, during the aforementioned business trip, I recall eating a meal at a hotel restaurant by myself. Yes, the lonely business traveler is what I was that day:) Actually, the restaurant was a bar and grill, and I had been there before on a previous trip. Decent atmosphere, several TVs with sports on, and quick service….about all you can hope for at a mid-range airport hotel.

I don’t remember exactly what I ordered that day – but it was probably a small order, since it came out to just under $10. I think it was $9.83, but it might have been a few cents more or less. That is the price it came to, before tip, when I got the check.

Once I got the check, I reached for my wallet, pulled out a $20 bill, and set it  in the little black folder that restaurants provide when giving you a check. I didn’t use a credit card that day, probably because the total was relatively low.

Soon after I set it down at the edge of the table, the waitress shuffled over to pick it up. Then, she proceeded to ask me the following question:

“Would you like any change?”

I remember sitting there thinking to myself, “Ummm….uh…YEAH! That’s $20 I left with the check!”

So of course, what I actually said was a polite “Yes, please.”

It seemed odd to me. Did she forget that my bill was less than $10? Clearly, my $20 was visible as it edged out of the little black folder. Maybe she didn’t see it? Hard to believe, but who knows.

Then, she quickly came back with the change and a big cheery smile, saying “Thank you!” I opened the folder, and saw the bill with a smiley face and the same words written. Then, I grabbed the bills and coins that represented the change she gave me, without thinking twice. I did a double take when I saw what she gave me, in addition to the loose change:

Two $5 bills.

On the occasions that I actually pay cash instead of charging, I usually look to the change I receive as the source for the tip I will leave for the server. I have to think many others view it the same way.

This got me thinking; “Why did she leave two $5 bills? Wouldn’t that make it tough to leave an appropriate tip?”

There’s no way I’m leaving a $5 tip for a meal that cost me less than $10. But that’s what would happen if I counted on the change for the tip.

I smiled as I realized that the waitress might be playing games with me, to secure a bigger tip.

At that point, I waited until I made eye contact with her, at which time I motioned to have her come over.  She walked to the table, and I asked her if she could make change for one of the $5 bills.

She paused for a second or two before saying “It might take a while, since I have to get change from the bar. Do you want to wait?”

Ok. Maybe I was being cynical, but that convinced me that she was probably trying to extract from me. Believe me, I have seen enough instances of extraction to know what this looks like.

I paused, then thought that maybe I have some change in my wallet.  I checked, and found a few singles.

I made the quick decision: take out a $1 bill, leave it on the table along with the change, and say “No thanks, there’s no need to get that change”.

I shared the story with someone, who chuckled while telling me that I didn’t exactly teach the waitress a lesson. After all, I did leave a tip.

That’s probably true. I said my tip was about 12%, which is lower than my usual 15% to 20%. Again, I got a few extra chuckles, as this wasn’t exactly a motivator for the waitress to play fair with the customers. I guess that in the split second when I made the decision, I just couldn’t walk away leaving nothing.

Allow me to ask you:

Do you agree with me that the waitress was playing games? What would you have done in this situation?

Squirreling Gone Wild #13: Youthful Mistakes

Within the last few months, there was a controversy in Italy about a large batch of mozzarella cheese balls having a blue tint after being exposed to air.  The cheese was produced in Germany, and the issue created quite a stir in Italy. Around the world, it was a general interest story.

I have to say, when I saw the story, I immediately chuckled. Not because I want anyone in Italy, or anywhere for that matter, to consume cheese that is alarmingly discolored. Rather, it’s because it reminded me of a story from way back, when a college buddy of mine scored a free pizza.  This 13th edition of Squirreling Gone Wild will tell the story of frugality gone amok, with youthful craziness as the driving force behind it.

The college buddy of mine who obtained the pizza had his share of money saving antics, as I shared in several of the early editions of this series. This was no exception. The difference, however, is that he got something for free that he should have paid for.

