NEWS 
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American Express Rewarding Membership Points for Volunteering

American ExpressIt seems like all the credit card related news lately has been really negative, as card companies react to the CARD Act, but today I wanted to mention a positive credit card story. I read it first on the New York Times Bucks blog over a week ago but American Express is now rewarding cardholders, in their Membership Rewards program, who volunteer. You get 500 reward points for every hour of volunteering up to 10,000 points a year. As long as the project is listed in the VolunteerMatch.org database, it’s eligible.

I think it’s pretty awesome that American Express is doing this and while there are a few hoops to jump through, I suspect to prevent fraud, it’s certainly a nice little enticement for those on the fence about volunteering and a nice perk for those who already do. Some have complained the list is a bit narrow but I believe that they’re probably directing hours to the groups that need it most. You can read the press release here.

I think volunteering and helping others is its own reward but getting 10,000 points in the process certainly doesn’t hurt. To get the rewards you’ll need to have an American Express card in the Membership rewards program, such as Blue from American Express and American Express ® Gold Card.

(Photo: thetruthabout)


 Career 
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How to Keep Your Skills Fresh When Unemployed

There’s a security out there that tracks the average (mean) length of time someone is employed and that figure broke thirty weeks in January. The average person looking for work will not find it in seven months… seven months of job hunting. Seven months of going to job fairs. Seven months of searching online at job websites.

If you’re submitting resumes and calling companies, there are only so many resumes you can submit, calls you can make, before you start burning out. If you start burning out, you reduce the chances you’ll ace the interview because your brain is being beaten into submission by monotony.

That’s why it’s important for you to sprinkle in other activities throughout the day. It’s hard to do this because when you don’t have a job, you feel like you have to get one. To get one you have to submit resumes, call companies, and do all the things involved in “job hunting.” Then you fall into a vicious cycle… no job, want job, must search, keep searching, burn out… you get it. So how do you introduce activities that aren’t directly related to looking for a job but improve your prospects?

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 Career 
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Boost Morale & Fill Time by Volunteering

One of the hardest things about unemployment is filling up the hours of the day. It doesn’t matter how focused or industrious you are about finding a job, you can only send so many tailored resumes, so many masterfully crafted cover letters, and call so many offices before you get emotionally and physically drained. That’s why I recommend filling up the other hours of the day by volunteering with an organization you believe in.

This article is part of Bargaineering Career Week 2009, a week-long series focused on your career – how to find a job, how to tailor your resume, how to find the job opportunities and how to nail the interview. This article is the third article of day one – career planning.

You don’t have volunteer every single day, just pick one day and donate a few of your hours to a cause you believe in. It only takes a few minutes to enter your your zip code and some causes you want to support into the search box at Serve.gov (which takes you to Allforgood.org). Within minutes you’ll be able to find a volunteer opportunity that fits your schedule.

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 NEWS 
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Disney “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” Rewards Volunteers

Donalt DuckDisney just announced that they would be kicking off a marketing campaign titled “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” promotion. Starting January 1st, 2010, if you volunteer a day of community service at select charities, you can get a free one-day, one-park ticket. They will give out a million tickets until December 15th, or until they run out. The “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” promotion is going to replace the current promotion where you can get free admission to the park on your birthday.

How do you participate? Visit’s the Give a Day, Get a Disney Day page to sign up and look for an eligible volunteer opportunity in your area. You won’t be able to sign up or search for opportunities until January 1st but you can sign up to get an email reminder when the program gets started.

I checked out the terms & conditions of the offer and it’s fairly relaxed. There are some restrictions on when you can use the ticket (You can’t enter Walt Disney World Resort between March 29th – April 8th, and July 4th; you can’t enter Disneyland on February 13-14, March 21, June 21-22, July 4, NOvember 21, or December 11-12). Outside of the day restrictions, I don’t see aren’t any other notable or unexpected requirements (full terms & conditions).

Give a Day, Get a Disney Day [HandsOn Network]

(Photo: savannahgrandfather)


 Frugal Living 
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Making Homemade Bread Crumbs

Bread CrustsAs some of you may know, I volunteer at Meals on Wheels every Tuesday morning. One of the perks of donating two hours each week is that I sometimes take home a meal, when there are extras, and I often get a bag of bread loaf ends, that would otherwise get thrown out. I was talking with Rhonda, our Meals on Wheels kitchen coordinator extraordinaire (among other good things), and she recommended that I turn them into breadcrumbs. I only started taking the ends last week and I’ve just been eating them, making breadcrumbs is so much more exciting!

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 Your Take 
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Your Take: Do You Volunteer?

In these difficult economic times, charitable organizations and philanthropies have seen a dip in charitable giving. It’s unfortunate but understandable; if you have to decide between rent and supporting a charity, chances are rent will win out.

If you can’t donate money, consider donating your time. I started volunteering at Meals on Wheels in Howard County last week and it’s been a blast so far. The task is pretty simple, the work needs to be done, and my donation of time costs me very little and saves them money. All I’m doing is helping pack a two hundred or so meals once a week (one lunch, one dinner).

