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Friday, November 30, 2007

One recall yesterday (for lead)

If you think the following item might be in your house, click through to the CPSC press release for additional pictures and more info:

American Greetings Corp. Recalls Confetti Bursts Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard


If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to sign up for email notification of recalls at the CPSC web site.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Money-Saving Tip: Check your bank's alternative fees

I hate paying fees to the bank. The only one I don't have a problem with is my safety deposit box, since I'm getting a tangible service (i.e., the use of the box). But since I know the bank makes money off of my deposits, I do just about everything possible to avoid paying any kind of penalty or service fee. But some fees are unavoidable.

A while back, I had to stop payment on one of the few paper checks I still write each month. I hated the thought of paying a fee to do it, but the stop payment had to be done. Since I do most of my banking online, I looked up the fee and discovered that there were two different fees listed. One was for initiating a stop payment via online banking. It was $10 lower than initiating a stop payment via any other method. So although I had to pay a fee to the bank, at least I was able to minimize it.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

One recall today (for strangulation, not lead)

Click through to the CPSC press release if you think you might have this product:

Children’s Full Zip Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Recalled for Strangulation Hazard By Bon-Ton



As always, I encourage you to sign up for email notification of recalls at the CPSC web site.

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Holiday decorations and small children

Angie at Baby Cheapskate posted a reader question about Christmas trees that reminded me of my own dilemma two years ago. Alex was nine months old at his first Christmas. He was on the verge of walking, and as curious as can be. He loved climbing and touched everything.

As much as I wanted a live Christmas tree, I knew it would be too dangerous, especially since we didn't have space to elevate it and anchor it to a wall the way my friend Ruth did. Alex was all too likely to pull the tree down on himself or put some pine needles in his mouth. Going without a tree wasn't an option, so I bought a small fake tree for $10 at Target.

The tree goes on top of a medium-size bookcase in our dining room (along with the menorah, since we honor both of our families' traditions). The kids can't reach it, and I still get to decorate. I miss the larger tree with its glorious decorations and heavenly smell, but I know that it'll be a few more years before I'll be comfortable having a live tree on the living room floor again. And in the meantime, I do appreciate how quickly I can put the tree up and take it down, and with minimal mess to boot, since I only hang a few ornaments and a garland. Plus the fake tree requires no water and doesn't shed pine needles all over the floor. At this time of year, anything I can knock off my to-do list is something to be grateful for. In fact, even when I can have a live tree again, I'm not sure that I'll do it.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Not everyone is meant to be a stay-at-home parent

Plonkee wrote a guest post for Brip Blap that really struck a chord with me. She took issue with Steve's "blanket assertion that one parent (either one) staying at home is always a good thing." Plonkee used her own childhood as an example, noting that her mother stayed home with the oldest kids but went back to work after having the youngest, and that she was happier when she went back to work. Plonkee's conclusion rings true to me:
Being a stay at home parent works well if that is what you want and makes you happy. If it doesn't, then it's not a good choice. After all, parents' happiness matters too.
I know many stay-at-home mothers feel judged in a negative way when they tell others what they do, as if being a stay-at-home mom is not enough of a job. But I feel pressure the other way - that I'm not a good enough mother because I work. And the truth is, there are times when I dream about being a stay-at-home mom. But most of the time, I'm grateful to be able to work. I have a challenging job that still gives me lots of time with my kids (and admittedly, pays well). And especially as my kids get older, I think that I'm not cut out to spend all day, every day with them. For one thing, I am much more patient when we have some time apart.

However, I think sometimes about becoming a stay-at-home when my kids are older - say, middle-school age. I've heard that this is when kids really need someone to be home after school. They're old enough to get into trouble but not old enough to have great judgment. An available parent might help prevent certain situations that could escalate into big problems. And I think it would be fantastic if our house were the place where my children and their friends hang out after school.

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Graco recalls SnugRide car seats (and why it's important to register your baby products)

Graco has voluntarily recalled SnugRide infant car seats that were sold individually (i.e., not as part of a travel system). The car seats included in the recall were manufactured between August 2006 and June 2007.

The problem is that the backing of the seat pad may deteriorate or tear, allowing a child in the seat to remove the padding material place it in his or her mouth, creating a choking hazard. (This problem apparently doesn't impact the performance of the car seat in terms of protecting your child during car rides.)

If you think your car seat is part of the recall, click through to Graco's web site and check to see if the model number is listed. If it is, make sure your seat is registered so you can get information on how to order a replacement kit.

