Summer Home Improvement: Shop Smarter, Pay Less

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Summer is a great time for tackling some home improvement, but it can be a budget-buster.

That's true even if you're doing a small-scale DIY project like retiling your patio or installing new bathroom fixtures in your bathroom. You may not be paying a contractor, but the cost of materials can certainly set you back.

Summer Money SaversSmart shopping can save you plenty. And if you need financing for the project, there are ways to borrow a bit of cash that won't leave you hamstrung by high-interest debt.

Here are a few tips for sprucing up your digs without emptying your pockets.

Finance It Like This...

If you think your project is going to cost more than you've got on hand, you'll need to find some ways to borrow cash. Depending on your credit rating, a new credit card might be a good way to do so, says John Kiernan, a senior analyst at credit-card comparison site CardHub.

"The current credit card landscape lends itself" to summer fix-up projects, he says. "We're seeing issuers roll out especially attractive offers in terms of perks for people with a really good credit rating."

Those offers often involve 0% interest on all purchases within the first several months, giving you plenty of time to pay back what you spent on fixtures and fittings without racking up additional charges. The Citi Diamond Preferred Card, for instance, offers 0% interest for the first 18 months. If you've got average credit, he recommends the Capital One Classic Platinum, which has a 0% introductory APR through April 2014.

Some rewards cards also offer bonus cash-back in the home improvement category. The Discover It card, for instance, is currently granting you 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent at home improvement stores. The bad news? That's for the quarter ending June 30, so if you're planning a project for the Fourth of July weekend, you'd better act fast.

...But Don't Finance it Like This

We'll reiterate a warning we've given before: Be very careful of deferred financing plans offered by store credit cards. Both Home Depot (HD) and Lowe's (LOW) offer cards that feature 0% financing for six months on purchases over $299; that means that if you get one of these cards and put a few hundred bucks on it, you can pay it off over the course of the next six months without paying a dime of interest. In that sense, they're similar to cards with 0% introductory financing, like the Citi Diamond Preferred.

But the big difference is that if you haven't paid it off by the end of the introductory period, you don't just start paying interest on the unpaid balance, as you would on an ordinary card. Instead, you're hit with retroactive interest: As Lowe's explains in the fine print, "Interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the promotional purchase is not paid in full within 6 months."

Getting charged six months' worth of interest is going to sting, so only take this offer if you're 100 percent sure you can pay it off within six months.

Shop Around, and Don't Buy New...

It's tempting to begin and end your search at the home improvement superstore -- between Sears, Lowe's and Home Depot, you're sure to find anything you need.

But don't let the glittering brand names blind you to shopping around.

Want to get some power tools? Check out Harbor Freight for deep discounts. But if you don't think you'll use that circular saw more than once, consider renting one -- this is a good guide for determining whether to rent or buy a power tool.

You also might be able to find a store in your area that sells recycled materials at a deep discount. New Jersey, for instance, has Green Demolitions, which recycles and sells luxury fixtures, appliances and other materials from demolished homes and commercial surplus. You might also looks up the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in your area for used appliances, fixtures and tools.

...Or Don't Buy at All

Hey, you know what's better than paying less? (You know the answer to this one.)

That's right: Paying nothing at all.

Free is better than cheap, and there's a surprising amount of "free" going around in the DIY world.

"I always try to get things for free before going to Lowes or Home Depot," says Melissa Massello, founder of DIY and budget living site Shoestring Magazine. "People only want to make one run to the home improvement store, so they buy more than they need."

And when they find themselves with a bunch of leftover bricks and tiles that they can't use, you may be able to benefit. Massello uses sites like Freecylce and Craigslist to find people looking to unload useful supplies.

"A lot can be done with scraps, and people have extras from projects they've already done," she says. "People are giving away bricks, rocks, compost, plants, pallets." She recounts one time when she saw someone giving away antique slate tiles that would normally cost a pretty penny per square foot.

If you're planning to start work this weekend, you might not have time to round up a bunch of free material on short notice. But if you're willing to spend some time doing your homework and monitoring Craigslist, you'll be surprised at how much free stuff you can find.

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From Soup to Nuts: Tips for a Cool, Calm Summer Garden Party
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Summer Home Improvement: Shop Smarter, Pay Less

When it comes to summer wines, classic buying tips apply: Many wine shops offer steep discounts on overstocked wines or partial cases. Beyond that, there are several inexpensive wines that are great summer chillers: Vinho Verde, for example, is a light, summery Portuguese wine that often costs $5 or less a bottle.

As for beer, if you're looking for something that hits the sweet spot between a run-of-the-mill Budweiser and a pricey microbrew, you might consider a German hefeweizen. These smooth wheat beers aren't too hoppy, are fairly crisp, don't have too much alcohol, and taste great with a wedge of orange. Alternately, if you still have fond college memories of Mickey's wide-mouths and Gennessee Cream Ale, you'll be pleased to know that inexpensive American cream ales are experiencing a renaissance.

Photo: O_sam_o, Flickr.com

When it comes to cost-effective beverages, it's hard to beat everyday sodas, but if you want a cheap soda that isn't loaded with high fructose corn syrup, the options get a lot thinner. A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the best bets at your local Asian market, but if you have a Latin American store in your area, you might try Jarritos, a Mexican soda brand that uses cane sugar instead of HFCS. As an added benefit, Jarritos comes in wide variety of flavors -- like watermelon, pineapple and tamarind -- that are sure to surprise your friends and family.

Photo: Raelene Gutierrez, Flickr.com

When it comes to decorating for a garden party, lighting is key. Mini Christmas lights are attractive and cheap: a strand of 100 lights will probably set you back about $8 or so. If you'd like a slightly retro look, tiki torches start at less than $5 apiece. Or, if you want to go with a more personal touch, you can try making your own citronella candles. Candle molds are only a few bucks, and a jumbo citronella candle will give you enough wax for several smaller candles.
When it comes to garden party snacks, it's hard to beat a basic cheese plate. They're easy to assemble, don't require cooking, and don't have to cost a lot -- all you need are a few types of cheese and a thinly sliced baguette. If you want to go whole hog, throw in some olives, slice up a few apples, and add in some slices of prociutto or sopressata.

If you want to go with something a little more summery, chilled gazpacho is a good option. The simple Spanish soup is tasty and inexpensive to make. And, if you really want to impress your guests, check out this watermelon blueberry gazpacho recipe from Food Republic: it's sweet, spicy, and absolutely distinctive!
One of the great secrets of classic Southern cooking is that the three classic meats -- pulled pork, beef brisket, and chicken -- are not only delicious but are also extremely economical. Plus, pork shoulder and brisket will take several hours to cook, giving you the perfect excuse to sip beer in the backyard with your friends.
Nothing says summer like fresh watermelon, and the price is definitely right. But if you want to go a little more elaborate, here's an option: combine your favorite berries in a bowl (personally, I like a mix of blueberries, raspberries, and sliced strawberries). Add balsamic glaze to taste, and set aside in the fridge. When you're ready for dessert, take the berry mix and either drizzle over vanilla ice cream or pound cake, then garnish with whipped cream. For less than $15, it's a sure way to wow your family and friends.
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Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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