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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Homemade Taco Seasoning

Instead of buying packets, I like to make my own taco seasoning because I can control the salt content and it's a lot cheaper since I have the ingredients on hand anyway for other recipes. I like to use the following recipe from Jonni McCoy of Miserly Moms.

Taco Seasoning Mix
Makes approximately 15 tablespoons
(3 tablespoons is equivalent to one seasoning packet)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour (I like to use white whole wheat or whole wheat pastry flour)
2 T chili powder
1/4 cup onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
4 tsp salt
4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp oregano

Put all of the ingredients in a blender. Cover and blend until powdery for 5 seconds or less (don't over blend). Use the "pulse" feature if your blender has one. Add more cayenne powder if you prefer it hotter. (I don't bother blending the ingredients - I find the mixture works perfectly well as is.)

Store in an airtight container for up to six months.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Kolcraft recalls 425,000 play yards

Kolcraft is recalling 425,000 play yards for a strangulation hazard relating to the changing table attachment and a potential hazard with a cradle attachment. From my reading of the press release, the strangulation hazard is created only when the changing table is attached and the baby is put into the bassinet beneath the changing table, because the restraint strap hangs down from the bottom of the changing table (though I'm sure the instructions specify that you should never do that). In any event, if you own a recalled play yard, you should stop using the changing table and cradle and contact Kolcraft to receive a non-looped replacement strap for the changing table and a repair kit to secure the base of the cradle. To see if your play yard has been recalled, click through to the CPSC press release. You can contact Kolcraft at (888) 655-8484 or www.kolcraft.com.

Fortunately for us, none of our three play yards are from Kolcraft (we have two Gracos and one Cosco - one is upstairs, one is downstairs, and one is at my parents' house). Only one of them is full-size (the other two are travel-size), and I'm pretty sure the changing table attachment does not have a looped strap. Whew!

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Why We're Not Moving

This post over at My Two Dollars, Moving Is Going To Save Us A Ton Of Money And Improve Our Quality Of Life, is fascinating to me because I also live in Southern California and have periodically (briefly) thought about moving. After all, as FMF is fond of pointing out, relocating can have a hugely beneficial impact on one's finances. And David makes some very good points: moving to New Mexico will allow him and his wife to buy a house and his wife to be a stay-at-home-mom. He also notes that the LA school system is a nightmare and that he's not comfortable with "LA people."

Moving might increase our net worth, but Marc and I have decided against it. For one thing, we really like LA. Sure, there are plenty of "silly" people like David described. But I think the vast majority of people in LA are very average and that like any place else, you can find wonderful people who share the same values. In fact, I've made some fantastic friends at work and from the breastfeeding support group I attended after Alex was born. And I like living in a big city where you can find just about anything you can think of.

Although David is right about traffic in LA being terrible - as bad or worse than you would think just from news reports if you weren't familiar with it personally. Fortunately, Marc and I are both able to work flexible hours that usually enable us to miss the worst of rush hour. And neither of us is particularly fond of driving or road trips, so we are content to spend most of our time within a 10-mile radius of our house (and that's actually an advantage of living in a huge city - everything you need is pretty much right there).

Speaking of house, we also already own a house. Granted, it's a townhouse, not a single-family dwelling. But since we've been in our house for over five years, our mortgage payment is low, and we have a great property management company, which means we don't have to worry about maintaining a yard or a pool and yet we are surrounded by beautiful landscaping and have a pool right outside our front door. Our commute is also quite manageable. A single-family dwelling actually doesn't appeal to us that much because of the added maintenance, although we would love to have a small fourth bedroom. But we certainly don't think that fourth bedroom is worth relocating. (I think David is exaggerating a bit, by the way - there are certainly areas of LA where a 2-bedroom condo goes for $1M, but there are many condos in affluent areas that are in the $500,000 range. I'm just saying that David doesn't need to move all the way to New Mexico to find (comparatively) affordable housing.)

If Marc and I were to move, it would be for the second reason that David mentioned: the public schools. They are terrible. But Marc and I have decided that instead of moving, we'll be sending our kids to private school. (More on that soon.) Most of the families will probably have more money than we do, but we're okay with that. Yes, I will have to keep working in order to pay for tuition, but I enjoy my job and my identity as an attorney, and it sure seems a waste to have gone to law school if I'm not going to practice law. (I can say that because I still get to spend lots of time with my kids.) And I'm skeptical about whether we would get paid enough if we relocated to maintain our current comfortable lifestyle while still being able to sock as much money away for retirement as we do. Thus for us, staying put is simply the right choice.

I think it's interesting that two families with relatively similar values can reach such different decisions about what's right for them. (I hope I'm not being presumptuous, but from reading My Two Dollars, I feel that we have quite a bit in common.) I look forward to reading more about David's preparations for his move and next year, about his life in New Mexico.

Note: I just noticed on David's page the David Money Network, which is made up of pf bloggers with the first name David. I love it!

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Lead, lead everywhere

According to the New York Times, a consumer advocacy group has found high concentrations of lead in vinyl toys like a Go Diego Go backpack. The article also mentions that Toys R Us stopped selling vinyl bibs last month.

I am somewhat less concerned about Alex getting lead poisoning than Tyler, since Alex is pretty good about not putting toys is his mouth while everything goes into Tyler's mouth. Plus, I had Alex tested a few months ago and his levels were fine.

I can't exactly toss out all of the toys in our house. It wouldn't be practical and it wouldn't be fair to Alex, who has grown quite attached to many of them. However, I think it may be time to do some serious purging.

We have hundreds of toys, most of which are tucked away in boxes because we cycle the toys so Alex won't get bored. Even though Alex will have fewer toys to play with and therefore he may indeed get bored more frequently, the peace of mind will be worth the resulting tantrums and effort required to entertain him. The only problem is, I can't think of a way to be sure that any toy is safe, even if it's made in the USA (or Europe or Japan, etc.).