Tyler is currently using his Graco SafeSeat, so this recall doesn't apply to us. (I found out about it via the Baby Bargains Book blog.) But since Graco is automatically sending out information on the replacement kit program to registered owners, this is a good example of why it's important to register your baby products. I've registered all of our car seats and a few other items.

As a side note, I don't care for Graco's requirement that parents be registered in order to find out how to receive a replacement kit. I think it's offensive to force parents to give up more privacy than they may care to in order to ensure their child's safety. The information on how to obtain the replacement kit should be posted right on their web site. And you should only have to provide minimal information: your name, shipping address, and the model of the recalled item.

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Review: Whomi What To Do Pad & Clarity Agenda - Plus a Giveaway!

The folks at Whomi sent me a couple of products to try out, and I'm happy to report that I really like them. The first item is the tri-sectioned What to Do Pad, with separate pads for "Buy," "Do," and "Contact." I keep this on my desk and jot down notes as things come up. The thick paper tears off easily at the perforation, a feature I appreciate since I'm frequently doing it one-handed while holding Tyler with my other hand.

The second item that I received is the 2008 color-coded Clarity Agenda. It flips open the long way, and the top page displays a normal weekly calendar, while the bottom page has color-coded rows. I had a little bit of difficulty testing this item since it is, after all, intended for 2008. I also wasn't quite sure what to make of the color-coded rows - I know these are supposed to be great for busy moms who have to keep track of family members' schedules, but my kids are young enough that they don't have their own schedules yet. What I realized, though, is that the rows are great for reminders and notes.

Thanks to a scrapbooking friend, I got the idea of jotting down the kids' milestones and noteworthy stories in a calendar for transference to a scrapbook later, when I had more time. I haven't really gotten around to scrapbooking, and I've been lax about note-taking too, but the Clarity Agenda will make that easier next year. I'll use one row for Alex and another for Tyler, and when something note-worthy happens - whether it's Alex counting to 20 all by himself or Tyler speaking his first two-word combination - I'll write it down.

The third color-coded row will be great for things like birthday gift ideas. Earlier this year, I started writing down web sites and other ideas to remember for special days. For example, that's how I remembered Norman Love Confections for a friend's birthday a couple of months ago.

I love the look of both these products - they are clean, modern and compact. They also have a nice, hefty feel that implies quality. Of course, at $15 for the What to Do Pad and $30 for the original-sized Clarity Agenda, these products aren't inexpensive. But they make great gifts. Ask for them for the holidays, and buy some to give away.

Speaking of giving away, Whomi has generously agreed to send a Clarity Agenda to 3 lucky CFO readers. To enter, visit the Whomi web site and tell me in the comments what your favorite Whomi product is. Be sure to provide a way for me to contact you in case you win. The contest ends at 11:59 p.m. PST on Monday, December 3.

Update: I'll use a random generator to select the three winners. (You probably figured that, but I just wanted to put it out there.)

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two Preschooler Activities for the Holidays

The following ideas are based on games in the weekly PreschoolRock.com newsletter. I've described them the way I intend to do them but I've linked to the Preschool Rock version also.
  1. Where Did Those Bows Go?: Gather your gift-wrapping materials and gifts to be wrapped, including some pre-made bows (like these). Hide one bow for each gift you'll be wrapping in the same room. As you wrap each gift, ask your child to find a bow, and allow him to attach the bow when you're done wrapping that gift.

  2. Little Drummer Boy Game: Put on some holiday music and tap the beat on a drum or the bottom of a bowl. Help your child do the same. (Knowing a few people who can't find the beat of a song, I think it's important to help my kids learn to do it.)

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

What I did on Black Friday

As we have for the past three or four years, our family headed out early yesterday. For us, it makes sense because the kids are early risers and we need to take them out before they get cabin fever. We made a quick stop at Best Buy, where Marc went in, saw that it was still crazy at 7:15, and came right back out. Then we drove to a large mall, where I bought a few things, and Alex made his way up and down the escalator several times. We stopped to have breakfast with my parents, and were home by 10:30.

We don't generally look to buy big-ticket items at this time of year unless we actually need something. And our kids are young enough that they don't pester us for some hot toy that's hard to find. So my Black Friday shopping is thankfully confined to a few non-gadget gifts and bargains on things that I want to buy anyway (like the jacket that I got Alex for half off the original price). All of this keeps my Black Friday relatively stress-free, while allowing me to still take advantage of some great deals.

As a side note, I'll be interested to see what the retailers' reports are. I thought the stores were noticeably more crowded this year than they were the last couple of years, so I would expect the retailers to report higher earnings. Although perhaps the sales were steeper or more people decided to be early birds.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

I cut my hair!