I remember the important details of the evening well enough to tell the story, even though it was about 20 years ago. It was a weeknight, probably 10:00pm or so, and we were hungry. Both of us were committed enough to our grades at that point to spend the evening studying, though we didn’t study together. Rather, we met up later.

At that time, we were both hungry, but had very little cash on hand. Back then, there weren’t ATM’s around every corner, and many delivery places didn’t take credit cards. We had enough to go in for a pizza, but each of us would be left with little for the next day if we ordered it. We went ahead and ordered a smaller sized pizza anyway.

Once the pizza was delivered to us, we devoured it in no time. We were still hungry. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money to have any more food delivered to us, and we had no food available.  This is where my friend decided to take matters into his own hands. He called the pizza place, and told them that the pizza they delivered had spoiled cheese. When they asked what the pizza looked like, he improvised.

“The pizza has blue spots on it”, he said.

The pizza place argued with him and told him that they had had never heard of blue spots on cheese. Nevertheless, he insisted that this one did, and that we should get a replacement pizza.

They sent the driver back to us, and within 45 minutes or so he called to tell us he was outside.  We went out to get the pizza, and saw that he was considerably less friendly than he was when he delivered the first pizza.

“Where’s the pizza with the blue spots!” the driver demanded to know.

“Uhhh, we threw it away”, my friend said. I stood there and said absolutely nothing.

The driver shoved the pizza at us as he handed it off, and said that he would tell his management. We walked back inside and started laughing. This wacky tall tale had just landed us a free pizza, and took care of our hunger for the evening.

At the time, I thought it was funny, and still do. But deep down, I knew that it was wrong.

Now, I didn’t do any talking. I didn’t come up with the idea, nor did I call them or talk to the driver outside. Nevertheless, I did eat the free pizza which was obtained by less than straightforward means.

That’s taking frugality to the level of cheating.

Anyone that reads Squirrelers has probably picked up on my insistence on being fair when trying to get a good deal, and not taking advantage of others. Clearly, that one evening as a college kid, I did something different than that.

What about you? Have you had any youthful indiscretions when it comes to taking frugality too far?

Don’t worry, it’s ok to confess:)


Take a Bite Out of Your Food Expenses

This week marks the 13th anniversary of the bite felt around the world. In 1997, Mike Tyson – while doing battle with Evander Holyfield in a heavyweight championship boxing match – apparently decided to do more than punch. He opened his mouth, and bit his opponent’s ear. Ouch.

Now, in honor of taking a big bite out of things in a different, how about taking a big bite out of your expenses?

One great way to do that is to watch what you bite and chew. Really.

Sure, you could get free food at work.  But what I’m getting at is the idea of eating homemade meals vs food prepared outside.  Buying groceries and cooking at home or taking food to work can save a lot of money over eating a restaurant meal, or lunch from your workplace cafeteria.

Here’s an example:

For breakfast, I had previously eaten on the go while driving to work, or purchased food in my company’s cafeteria. Eating on the go, I would typically get a bagel and cream cheese. I recall this costing somewhere around $1.50 at the time. Or, I would buy oatmeal from the company cafeteria. I recall this being sold for approximately $0.70.

Let’s assume that I got a bagel 3 times per week, and oatmeal at work 2 times per week. That’s $5.90 per work week for breakfast. With the bagel and cream cheese, it’s not the most nutritious either.

Now, let’s assume that I ate oatmeal at home, or filled a bowl with hot water at work. This cost me just $0.09. When multiplied by 5, it results in a weekly cost of $0.45. Now, if I loaded it with extra nutrition by adding a banana, flaxseed, and blueberries, the cost would be $0.74 per day. That’s just $3.70 per work week for a frugal and healthy breakfast.

$5.90 vs. $3.70 – it’s an easy choice, especially when the latter option is a better way to start the day. That’s a $2.20 per week impact – totaling $105.60 assuming 48 working weeks per year.