Hat tip: The Consumerist.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More Thomas Toys Recalled For Potential Lead Poisoning


That's right, Thomas toys with the potential to cause lead poisoning continued to be sold even after the previous massive recall. This time they've recalled the all-black cargo car, toad vehicle, olive green sodor cargo box and all-green maple tree top and signal base accessories. If you think you have these, click through to the CPSC press release for info on what to do next.

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Domperidone and Breastfeeding

When I was going through my milk supply troubles with Alex, I definitely would have taken domperidone if my doctor had offered to me. According to kellymom.com:
Domperidone has been used successfully in Canada and other areas of the world, and has significantly fewer side effects than Reglan. It has been approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics for use in breastfeeding mothers, and has been given Lactation Risk Category L1 ("safest") in the 2004 edition of Medications and Mothers' Milk. It is not widely available in the U.S. - you may be able to get a compounding pharmacy to make it for you if your doctor prescribes it, or may also be able to order it from Canada or other countries).
But today, Parenting Magazine cautioned:
In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration banned its sale for any use, due to concerns about health risks. Yet some pharmacies continue to sell it, and moms are taking the drug because many doctors contend it's safer than commonly prescribed lactation aids. Whether or not it's safe enough, it's definitely not legal. Until more research is available, ask your doctor about natural lactation aids or techniques if you're having trouble.
I certainly found a "natural" aid that worked for me: More Milk Special Blend. I haven't noticed any harmful effects, but the label does say that they haven't studied the long term effects and I would recommend you speak to your doctor or lactation consultant before taking it if you have any concerns.

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A good investor knows her limits

Thanks to Blogging Stocks, I came across a Kiplinger article called "Put Cash in Your Pocket," which highlighted some ways to get 7% to 10% yields "without taking extraordinarily high risks." They suggested:
  • Closed-end funds
  • Business development companies
  • Shipping companies
  • Royalty trusts
  • "Emerged" bond funds
  • Overlooked REITS
  • Preferred stocks
I wish I felt comfortable enough to independently evaluate their suggestions and make an educated decision about whether these would be good investments for us. They sound good, but I simply don't know enough to assess the risk or tax consequences.

Am I missing out on solid returns? Probably.

Am I being over-cautious? I don't think so. If I were to invest in any of these options without fully understanding what I'm getting into, I would cause myself a tremendous amount of stress wondering what the consequences of my actions were going to be. Would I lose all of my money? Am I going to owe taxes and if so, how much? Are all of my gains going to be eaten up by fees? When should I pull my money out? And so on and so forth.

As an investor, it's very important to know your limits. Someone with a higher risk-tolerance than mine might be comfortable investing in one or more of the suggestions without fully understanding them, and that's certainly fine if they have the money to invest. In my case, I know my limits are limiting my investment options, but at least I know what my limits are. And they aren't forever. Learning about different types of stocks and other investments is high on my list of things to do when the kids are a little older; I simply don't have enough brain cells to study right now.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sandwich ideas

I have been trying to eat healthier, but finding it difficult to eat anything that takes more than 60 seconds to prepare with two kids underfoot - so instead I keep reaching for cookies. I saw these sandwich ideas in the September issue of Parents and am adding them to my list of super-fast options (plus they're less expensive than buying a snack):
  • veggie cream cheese and sliced cucumber
  • almond (or peanut) butter with slivered almonds and dried cranberries
  • hummus and chopped peppers
  • apple butter and fresh apple slices (I'm going to try this with some pumpkin butter, since I just picked up a jar)
  • whipped cream cheese and fresh berries
  • spreadable cheese with cold cuts and grated carrot
  • jam and cream cheese

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Monday, September 24, 2007

How much should you contribute to a Flexible Spending Account?

It's Open Enrollment season for many employers, and mine is no exception. I'm trying to decide how much I should contribute to the medical reimbursement account (MRA) portion of my flexible spending account next year (I will fully fund the dependent care portion - that's a no-brainer).

I can use my MRA to pay for all dental and medical bills, including co-pays and prescriptions, as well as contact lenses, contact solution, and the occasional package of cold medicine. One way to estimate expenses is to review expenses from previous years and assume expenses will be similar. However, that doesn't really work when you have a new family.

I know we will incur about $150 worth of expenses in vision care (opthamologist visits, contact lenses, solution, etc.). We will also incur about $75 worth of expenses in prescriptions. But that's about all I can reliably predict.

We all know that children go to the doctor a lot. But some go more than others. We've been blessed with healthy boys who don't seem to need too many visits. So for me, the tricky part is figuring out just how many times we'll need to see a doctor next year. And I honestly have no idea, because our plan covers preventive visits 100% so all regular checkups don't even have a co-pay.

However, examining previous years' expenses shows that we have routinely have surprise expenses beyond our low co-pays for walk-in visits to the pediatrician's office to make sure one of the boys doesn't have an ear infection. Therefore, it would be wise to have a cushion of at least several hundred dollars.

Each family member has a $500 deductible, up to a family maximum of $1000. So I'm thinking about a final figure in the $1000 range - maybe $1200, so that the monthly deduction is a nice round number. I think this should be enough to cover any surprise doctor's visits and tests.

The major disadvantage of an MRA is that you lose whatever you haven't used up by the end of the year (or grace period, since some employers now provide that option). I'm therefore thinking that if we are lucky enough to end up with a few hundred dollars left in the account, Marc and/or I can get new glasses. I would love to have another pair, but haven't made it a priority since my current glasses are about three years old and cost nearly $500 (before anyone gives me grief about that number: yes, it's extremely high, but it was worth it to me because it's the first pair of glasses I've ever had (and I've been wearing glasses since I was eight) that hasn't made me supremely self-conscious about wearing them).

