Six Cheap or Free Things That Add Outsized Value to My Life or Would Have Prevented Expensive Disasters

Well y'all, this week's post is brought to you by failed adulting, a dead laptop, and my iPhone (I typed a lot of my post on my phone in the famous style of Angela at Tread Lightly, Retire Early).

Sunday afternoon, I prepped my snacks for the week ahead of time like a responsible adult (carrots, fruit bowls, etc) and took them to the office with me in my work bag...which also carries my laptop. I don't need my laptop at work, but I've been bringing it in case I have a little down time to blog during the day (which I usually don't, but whatever, eternal time management optimist). Anyway, at the end of the day, I returned my container to my work bag to take it home, threw it in the car, and when I arrived home, I opened my laptop to start working on my original post planned for this week...and the computer was wet. And smelled like pineapple juice. Which like, you guys. I love pineapples, but the juice is like a nasty side effect you just have to *deal with* because pineapple is so delicious. Apparently I’d committed the cardinal sin of incorrectly closing my Ziplock bowl, which is always punishable by inconvenient leaks and sometimes by death of any nearby electronics. I rushed to dry it off, and it worked for awhile, then shorted out a couple of times before shutting down for good. That’s what I get for being healthy and financially responsible...

The good news is that Apple thinks the hard drive isn’t damaged. The bad news is that the repairs will cost up to $755 plus tax. The first part is good news because I do not have my hard drive backed up. Is this very stupid? It is in fact very. stupid. Do you know how much an external hard drive costs? Not very much. This preventable, expensive debacle got me thinking about services and products that enrich my life in some way that is worth wayyyy more than their costs (or might quite literally save you lots of money). It wasn’t what I planned to write about this week, but let’s just consider it a withdrawal from my Blog Post Emergency Fund. Plus, seriously, get these items/do these things.

UPDATE: My laptop repairs did in fact cost $817, which is $755 + tax. However, they did save my hard drive (which will shortly be copied onto my new external hard drive) and the rest of the computer is basically completely new: screen, back cover case, keyboard, bottom cover case, track pad, logic board, fan. You name it, they replaced it. So I kind of feel like I got a new computer out of the deal for way less than a new computer! Not what I had planned, but since it already happened, I'm rolling with the positives.

So I give you: a list of cheap or free items that are worth WAY more than their cost:

1. Flower food. Cost: Free with flower purchase!

Spending money on flowers is a fabulous, relatively inexpensive way to perk up your house. I LOVE hydrangeas and keep them in my living room most of the year. They cost about $10-15 at one of the higher-end grocery stores I go to for certain things (like their beautiful hydrangeas), which as many a blogger will tell you, is a low price to pay for making your house feel luxurious on a budget (see: Luxe Strategist) Until a few years ago, I would just drop the flowers into a vase filled with a few inches of water and call it a day. They'd last a little less than a week, which isn't bad, but $50 on flowers in law school was a little bit silly....I had $550 rent and always ran out of money with like, 2 weeks left in the semester.

But y'all. Behold: the flower food. I decided on a whim to use it once, and my flowers lasted for TWO WEEKS!

Flower food typically comes with your flowers in a little packet that looks like a sugar packet. It’s usually attached to the outside of the bouquet if you buy at a supermarket, or tossed in if someone hand-wraps them (like at the store where I buy my hydrangeas). Sometimes they’ll forget to give it to you, but any flower seller will give you packets of food if you ask. Once, they even gave me several extra packages, which I keep at home for future use. Not to sound all Miracle-Gro salesman, but THIS STUFF REALLY WORKS! I usually end up throwing flowers away after ~2 weeks and they’re nowhere near completely wilted. Look at these flowers I bought on Saturday morning…

UPDATE: I refilled water and added more flower food after about a week, and got my current hydrangeas to last 2 1/2 weeks and counting! Best Frugal Freebie ever! 

Are these not the most beautiful flowers you've ever seen? They're almost a week old!!!

Are these not the most beautiful flowers you've ever seen? They're almost a week old!!!

If you buy flowers and want them to look pretty for longer, or you are on a super-tight budget that you wish could include flowers (but they just die so fast!), fre flower food is your answer. Use it. Love it. #TeamFreeFlowerFood.

2. External Hard Drive. $20-80 

RELEVANT to my life, obviously. Do you know how many laptops of mine have suffered ill-fated ends? Two. Plus my current laptop cheated death a couple years ago and we're holding a candlelight vigil for its speedy recovery as we speak. That's four - FOUR - possible laptop deaths (let's not even discuss how ridiculous it is that I can't keep a laptop functioning...). And how many of those laptops did I have backed up when disaster struck? NOT ONE. How many times did they tell me to buy an external hard drive and backup my data? SO MANY TIMES. This is easily stupidest thing I've done, and one of the most easily-preventable disasters.

