6 Free Or Cheap Things That Have Added Enormous Value To My Life

Well y’all, this post is brought to you by failed adulting, a dead laptop, and my iPhone. 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 downtime 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.

Apparently, I’d committed the cardinal sin of incorrectly closing my Ziplock bowl, which is always punishable by inconvenient leaks, and sometimes by the death of any nearby electronics. I rushed to dry it off, and it worked for a while, but 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, trackpad, 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, 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 paid $550 in rent and always ran out of money with like, two weeks left in the semester.

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. 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 ~two weeks, and they’re nowhere near completely wilted.

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!), free 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 the 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 about keeping a hard copy. This is easily one of the lowest-effort, highest-reward purchases you will ever make.

I currently have two computers whose hard drives 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 $400-1,000 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. 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.

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). 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. 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 actually 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.

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 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 with every other oil change. I bought my car last fall, and as such, I just got around to needing an oil change. 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.

5. 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 — you name it, I own it. But 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. Y’all, I was devastated. I thought I was going to have to throw it 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 hearing her advice, I bought an $8 tub of powdered Oxi-Clean and soaked my sweater in my bathtub, then washed it on cold. The stain is gone! Not just faded. There is no trace.

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) 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 was stain-free and the other was basically stain-free when I finished with them. Is Oxi-Clean a miracle? I THINK SO.

*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,” however, 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. 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 nine 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. 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 washcloth 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.

*****

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 a while. 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!

Annie/Ms. C&CG writes about personal finance for young professionals who want to indulge their champagne tastes with a beer budget at Champagne & Capital Gains. She is a lawyer by day (and sometimes night), an urban apartment dweller, dog mom, and francophile. She is particularly passionate about travel hacking and mental/physical fitness. 

Image via Unsplash

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