That’s $105.60 saved by 9:00am, and we haven’t even talked about:

  • Lunch
  • Dinner
  • Snacks
  • Drinks

It just takes a few different choices to be made, and the savings add up. There is much power in substitution, especially when it comes to food.

On top of this, we can consider the long-term benefits that a healthy diet will provide by putting you in a position to spend less on medical issues.

All told, you could save your family thousands per year by making smart food choices. Not a bad way to bite into your expenses, and grow that income minus expense gap!

Have you made any changes to your food consumption that have resulted in savings? If not, do you know where you could be saving – but just haven’t done it yet?

Squirreling Away Money – NBA Style

When you think of people who squirrel away money, do you ever think of professional athletes? Or more specifically, coaches? I got a kick out of this article from Yahoo! Sports, which tells a story about someone in the sports world who recently took a squirreler approach to things.

Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who guided his team to the NBA finals, is now an honorary squirreler. Apparently, earlier in the season, he took cash from his players and staff after playing the Los Angeles Lakers, at the Staples Center (Lakers’ home arena). The total amount was $2600, and he subsequently hid it in under a ceiling tile in the locker room.

Why did he do this? His hope was to motivate his team to find a way to make it back to the Staples Center. The only way to get back there was to ultimately play the Lakers in the NBA finals. Now that the team got back there, the $2600 was returned to the team (players and staff).

Now, at first blush this looks like a no-win financial deal for the team. They each put in $100, and got $100 back. They lost money, when you factor in inflation! Furthermore, they put in their money at a high level of risk; there was no guarantee of getting anything back.

However, not only did they get it back, but they made it to the NBA finals. The payoff for that accomplishment goes beyond that $100 that was recovered. It shows itself in the career benefits and bonuses/additional compensation that the team received for making it to the championship series.

Now, I’m sure that NBA players aren’t motivated just by this $100. That said, sometimes it’s the little, innovative techniques that can bring a team together and get them to win. So, even if helped 1% in the team’s motivation to get back to LA, Doc Rivers proved to be a wise squirreler as an investment manager and strategist, as the payoff was great.

This gets me thinking about my own experience stashing money. For me, I think back 20 years to when I pledged a fraternity in college. We had our “initiation” week, where were put through a lot of stuff, to put it nicely:) Anyway, during that week, we were not allowed to go anywhere but to class and the library, and were not allowed to use any money to buy food while on campus. I had planned for this week, and put $10 in a book in an obscure part of the library, just before we were “surprised” with this week. I then used this as my stash to get burgers and snacks during the week. It helped me get through a tough week! Looking back, I wonder why in the world I put myself through all that. I wouldn’t want my kids doing that. Funny how getting older gives you perspective!

How about you? Have you ever stashed money in some unusual location? Could be under a mattress, in your flower garden – or perhaps someplace offbeat. If so, was it for specific purpose?

Man Lives On Squirreled Away Frequent Flyer Miles

Check out this story from abcnews, featuring a man using his airline points to live in motel  rooms while unemployed. He went from a high-flying (pun not intended, but it works) executive to a man without a permanent home who used motel rooms as his shelter. What a nomadic existence this guy had.

More than that, this is an example of a guy who literally lived off an asset that he squirreled away for a rainy day. And that asset wasn’t even cash. Very creative indeed.

He showed further creativity in publicizing himself and his situation, which has landed him a job as CEO of a company!

What do you think about this? Inspirational? Crazy? Motivating?

Squirreling Gone Wild – #5

In the 5th installment of Squirreling Gone Wild, I’ll go back to a story about my old college buddy. While the last SGW post went away from the college buddy and covered an airport carry-on loophole, I’m thinking its time to revisit another extreme penny pinching tale from the past.

Much like some  previous examples – gas station penny trick, picking up change from under the drive through, etc – the following example is one that I personally don’t advocate for mature adults:) Rather, its an interesting example of how people will go to great lengths – often crossing lines of self-respect – to pinch pennies.