You can get a terabyte of storage on an external hard drive for $55; 250GB for $25. All you have to do is connect it to your computer and backup your files. Run it while you're at work; come home to protected data. Cloud storage is another option, but I'm kind of old school on keeping a hard copy. This is easily one of the lowest-effort, highest-reward purchases you will ever make. I know this because I’ve continually suffered the consequences of not having made such purchase despite knowing each time I buy or receive my newly-repaired laptop that this is the first thing I should buy and backing up that device is something I should do at least every month or so.

I currently have 2 computers whose hard drive I’d like to try to recover. Data recovery is in no way guaranteed to work, and it starts at $99 (plus...wait for it...the cost of an external hard drive. Oof). Most data recovery is in the $400-1000 range. Even if they can’t recover a single thing. If you’re running a cost-benefit analysis in your head right now, $25 for peace of mind vs. saving $25 and either (1) losing all your data, or (2) spending ungodly sums of money to have your hard drive recovered (plus in all likelihood the replacement cost of the device that died, which isn’t technically saved by owning an external hard drive, but it’s insult to unnecessary injury, feel me?)

Currently my laptop is in Apple Geniuses' hands with no guarantee I'll recover anything on my hard drive. It doesn't appear damaged to the techs, but they may have to replace it anyway. I'll lose YEARS of data. Blog posts. Resumes. Photos. Law school papers (well, good riddance to those, let's be honest...)

Moral of the story, buy an external hard drive. I chose this one. (I am not yet an Amazon affiliate, but if that changes, I'll let you know!)

3. iPhone Screen Protector: 2/$5

Also relevant to my life, as I have dropped my iPhone a few times in the past couple of months. I was planning to have Apple do that repair (and replace the battery, because I have one of their special "throttling" batteries...I swear they're really trying to kill our phones so we have to buy new ones. #rude). Anyway, now that my laptop is being repaired for a cool half-thousand or more, I really can't prioritize the $150 screen repair. It sucks. The screen is super damaged. It's cracked so badly on one side that water could probably leak into the inside of the phone. And let's be realistic, it probably will. 

You know what would have stopped this $150 problem from happening in the first place? These babies. Screen covers that are made of "amFilm," which looks and feels a lot like glass, but cost $5 for two of them. FIVE DOLLARS. FOR TWO SCREEN COVERS. I know this may seem like an obvious thing to do, but a lot of  people don't protect the front of their phones, and the cute protective covers don't shield from impact well enough to keep the screen from shattering, depending on the angle. I'm also not a fan of the Otterbox Defender anymore, because it's just SO clunky. Though considering my phone was once saved by an Otterbox Defender when I left my phone on top of my car and drove away...maybe I should reconsider. 

Anyway. If you're like me and care about the slim look/feel of your phone, but you're also like me and literally fall all over yourself all the time, do yourself a favor and buy screen protectors. I actualy have a box of these physically collecting dust in my catch-all basket in my kitchen. I bought them after the last time I shattered my phone, but never covered the phone after I replaced the screen. Are you seeing a pattern? Don't be like me, especially if you're like me...and J. Law:

Imagine if she'd had an unprotected iPhone in her hand!

4. Tire Rotations included with Oil Change. $0

Car maintenance is maybe the least sexy way I’ve ever been forced to spend a lot of money. New tires or designer shoes? I’ll take the Goodyears and a cold shower, please.

As such, I am always trying to spend less money on my car (without sacrificing safety or necessary upkeep, of course). How many of you know that many places will rotate your tires for free with your regular oil change? That’s right. They’ll change your oil and throw in a tire rotation on the house.

Never. Ever. Pay for a tire rotation. Places that don’t offer tire rotations with oil changes honestly make me question their general trustworthiness on repair estimates. If you aren’t sure whether your usual oil change place does this, give them a call before taking your car in next time. Definitely do not take your car to the dealership for these basic services, unless you drive a high-end, luxury car of some kind. It will always be overpriced. If your regular oil change provider tells you they don’t offer free tire rotations, call around to find one that does. Some national places that do this are Jiffy Lube and Firestone, but I’m sure there are many others. These types of places also usually discount their oil change service with online coupons or regular specials, so you should be getting the best all-around deal.

Put your oil change and tire rotations on the same schedule. I try to keep my car on a 5,000 mile schedule and do both the oil change and tire rotation at the same time. If your car’s age or make doesn’t allow for that, do a tire rotation on every other oil change. I bought my car last fall, and as such, I just got around to needing an oil change. The Firestone near my house was pretty shady with me on my previous car, so I was looking for a new oil change place (all Firestones don’t suck, but on principal I will never return to this specific location) The first place I called quoted me $80 for a synthetic oil change PLUS a $25 tire rotation. I hung up and called another nearby place, who charged about $60 for the oil change, and they included a tire rotation in that price.

So, find a place than includes your tire rotation with your oil change (unless a place does such a cheap oil change + tire rotation charge that it is less than a standard oil change, which I personally haven’t been able to find...if you have, share in the comments!)