So here's a summary of my tips:
  • Examine your expenses in the last few years and determine whether they are likely to recur.
  • Determine what expenses are a given. This includes co-pays for routine doctor's visits, contact lenses or glasses, and medication that's taken regularly.
  • Build in a cushion for unpredictable expenses, like extra co-pays and blood tests. Your past expenses can be a helpful guideline here.
  • Have a contingency plan for the cushion in case you don't use it. Glasses (wouldn't a pair of prescription sunglasses be nice?), preventive dental work (has your dentist recommended replacing a crown?), and even laser eye surgery can fall into this category.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is your toddler's articulation normal?

A friend mentioned the other day that she was going to have her 2 1/2 year old's speech tested, which completely surprised me because her son has always been way ahead of Alex when it comes to speaking - he could form complete sentences by the time he turned 2! But then my friend explained that she thinks her son's speech isn't as clear as it should be - possibly due to having a daycare teacher with a heavy accent for the last year, continued pacifier use, or perhaps some other reason.

It turns out her concerns are valid. According to an article in the August issue of American Baby, articulation disorders are real. A child may leave out a sound (such as the last vowel sound in a word - "ca" instead of "cat"), substitute sounds, distort sounds (my friend's son seems to be saying "buth" instead of "bus"), add extra syllables, or have difficulty with consonant blends. One potential cause is "weak oral muscles," which can cause a child to have trouble placing his lips, teeth or tongue in the proper position to produce certain sounds. A friend's daughter needed speech therapy because her constant ear infections impeded her ability to hear and therefore to learn the correct sounds. While it's normal for toddlers to have trouble speaking clearly, it's good to be aware of any potential problems as early as possible.

What can you do if you suspect trouble? The best place to start, as usual, is with your child's pediatrician, who can refer you to an audiologist to check your child's hearing, and to a speech-language pathologist (you can also check the following web sites for referrals: American Academy of Audiology, Academy of Doctors of Audiology, and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association). You may also be able to get free assistance through your local school district's early intervention program - I believe this is not limited to school-age children, since a family friend's three-year-old son is currently receiving speech therapy for some articulation problems.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

One Million Simplicity Cribs Recalled (Some Bear the Graco Logo)

It's been all over the web today, so chances are good you've already seen that Simplicity has recalled one million cribs, including some that bear the Graco logo. The cribs were sold between 1998 and May of this year, and retailed for $100 to $300.

The problem is that the drop-side can detach from the crib, which has resulted in two deaths. Apparently on newer models, the drop-side can be incorrectly installed, while on older models, even correct installation doesn't prevent the potential for injury. Owners of older models should contact Simplicity for a free repair, while owners of newer models should contact Simplicity if the hardware is broken or incorrectly installed. Simplicity can be reached at (888) 593-9274 (they're open 9-5 Eastern time on Saturdays) or www.simplicityforchildren.com.

Click through to the CPSC press release for pictures of the drop-side hardware, model numbers, and instructions on how to inspect your crib.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Happy "Talk Like a Pirate" Day!

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day (seriously, I'm not making this up), I present the following appropriately-themed links:
  • These doable pirate cupcakes would be perfect if you're throwing a party today (just buy appropriate toppers at a party store and make sure your guests know they're not edible). Via Yum Sugar.

  • The official Talk Like a Pirate Day web site, including a page on (what else?) how to talk like a pirate.
  • Talk Like a Pirate Day photos on Flickr.
  • The #1 Google result for "pirates" is Pirates!, a site that includes pages on the history of pirates, biographies of famous pirates, and a store.
  • Finally, check out my previous post on throwing a pirate-themed party.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

No Surprise: Crib Bumpers Aren't Safe

Everything I read before and after Alex was born emphasized the importance of an empty crib to prevent SIDS: no blankets, no loose clothing, no loveys, etc. The material I read also said no crib bumpers, though I found almost every friend used them. I understood why people think bumpers are necessary after we stopped swaddling Alex and he migrated all over his crib in his sleep. I ended up with breathable mesh bumpers, which gave me more peace of mind than traditional bumpers would have. They weren't pretty and they definitely didn't match, but they got the job done (and were only in the crib for about three months anyway, from the time we stopped swaddling him until he could pull up).

It turns out crib bumpers might be even more dangerous than people generally think. According to the Baby Bargains blog, the JPMA, a trade organization that supposedly promotes safety, deliberately mislead the public about the CPSC's data on crib bumper safety by issuing a release stating that crib bumpers don't cause deaths, which was in "'direct contradiction'" to the CPSC's data.

I think it's pretty obvious that the safest crib is one that doesn't have any bumpers. But I bet parents will still buy (and use) bumpers anyway.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Review: Kozy Carrier Mei Tai (& Special Offer!)

As I've mentioned previously, I'm very happy with my BabyHawk and Mei Tai Baby mei tais, but I was very happy to acquire a third mei tai from Kozy Carrier. Even before I got my Kozy, I knew that I would love it because everyone who has one is crazy about theirs. One of the things I like best is that the larger panel and sturdy materials allow a Kozy to be used for longer than a BabyHawk or Mei Tai Baby - in fact, unlike the others, the Kozy doesn't have a weight limit.

I have to admit the larger panel size threw me for a loop at first. The first time I put Tyler on my back, he was so far down, he couldn't see over the top of the fabric! But I rolled the bottom a couple of times to make the panel smaller and that's helped a lot.

The Kozy's wide straps also took some getting used to, and are a little awkward to tie compared to the other mei tais, but the advantage is that they don't slip as much, especially when I bend down while wearing Tyler in the front. There's also a nifty little pouch sewn into one of the ends, which I didn't even realize until I read the online FAQ. I did have some trouble flattening one of the shoulder straps after I washed the Kozy, since the sewing was a little bit off. This also prevents the straps from rolling up completely flat (to tote my mei tais around, I fold the body into quarters, then gather all of the straps at one corner and wrap them around the folded fabric). Like my other mei tais, the Kozy comes with some padding at the shoulder for comfort.

