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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Toy Cell Phone Recalled

The iPlay My First Mobile Phone has been recalled because the antenna can detach, posing a choking hazard. Contact International Playthings at (800) 445-8347 or www.intplay.com/recall.htm. View the complete recall notice here.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

College Savings Series Part II: Coverdell Education Savings Accounts - Financial Tip of the Week (Feb. 27)

This is the second part in a series on saving for college. Part I: Options is here.

I'm a huge fan of Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. Except for the contribution limits, they are the ideal vehicle for college savings. The money grows tax-free, there is a wide range of investment choices, and the money can be used for expenses incurred prior to college.

Coverdells used to be called Education IRAs because they work a lot like Roth IRAs. You contribute post-tax money, up to $2,000 per year, and it grows tax-free. You invest it like you would in an IRA. Therefore, unlike with 529 plans, you have a lot of choice about how to invest your money. If you already have an IRA that you're happy with, you probably won't have to do a lot of research since you'll already be familiar with the investment options of the company your IRA is with. In selecting your investments, however, keep in mind that the time frame for when you will need the money might be different from your time frame for retirement and that you might want to allocate your money differently than you would for retirement.

The money in Coverdell accounts can be used as soon as your child enters kindergarten. That means you can use it to pay for private school tuition. Even if you plan to send your child to public school, a Coverdell can be an attractive option because you can use it for expenses like books and computers.

The biggest drawback with Coverdells is the relatively low contribution limit of $2,000 (the limit is lower if your income is over a certain amount, but the income threshold is quite high). There is a penalty for over-contributing, so you want to make sure that no more than $2,000 is contributed each year per child, especially if several people are contributing. There is no limit on the number of Coverdell accounts a child can have, so long as the contribution limit isn't exceeded. That means you can easily diversify your investments, for example by opening one Coverdell with a mutual fund company and another Coverdell with a bank so you can invest in a CD.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

College Savings Series Part I: Options - Financial Tip of the Week (Feb. 20)

This is the first post in what will be a series on saving for college. I won't post on a schedule, but rather I'll share what I learn as I research my own options for saving for Alex's education.

To the best of my knowledge, there are three major options for tax-advantaged college savings. I'll summarize them below and discuss them in greater detail in the future:

  1. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: These were formerly known as Education IRAs and they work a lot like Roth IRAs. You contribute up to $2,000 per year (of your post-tax money) and it grows tax-free. You can choose investments as you would with an IRA so it's up to you to manage the asset allocation. Money in Coverdell accounts can be used to pay for education-related expenses beginning in kindergarten.
  2. 529 Savings Plans: These are the most popular college savings plans these days. Every state has its own plan, but you're not limited to the plan offered by the state you live in. Your contributions grow tax-free and contribution limits are high. You can choose from various prepaid tuition plans or investment-based plans. Investment options tend to be more limited than with Coverdells - for example, in California, your choices are a "Guaranteed Option," which is basically like investing in a CD, two age-based asset-allocation plans, and two 100% equity plans.
  3. U.S. Savings Bonds: Parents can redeem bonds without tax consequences if the bonds were purchased in their name after they turned 24 to pay for tuition and fees if they meet certain income limitations.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Key Lime Bars

I adapted this recipe from a Martha Stewart recipe because Marc loves lime desserts. I've made them in a muffin pan for individual tarts and they were adorable (and delicious, of course) but tricky to get out. Regular limes work fine, although use key limes if you can find them.

Key Lime Bars
Makes 1 dozen

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 stick butter, melted
6 large egg yolks
2 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk
4 teaspoons grated lime zest
1 cup lime juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into the bottom of an 8x8 or 9x9 pan. Bake for 12 minutes or until crust is slightly darker. Let cool while you make the filling.

2. Whisk together egg yolks and condensed milk until thick. Gradually add lime zest and juice. Pour filling onto cooled crust. Bake for 7 minutes, or until just hot. Cool completely, then chill at least 2 hours or until ready to serve. Garnish with extra lime zest and confectioner's sugar if desired.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dental Care For Your Baby

Even before Alex was born, my dentist told me that we should start brushing his teeth as soon as the first tooth appeared. It turns out he didn't quite mean brushing, but rubbing (as best we can) little nubs over Alex's teeth to get Alex used to the idea of tooth brushing. The "toothbrush" looks more like a teether than a toothbrush.

Given the message from my dentist that toothcare starts during infancy, I was surprised when I read this article on a child's first dental visit and learned that some dentists don't want to see a child until the age of three or even four!