The first day consisted of:

  • Opening up cans of fruit cocktail and scooping about three ounces of it into little containers.
  • Packing two juices, a milk, an apple, turkey sandwich, mayo, and a tea bag into brown paper bags.
  • Heating up some kosher soups in the microwave.
  • Spooning broccoli into a little plastic lunch tray, that already had pasta and italian sausage, and handing it off to someone else to seal.

Day two? It was St. Paddy’s day so the cold meal was roast beef and the hot meal was corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes. We were done in two hours flat.

And during that entire mechanical process, I chatted with the three other volunteers about all sorts of stuff. We even talked about Twitter! They knew what it was, they just didn’t get why it was popular… how about that?

Do you volunteer anywhere and, if so, where? What’s the work like? If you don’t and have a few hours to spare, please give it some consideration because it’s a lot of fun, you get to meet some great people, and you get to do some good without spending a dime.


 Taxes 
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Deducting Miles for Charitable Volunteering

Starting next week I’ll be volunteering every Tuesday morning in the kitchen at the local Howard County Meals on Wheels facility. It’s less than five miles away one-way but I still wanted to research how to claim the driving mileage on my taxes to reduce my tax burden as much as possible. At ten miles a week and 52 weeks, we’re only looking at 520 miles for the entire year. The deduction for 2008 was $0.14 a mile (IRS standard mileage rates), so we’re only talking a $72.80 deduction… but every bit helps!

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 Personal Finance 
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10 Frugal Hobbies

Royal LibraryIt’s easy to jump into the car and head to the movies if you want something to do this weekend, but it’s mighty expensive when tickets are $9-$10 and gas is $4 a gallon. However, it costs far less if you visit your local library and borrow a movie and watch it at home. It costs far less if you borrow a book or volunteer or do any of the ten hobbies I’ve listed below.

So, this weekend, instead of going for the easier, more expensive, option, try one of these.

Reading

Reading is my wife’s favorite hobby and, best of all, it can be one that cost very very little if you have a library nearby (if you prefer to buy books, reading is a very expensive hobby). We were lucky to find a home that is actually right next to the library, a mere three minute walk, so we essentially have a bookshelf of thousands of books, movies, magazines, and newspapers at our disposal. Even if you don’t have one within walking distance, you can easily pick up a month’s worth of books in one trip and then renew them online if your library offers it. Reading is perhaps one of the most frugal hobbies you could have (if you borrow the books!).

Community Center Classes

Our local community center shares the same building as the library and so we often check the schedule for any interesting classes. The courses are often quite reasonably priced but the downside is that many of them occur during the workday (it doubles as a senior center too). For a few dollars a class ($5-20), you can learn all sorts of cool hobbies.

Volunteering

When I was younger, I volunteered at the children’s center of the local hospital. The children’s center was a large room filled with toys and our responsibility was to play games with the children who had been admitted. My friend Raymond and I had a great time playing board games with the kids and learning all about them and their conditions. It was amazing how resilient and fearless they were given their medical conditions, but it was a great way to spend a few hours on the weekend (plus they gave us lunch vouchers!). Consider volunteering to a local organization such as a hospital, soup kitchen, or something of that nature – they will greatly appreciate it (and you can deduct the driving).

Bird Watching

Heading over to your local park is a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon enjoying the sights and sounds of the wilderness without spending a lot of cash. If you have some spare change, you could always pick up a pair of cheap binoculars from your local sporting goods store or a thrift shop. If not, you certainly don’t need one to enjoy the birds. Visit the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR), or their website, for your county and see if they have any recommendations.

Hiking

While you’re at the local DNR, look for a pamphlet or brochure on good hiking trails in your area. You can often hike regular trails with little more than a pair of sneakers and you might want to spring a little extra for sunscreen and bug spray, depending on where you live.

Geocaching

Think of geocaching like hiking, except the purpose isn’t necessarily to reach a summit or a great view, but to find a little hidden package in the ground. It’s like a walk in the park but with a defined purpose. This is probably one of the more expensive of the hobbies on this list because you’ll need a GPS unit (~$100) but I wanted to bring it up because it sounded so interesting. There are hundreds in my zip code alone… now I just need a GPS unit. :)

Disc Golf

Golf is expensive. Disc golf… practically free (you’ll need a frisbee though). Disc golf is like golf except you throw a frisbee-like disc and try to get it into a basket or hit a post of some kind. Another huge difference is that you don’t have to spend thousands on clubs and hundreds on green’s fees because discs are inexpensive and the “courses” are often on public parks (PDGA’s course search tool). Enjoy the outdoors and consider this burgeoning sport! (they have a tour and championships!)

Card Games

All it takes is a pack of cards, some friends, and you have yourself a card game. Learn classics like Gin, Rummy, Bridge, Hearts, Spades, or even Go Fish. Avoid games like poker, as they can expensive if you’re bad. :)

Basketball

A pair of sneakers and a $20 basketball (and at least one friend, preferably in even numbers) is all you need for a game of pickup basketball. You can usually find a court outside near your local high school and it’s a great workout.

Blogging!

How could I not list blogging as a frugal hobby? It’s like scrapbooking but for all the Internets to see and you can do it absolutely free. There are plenty of services like Google’s Blogger and WordPress.com where you can start one up for free. And who knows, maybe you can learn to become a problogger and earn a little money off it!

(Photo by cuellar)


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