I really like the built-in headrest for the extra support and privacy that it gives Tyler. My Kozy is the widest of my mei tais at the bottom, so I'm not sure how comfortable Tyler would have been when he was smaller - though Tyler is at the smaller end of the spectrum for his age, so this may not be a problem for most babies, especially if, unlike Tyler, they don't mind having their legs "froggied" when they're little. The Kozy fabric seems to be the thickest of all three mei tais, but it is not the warmest one I have (that would be the BabyHawk, since it has the minkee lining). The Kozy is made of a very strong canvas that should last for years, and hopefully will get a lot of use even after Tyler starts walking.

I love each of my mei tais for different reasons, and I encourage you to try at least one because they are a fantastic way to wear your baby. In fact, to promote babywearing, I'm excited to announce that Kelley and Kristi over at Kozy Carrier have agreed to give CFO readers a 10% discount. Just put the code CHIEF FAMILY OFFICER into the "Notes" field when you place your order, and you will receive a 10% credit when your order is processed. The discount excludes tax and shipping, and the code expires 30 days from today (on October 17, 2007).

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

iPod Accessories for Parents, or How to get a full nap

My brother-in-law generously gave us an iPod last year, and we've gotten great use out of it with Alex. We've greatly expanded our children's music selection in the car (no more Wiggles! - at least not a daily basis). We regularly expose Alex to our kind of music (usually we strike a deal: Mommy and Daddy's music on the way to our destination, Alex's music on the way home). And, thanks to our latest acquisition, Alex can also watch videos in the car without a DVD player now.

What does all of this have to do with naptime?

One of our biggest weekend challenges is to get the family out of the house for morning activities and yet make it home before Alex falls asleep on the way (since both our children would go bonkers if we simply stayed home - they don't care that it's football season now). Tyler is still too young to keep awake in the car (he's still rear-facing, too), but Alex will stay up if properly entertained. This is absolutely crucial because if he falls asleep, he will wake up when we get home and not go back to sleep, no matter how short his nap. And then we're in for a long afternoon because he'll be cranky but refuse to sleep, and by the time he's willing to take a nap, it's too close to bedtime.

Given how imperative it is to keep Alex awake on the car ride home, we are always looking for ways to make that happen. We have used snacks with great success, doling out individual pieces of pretzels or cut-up grapes on the drive back from the beach, for example. But sometimes food just doesn't cut it, like if we've gone to visit a friend and eaten at her house.

Enter the iPod. Unlike a portable DVD player, it doesn't just sit there for Alex to stare at until his eyes start droop. For one thing, it's a novel, usually forbidden electronic device, and the thought of being able to actually hold it and touch it is incredibly exciting to a toddler. But, being a bright and clever child, holding the darn thing just isn't enough for Alex. So we've added a few accessories that make it child-friendly (and buy us 30 minutes for the drive home).
  • First things first: If a child is going to handle this, it definitely needs a good case. After some research, Marc settled on this case. It looks okay and protects the iPod pretty well, although the clear plastic face bears some scratches despite its claim to be "scratch-resistant."
  • For video viewing, you'll need a speaker. We just acquired this one, whicht turns the iPod into a mini-video player. We've loaded our iPod with free Nick Jr. downloads and other kid-friendly content. Many of the videos are short, but that actually works to our advantage because it keeps Alex alert. He tells us when the video has ended and hands the iPod back for a new one.
  • For music listening, we have an adapter that works with our car's cigarette lighter. We tried out a couple of other adapters before finding this one, which works quite well. The first adapter we got was almost twice the cost and interfered with the gear shift. The other adapter was a cassette adapter for our older car that doesn't work well at all. One caveat regarding adapters: always unplug them or they may kill your car battery (yes, I'm speaking from personal experience).
Not surprisingly, Alex gets a kick out of pressing the buttons, and he actually seems to have more skill with the scroll wheel than I do. We should be able to use the iPod in this manner until Alex outgrows his nap, which will probably be in a year or so - at which point we'll give him a Gameboy. :)

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Interview with Kelley and Kristi of Kozy Carrier

I am very excited to present the first interview here on CFO, especially because it is with Kelley Mason and her sister Kristi Jennings. They are the owners of Kozyware, which makes the popular Kozy Carrier mei tai. I've posted before about mei tais, and I just acquired a Kozy, which I love (I'll post a review on Monday - and it will include a special discount code that you won't want to miss!). Kelley has three boys (ages 7, 3, and 7 months) and one girl (age 5). Kristi doesn't have kids yet but is learning a lot about them!

Me: How do you two know each other and how did you decide to work together? What is your working relationship like?

Kelley: Kristi and I are sisters first, then partners in KozyWare LLC. I am the
designer/founder and work the creative side and she handles everything on the business side. (She has a finance/accounting degree, naturally.) It is a very nice relationship and we balance each other well. As sisters do, there's the occasional spirited debate and disagreement, but it's all good. It really is a complimentary partnership with each of us bringing our strengths to the table. ;o) At the end of the day, we're still sisters!

Me: How did you get the idea for the business and how did you go about getting started?

