Denver's Best Bargains

How to ditch your cable bill, buy name-brand clothes on the cheap, snag low-cost tickets for a game—and 83 other tips on living well for less.

February 2010

Cheap Eats

The test: three squares a day on $25—for one week. Could it be done?

Recently, a routine online banking assessment slapped me in the face with my food and beverage total for the week. Four lunches out, three trips to Starbucks, restaurant splurges over the weekend, pizza delivery on Wednesday. Slightly shocked, I considered ways to cut back.

First, I needed a budget. But what was reasonable? In Colorado, the average food-stamp allotment for a single person is $25 a week, and there was only one way to find out if that was actually enough. The challenge: seven days worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner—plus anything in between—for $25. On top of that, I vowed to eat only reasonably nutritious meals, meaning no ramen or Dollar Menu items from McD's.

I started by clipping coupons. I scoured the fliers from my neighborhood Safeway and King Soopers to compare deals. Two-for-one bags of lettuce at King Soopers meant I could make a daily salad for lunch. Then I made a list of possible dinner options that included overlapping ingredients. Chicken stir-fry with brown rice. Omelet with cheese and peppers. Pasta with sautéed veggies. Chicken fajitas with black beans. Breakfast would be a banana; dessert—well, I would forgo dessert. Luckily, I'm not a milk drinker, but I also had to nix extras like OJ in the morning.

Armed with my list, I marched into the grocery store expecting to breeze through in minutes. An hour and a half later, I checked out with a total of $25.76 in foodstuffs. And it was no easy feat. How many tomatoes could I buy? Would one box of spaghetti be enough? Could I afford to get the marinara sauce I like, or did I need to buy the Kroger brand? (For the record, Kroger won out every time.)

There was no dinner out with friends that week, no latte in the morning, no midafternoon snack. But I ate three times daily and even had a few items left at the end of the week. The day after my experiment was over, I made a lunchtime beeline for the eatery around the corner from the office. I ordered my favorite gourmet panino and relished it. When I was done, I thought about the $10 I'd just spent: Almost half a budget that, I now knew, could get me through an entire week was gone in about 10 minutes. I haven't been back for an overpriced sandwich since. —Julie Dugdale

No One's Pawn

You might think pawnshops are all about gold chains and shady transactions. Get over yourself. I did, but then I discovered the merits of pawn shopping. Despite their image as seedy fronts for nefarious mischief, many pawnshops are as legitimate as any other retail operation. One in particular, Fast Cash Pawn & Jewelry, an 11-store chain with outlets from Lakewood to Thornton, offers friendly service and a variety of merchandise, such as TVs and stereos, gaming consoles, DVDs, musical instruments, jewelry—even power tools.

Last summer I needed an air conditioner and talked myself into trying a portable swamp cooler I'd found at Fast Cash for about $100. I wasn't wild about how it worked, and because I'd purchased the store's six-month service plan for $10, I was able to swap it for an air conditioner. Then, when the summer ended and I moved to a new place where I no longer needed AC, I traded it again for a like-new Blu-ray player from one of the other stores (after a helpful phone call from the manager of the first store to the manager of the second). There always are risks, of course, to buying used items as they are, but it's no different than buying from a garage sale or Craigslist. Except that, if your pawnshop item doesn't work, you can actually return it. —Luc Hatlestad

Working the Wardrobe

Confessions of a clothes-aholic.

This admission is twofold. First: I am a name-brand junky. Today I'm wearing Hudson jeans, a BCBGMAXAZRIA top, Guess heels, a Nine West jacket, and a Hobo purse. Approximate retail value: entire paycheck. Second: Every single one of these items came from T.J. Maxx, for a grand total of about $150. And that's not the least of it. I also shop at Ross. Often.

Yes, I'm a bargain-basement trawler, and I'm willing to get my hands dirty. Friends of mine visibly cringe upon entering a discount chain like T.J.'s—and, indeed, you have to sift through the chaos of jumbled racks and avert your eyes when you accidentally pull out a hideous poly-blend geometric blouse that would offend...well, just about anyone. But that's the sacrifice you make to get your label fix.

Still a little iffy? Here are a few tips to get you going. —Julie Dugdale

Walk in with the right frame of mind. These aren't in-and-out kinds of places. Leave yourself an hour to scope, sift, and sort. You'll need it.

Don't skip a rack because it screams "cheaply made." Between the synthetic teenybopper tanks is often the best place to find a trendy French Connection wraparound with gorgeous trim.

Expect the unexpected. My best purchases are the ones I'm not looking for: a smart-looking diagonal-zip Nike jacket; a darling Calvin Klein little black dress; a preppy-cute Ralph Lauren Polo—all at super-clearance prices.

Lastly, no one needs to know. Rock your new slingbacks like you mean it, and tell people they're Kenneth Coles when they ask where they're from. It's not a lie; you just happened to get them for $12.99—at Ross.

Hot Wheels

How your Costco card can score you a deal— on your next car.

I needed a new car, big time. My 11-year-old SUV had rust creeping along the running boards, an always-glowing check-engine light, and a faux-leather console in serious need of duct tape. But let's face it: Haggling with Bob the Sales Manager rarely tops anyone's fun list. So I hung onto my beat-up wheels until a friend informed me that the Costco card in my wallet could minimize the expense—and hassle—of car shopping.

The process begins with a visit to Costcoauto.com, which allows you to select the vehicle you want, find a local participating dealership, and contact the authorized dealership rep. I arrived at Lakewood Fordland at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and left two hours later with a new 2010 Ford Escape Limited. MSRP: $31,915. What I paid (the invoice price minus $250 and some dealer rebates): $29,608. What I saved with my membership: $2,307. Thank you, Costco.

Of course, you might be able to negotiate a better price on your own, but discount clubs like Costco aren't just about the sticker number. They also eliminate the quibbling and wrangling. And if your dealer doesn't treat you quite right, Costco wants to hear about it. Call 1-800-556-4730 to speak with a member advocacy representative. —Lindsey B. Koehler