I did remember to take a photo of my chopped-off ponytail when I got my hair cut last weekend:



It ended up being just about 10 inches long (a little longer than I'd anticipated, actually), but I sent it to Pantene's Beautiful Lengths program instead of Locks of Love anyway. I was sure I'd met Pantene's minimum length requirement of 8 inches, and was afraid that someone at Locks of Love might think barely 10 inches wasn't good enough.

It was such a bizarre feeling as the stylist cut the ponytail off and the hair that was still attached to my head fell free. The ponytail itself was a bit creepy - kind of a like dead animal. I sent it in the same day because I just wanted to get rid of it!

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

On this day of giving thanks, I want to thank all of my readers - you make this blog what it is!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another 10 (yes, 10!) recalls today

It seems pretty clear that you shouldn't buy children's metal jewelry. If any of the following seem familiar, click through to the CPSC recall for more info:As always, I highly encourage everyone to sign up for recall notification by email at the CPSC web site.

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The Fine Art of Re-Gifting

My parents always re-gifted, so it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that some people look down upon the practice. Of course, it helps that my mother taught me the proper etiquette of re-gifting. I've seen various guidelines, and I think this list at About.com is a particularly good one. I do think the first tip is badly written, though - I don't think the author is talking about a "gift card" in the sense of a gift certificate but rather in the sense of a card from the giver, like a birthday card.

One thing I do to make re-gifted gifts extra special is combine them into a set or basket to create a theme. Another thing I do is put a lot of thought into wrapping the items. Both of these techniques make the gift extra special.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Guest Post: 4 Ways to Build Holiday Traditions

The following is a guest post from Kalyn at LifeEdit.net, a new blog "dedicated to frugality, organization, productivity and a happy life." Check out her recipe for Chicken Pot Pie, which looks like an easy and delicious weeknight meal.

4 Ways to Build Holiday Traditions

Think carefully about your own holiday experience - do you get giddy thinking about eggnog, are you most excited for a dinner party, or do you connect most to a spiritual tradition that has been in your family for decades? Holiday traditions are what make the upcoming season memorable and enjoyable. Most of us have childhood memories of activities, foods, scents and events that bring us back to a happy holiday season. As we get older, we need to adapt these traditions into our changing lives; the addition of a spouse, children, a new geographical location or a new life schedule may require some creative ideas to keep the holidays merry and bright.

How do you build new holiday traditions that can stand the test of time and be a positive experience for your family?

1. Recreate Old Ideas
Take that original exercise and use it to determine which traditions you hold closest to your heart. If it is possible to continue them without problem, simply incorporate the tree-trimming evening or neighborhood snowman-building event into your holiday schedule. More likely, you have stopped following this tradition because it does not fit in with your current lifestyle. Consider adjusting your lifestyle or the tradition itself in order to bring it back into your life - if you have fond memories of snow but live in a temperate climate, a trip to a colder area might be nice, as would watching a snuggly-marathon of snowy movies and eating candy cane ice cream.

2. Build Frugal Traditions
The desire to bring more tradition into your holidays is the perfect opportunity to practice safe and sane spending habits. Instead of buying gifts for everyone, start a new tradition of a gift exchange, drawing each person's name and having a spending limit. Focus your new ideas on activities and events that cost very little money; whether it involves a potluck dinner or a crisp walk in the woods on Christmas morning, you will have new holiday traditions that are not dependent on your financial situation and will not add stress to an already busy season.

3. Build Selfless Traditions
The holiday season is about giving and spreading joy; begin a new tradition that highlights these actions and brings a little extra warmth to your heart. Rally the family together and go carolling through your neighbourhood, donate your time to help feed the less fortunate or visit the invalid, or spend a portion of your gift budget on donations to worthy causes. December can be a very sad and lonely month for many people and animals; your compassion and love can bring about some newfound happiness this season.

4. Build Active Traditions
Even if the weather outside is frightful, adding some fun and family-oriented activities to your holiday repertoire can bring your family together and ensure that everyone remains healthy and happy. Spending time together on activities like tobogganing/sledding, taking a walk in the woods or trimming a tree can be a fun way for you and yours to stay fit and have fun (and possibly offset the damage done by a night or two of heavy eating)!