Kelley: I had no intention of starting a business. Since my first child was born in the fall of 2000, I was mostly using ring slings and pouches, many of which I made myself. But when my daughter was born she was very "high needs", I was alone a lot of the time with my husband traveling and my back was killing me from doing one shoulder carries for 8+ hrs a day. I needed a 2-shoulder carrier. When I saw a picture of a Mei Tai I knew it was the answer I was looking for. Having no money to buy one, I figured out how it was constructed (4 straps and
a rectangle for a body) and using scrap fabric at home. I just made one, completely winging it. (There were no instructions online for making one back then. Those didn't come out until after I started my business.) I read around online and figured out how to use it and from that moment on, I was hooked!! I actually tried another Mei Tai a couple months later, and that is what prompted me to pull out the sewing machine and work on my design. After > months of notes, calculations, trial and error, and sewing prototypes to try out with my daughter, I came up with the Kozy!

That was early 2003 and the design has actually changed very little since then. When we were on a family vacation in early spring of 2003, my dad (being the entrepreneur that he is!) noticed how I was getting asked often about my carrier. I had no desire to start a business but after much prompting, I allowed him to put me up a website, mostly to pacify him. :o) I think I sold one locally and not really wanting a business, I was fine with that. But in the late summer of 2003 someone online found my website and posted it to a nationwide babywearing list. The Kozy was the only Mei Tai "out" at the time to have the options of padded straps, reversible, pocket etc. These things hadn't really been seen on a Mei Tai before, and people were anxious to try them. I started getting orders from around the country! Wow! I guess then technically the "business" started in the late summer/early fall of 2003. I was completely unprepared and had a waiting list immediately. Within months I was having to hire stay at home moms w/sewing machines. The demand and amount of work was overwhelming! Kristi joined May of 2004, just one month after getting married. I simply couldn't handle it all myself. We became an LLC shortly after that.

Me: What was your vision for the company, and how does it compare to your vision for the company today?

Kelley: I never really had a vision for the company. I simply wanted to help as many moms as I could by providing comfortable carriers for them to carry their babies. I would say my goals initially were to simply keep up with orders and get through the day without having a nervous breakdown, and still being there for my 3 kids and husband. Now, our vision is to simply provide as many moms with Kozys as possible, and to spread the word about babywearing. This will reach more mothers in the mainstream who might not be familiar with the overwhelming benefits of wearing their baby. We would love the business to grow to support our families as well. What would be better than having a profitable business that is helping mothers and babies as well as our own families? That is a win-win all around!

Me: How many hours a week do you work? What are your secrets for balancing work and family?

Kelley: Initially, I was working 40+ hrs a week. I would stay up till dawn some mornings answering e-mails and sewing. Now that we have people sewing Kozys, and Kristi and my dad working on other aspects of the business, I have much more time to devote to my first calling, my family, which is a blessing. I think the secret is to know your limits. No one person can do everything. It is VERY easy to get burned out. You want to help others so much and you see the overwhelming impact that providing a comfortable carrier has on other mothers and families, that it is easy to overlook your own family and your own well being.

Starting a business is overwhelming, and when you consider that most people will work for years building their business before they are even able to make money, it is cause for pause. I think it is all about knowing where you want to go, getting everything worked out ahead of time, and then realizing when you need to ask for help or delegate. There is no way I would have been able to do it without help, and Kristi was the perfect partner. Having her help in areas where I lacked, but she thrived, allowed me to relax, knowing that the business was in good hands, and allowed me to resume the most important job of all, which is being a mother to my kids. I still spend quite a lot of time on Kozy, but now I am able to balance that with time with my kids, which is extremely important.

Me: What is the funniest story you have about the business?

Kristi: I had a lady once tell me she was sitting inside at a window table in a downtown café and a lady walked by outside wearing a Kozy. She leaped up from her chair, and told her husband she had to find out what kind of carrier it was. She chased the lady down the street! We're always hearing funny stories like this about customers being stalked at the zoo, the grocery store, or the mall. We have a whole army of marketeers out there! ;o)

Me: What are the best and worst parts of being a work-at-home mom?

Kelley: The worst part is having "work" around you all day. When you work from home, you are always at work and it is hard to get away and separate the two. I have found myself answering work e-mails at midnight, because the computer is there and the kids are asleep so I can. That is OK as long as it doesn't interfere with family time. The best part is that I am able
to work to make some extra money for my family, and still take care of my kids, which is what I consider to be my #1 priority. I consider that to be a huge blessing and a true gift from God.

Me: What are the top two pieces of advice you would give a mom considering starting her own business?

Kelley: Do your research ahead of time, so that you know what you are getting into. Know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. Have everything set and in place before you start with a business plan, a list of goals and all your resources at your fingertips, so that you don't get in over your head.

I would say next is to know your limits. Be ready and prepared to find help if/when you need it, so that you don't burn out and are able to continue being a parent to your children. You will absolutely crash and burn if you don't seek out assistance. Many a good home business has cratered because the stress of trying to handle it all has become too overwhelming, and it's easier to just call it quits.

Me: What is the best part about your job?

Kelley: The best part of my job with Kozy is being able to help other moms care for their babies. I consider that a privilege. I also consider Kozy to be a gift from God, allowing me to do something that I find so rewarding, while also having the benefit of helping to provide for my family. To me, it's more about a mission and a ministry than a business. But nothing compares to my job as mom, I wouldn't trade that for anything!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Saving $480 per year vs. Full freedom of choice

I know that having a PPO doesn't necessarily ensure better medical care, so every year at open enrollment time, I think about switching medical plans. Unfortunately, none of the doctors that our family sees are HMO providers, so every year, I decide to stick with our PPO plan. This year, a new PPO plan was introduced - it costs $40 less per month but only has half the number of doctors in its network (co-pays and deductibles remain the same). The boys' pediatrician and our primary physician are members, but my beloved ob/gyn is not.

I am thinking about switching plans anyway. I have about a month to decide. The problem is that I adore my ob/gyn, who saw me through two miscarriages and two somewhat difficult pregnancies. Based on conversations with many friends, I am convinced that he is a superb doctor who keeps up with the latest in medical advances and is an extremely skilled surgeon. (Too many people I know can't believe how quickly I recovered from my c-sections.) He is also part of a practice that is really well-run - I'm never in the waiting room for long, the business office responds promptly, and my doctor always calls me back within a couple of hours when I leave a message. I certainly can't say the same for all of my other doctors.

