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Spending Wisely

Sometimes you have to pay more to get the best deal.

By Jennifer Barnett Reed

Cary Grant's father said it, and your mother probably did, too: It's better to have one good pair of shoes than four bad ones. It may be tempting to ignore that advice in the face of dire economic forecasts and TV talking heads who advise us to eat store-brand Ramen noodles so we can build up that six-month cash reserve account, but the truth is, sometimes it doesn't pay to be frugal. With the goal of helping you know when to spend, and when not to, here are a few examples:

Shoes. At the risk of helping you justify those $120 Dansko clogs, when it comes to your feet, you won't regret shelling out a few extra dollars on a quality pair of shoes. A cheap T-shirt won't make your back hurt, but cheap shoes very well might.

$64.82 - Boo!

The amount of money that the average consumer spent on Halloween-related stuff last year, mostly on cavity-creating candy. Now, that's scary… and it's up from $59.06 the year before.

Source: The National Retail Federation
The discount-store variety usually isn't made from real leather, which means your feet will sweat more, the shoes won't stretch to conform to your foot shape, and they'll also wind up stinkier than their natural-materials counterparts. If you just need shower shoes for the gym, then sure, pick up a pair of flip-flops at the dollar store. But if you're looking for something to wear all day, especially if you're on your feet much—and we know you are—go for quality over quantity.

Technology. Those $200 computers and $20 MP3 players may look like great deals, but when it comes to electronics, shopping bargain-basement is a bad idea. You'll get cheaper parts and usually slower customer service if something goes wrong.

About $700 is a good starting point for a desktop computer and monitor; anything below that, and you're probably looking at inferior hardware. With MP3 players, spring for one that has a flash drive, not a hard drive. They'll stand up much better to impact if you drop it—that is, when you drop it.

(Before you buy, check out the NEA Member Benefits Click & Save program at NEA Member Benefits, which offers deals from tech companies like Dell, Panasonic, and Philips.)

How I…Save Money
Northern Virginia health teacher Will Smolinski has slashed his vehicle fuel bills by an average of $350 a month. How, you ask? He's going places on his own head of steam. Smolinski gave up his car last year and rides a bicycle to school, about three miles each way. For Smolinski, a triathlete, it's not much effort. But he encourages his colleagues to consider the same. For one thing, there's the money. For another, there's the sense of energy that he brings to his classroom in the morning, and the healthful behavior that he's modeling for students who "really respect it." To be safe, Smolinski always wears a reflective vest, and lights on the front and rear of his bike, plus a light on his backpack. And don't forget your helmet.

Cars. The car that scored the highest of all on Consumer Reports' latest road tests is the $77,000 Lexus LS 460L. Now, we're not saying that's a smart buy on a teacher's salary! But spending a little more on a car makes sense if you do it for the right reasons, says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for the automotive site

Upgraded stereo systems, leather seats, and sunroofs are the wisest splurges in terms of resale value, Reed says. He also strongly recommends paying extra for electronic stability control. "It could save your life and you may never even know it."

Men's suits. Even if you wear it just once or twice a year—the Teacher of the Year banquet, perhaps?—a more expensive suit will look better, wear better, and hold up longer.  "The proof is in the wearing of the garment," says Doug Salmi, a merchandise manager for tailored clothing at Dillard's department stores.

High-end stores also offer sales people who can put you in the perfect fit, but check out local Goodwill or consignment stores for deals. You may be able to get the same fine-thread wool at prices that won't chill your bank account.

Furniture. When you think about how many times your couch will have to stand up to the force of your body weight flopping down after debate practice, it makes sense to invest in quality. That higher price tag will buy you a kiln-dried hardwood frame (as opposed to short-lived plywood and particle board) and cushions made with denser polyurethane, which won't sag as quickly as cheaper cushions. (If you'd still rather somebody else pay full price, check out www. for used leather couches and more.)

Lest Suze Orman come knocking on our door at midnight: It's never wise to spend more than you can afford. But sometimes, being smart with your money means saying no to the cheapest option.

Gas up your wallet!

With the price of fuel soaring higher than its fumes, it's almost less painful to go to the dentist! To take the sting out of a trip to the gas pump, try some of these gas-saving strategies:

If you're the same person who flips through the Sunday  circulars looking for the best prices on steak and eggs, you should do the same for gas. Check out Gas Buddy's site to compare local prices or, for prices plus directions, try Mapquest's Gas Prices site.

Once you hit the road, the most important thing you can do is obey the speed limit, says John Townsend, spokesman for Mid-Atlantic AAA. For every 5 mph that you drive over 60 mph, you may be losing about 30 cents per gallon in fuel efficiency. Also, take out all the junk in your trunk, use cruise control when possible, and avoid aggressive starts and brakes, he says. (Other AAA tips: Keep tires inflated and keep to a regular maintenance schedule.)

Ever heard of "hypermiling?" It describes drivers who attempt to exceed their vehicles' EPA fuel economy rating through specific driving habits. We certainly don't recommend all of them—coasting through stop signs? Tailgating? Coasting in neutral? No, no, and no! But other suggestions sound downright sensible, like turning off the A/C and removing unused cargo racks. For more information, go to Clean MPG's site.



Buy Now or Later?
Technology expert Kevin Savetz weighs in.

Apple iPhone

Cost - $199-$299, plus data plan

About -"Early adopters" are still stinging from the iPhone's $200 price drop a mere two months after its first release. But the new iPhone 3G has become more than a sleek status symbol. Besides added memory, the 3G has GPS, longer battery life, access to an applications store, faster Web browsing, and improved phone clarity. (The bad news: Rates are going up.) If you're locked into a contract, you'll have to wait or pay to switch. If not, the functionality, intuitive touch screen, and lower cost make the iPhone a good bet.

Verdict - Go for it.

High-Definition Video Camera

Cost - $900-$1,100

About - Is it time to go high-def? It depends on how you use your camcorder. If you produce videos that will be broadcast or distributed in near-professional quality, high-def could be a good move. But if your projects are more casual or Internet-based—say, you're just uploading shorts to YouTube—high-def is just going to cost you more time in downloading, editing, and uploading. You could sacrifice picture detail and save $600 to $800 by buying a standard definition video camera.

Verdict - Wait it out.

Flat-screen HDTV

Cost - $500-$4,000

About - When it comes to flat-screen high-definition TVs, the array of choices can be as overwhelming as deciding whether to watch McDreamy or Meerkat Manor. But with this kind of expense, it's important to do your research. Whether you go with LCD or plasma, the good news is industry experts predict prices will continue to drop through 2008, in part because retailers have more inventory than expected and manufacturers have themselves been dropping prices by hundreds of dollars.

Verdict - Buy now.

MP3 Player

Cost - $20-$350

About - Today, you can get a video MP3 player for what a bare-bones music player used to cost, so there's no need to wait any longer. Prices for portable media players have leveled out, and you can get a lot of bang for your buck—whether you go with the lure of Apple's iPod or a brand such as Archos or Creative's Zen. All can handle your song library and podcasts, while those equipped with video can display photos, replay TV shows, and more. Choose a player with enough memory so you won't need to upgrade.

Verdict - Buy now.

Photo: Meiko Arquillos; Gas Can: Norman Pogson; Speedometer: Linux Patrol; Car and driver: Thomas Barwick; Frustrated man: Akurtz; IPhone: Andrey Kozachenko; video camera: Ronen; plasma tv: Milevski Petar; mp3 player: saim nadir

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