Whether or not you celebrate a specific holiday or merely enjoy the magic of the season, spending time to focus on selfless giving and sharing is a tradition that can be passed down through every generation. Look at the specific interests of your family and friends in order to adapt specific activities suited for your lives; regardless of what you pick, building new traditions will bring you closer together and help you to have a great holiday season.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Two recalls yesterday

There were two recalls yesterday - if either looks familiar, click through to the CPSC press release for more info:

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Frugal Flower: Carnations

I like having fresh flowers in the house, but I'm much too lazy busy to change the water every other day. And I hate spending money on something that has to be thrown out within a week.

So carnations are my favorite flower, not because of their appearance or smell, but because I've noticed that every time Marc gives me a bunch, they last with minimal attention for at least two weeks. I also very much appreciate that they don't drop pollen all over my desk the way a daisy did a couple of weeks ago. I think they might last longer if I re-cut the ends, but I usually don't have the time or energy to do that (though now that I'm thinking about it, maybe I'll do it today!).

Image credit: ProFlowers, where you can get $10 off any order by checking out this post from Pro Bargain Hunter. There's a "Free shipping" section under "Specials," which can be combined with the $10 discount.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Boycotting chocolate? Just about!

I love chocolate. If I were a poet, I'd write an ode to it, but since I'm not, let me just say that I have tried to stop eating it but never succeeded for long. Because of chocolate, I understand - at least a little - what it's like to be a smoker trying to give up cigarettes. I know chocolate is harmful to my health, especially in the quantities that I consume over the course of a day, week, month, year. It's certainly part of the reason why I have some pounds to lose. But even knowing that it would be better for my health hasn't been motivation enough for me to stop eating it.

Earlier today, though, I read Adrienne's post about the connection between chocolate and child slavery at Baby Toolkit. And I'm appalled to discover that my chocolate addiction has been facilitating child slavery in Africa.

The remedy? Why, a boycott, of course! Adrienne's asking that people avoid chocolate gifts this holiday season. So I hereby pledge to buy only fair-trade chocolate products from now on (she says those are untainted). Fortunately, Green LA Girl recently directed me to a fair trade chocolate gift basket that I'll be sending to my chocolate-loving friend.

I also promised Adrienne that I will try to get my sons' daycare to terminate their See's Candies fund raisers that are held every Easter/Passover and Christmas/Hanukkah season. I know there are other fund-raising options out there because we've discussed them in the past, so we should be able to find something more compatible with our school's goals.

I'm not giving up chocolate completely, but I am going to do my part to reduce child slavery. Are you?

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Update on those biscuits

Yesterday, I wrote that I was facing my fear of biscuit-making by making a batch and freezing them for today. Well, I baked them tonight and they were great! Marc said they were much better than the store bought biscuits we had last night. And the best part is, the food processor method was so easy! (And cheaper than store bought, too.) I'm definitely going to be doing this again.

A few technical notes: I think using shortening would yield a more tender biscuit, but the butter worked well and smelled fantastic. I baked the biscuits without defrosting them and removed them when they were light golden brown. I was afraid to bake them longer since they didn't rise much and I really didn't want them to be remotely hard. The leftovers are going to be great with honey.

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I'm getting my hair cut on Saturday!

I mentioned before that I was growing my hair out for charity as a way to save money on hair cuts. At $100 per cut, the savings are pretty significant. Well, the time has come! I've got an appointment on Saturday to chop off some hair and I'm really looking forward to it. It's about three weeks shy of a year since my last hair cut and although my hair is healthy (no split ends), it's looking pretty shaggy.

I've found a new stylist, so I'll be paying $75 this time (that includes tip). Since longer hair requires less maintenance than short hair (for me, anyway), I'm going to keep my longest layers at just below shoulder length. I can't wait!

However, because I'm going to keep my hair on the longer side (rather than cutting it to chin length, for example), I've decided to donate my hair to Pantene's Beautiful Lengths program instead of Locks of Love. Locks of Love has a minimum length requirement of ten inches, while Pantene's minimum is eight inches. It looks like my ponytail will come in somewhere between nine and ten inches, so even though it might be a tad over ten inches, I'd rather donate it to the organization I know will be able to use it.