If there was another in-network ob/gyn that I knew I'd like, I would make the switch. If one of the other doctors in the same practice was part of the new network, I'd think about it (I'm sure my current doctor would understand). But with neither of those circumstances playing out, I am thinking that I will just stick with our current plan.

The other concern I have is that if we get referred to a specialist, I'll forget to make sure they're part of the new network and end up having to get a new referral at the last minute or owing a lot more money because I used an out-of-network doctor.

So, what would you do? Would you switch plans, or would you stick with the current one?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rice Cooker Tips

My rice cooker review is a popular post, so I thought I'd share some tips for using one.
  • If you eat rice often enough to need a rice cooker, then buy good quality rice. Asian markets in particular will have several brands. Personally, I'm partial to the Koshihikari variety (of rice, not brand).
  • If you want to eat healthier but don't like the taste of brown rice, try what the Japanese call "haiga-mai" or "haiga"-style rice, which is an intermediate version that's healthier than white but not as dense as brown.
  • If you want to eat brown rice but don't like the taste, try cooking it with diluted vegetable broth.
  • Before cooking, wash the rice with water to remove the surface starch. Simply measure the rice into a bowl, cover with water, and use your hand to agitate the rice. Many recipes will say to repeat the process until the water runs clear but that would take forever - three to five times should be sufficient.
  • For the best flavor, drain the rice in a colander and let stand 30 minutes (you can also cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the washed rice for a day or two until you are ready to cook it).
  • You'll have to experiment to achieve your preferred texture, but I like to add a little bit more water than is marked on my rice cooker.
  • Unless you live in a particularly hot and humid climate, the rice should keep for a day after cooking if left in the rice cooker with the lid closed. Leftovers can also be frozen.
Also, if you have a Zojirushi rice cooker, you can order replacement parts by phone. I needed the little rubber piece that fits in the steamer and couldn't find it online, and they did not respond to my email. However, I called their customer service line ((800) 733-6270) and was able to order the part from a live rep. It cost less than $2 including shipping (the part was tiny), and it arrived promptly.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Understanding the Impact of Your Financial Decisions

As part of his 33 Days and 33 Ways to Reduce Debt and Save Money series, NCN says, "Before you make a personal finance-related decision, be sure that you understand the full impact of the decision you are about to make." When I read this, I immediately thought back to my recent post about how my student loans were worth it and SAHMmy's comment about how own her loans weren't worth it since she didn't even graduate (though she's already paid off all of her loans, which is impressive!).

I'm simply lucky that my student loans were worth it and that I'll be making a lot more because of them than I would have otherwise. I certainly didn't think things through and understand the impact of my decision when I took the loans out to pay for law school. At the time, I simply knew that I wanted to go to law school because I thought I'd make a good lawyer, and I figured lawyers make good money so paying off the loans wouldn't be a problem. Luckily, that's how things have worked out, but when I first graduated from law school, I took stock of my substantial student loan debt and felt a little panicky. In fact, that's when I fortuitously discovered The Dollar Stretcher and learned about the importance of living beneath my means.

As I mentioned in my original post, I wish I had known more about personal finance when I was in law school. If I'd thought through the impact of my student loans and truly understood what they meant, I still would have taken them out to pay for school, but I would have lived more frugally. I wouldn't have taken trips with friends, or gone out to eat so often, or bought new clothes whenever something caught my eye. Instead, I would have tried to spend as little as I could, and perhaps taken out fewer loans. I'm postive that if I'd been more knowledgeable about personal finance, I would have had money left over by the time I graduated from school - money that I could have paid back immediately, thereby reducing my student loan debt. Oh well. I've certainly learned from my mistakes. Now maybe you can too.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle died yesterday

She was probably my most favorite author. It would be impossible to describe her influence on me during my formative years. In the sixth grade, I read A Wrinkle in Time, and liked it enough that I read its sequels, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Then I forgot about them.

Years later, I think when I was a freshman or sophomore in college, I discovered a nonfiction book she had written called Walking on Water. It made me want to be a writer, but more importantly, it set me on a spiritual journey that I continue to this day. In fact, I picked up many more of Madeleine L'Engle's books, both fiction and nonfiction. I re-read Wrinkle, Door and Planet. I discovered three of my all-time favorite books, Many Waters, in which the Murray twins travel back to the time of Noah's ark, A Ring of Endless Light, which continues the story of the Austin family, and An Acceptable Time, featuring Meg Murray and Calvin O'Keefe's oldest child, Polly. I bought my first set of The Crosswicks Trilogy. I took it with me when I spent a semester abroad during junior year of college, and gave it to a new friend from Australia who loved Madeleine as much as I did. I promptly bought a new set when I arrived home, of course. I generally didn't enjoy her fiction for adults or her poetry very much (A Severed Wasp and The Other Side of the Sun were exceptions), but at one point, I owned almost all of her nonfiction and children's books. Having de-cluttered my possessions, I kept only my favorites, but even those number over a dozen.

The Crosswicks Trilogy, with its emphasis on Christianity, particularly in the last book, The Irrational Season, really got me thinking about God and Christ. I read most of Madeleine's other books about faith. I am not, to this day, particularly devout, but my faith is strong, and that is because of the foundation that was laid in my college years thanks to Madeleine's books.

Love, of course, is related to faith, and she taught me much about love as well. Her book about her marriage to actor Hugh Franklin, written while he was dying of cancer, always makes me cry. But I like to think that they're together now, and catching up on the 20 years that passed between their deaths.