In this case, lets go back 20 years, to undergraduate days. By the way, as a side note –  just typing 20 years makes me realize how time flies, and things move fast. Anyway, back to the story. At the school at which I did my undergraduate work, sometimes people would grab lunch at the main library cafeteria. Depending what your class schedule was, or if you needed to be studying at the library, this might be your only choice to grab a meal or snack if you weren’t carrying your own. Needless to say, as college students, most people weren’t carrying their own food!

This cafeteria offered standard fare: sandwiches, pizza, snacks, drinks. I would occasionally go there and would often run into the same friend who invariably would have popcorn and a soda as a snack. No big deal, but what was interesting  was how he purchased them. A box of popcorn cost $0.50, and a drink cost $0.75.

He would first get a tray, the standard cafeteria-style offering. Then, he would go the popcorn bin, grab a popcorn box (much like at a theatre), and fill up the bag with popcorn. But he didn’t just fill up the bag with pocporn – he showered the bag with popcorn, as if it were a popcorn hurricane. The aftermath was a cafeteria tray that had a mound of popcorn, with a popcorn-filled box buried within the larger mound.

Next, he would get a 32 oz fountain drink (or about 946ml for our Canadian friends). He would fill up the cup with diet coke, would take a straw, but would not put a lid on the drink. Rather, he would go to the cashier line – usually 3 or 4 customers ahead of him, and look for the “stamp of the day”. So, what was this mysterious stamp? Well, it was a stamp that the cashier would apply to a 32 oz drink lid, so that the customer could get a $0.25 refill that day if he or she wanted. The stamp was only valid that day.

After going to the cafeteria long enough, this guy noticed that there were 4 possible stamps, and that the cashiers used one specific stamp per day. The stamps seemed to rotate somewhat randomly by day, but you never knew for sure what stamp would be. So, what he did was he saved the stamped lids from prior cafeteria visits, and then kept them in his backpack. As he got closer to the cashier, he peered over the customers ahead of him to see which stamp the cashier was using that day. Then, he reached into his backpack, and pulled out an old lid from a prior visit, which happened to have today’s stamp. Then, he put the lid on the drink, and ultimately paid $0.25 for the drink as if it were simply a refill, instead of $0.75.

Devious? Yeah, I think so. I couldn’t do it. But it was funny to see someone else do it, and do it over and over. Even funnier was his delight at gaming the system.

So, basically, instead of paying $1.25 for a drink and box of popcorn, he paid $0.75 for a drink and the equivalent of two boxes of popcorn. He would eat what was in the box (you know, the one buried in the popcorn avalanche), and then refill the box with the rest of the popcorn covering the tray and take it to go. He looked at this as paying $0.75 for a $1.75 value.

Extreme penny pinching that went too far, but could be excused as youthful immaturity. What I find interesting are more “grown up versions of extreme penny pinching. Do you have any examples from either yourself or someone you know, in terms of adopting offbeat yet above-board ways to save a few dollars or cents?

Squirreling Gone Wild – #2

My initial “Squirreling Gone Wild” post was regarding my college buddy from way back when, who would routinely fill up his gas tank at one penny over a whole dollar amount, and then take a penny from the jar at the counter. As I mentioned – can’t recommend that to adults, but I got a kick out of it :) Additionally, while a bit nuts (pun intended), its an example of extreme squirreling.

After going through that story, another example came to mind, so I thought I would add a second “Squirreling Gone Wild” post. 

This second example involves the same college friend. This guy, after college (early 90’s), would try to save money in most situations, though not all. For example,  he bought an expensive car right out of school, with a sticker price equal to 60% of his starting salary.  He later learned his lesson, and within a few years had made it a practice to buy only used cars for which he paid cash and got great deals.

Anyway, back to this second example of extreme squirreling. During this post-college stage, one of the areas where he did try to pinch pennies was with food. Now, he might go out with a group once in a while and have no problem spending on a fun evening out. All was normal there. That said, on other days, he would try to eat at home (smart) and get deals outside where possible (clever, though not always wise).