I'll try to post a picture of my ponytail when I come home from the salon on Saturday. Oh, and don't roll your eyes at the cost of the cut! $75 around here is perfectly reasonable! My last haircut at Supercuts was $22 and made me miserable. The other end of the spectrum is just on the other side of the Santa Monica mountains in Beverly Hills, where I could easily pay $300 for a cut.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Chicken & Dumplings, And Overcoming My Fear Of Biscuits

Dinner tonight was a highly rated recipe for Slow Cooker Chicken & Dumplings, which I discovered thanks to Lynnae over at Being Frugal. The recipe is simple and calls for 4 chicken breast halves, 2 tablespoons of butter, 2 cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup, 1 onion, combined in the crock with enough water to cover. For the last six or seven years, I've avoided condensed cream of anything under the theory that it's unhealthy, but I recently decided that it's less healthy to eat out. So I bought the cans of cream of mushroom before I read the reviews, many of which recommended one can of cream of mushroom and one can of cream of celery. I did read the reviews in time to substitute some chicken stock for the water. I loaded up the crock last night so that all I had to do this morning was stick it in the cooker and set it to low before I left for work. I substituted 1.3 pounds of chicken breast tenders for the chicken breast halves, added some diced carrot, some black pepper, tarragon and thyme, and left out the onion (on purpose) and the butter (by accident). Don't ask me why Trader Joe's organic chicken never comes in true one-pound packages - I don't know. As soon as we got home, I added some frozen peas. And before serving the chicken, I shredded it, since neither Marc nor Alex likes chunks of chicken. This had the benefit of making the mixture wonderfully thick.

The recipe calls for putting torn pieces of refrigerated biscuit dough on top of the chicken mixture and cooking it on high for 30 minutes or until cooked through. I wasn't surprised to read in the reviews that the dough took much longer than 30 minutes to cook and/or was gooey. That kind of grossed me out so I decided to bake the biscuits according to the package directions, but the store brand I bought tasted okay at best. The ones I over-baked were downright awful.

But we have leftovers. And Marc vetoed my idea of serving it over rice. He said he'd rather have the over-baked biscuits. Which I can't tolerate. And that's okay, because earlier today, I read Amy's post at The Mother Load about overcoming her fear of canning by, well, canning. It spurred me to make my own biscuits tonight, something I've avoided doing for close to five years. I've only made biscuits once, and they came out like hockey pucks. They were so bad, I've been afraid to try again. But I decided that tonight's the night.

Since I want fresh biscuits, though, I made them up to the point of cutting them out. They're now sitting in the freezer on a baking sheet and tomorrow when we're ready to eat, I'll put them in the toaster oven to bake up. Hopefully, they'll be good.

For the recipe, I turned to my trusty reference book, Brilliantby David Joachim. Here are the ingredients called for in the recipe for Buttermilk Biscuits: 1 1/3 cups cake flour, 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons chilled butter, 3 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening, and 3/4 cup buttermilk. The recipe says to combine the dry ingredients, cut in the butter and shortening, fold in the buttermilk, knead until the dough just comes together, then roll out and cut. But I'm not one to follow a recipe exactly.

Especially since I don't have cake flour. I used all all-purpose flour, minus two tablespoons, and I added two tablespoons of cornstarch, which is similar to the substitution for cake flour. I also don't have vegetable shortening, so I used all butter.

Now, I hate cutting butter into flour. The butter gets soft long before the mixture reaches the coarse meal stage. So I did what Martha Stewart does with her pie dough: I used my food processor. First I combined the dry ingredients and pulsed to get them mixed together. Then I added the pieces of butter and pulsed just a few times to get to the coarse meal stage. Then I poured in the buttermilk and pulsed again, just a couple of times. I turned the dough onto a cutting board lightly dusted with flour and pressed the dough out. The recipe yields 12 biscuits but I only got 10 (probably because my dough was too thick). I put the cut out biscuits on a baking sheet and parked the pan in the freezer. Hopefully the biscuits will bake up beautifully tomorrow (at 425 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes until the tops are a light golden brown - mine will probably take just a couple more minutes since they're frozen). I'll let you know how it goes.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Parallels: Weight loss & Personal finance

Today was my first day tracking what I ate using Fitday, and it was a challenge. I found myself not wanting to document what I'd written because it was going to be less than perfect, and I dread seeing a high total calorie count. I made myself do it by telling myself that my eating isn't going to be, and doesn't have to be, perfect. Really, I should just be recording what I eat normally, then take a look back and see where I can make changes.

It became easier when I realized that starting the process of losing weight is exactly the same as starting the process of taking control of my finances (and losing weight is arguably equivalent to taking control of my health). When I first started learning about personal finance, I did the oft-recommended first step: I wrote down every penny I spent. I didn't necessarily change my spending habits right away, but I brought awareness to my spending. Once I saw where my money was going, I made changes that have brought me to the better place I'm in today.