Obituaries:Note: Her web site makes no mention of her death yet. Wheaton College, which houses a collection of Madeleine's papers, states, "Madeleine L’Engle died on September 6, 2007. In her life and writing, the artist who postulates so eloquently about space, time and love has achieved timelessness."

I apologize for the awkward spacing. Extra spaces appear after Amazon text links and I have no idea how to remove them. If anyone can help me with that, I'd be most appreciative!

Cooking Light's Plating Tips

I don't consider myself very artistic, and I'm usually in too much of a rush to bother making the food that I'm serving look extra nice on the plate. But that's not to say I don't want to make the food look good - I just wish doing so came naturally and quickly. Enter the September issue of Cooking Light, which has some tips on plating from their photo and food stylists. Here are the ones I found most useful:
  • Neutral-colored plates are best because they can be used any time and with (almost) any food. They also show off the food, instead of obscuring it.
  • If you want to use colored plates, pick colors that can be used for more than one season or holiday. Use warm colors (like red or orange) for warm foods and cool colors (like blue or lavender) for cool foods.
  • Think about what the plate will look like when the food is plated. An assortment of colors looks better on the plate than monochromatic colors (and it's also better for your diet).
  • When plating, start at the center with the largest, most important item (usually the entree) and then put side dishes around it.
  • Thick sauces should go under the food. Thin sauces should be poured over food immediately before serving.

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A Great Way to Save Money: Ask Customer Service

My most recent bill from AT&T for phone and DSL service came with an ad on the outer envelope for DSL at $14.99 per month. Since I'm paying $19.99 right now, I called and asked if I could get the promotional rate by committing to a one-year contract. The customer service rep checked our account and said that we could get that rate but it would be for a slower speed DSL. I wasn't willing to commit to that without talking to Marc first, so I asked if she could offer me a deal on our current service. She said that a one-year contract would lock in our current rate and our fourth month would be free. Done.

The CSR then asked if she could review the rest of my bill and I agreed. I wasn't in a huge rush and I like to do this periodically to see if new deals have come out that might save me money. The CSR suggested switching to a new All-Distance plan that would save us 75 cents per month and switch up the included services a little bit, but not in a way that really mattered to us. The catch was that the switch would cost $7.50, so it would take 10 months before we actually started saving money. Before agreeing to the switch, I asked if she could waive the fee. She said yes.

About ten minutes later, I hung up the phone with a new one-year DSL contract that will save us $20 and a new phone plan that will save us 75 cents per month and give us Wirepro, a $5 per month value which will come in handy should the inside wiring ever need repair. All for no extra cost!

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Interesting Health Insurance Alternative: Discount Warehouse Plans

I just learned from Getting Green that Sam's Club is going to offer a health insurance plan and that Costco already does. So I went to the Costco web site and sure enough, it's there under "Services" (along with a separate dental plan), though it's only available to California residents with the Executive level membership. The Executive level is $100 per year, so only $50 more than "regular" (Goldstar) membership, and presumably you'll more than make that up with just one doctor's visit if you weren't insured to begin with.

I didn't want to enter my personal information to get a quote for an idea of the rates, but it appears that they keep costs low by accepting healthy people only (there's a pretty long list of disqualifying conditions, including pregnancy). The length of the disqualifying conditions list gave me the impression that they would be stingy about paying claims - I have no idea if that's the case, but it would certainly give me pause if I were thinking of signing up for the plan. After all, what's the point of an insurance plan that doesn't pay out?

Nevertheless, if I wasn't covered under an employer's plan, I would definitely look into discount warehouse plans as an alternative. Does anyone have any experience with them?

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Disturbing News: Mattel is being investigated for delaying its reports on potentially hazardous toys

According to BloggingStocks, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Consumer Products Safety Commission is investigating Mattel for failing to "report all claims of potentially hazardous product defects within 24 hours" and that instead of promptly reporting the potential defects, Mattel conducted an internal investigation that lasted several months. Reuters reports that "Mattel openly acknowledges its definition of a timely response differs sharply from the government's."

More disturbing thoughts:

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Baby Food Combinations

One of the best things about making your own baby food is preparing foods that don't come in jars (like red bell pepper) and coming up with combinations you can't buy at the store. The following food combinations are from Annabel Karmel's book, The Healthy Baby Meal Planner:
  • avocado & banana
  • zucchini & sweet potato
  • red bell pepper & cauliflower or potato
  • peach & banana
  • butternut squash & pear

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My Student Loans Were Worth It

I was very lucky to get out of college without any student loans (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but I did come out of law school with a substantial amount of student loan debt. The good news is, my student loans were well worth it. They'll be entirely paid off 10 years after I graduate (10 years early for my private loans and 15 years early for my Stafford loans). I'm making substantially more than I would probably be making if I hadn't gone to law school (about 33% to 50% more), and I'll have that high earning power for the rest of my career. Thus, in my case, the loans were worth it.

Of course, I'm not saying that student loans should be taken on blindly. Like the authors of We're In Debt, I made many financial mistakes in school that have cost me. I wish I'd known what I now know about personal finance and money management way back then. If I'd been more financially savvy, I'm sure I would have graduated with a lot less debt and be in an even better financial position today.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Back to School Tips: Help your kids do their homework

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following tips to develop good homework and study habits:
  • Create an environment that is conducive to doing homework. Youngsters need a permanent work space in their bedroom or another part of the home that offers privacy.
  • Set aside ample time for homework.
  • Establish a household rule that the TV set stays off during homework time.
  • Be available to answer questions and offer assistance, but never do a child's homework for her.
  • To help alleviate eye fatigue, neck fatigue and brain fatigue while studying, it's recommended that youngsters close the books for 10 minutes every hour and go do something else.
  • If your child is struggling with a particular subject, and you aren't able to help her yourself, a tutor can be a good solution. Talk it over with your child's teacher first.

