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The following is an article I wrote for the print magazine "Refunding Makes Cents" in July 1999.  I don't do near as much couponing as I once did, but my methods remain the same.

Refunding In The Palm Of Your Hand

 

            For years, I have depended on a Day-Runner organizer to keep my life on track.  As a computer contractor, it held my calendar, to-do list, address book, and business data.  As a refunder, it held lots of important printouts such as my price book, forms list, trade log, and countless scribbles and reminders to myself.  It was a bit bulky to haul around, especially while shopping, but it worked.

            Now that my daughter has turned two, I find life to be a bit more hectic.  I no longer have time to print out long lists of coupons from my computer program, or print out any other long list for that matter.  My coupon list alone was 26 pages and I was using the smallest font available.  Updating the lists every week seemed impossible and my husband got tired of waiting for me to print, cut, punch holes, and file before we could go to the store. 

            Even if the printing process went smoothly (no paper jams, misprints, etc.), we still had the problem of  "in store" disasters.  I am referring to shopping with a toddler who has more than a few times ripped pages out of my organizer, scribbled out my shopping list, dumped my coupon box, and sailed the calculator into the freezer case.  This really wouldn't be such a problem if I either had a perfectly behaved toddler (in a grocery store - get real!) or if I could grow four more arms to juggle it all.  Neither seemed possible at the moment so I opted for a new solution.

            I started looking into electronic organizers, thinking that it would be nice to carry around something small that would hold all of my information.  Most of the cheap ones were just too small memory-wise and many of them still did not link to my pc.  The thought of retyping all of my data on a miniature keyboard was not appealing either.  I really needed that pc link.  Any refunder who has discovered the benefits of pasting your wish list into an email, refund board, or web page understands the importance of keeping information on the computer. 

            Just as I was about to give up, I ran across some handheld computers in an office supply store.  After more research and some price comparisons, I purchased a Palm IIIx by 3Com on sale at Staples.  I wanted to 'road test' it before I decide to keep it, but I realized I couldn't live without it after the first day. Within about 2 hours of arriving home with my Palm Pilot, I had successfully imported all of my business info, addresses, to do lists, and ALL of my refunding lists and information into it.  And I had barely even filled up ľ of the memory available!  It not only replaced my paper organizer, but almost replaced my laptop, too, once I started downloading software off the internet.  All this and it is the size of the calculator I have stuffed in my coupon box!

            These handheld computers are not cheap, but they are well worth the money considering all they can do.  They range in price from about $250-$500 depending on the model and brand, and in my searching I found most office supply stores have frequent sales on them.  There are also various rebates available on the different brands and models.  Some even offer additional hardware such as a detachable keyboard or modem free with purchase.  Between the price matching and the rebates, you can some get them for $100 or less!  A month after my purchase, I found that the Staples internet site was offering a free keyboard with the purchase of a Palm Pilot.  I called the manager and told him I had just bought mine.  He let me bring in my receipt and get the $90 keyboard for free!

Let me tell you about some of the features these handheld PC's have and how I use them in my refunding.  The main feature I use daily is the calendar.  You can add all kinds of events such doctor appointments, refunding deadlines, and even recurring events like birthdays, etc.  For each event you can assign a category, which is handy when I am at a business meeting and want to keep my refunding and personal information from displaying on the screen.  You can also set an alarm for an event to remind you to - say - renew your RMC subscription each year.  The to-do list is self explanatory, and it is easy to sort through various task categories or view them all at once.  The address book lets you store a lot of information and sort it quickly.  I have a separate category just for refund trader addresses.  It's almost like having multiple address books - very nice.

The fourth application that comes on the palm pilot is the memo pad.  I didn't think I would use it that much but it has become my main source for refunding info.  Using the desktop software included with the handheld, I copied and pasted my wishlist, refunding log, etc. into separate memos.  I filed them all in a category for refunding.  I then linked it to the palm pilot, and within 2 minutes, all of my data had been synchronized.  Now I can use the built in search function on the palm pilot to match up refunds quickly.  For example, I enter 'kool' for Kool-Aid into the find box.  Within a second, the results show that I have 4 Kool-Aid forms listed in my "Forms" Memo, a deadline of 12/31/99 for a Kool-Aid refund on my calendar, and 4 $1/10 coupons listed in my "Coupons" memo.  It also searches the freeware programs I have added and tells me that in my shopping list/price book program (Handyshopper) that I have an entry for Kool-Aid.

Entering data into the handheld PC is easier than you would think.  The first way, obviously, is to type it on your main computer (or copy/paste from an existing file you may have) and then link it to the handheld.  Another way is to write your text directly on the screen using the plastic-tipped pen.  The built-in handwriting recognition program will turn it into typed text.  You can also bring up an on-screen keyboard and use the special pen to tap on the keys.  The screen is plenty big and if you think the text is too small, you can always make the font larger for easier viewing.  I use the handwriting feature the most.  I love being able to add in a new form or wish list item while I am out shopping.  This way my info is always updated and by synching it to my PC again, I can copy and paste the current info into my web page without taking a lot of time to sort through scribbled out papers.  It is also handy to have in the car when you travel.  We travel 40 minutes to and from church twice a week so I always take my palm pilot and the latest RMC with me to update my lists.  In fact, I am writing this article as an e-mail while sitting in the waiting room of my doctor's office.  When I get home, I will just link it to my computer and it will instantly be sent to Michele.  How much easier can it get?

There is a lot of software available for the palm pilot and other handheld computers.  The freeware programs I found work great and have already helped us to save money.  One such program is HandyShopper.  In this program, I imported all of the items from my price book to create one giant shopping list with unit prices listed.  I then use the program to check off the items I need at various stores such as grocery, hardware, office supply, etc.  Now when I am in the grocery store, I open the grocery listing and in less than one second, I have a complete view of grocery items we need in one compact list.  As I add them to my cart, I check them off and they disappear from the screen and go back into my master list.  You can also make a note if you have a coupon for the item.  Also, there are several money-managing programs available, so I downloaded one to keep track of our budget.  At the end of the month we found that being able to write down expenses immediately and checking balances on the palm pilot improved our spending habits.  There are also shareware programs out there for those of you that are interested, but so far I have been able to find freeware programs that work just as well.

            Since saving time was my original goal, I decided to figure up how much time I actually saved by converting to a palm pilot.  It used to take me about 5+ hours to reorganize my refunding every week.  This includes filing coupons, qualifiers, and forms, plus changing all of my lists and updating my web site.  Printing it all out again took me at least 2 hours, plus cutting the paper and punching the holes to fit it into my organizer.  There were many times when some of my refunding tasks just didnít get done which meant I got behind and had more work to do the next week.  Now, since I can add items on the run, update in the car, and eliminate the printouts, my information stays current ALL the time and I spend under 1 hour a week getting it done.  Not to mention the money I am saving on printer ink and paper.  The best part is that I can tuck the palm pilot into my wallet, which then tucks into my coupon box, which happens to be an Arctic Zone lunch cooler with a shoulder strap and extra pockets.  This makes shopping hands free and toddler-proof, which makes me happy since baby number two is due on Labor Day and my four extra arms show no signs of sprouting anytime soon.

 

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