I'm going to do the same thing now with my eating. I'm taking the pressure off myself to make dramatic changes immediately, because the important thing right now is to bring awareness to my eating. Once I've done that, I'll start making (small) changes that will gradually bring me to a better, healthier place. Just like I did with my finances.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Neverending: Eight recalls yesterday, three more today

If any of these toys look familiar, click through to the CPSC press release for info on what to do. The Aqua Dots recall has gotten a lot of press because the beads metabolize into the date rape drug GHB - if you have any Aqua Dots in your house, make sure you immediately take them away from your kids. Then click through to the press release for info on what the company will do for you. Okay, here we go:

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Weight Watchers vs. Do It Yourself

I'd really like to lose some weight - not a whole lot, but enough to make a difference in how I feel and look. I know this is the worst time of year to do it, but there's never a good time, so why not start now? The sooner I reach my goal weight, the happier I'll be.

I have been toying with the idea of joining Weight Watchers Online. I don't have time to attend meetings, let alone exercise, but I know that simply eating fewer calories will make a huge difference. I even asked around to see how hard it is to learn to follow their points system and the verdict was, not that hard and eventually it will become second nature.

But I can't help feeling that it's silly to pay $60 for three months for a target calorie (points) maximum and a place to track my daily, weekly and monthly progress.

On the other hand, I've failed completely at tracking my calorie intake on my own with a notebook. For one thing, I don't want to tote the notebook around everywhere I go. But by the time I remember to enter what I ate, I can't remember. It's also way too easy to conveniently "forget" when I eat more than I think I should have, especially because I'm usually entering it all at once instead of throughout the day. If I did that, I could see my calorie count soaring and it would be easier to remind myself to eat something lighter.

So I've been thinking for the last week or so that I should find an online calculator where I could keep track of my eating, but haven't gotten around to searching yet. Fortunately, I subscribe to many wonderful blogs, and NCN wrote yesterday about Fitday and how he's using it to do exactly what I was thinking of doing. I love that it's completely free.

I now have no excuses. I've signed up for Fitday and will start tracking my calories tomorrow! When I lose my first 10 pounds, I'm taking the $60 I would have spent on Weight Watchers and buying some new clothes :D

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Top 10 Ways I Save Money

  1. Prioritize. Marc and I agree on what's important and where our money should generally go. That means neither of us goes out and spends several hundred dollars without discussing the purchase. It also means neither of us resent the other about how much we're (not) spending, because we've agreed on a spending plan - and that plan includes a big savings component.
  2. Automatic savings. We always pay ourselves first. We both have retirement contributions that are taken out of our paychecks before we even get paid. And as soon as our salaries appear in our bank account, I transfer a set amount of money to our savings and investment accounts. Making this money unavailable (or at least less available) helps keep our spending down because we don't have a ton of available cash. (As I've mentioned previously, we do most of our purchasing via credit card, but I can easily keep a close eye on the balance thanks to the internet.)
  3. Manage perspective. Last week, one of my friends mentioned that she got a great deal on a gorgeous pair of shoes. Originally priced at $370, she paid "only" $170. I know that she can afford the shoes, i.e., she didn't charge them to a credit card that she isn't going to pay off. But the number did boggle my mind a bit, since I simply can't imagine paying over $80, including tax, for a pair of shoes - that's usually for a good pair of running shoes, not a pretty pair of pumps. My mental maximum prices always help me keep my credit card in my wallet and thus, more money in my bank account.
  4. Eat at home. Cooking meals instead of eating out might be the number one money-saving tip of all time. But I've mentioned before that returning to work after my maternity leave resulted in more take-out for our family, simply because I have so much less time to plan ahead and to cook, not to mention our days are less predictable and more stressful. I've been cooking more as I've adjusted to being back at work, but we still pick up food on a semi-regular basis. However, we generally eat at home, supplementing with veggies (baby carrots and edamame are staples), saving half for later, etc. By eating at home, we order less food, never have to leave a gratuity, and never pay for drinks.
  5. Research purchases. Research includes everything from doing a quick search for discount codes to in-depth study of the details before making a major purchase. If you use Firefox, I highly recommend the coupon notifier add-on for easy access to discount codes and deals. I also combine researching of prices with #8 and #9 below. Update 2/17/09: The coupon notifier extension is no longer available, but there's a similar RetailMeNot extension that you can try.
  6. Avoid the mall. I love going to the mall. I love imagining owning many of the things I see. But I'm pretty good about limiting myself to imagining. However, I invariably end up buying something. So I stopped going. It helps that I have young kids with no patience for browsing and little hands that are always reaching out to grab something. Nowadays, I go to the mall before the stores open so that Alex can run around and burn off some energy. We leave before the stores open, too. (Between the hours of 7 and 10 a.m., malls are a wonderful, relatively safe place for energetic toddlers.) If I do need to buy something, I try to stack errands to minimize my trips to the mall, and I buy what I need, then leave without window shopping.
  7. Re-purpose. I love that re-purposing an item for a different use is not only easy on my wallet, it's good for the environment too. Usually, ideas come to me when I don't feel like leaving the house and I'm racking my brain to figure out if there's something we can already use - necessity is the mother of invention and all that.
  8. Shop with a calculator. You'll often find me in the diaper aisle holding my cell phone set to the calculator function, since that's when I most need to figure out the price per item. But I'll also whip out my calculator in front of the paper towels, the laundry detergent, nursing pads, etc. The basic idea here is that the largest package isn't necessarily the best deal, and the only way to figure that out is to figure out the price per item or unit. The shelf tag will often list the price per item/unit, but it won't take into account any coupons that you might have.
  9. Keep a price book. A price book is a notebook for tracking the lowest price of an item. It goes especially well with tip #8, since you'll know if the price per item is just better than the competitor's brand that week, or the best price of the whole year. I noticed that NCN just came out with a handy downloadable price book, so I highly recommend heading over to get that.
  10. Gifts. We are very lucky to have generous family and friends. My mother-in-law buys the boys and me lots of clothes, and while they might not be items that I would have picked, I'm usually okay with them since they were free. I also try to give constructive and specific suggestions to help her buy what we need and will wear. We've also had friends give and loan child-related items so that we don't have to spend money, and we've tried to keep the circle of giving going by sharing what we no longer need.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Good customer service or just a sneaky ploy?

