Dear Readers: Are you planning a party in the new year and will need to hire a caterer? Here are some helpful hints to find the perfect caterer for your big bash:

• Check with friends, family and co-workers for recommendations. Meet with the caterer(s) and sample the food before making a decision.

• Take notes on the details about food and beverages. Ask how they will be presented and served.

• Determine the per-person price. Know exactly what that includes, such as open bar, wine or desserts.

• Establish a date for you to give the final head count. Set a cutoff date for last-minute guests. Find out if you will be billed for those who don't show up even though they sent an R.S.V.P.

• Who provides tableware, table linens, trays, serving utensils and centerpieces? Who purchases disposable plates, cups and napkins?

• Finally, what cleanup does the caterer do? Find out who gets the leftovers.

• Get a written contract that covers everything you've discussed.

Now, send out the invitations, find the perfect outfit and prepare to enjoy your upcoming party! — Heloise

P.S. I've joined the "podcast people" and have been posting my weekly podcast every Wednesday on the Good Housekeeping magazine Web site. Visit www.Heloise.com for a quick link.

Dear Heloise: I read your column in the Houston Chronicle. Sometimes when I fill up at a gas station, the pump does not provide a paper receipt. Rather than go inside and wait in line, I take a snapshot of the digital readout on the gas pump using my cell-phone camera. Within seconds, I'm on my way. Later, I copy this amount into my checkbook register. — Tim Miller, Houston

Dear Heloise: Here is an idea for those stubborn tiny corks that are used to plug up saltshakers and pepper shakers. Often the corks dry up and shrink or get pushed into the container so far that it is impossible to get them out without damaging them. Buy soft foam-rubber earplugs. Squeeze the rounded end, push into the hole, and it will expand to fit the hole. To get the plug out, simply squeeze together. — H.N., via e-mail

Dear Readers: When your favorite silver or gold chain becomes knotted, before you take it to a jeweler, try this: Place the chain on a piece of wax paper and drop a little baby or sweet oil on the knot. Use two straight pins to work the knot loose by gently prying the tangle apart.

You can remove the oil by rinsing the chain in a little warm water and mild detergent, then rinse in water and dry thoroughly. — Heloise

Dear Heloise: Here is my hint for using the big zippered bags that comforters, etc., are sold in. I make small wreaths for the holidays and the different seasons; the bags are great for storing these wreaths. — Tina M., Boardman, Ohio


Send a money-saving or timesaving hint to Heloise, P.O. Box 795000, San Antonio, TX 78279-5000, or you can fax it to 1-210-435-6473 or e-mail it to [email protected]. I can't answer your letter personally but will use the best hints received in my column. © King Features Syndicate Inc.