U.S. National Parks on Sale!

I first posted this last year in February. If you are 62 or older and haven’t already taken advantage of this wonderful offer, the time to do it is now! The National Park Service has announced that the price for its Senior Pass will be raised from $10 to $80 sometime later this year. Here, with a few updates, is information about obtaining your pass.

So little, yet so mighty!

 There are a lot of opportunities to save a few dollars here and there when we pass certain age milestones. Some businesses offer deals for customers as young as 50, but most of these “senior discounts” don’t kick in until we reach age 55, 60, or older. Many restaurants, hotels, airlines, rental car agencies, and retail shops try to attract our money by offering a dollar amount or percentage off… but often only if you ask (so, ask). Some of the deals are good, but many require the customer to purchase something they may not have wanted in the first place.

The very best senior discount opportunity I know of is the one offered by the National Park Service. For just $10 (plus a $10 processing fee, if by mail or online), any U.S. citizen or permanent resident age 62 or over can purchase this lifetime pass to over 2,000 recreation sites. Senior Passes can be purchased online, by mail, or in person and will admit up to four adults (any age) in one non-commercial vehicle for free. How flipping great is that??!!

As soon as my husband turned 62, we drove to our local National Monument for a hike and to get his Senior Pass. We’ve already used the pass several times, and look forward to using it more in the future.

Even if you, like me, won’t be 62 until after the price increase, $80 is still a great bargain, and the increase will help the Park Service address its estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog. If $80 is too steep, another option for seniors is a $20 annual pass. Either way, The National Park System is an amazing resource and, especially with federal funding a bit shaky right now, well worth the investment.

Other discount passes are available, including one for current members of the military, people with disabilities, and 4th graders (I assume I don’t have any 4th graders reading my blog but some of you may have children or grandchildren who qualify). An $80 Annual Pass is available to anyone of any age and is a great deal if you plan to visit more than one or two participating parks during a calendar year.

To learn more about the National Park Service and their discount passes, visit their website (nps.gov), or go straight to: nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm.

Then, get out and explore!

GratiTuesday: Public Libraries

I spent a lot of time in my neighborhood library as I was growing up. I remember going with my mother at least once a week to check out books; usually borrowing two or three at a time. When I got older, I’d meet my friends there and we’d often do our homework sitting at the wooden desks they had scattered around. It was always kind of a magical place: not only did they have what seemed to be a never-ending supply of FREE books, but the building felt safe and familiar and the librarians were always a helpful source of information.

IMG_3777

For some reason, I stopped going to public libraries in my young adulthood. I never stopped reading, but my books mostly came from bookstores, yard sales, or were passed on to me by friends. Later, of course, I also started purchasing books from online sources.

After my husband retired two years before I did, he became a library devotee. Each time he visited our local branch, he’d came home with four or five books. Then about a week later, he’d return to drop off what he had read and get a new supply.

When I retired one of the first acts of my new-found freedom was to get my very own library card. That day I learned that a lot had changed during the many years of my absence (not that I was surprised, it had been a long time). The only downside is that I had to come up with YET ANOTHER username and password because so much can be done online now. I can research books, order them, and renew them all on my computer. How great is that?

I am now happily rediscovering the magic of the public library. We have a beautiful, brand new, main library downtown, but there is something so special about the local neighborhood branches. Familiar faces can usually be found staffing the front desk and they are always pleased to recommend a title or two based on our individual tastes.

Some people have questioned the need for public libraries in our modern world. Just about everything can be found online, they argue. Maintaining brick and mortar buildings housing books made from paper is an expensive anachronism. I wish those people would visit my local library sometime. I think they’d be amazed at what they’d see and would understand the need for this great resource.

Our latest finds, including a book by my newest favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver.
Our latest finds, including a book by my newest favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver.

Budget shortfalls often hit our public libraries hard. Hours are curtailed, staffing is reduced, and services are cut. Even though the public often gives their libraries higher ratings for effectiveness than other local services such as parks and police, they are mostly unaware of financial difficulties facing them.

I am so grateful for those who ensure funding through taxes, local support, private philanthropy, and library “friends” efforts, so that our public libraries can be kept open and operating. They understand the value and the magic that books hold for all of us.

Tip Creep in the Technology Age

engadget.com
engadget.com

You’ve probably seen them. Perhaps you’ve even purchased an item by swiping your credit card through one. If you’ve bought something from an Apple store, you definitely know what I’m talking about: those apps and accessories that turn smartphones and tablet computers into credit card payment terminals.

When the technology first came out, I thought it was genius. Suddenly, an owner of a small business – such as an artist at a craft fair – could play with the big guys. For a pretty low start-up cost, they were easily able to accept and process credit card purchases. As a customer, I liked the convenience: just swipe and sign. My credit card was never out of my sight and the receipt would instantly show up in my email.