4. Oxi-Clean Powder. $8

If my many laptop debacles haven’t given you a heads up that I am constantly making messes despite all my best intentions, you should watch me walk around for 24 hours. I swear I’ve broken things in my sleep. I once gave myself a black eye by walking into a doorframe in the middle of the night. True story. Despite this tendency, I LOVE white and other neutral-colored fabrics - clothes, bedding, furniture, towels - you name it, I own it. White + me is not a great combination, and as you can imagine, I spend a lot of time trying to keep things clean and clean up messes I (or my dog) made.

Recently, I’ve been discovering the occasional pink stain on my lights when they come out of the washer. I may be a walking disaster, but I certainly know to separate my whites and colors. Last summer I actually threw a few things away with these pink stains because nothing I tried removed them. Fast forward to March, when I discovered those pink marks on my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE SWEATER and a new sweater I like very much. Y’all, I was devastated. I thought I was going to have to throw them away. I tried everything I could think of…and then I decided to ask the seasoned moms at the office how they remove tough stains. Seriously, do I sound like an infomercial yet?

One of the paralegals told me that the mysterious stains were probably dye transfers from previous loads of laundry. So just FYI, you can still get pink laundry even if you separate your clothes. Adulthood is not as promised, and I am MAD. She went on to say that she uses Oxi-Clean to remove stains from literally everything. She has a white, upholstered couch, multiple children and a dog. Upon her advice, I bought an $8 tub of powdered Oxi-Clean and soaked my sweaters in my bathtub, then washed them on cold. The stains are gone! Not just faded. There is no trace. If those dye transfer stains were evidence to a murder, it would be the perfect crime.

Last week, I took a “Dry Clean” dress with red wine stains to the cleaners to see if they could fix it. My lovely drycleaning lady (who never takes a piece to clean without warning me if she thinks it won’t get clean, or she thinks I can do it at home...what a gal. Love her) told me I could clean it at home since it was not “Dry Clean Only,”* but the stains would be difficult to remove. I soaked the dress in Oxi-Clean, and the stains are gone! I also soaked a couple of white shirts to remove some minor underarm staining. One is now stain-free and the other was basically stain-free when I finished with them. Is Oxi-Clean a miracle? I THINK SO.

I’m sure you can find it for less than I paid, but at $8, you get at least 15-20 solid uses (more if you only use it as detergent), and I’ve saved that $8 on drycleaning alone since I started stain removing with Oxi-Clean. Probably my best purchase of Q2 2018.

*P.S. This is true. “Dry Clean” clothes do not HAVE to go to the cleaners. You can hand-wash or wash on delicate with cold water (in a laundry bag, preferably) and lay the item flat to dry instead of taking it to the cleaners. “Dry Clean Only” means “do not mess with this at home.”

6. Baking Soda. 50¢-$1

Another cleaning hack! While baking soda is useful for so many things, I’m sure you already know about its refrigerator air freshening capabilities and its cooking powers. Most people also know baking soda can be used to clean things (like teeth?), but I’ve personally never found it to get stains out well enough to deserve its reputation. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong? Anyone have tips?

That said, you know what it IS great at cleaning? White leather shoes. I give you Exhibits A and B, my Cole Haan sneakers in Paris (Fall 2016) and Mexico City (Spring 2018). These shoes have been to almost as many countries as I have, and I can’t even tell you how many miles I’ve walked in them, even just around town (they’re also a runner-up in this post for things that are worth buying)

On the left, my feet at the star in front of Notre-Dame. It indicates the center geographical point of Paris. If you step on it, you will return someday. On the right, My feet at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, some 250 steps above the earth.  

Do they look any worse 9 months after their first international trek? I posit that they do not. You don’t have to look like a 9-year-old who can’t keep their Keds clean (in case you were wondering, yes, I did wear Keds to P.E. in middle school. I may have tried out for the volleyball team in Keds. I wonder why I didn’t make the cut...). Take a damp washcloth and pour a bit of baking soda onto the washcloth. Then carefully massage the leather part of the shoe and the upper sides of the soles that border the leather. After a couple of minutes, they’ll look good as new! Then wet a different side of the bathcloth to gently wipe the baking soda residue from the surface of the shoes. I’m actually planning to soak the laces in Oxi-Clean to see if I can make the laces look as good as the actual shoes.

When I went to Mexico City, some of my other sneaker-wearing friends were shocked at how clean my shoes were. I told them my secret, because I believe everyone deserves to have perfectly clean, white sneakers for what probably amounted to less than half a penny.

That's it for today. Thanks for bearing with my unplanned topic this week! Sometimes life throws pineapple juice on your laptop and you just have to roll with it. I believe that some of the best things in life are cheap or free. If six hacks weren't enough for your, check out the PFGeek's 150 Ways to Save Money! That will keep you busy for quite awhile! What are some of the best cheap or free life hacks you use? Have you ever made an expensive mistake preventable by cheap solutions? Share in the comments!

Next week, I'll be talking about my experiences babysitting for an extremely wealthy family while semi-employed as an attorney. It was A TIME, let me tell you.