We have a car loan on our 2003 Nissan Altima (its 1.9% interest rate has had us paying the minimum so that we can pay off my student loans, which have a higher interest rate). In yesterday's mail, we received a "Payment Extension Offer" from Nissan, which stated that they know we might be experiencing a financial hardship due to the "recent disaster" (presumably the wildfires) in our area and giving us the option of deferring the next payment due "to the month following your last scheduled payment."

My first thought was, "Oh, that's nice for the people who need that." My second thought was, "My goodness, look at the extra interest they're going to charge people who take advantage of this offer!" Because the form stated in smaller (but not hidden) print that "interest will accrue on the extended payment."

And in composing this post, I realized that not only were the fires nowhere near us (in terms of real danger), Nissan ought to know that by looking at our zip code. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I suppose that someone who lives in our area could have been financially impacted by the wildfires either through damage to investment property or by losing a job when their workplace was destroyed. But the combination of the interest that would accrue and the broadness of the offer makes me suspect that Nissan's motives are more profit-driven than altruistic.

Anyone disagree?

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Two recalls - neither for lead

Two more toy recalls today, but at least neither of them were for potential lead poisoning - "just" choking and laceration hazards. If either toy looks familiar, click through to the CPSC press release for more info:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

I bought a (fraction of a) stock!

A few weeks ago, I bought a very tiny share of Berkshire Hathaway B stock. This is the first time I have ever bought an individual stock. Until now, all of my equity investments were in mutual funds only, so this felt like a really big step for me - even though I only spent $50. $46 went toward the purchase and the other $4 went toward Sharebuilder's commission. The only reason I even took this plunge was because Jonathan posted about a $90 Costco bonus for Executive members (which we are) who open a new Sharebuilder account. We haven't received our $90 Costco giftcard yet but I expect it to arrive in the next couple of weeks. The best part is that our tiny share of BRK.B is already worth $52. I don't expect to make a fortune this way (obviously), but it was good to push beyond my comfort zone.

Expanding Personal Boundaries

I've discovered that I'm not the only one who finds expanding my personal boundaries to be a worthwhile goal. Over at Money Smart Life, Ben posted about what he calls extreme investing, "extreme" being a subjective term. As he puts it:
The reason you might want to do a little extreme investing is that it can help broaden your financial horizons. As creatures of habit we tend to stick with what we know, whether what we're currently doing is the best thing for our situation or not.
He gives some guidelines for practicing extreme investing, the most important of which is that you should play with only a small amount of money - specifically, an amount that you can afford to completely lose. That's exactly what I did in buying one-hundredth of one share of BRK.B - actually, we come out ahead on this one since our cost was only $50 but we'll be getting $90 from Costco, which we would have spent anyway.