At least I thought it was genius until the terminals began to appear at the sales counters of ice cream parlors, delis, bakeries, and coffee shops. All of a sudden, what first seemed like a convenience now feels like extortion. Technology-aided tip creep has arrived.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a grab-and-go deli to get lunch. Making my way through the line, I picked up a couple of pre-made sandwiches from the refrigerated case. At the sales counter, I showed the cashier the sandwiches, asked him to add two ice teas to my order, and gave him my credit card. He handed me two cups (the sodas and tea were self-serve) and, after entering my order on his tablet/terminal, he swiveled the screen around to face me. There, right in the middle of the screen, I was “conveniently” given the opportunity add a tip to the transaction. I was even given a choice: I could click on 15%, 20%, or, if I was feeling especially generous, 25%. There was also a button labeled Custom Tip if I wanted to calculate another tip amount. Of course, I had the option of clicking the No Tip button, but with the cashier standing right there watching me, that choice felt very uncomfortable. Wimp that I am, I clicked 15%, signed the screen with my finger, and moved on.

Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!
Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!

I usually am a pretty good tipper. I spent time in the trenches working in restaurants as I made my way through school, and a large part of my marketing career was in the food service business. The person who waits on my husband and me at a sit-down restaurant will usually find a good tip when we leave. In the type of establishment where there are tip jars present, I sometimes leave something and sometimes not. If I feel a tip is warranted, though, I’m fairly generous. I am happy to reward good service and I am grateful to be financially able to do so. What I don’t like is the expectation of tips for providing a simple service. And, I don’t like businesses relying on their customers to subsidize their employees’ salaries. Most of all, I don’t like being guilted into leaving a tip.

I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).
I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).

Apparently these new payment systems are having a huge impact on tips received, especially in venues where tipping has never been common. When faced with the three tip percentages, customers often just tap the middle one (20%, in most cases). Tapping the No Tip option is not easy when the employee is watching you and there are people in line behind you. No one wants to feel cheap.

I’m not sure if this train has already left the station and tipping someone for scooping ice cream, ringing up a couple of sodas, or putting a bagel in a bag is now considered “normal” but I know I’m not on it. When I see that one of those devices will be used to ring up my simple transaction, I immediately start to feel uncomfortable. Do I resign myself to this new paradigm and add a tip? Do I take the easy way out and pay with cash (assuming I have enough)? Do I tap Custom Tip and enter what I might have placed in the now-vanished tip jar? Or, do I grow a spine and tap No Tip if that’s the option I would have chosen before?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think I’ll start carrying more cash just in case.

Verizon: Can You Hear Me Now? You are Fired!

Although we are in the fortunate position of not having to count pennies now that we’ve retired, my husband and I have been looking for ways to save money on our monthly bills. What we don’t send to the phone, internet, cable, water and other utility companies, goes into our savings and can be spent on better things like travel, dining out, and entertainment.

The first change we made was to install drought-tolerant landscaping. Not only is our yard more interesting visually, we no longer need to water a thirsty lawn.

Yard

We’ve also ditched our landline. It seemed wasteful to pay over $30 each month for a phone that remained silent much of the time, except when it became a conduit for telemarketers and political campaign workers to reach out and annoy us. Since we make and receive most of our calls using our cellphones, that was an easy decision to make.

When we made this switch, we still wanted the option to direct certain calls to a number other than our cellphones so we bought an Ooma internet-based phone system.  After the initial purchase price, we now pay only applicable taxes and fees, which has been less than $4 each month.

Now, we are getting ready to say goodbye to our cellphone service carrier, Verizon. We don’t use a lot of data (we currently share 2GB but never use even close to that), and our talking and texting is on the low-side, so our current monthly bill of $130 (plus taxes and fees) for two phones  seems high. When our 2-year contract recently expired, we visited a Verizon store to find out what our options were. We knew that the major service carriers were feeling pressure from the smaller start-ups so we hoped to get a better deal.

We were disappointed to learn that Verizon’s “deal” involved the mandatory purchase of new phones and then monthly charges to pay off those phones. Even though they claimed that we’d no longer be on a 2-year contract, the new phone would be paid off at the end of – surprise! – 24 months. After that, the monthly installments would be removed from the bill and we could either keep our now fully paid for phones, or purchase the latest wiz-bang phone and start all over again. Um, no thank you.

Thinking that we could do better, we went in search of a carrier that offered decent coverage, a no-contract option, and one where we could keep our current, perfectly good phones. We found that there are quite a few smaller carriers out there and they all offer slightly different plan options. When comparing plans, we found that it’s important to accurately estimate current and (as much as possible), future data and minutes usage, and understand the carriers’ cell coverage.

After some research, we settled on the carrier that Consumer Reports and PC Magazine have rated #1: Consumer Cellular. Based on our usage and because we can continue to use our existing phones, the new monthly bill will be about $60 for our two phones. If (when) in the future we decide to upgrade our phones, our option would be to purchase the phones outright or pay for them in monthly installments. But, for now, we are happy with what we have… and saving $70 every month.

Next on our agenda is to see how we can say goodbye to our satellite TV bill. We aren’t completely sure how streaming and/or accessing digital content works, but I’m confident that we can figure it out. In addition, we are exploring ways to lower our internet bill (how did it get to be more than $50 per month??).