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Back to School Tips: Before & After School Child Care

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need supervision through "middle childhood." They recommend that:
  • A responsible adult should be available to get them ready and off to school in the morning and watch over them after school until you return home from work.
  • Children approaching adolescence (11- and 12-year-olds) should not come home to an empty house in the afternoon unless they show unusual maturity for their age.
  • If alternate adult supervision is not available, parents should make special efforts to supervise their children from a distance. Children should have a set time when they are expected to arrive at home and should check in with a neighbor or with a parent by telephone.
  • If you choose a commercial after-school program, inquire about the training of the staff. There should be a high staff-to-child ratio, and the rooms and the playground should be safe.
Personally, when Alex heads off to kindergarten, I plan on utilizing his school's own after-hours program unless I hear terrible things about it, just for sheer convenience.

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Lesson: Don't pay the finance charges on fraudulent charges to your credit card

I love tennis, so I've been watching the U.S. Open since last week. And I keep seeing a John McEnroe commercial for American Express about how Amex has a no-dispute policy.

The commercial is actually pretty funny (I tried to find it on YouTube but it doesn't seem to be there). It opens with McEnroe on the phone demanding, "Why would I pay for tennis lessons?!" and a customer service rep assuring him that he wouldn't have to pay the charges in question while Amex investigated. McEnroe then has an epiphany about disputes, goes to visit the umpire of one of his famous matches (I can't remember what year off the top of my head) and says, "Maybe the ball did hit the line" and gives the guy a hug. I actually missed the part about not having to pay the charges the first few times I saw the commercial. When I finally paid enough attention, I scoffed. I can't believe this is what Amex is promoting - heavily, no less.

You see, shortly before Tyler was born, there was a fraudulent charge to our credit card from Air Canada, and it was accompanied by a foreign currency transaction fee. I called Bank of America and was told - surprise! - not to pay the amount of the fraudulent charges. They closed the account, opened a new account, and told me that they would be sending an affidavit, which I needed to fill out and fax or mail back. I wasn't even required to file a report with the police (though the affidavit did ask why I didn't do so). About the only complaint I had was that it took a week or so to get the new cards - and they told me that I would have to pay a fee to have them sent earlier.

The fraudulent charges were removed from my statement during the next billing cycle. Unfortunately, I incurred finance charges, since I didn't pay my bill in full, having deducted the amount of the fraudulent charges. It took three calls and two full billing cycles for the finance charges to be removed completely (I would get a credit for the charges that had shown up on the last statement but because I still hadn't paid my balance in full - having deducted the finance charges - BofA kept charging more finance charges - it took a couple of months for the cycle to end). Lesson: Make sure the credit card company credits you for any finance charges incurred due to fraudulent charges. Oh, and don't pay the fraudulent charges.

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Back to School Tips: Handling Bullying

Following are the American Academy of Pediatrics' tips for handling bullying:
Bullying is when one child picks on another child repeatedly. Usually children being bullied are either weaker or smaller, shy, and generally feel helpless. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. It can happen at school, on the playground, on the school bus, in the neighborhood, or over the Internet.
    When Your Child Is Bullied:
  • Help your child learn how to respond by teaching your child how to:
    1. Look the bully in the eye.
    2. Stand tall and stay calm in a difficult situation.
    3. Walk away.
  • Teach your child how to say in a firm voice:
    1. "I don't like what you are doing."
    2. "Please do NOT talk to me like that."
    3. "Why would you say that?"
  • Teach your child when and how to ask for help.
  • Encourage your child to make friends with other children.
  • Support activities that interest your child.
  • Alert school officials to the problems and work with them on solutions.
  • Make sure an adult who knows about the bullying can watch out for your child's safety and well-being when you cannot be there.
    When Your Child Is the Bully:
  • Be sure your child knows that bullying is never OK.
  • Set firm and consistent limits on your child's aggressive behavior.
  • Be a positive role mode. Show children they can get what they want without teasing, threatening or hurting someone.
  • Use effective, non-physical discipline, such as loss of privileges.
  • Develop practical solutions with the school principal, teachers, counselors, and parents of the children your child has bullied.
    When Your Child Is a Bystander:
  • Tell your child not to cheer on or even quietly watch bullying.
  • Encourage your child to tell a trusted adult about the bullying.
  • Help your child support other children who may be bullied. Encourage your child to include these children in activities.
  • Encourage your child to join with others in telling bullies to stop.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Back to School Tips: Walk to School Safely

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips to keep your child safe if he or she is walking to school:
  • Make sure your child's walk to a school is a safe route with well-trained adult crossing guards at every intersection.
  • Be realistic about your child's pedestrian skills. Because small children are impulsive and less cautious around traffic, carefully consider whether or not your child is ready to walk to school without adult supervision.
  • Bright colored clothing will make your child more visible to drivers.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Sacrifice" and Personal Finance

Day 3 of NCN's 33 Ways To Save Money And Reduce Debt is about "sacrific[ing] some of the things that you have, some of the things you like to do, some of the places you like to go, and some of the conveniences that you’ve been using - so that you can get out of debt and focus on improving your financial future." He asked what his readers have been willing to sacrifice and what they have refused to give up in order to get out of debt.

I've never thought of our financial choices in terms of sacrifice - instead, they are just that: choices. Our debt is in the form of student loans, a car payment with an extremely low interest rate, and our mortgage. Instead of paying off those debts completely, we have chosen to build our emergency fund, save for retirement, and save for our children's education. We do, however, pay (significantly) more than the minimum on the student loans in an effort to pay it off quickly while still achieving our other financial goals. We live comfortably but not extravagantly, keeping our expenses in check so that we can save and pay off more.

I think it helps our perspective to think less in terms of sacrifice and more in terms of choice. We don't feel deprived, we feel in control. And that makes a huge difference.

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