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Things Worth Spending On

Some things are more important than money, or more accurately, some things are worth spending money on. Here are a few:
  • Physical health - Regular doctor and dentist visits should never be put off to save money. In fact, in the long run, these visits can save you lots of money by preventing minor problems from growing into major problems. Health insurance companies know this, and some (many?) plans cover 100% of the cost of preventive checkups. If you do have to pay out of pocket, you can minimize the costs by using a Flexible Spending Account or possibly deducting the cost if you itemize deductions on your taxes.
  • Mental health - Psychotherapy can be the difference between a happy life and an unhappy one. I don’t think I would have emerged from the depression I sank into after my two miscarriages without therapy. The healing process that my therapist guided me through was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Therapy is not cheap, especially, if it’s not covered by your insurance company, but again, you can minimize the costs by using an FSA. Also, make sure you’re really willing to put in the hard work that comes with good therapy so that you’ll get the most out of your sessions and be able to minimize the number of them.
  • Education - A college education is almost a must these days. In 1997, college graduates earned $18,000 more per year than high school graduates, and I would guess that the difference grows greater every year. You can minimize expenses by attending a community college to fulfill general requirements before transferring to a public four-year college, or better yet, by earning a scholarship. If you have the time and the money to invest, consider a prepaid tuition plan or at least invest in tax-advantaged plans like a 529 or Coverdell ESA. Take out as few loans as possible, and consider living at home or working part-time.
  • Giving - I didn't want to call this category "charity," because I don't mean to limit your giving to nonprofits. Charities are wonderful institutions to give to, and FMF had a wonderful post about tithing a few weeks ago. (Even if you don't tithe to a church, I think the concept of regular giving is a good one.) But I'm also including money spent to make someone's day, like sending flowers to your grandmother when it's not her birthday or Mother's Day or to the old lady down the street who never seems to have any visitors. There's nothing quite as uplifting as knowing you did something wonderful for someone else, just because.
  • Items that make your life better - Anything that genuinely improves the quality of your life fits into this category. For example, don't buy $30 shoes just because they're cheap if they hurt your feet. Spend $100 or more for shoes that are cute and comfortable, and don't hesitate to wear them. You can maximize the life of the shoes by having them re-soled so you may even end up saving money. Here's another example: for several years, I insisted that I didn't need a television in the kitchen because I didn't want to spend the money. Last month, we finally put a TV in the corner and it's transformed how I feel about cleaning up in the evening. The television distracts me from how tired I am while doing the dishes or prepping food for the next day. It's made me happier, which has made Marc happier. Now that's what I call money well spent.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Vote For FLYing

FlyLady has been around for a while now. In fact, I think I first came across the site in 2000 or 2001, but I didn't really understand it so I went on with my life. I occasionally saw a reference or mention about how great "FLYing" was, but I still remembered how baffling I found it so I never looked into it.

A couple of months ago, though, I decided I wanted to keep a cleaner house. The cleaning service I used was fine, but only did surface cleaning so the kitchen floor was always a little dirty, that kind of thing. I didn't really know where to start so I went to the FlyLady site and this time I understood it. I'm not sure if I was just ready to understand or if over time they've made their message more intelligible, but it's really made a difference.

FLY stands for "Finally Loving Yourself." The FlyLady, Marla Cilley, and her team encourage SHE's (Sidetracked Home Executives™) to keep a cleaner house and organize their lives out of self-love. I understand the premise - that you'll feel better about yourself if your life is "together," and your life will be more "together" if you truly love yourself. I've gotten that message in other places, though (Cheryl Richardson has been a good teacher to me in that regard), so what I have found the most useful are the specific guidelines for cleaning my house.

FlyLady believes in baby steps, and the first step is simply to shine your kitchen sink every night. Then you add a daily clearing of a "hot spot," a place where things accumulate (for me, it's the dining table). Next come 15-minute decluttering sessions. Gradually, you add other routines that eventually have you living in an orderly home that stays clean and organized because you do a little bit every day.

One of my favorite FlyLady quotes is "You can do anything for 15 minutes." The 15-minute decluttering sessions helped me to finally shred a bag of papers that had been sitting under my desk for over a year. I kept thinking I had to set aside an hour or more to do it, but over the course of a week, I shredded for 15-minute blocks and the bag was history.

With Marc's support (he's taken over some of the regular cleaning chores), I've put enough routines in place that I was able to let go of our regular cleaning service. I try to declutter a little bit every day, although sometimes I have trouble letting go of things (I might need them someday!). I'm still a "FlyBaby" in FlyLady terms, but I am definitely FLYing in her system.

If you're feeling overwhelmed with all that you have to do, set aside 15 minutes to look over the FlyLady website and start FLYing yourself!

Two notes:

  1. All of the information you need to FLY is available for free on the FlyLady website. They sell a lot of "tools" that apparently are very popular but I haven't bought a single one and am quite happy with how I am FLYing. So I don't think they're necessary and I don't advocate buying anything until and unless you are absolutely and positively certain that you will use it.
  2. Be prepared: if you sign up for FlyLady's emails, you will get a lot of emails from them - an average of 10 per day, I think. After the first couple of weeks, I could tell from the subject line that the body of the email was one that was sent regularly, and I started deleting them without opening them. (They are simply reminders, after all, and I didn't need that specific reminder.) Many of the emails are testimonials, and some are inspiring. If I have the time and/or inclination, I will read them but if I am too busy or just not in the mood, I delete them. Given FlyLady's attitude toward decluttering, I don't think she'd be offended! (There was a problem with Blogger and my original post was lost, but a couple of readers noted that there is a "digest" option to reduce the number of emails. Thanks for the tip!)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

You can use any kind of bread for this dessert, but use an extra 1/2 cup milk if you use a whole-grain bread.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Serves 8 to 10

5 medium or 4 large eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
8 cups day-old bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
cooking spray
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, milk, cream, salt, vanilla, pumpkin puree, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the bread, making sure to soak every piece. Cover and refrigerate for up to four hours.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray. Pour the bread mixture into the dish and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the custard sets and top is golden. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

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