My Next Venture: Prosper

I seem to be getting all of my extreme investing ideas from Jonathan. I'm thinking that my next project will be to open a Prosper person-to-person lending account with $50. After I fund my first loan, Prosper will give me $25, which effectively reduces the amount I've risked to a mere $25. However, I need to learn a little bit more about Prosper, so I hope my peers who've blogged about lending on Prosper won't mind answering a few questions that I haven't been able to find answers to on the Prosper web site.

Investing for the Future

As I've mentioned previously, one of my major goals is to study personal finance and learn much more about money management than I currently know - basically, I want to give myself an unofficial education equivalent to that of a certified financial planner. But I've tried reading the CFP textbookI asked for and received last holiday season, and I just don't have the brain power to study right now. Nevertheless, I think a little extreme investing is a fun alternative for the meantime to help me learn about investments outside my comfort zone.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Slow Cooker Hot Fudge Brownies

I signed up for a free sample of Reynolds Slow Cooker liners and got an email with a link to this delicious and decadent-sounding, super easy recipe:

Slow Cooker Hot Fudge Brownies

1 Reynolds® Slow Cooker Liner
1 package (about 20 oz.) brownie mix
1 cup chocolate syrup
1 cup hot water

1. Open slow cooker liner and place it inside a 5- to 6 1/2 -quart slow cooker bowl. Fit liner snugly against the bottom and sides of bowl; pull top of liner over rim of bowl.

2. Prepare brownie mix according to package directions for cake-like brownies. Spread batter evenly in the lined-slow cooker bowl. Mix chocolate syrup and hot water; pour syrup mixture evenly over brownie batter. Place lid on slow cooker.

3. Cook on HIGH for 2 1/2 to 3 hours or until brownie edges are set.

4. Carefully remove lid to allow steam to escape. Center may appear moist but wooden pick inserted near center should be clean. Let stand 30 minutes, uncovered, for center to set completely. Serve brownies with plastic or wooden spoon directly from slow cooker. Do not lift or transport liner with food inside. Cool slow cooker completely; remove liner and toss.

REYNOLDS KITCHENS TIP: Hot Fudge Brownies are delicious topped with ice cream and drizzled with sauce.

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Blog Spotlight: Sense to Save

Sense to Save is a new blog by newlywed Kacie about - you guessed it - saving money. Kacie has thrown herself into blogging and posts lots of specific money-saving tips, including free-after-rebate deals from Rite-Aid and Walgreens, and her weekly menu, complete with a total cost usually under $20. I've been very impressed with her shopping skills and get a vicarious thrill from the incredible deals she finds. She's also working on an e-book on how to cut college expenses. Check out her post on How to "do" the drug stores for an explanation of how she finds lots of free things.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Only one recall today - for lead, of course

Does the item below look familiar? If so, click through to the CPSC press release for details on this recall:

Pearl-like Bead Attachment Sold with Girl’s Gift Sets Recalled Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard; Sold exclusively at Limited Too Stores



I highly recommend signing up for email recall notices at the CPSC web site.

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Why I use a credit card: Rewards, fraud protection, and no monitoring of account balance

It goes without saying that credit cards aren't for everyone - in fact, I think they should only be used by people who pay their balance off each month. If you fit that category, though, you should pay for as many things as you can with your card. Here's why:

Rewards
I've written before about earning rewards with a credit card, and I still have that miles card that we use most of the time. The annual fee of $25 is more than made up for by the free tickets that we get. But a miles card isn't right for most people. Free Money Finance is planning on getting 2.6% cash back on his credit card purchases and explains how you can too.

Fraud Protection
In addition to rewards, there are a couple of other reasons why using a credit card can be helpful. This story at The Consumerist is a good example of the consumer protection offered by credit cards. Basically, the Consumerist reader bought a hard drive at Best Buy but discovered when he got home that the box contained tiles wrapped in newspaper. He went back to the store but the manager refused to accept the return, so the reader contacted American Express and disputed the charge, and Amex obtained the refund for him. I've personally never had to do this but it's nice to know that the option is there.

No monitoring of bank account balances
Glblguy's debit card was stolen and used to make almost $1,000 worth of purchases. Glglguy, being a good money-manager, caught on to the situation rather quickly and handled it as well as possible. But the part about checking his balance reminded me of why I never use my debit card: I don't like having to constantly monitor my bank account. Yet without that monitoring, a charge could easily slip through and cause an overdraft. I suppose I could keep a big cushion in my checking account, but that would reduce the interest I'm earning in savings. I have to admit that the stress of possibly overdrawing my checking account would probably cause me to spend less - but I think that stress would be too detrimental to my health.

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