His eating at home deals took the form of coupons on top of sales at the supermarket. As a post-college student, he would save good coupons and wait for deals on frozen entrees. For example, there might be a deal for a Lean Cuisine-type of entree at 2 for $3. He would bring in a coupon for say, $0.75 off an entree. Then, the supermarket would double those coupons. He would net out at ZERO spent on  a meal. He relished those “arbitrage opportunities”, as he called them.

For eating out, he would go to a happy hour and eat the “complimentary” buffet. He scoured the area to find two that offered food with the purchase of at least one drink. This was usually one day of the week, in the early evening for 2 or 3 hours. He would skip lunch on that day or maybe just eat an apple or something small (not smart, but he did it), and then just load up at the buffet. He would buy the compulsory drink for $1, and then fill up with mini burgers, pasta, nachos, etc.

His other favorite was going to a bagel place to get a bagel and cream cheese for lunch. Again, not the most nutritious lunch, but he used buy one get one free coupons, and had the other one at dinner or lunch the next day. Bagels that are a day old are not too great in my opinion, and he would complain that they were chewy. But as frugal as he was, the thrill of saving would apparently override that issue:) To make the deal better, he would use their loyalty punchcard of buying 6 and getting the 7th free. They punched the card even for the second ones of the buy-one-get-one, so he could go there 3 times and get 7 bagels w/cream cheese. At about $1 per bagel, he would get 7 meals for $3.

To recap, he could work it out to look like this in the perfect week:

2 frozen entrees ($0)

2 happy hour buffets ($2)

7 bagels w/cream cheese ($3)

All told, that’s 11 lunches/dinners for him through the week, and remember that he would skip lunches on the happy hour days and essentially eat a piece of fruit or another small snack. 6.5 days of lunches/dinners for the price of a little more than $5.

He was over the top. Otherwise cool guy, but I (and others) thought he was a complete nerd when it came to saving money, and hazed him for it. But as I mentioned before, as this guy has matured, he has done quite well in his life overall – doing very well financially, in absolutely great shape, and has a nice family. He has obviously learned to channel his energies appropriately. But I know the real story of what he was once like :)

Squirreling Gone Wild

I was thinking about past instances of frugality, and I came up up with one example that I found particularly interesting that would be fun to share. It’s an example of extreme “squirreling”, going to micromanaging levels of saving, good in spirit but executed in a way that it’s hard to recommend to any adult. That said, it does reflect a true commitment to actively looking for opportunities to live within one’s means in a creative way, which as I said has something of value to take away.

My example is actually about a friend’s behavior. And yes, it was really a friend, and not me:)  This friend, with whom I am still acquainted, had some very frugal habits back in college about 20 years ago. I could go on and on about the interesting things this guy did.

One that I will share now regarded how he purchased gas at the station. He would always pay in cash, but would always make sure that he stopped the pump when he was $0.01 over a whole dollar amount. For example, instead of stopping at $10.00, he would stop at $10.01. Then, he would pay $10.00 in cash and take a penny out of the little dish at the register – you know, the one where you take one if you happen to be short. Well, he planned to be short.

He would stop for gas twice a week, partially fill up, and rotate gas stations so they wouldn’t catch on. The stations were close to each other and on his normal drive, so it didn’t take him out of his way to do this. His thought was that if he filled up 2 times per week, over the course of the year it would give him $1.04 in free gas. At that time, way back when, that would actually buy you a gallon. So, his thought was that for very little effort he could get a free gallon of gas over the course of the year.

As a grown adult, I can’t imagine doing that. Self-respect is infinitely more important to me. Does that cross the line from being frugal to being bit crazy? Maybe! I would say its nuts, but that would not be such a bad thing, as us squirrelers have to be a bit nuts :)!

Interestingly, this guy has done very well for himself since then – financially and otherwise.

This post was featured in the 224th Festival of Frugality at Frugal Upstate.