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Before you order, think about what the menu is trying to pitch.

By Karen Datko Sep 30, 2009 4:31AM

Did you know that when you open a four-page menu, your eyes are naturally drawn to the center of the right-hand page? In menu circles, that's known as the "power position."

That's where you'll find the entrées the restaurant really, really wants you to buy -- signature dishes that keep you coming back and those with the biggest profit margins, said Thursday Bram in a post at our partner blog Wise Bread.

Menus are, after all, "the only piece of printed advertising that you are virtually 100% sure will be read by the guest," wrote David Pavesic in an article reprinted by the Restaurant Resource Group. Beth Panitz, in an old post at, added, "If you think customers decide on their own what to order, think again." (Thanks to Liz Kay of the Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog for those links).

Several bloggers, including Dan Mitchell of The Big Money's Daily Bread blog and Liz, have written recently about the menu tricks restaurants use, and we'll assemble some here to give you an edge next time you go out to eat.


Don't be misled by clever marketers.

By Karen Datko Sep 30, 2009 4:15AM

Sara at On Simplicity simply states what she calls the "cold, hard truth": "Advertising sucks. ... It's engineered to make you feel like you're incomplete, that you have an unfulfilled need, that you're not good enough."

Eluding ubiquitous advertising is one of the "18 means for living below your means" at Marc and Angel Hack Life, a blog that features compilations of valuable tips to deal with life's vexing problems.

This particular post draws on some of the blogging world's best thinking on the keystone of financial health.

Once again, Marc and Angel do not disappoint.


Clearance meat can help stretch the food budget.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:58AM

I had a $1 steak for lunch, but it was no one-buck chuck. It was certified Angus beef sirloin, with no hormones or antibiotics, and “minimally processed,” according to the label. In addition, this steer apparently ate only vegetarians: The label also said "100 percent vegetarian diet."

How'd it get to be a dollar? First it went on sale, then it got old. 

Meat department managers keep a constant vigil against meat that's close to its sell-by date. They need to sell that flesh pronto, so they discount it deeply. 

That’s how people like me end up with steaks whose original per-pound cost was one and a half times the federal minimum wage. That same shopping trip netted me a two-pack of sirloins that initially cost $8.99 a pound; I paid $4.07 total. Another pair of steaks cost just $1.24 and $1.52.


All it takes is a little scrounging.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:49AM

After a year without going to a movie theater, I'd pretty much forgotten how expensive tickets are. That's why I was shocked to pay $10.25 to see "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" earlier this summer. I'm not alone in my dismay; plenty of those who commented on a Smart Spending post about sneaking candy into the movies groused about ticket costs along with the price of Jujubes.

I paid cash to see "Kit" because I was writing about the movie, so the cost of the ticket was a business expense. However, I've seen several movies since then and haven't paid a dime. 

Instead, I use movie tickets that I ordered through the My Coke Rewards program, which offers vouchers to AMC Theatres. I live two blocks away from an AMC theater here in Seattle, and others are a bus ride away. If I have to use public transit, I wind up spending just $1.50 to $3 for an afternoon at the movies. When fall quarter starts, I'll get a free bus pass as part of my tuition, bringing the cost of my entertainment to exactly $0.


Am I really a 'sucker' for helping another human being?

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:42AM

As I walked home from doing errands on Monday, I saw an older man standing near the entrance to a shopping center parking lot. He looked wrinkled and weary and underfed, and he held a cardboard sign: "Homeless, anything will help." I put a dollar in his hand and said, "Take care of yourself. I wish it could be more." He replied, "God bless you." 

Then a silver SUV roared up, sunroof open to let the summer rays strike the male pattern baldness within. The driver wore pale blue sunglasses so I couldn't see his eyes, but I could read the sneer on his face. "Sucker!" he yelled as he drove by. 

Maybe I am a sucker. I didn't know the backstory of the man to whom I'd given that dollar. He could have been a drug addict or a Level 3 sex offender.

He could also have been a disabled veteran, a downsized executive, a laborer who aged out of his profession, an uninsured guy who lost everything after catastrophic illness.

His past didn't matter to me. His present did: He was a human being in need. I had a dollar to give, so I gave it.


It's a good idea to keep a stash of greenbacks handy.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:30AM

Hidden in my apartment is a slowly growing collection of small bills. I’ve been setting aside ones and fives toward the goal of having cash on hand for emergencies. 

Some Smart Spending message board readers do this, too. Whether they call it pin money, bail money, "gittin' out of town" money or just a collection of presidential quarters, having a little ready cash makes them feel, well, ready.

The U.S. government wants us to be ready. One of the Department of Homeland Security's Web sites,, recommends keeping some folding green on hand, right alongside the food, water and bucket toilet. 

After all, some emergencies mean power failures -- bye-bye, ATMs.


You never know who might be struggling financially.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:10AM

An old friend recently got a job after being first underemployed and then unemployed. One day at noon her new boss noticed she hadn't left her desk. "Aren't you going to have any lunch?" he asked. 

Well, no, she wasn't. There'd been barely enough in the house to make brown-bag lunches for her kids. My friend lied brightly about wanting to work through her lunch hour so she could finish on time for once. 

It's bad enough to be on the financial edge. It really stinks to be put on the spot, too. 

Some of us don't realize that anybody could be in financial trouble. That well-dressed middle manager might be about to lose her home. That seemingly carefree young co-worker could have two jobs and three roommates and still be sinking under the burden of student loan  debt.


Fuel economy is now buyers' top concern.

By Karen Datko Sep 30, 2009 1:34AM

As the price of gas goes up, many people's desire to own a big honking SUV heads south. And so may be the value of that SUV sitting in your driveway.

A growing number of SUV owners are finding that they owe more on their vehicles than they're now worth. And those folks are going to have a heck of a time getting rid of them at a satisfactory price.



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