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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Three recalls today: crib toys, girls' jackets and teethers

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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The All Cash Spending Experiment is about to begin

Tomorrow is February 1, and that means it's the first day of the All Cash Spending Experiment, wherein Marc and I will spend only cash at stores and restaurants to see if having to use cash curbs our discretionary expenses. Neither of us is looking forward to it, but we are curious about the results.

I will be doing my weekly grocery shopping at Trader Joe's this weekend, and that'll be my first real "test." I'm thinking of bringing a calculator because my grocery purchases can run anywhere from $85 to $150, depending on what I've bought and how much. Now that I'm menu planning again, I won't be buying extraneous things, but my average shopping trip is still about $110 after all is said and done. (If that seems high for a family of four, keep in mind that I live in the Los Angeles area, where the cost of living is higher than average, and that I buy mostly organic produce, dairy and meat - or at least, hormone and antibiotic free.)

Although the Experiment hasn't yet begun, I can't imagine that Marc and I will want to continue using cash once it's over. But I was thinking that we can probably save a lot of money simply by being more aware of the total cost of our purchases before we hit the check-out line. I am expecting to find that keeping a running total in my head as I go through the store will cause me to buy less and therefore spend less money. And that'll be a good habit to get into.

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Target carries good, inexpensive crib sheets

Before Alex was born, I repeatedly read that it was important for safety reasons to get crib sheets that were elasticized all the way around, and didn't just have elastic at the corners. Fully elasticized sheets are less likely to slip off the mattress and pose a suffocation risk. I remember walking through Babies R Us, scrutinizing every crib sheet package that wasn't pink to see if it said "fully elasticized" anywhere. I only found two different patterns there.

It was probably cost that made me pick up a crib sheet at Target the first time. Sheets at Babies R Us were over $15, whereas Circo brand sheets at Target (like this one)were $5.99 or $6.99, depending on whether they were a solid color or had a pattern. Even non-Circo brands like Amy Coe were less than $10. I was thrilled to discover that the Circo brand sheets were fully elasticized, and I've been buying them ever since. I think I've bought one non-Circo brand sheet and that was fully elasticized too.

You can probably find inexpensive fully elasticized sheets at Wal-Mart as well. When we were on vacation a couple of years ago, we bought a Carter's brand sheet at a Wal-mart that was fully elasticized.

Now if only I could find flannel sheets that are fully elasticized . . .

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Update on my 2008 resolutions

The Money Blog Network guys are posting updates on how they're doing with their 2008 goals, which inspired Plonkee to post her own update and ask how her readers are doing with their own goals. So . . . here's my update:
  • Goal: Save enough to pay cash for a new car. I'm on track for this goal, setting aside a fairly substantial amount each month for this.
  • Goal: Don't buy things just because they're a great deal. I'm doing pretty well with this too. I just made my first purchase from Amazon for the year last night, and it was for something I need, not an impulse purchase (Amazon is usually where my "great-deal" purchases come from, so this is quite an accomplishment for me).
My resolution to buy only fair-trade chocolate isn't really a 2008 goal but a lifelong commitment for as long as the chocolate industry involves child slavery. I'm doing well with that too, buying fair trade cocoa for my hot chocolate mix. I also finally located a source for fair trade chocolate chips and ordered enough to (hopefully) last me at least until summer.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I’m staying the course by avoiding my account balances

Intellectually, I completely agree with FMF, JLP and everyone who says the best way to invest in the market is to keep investing and not be scared off when the market is down. It’s easier said than done, though, when I see that not only have my gains from the past year been wiped out, but I’ve actually lost some of the principal that I invested.

In the long run, it’s not going to matter much. I’m not planning on withdrawing money from any of my investment accounts for at least 15 years. And most of my investing is on automatic - withdrawals from our paychecks to our 401(k)s, automatic withdrawals from our bank account, and so on. It’s not too hard to forget about the automatic investments and just let them be.

What is hard is logging into the various web sites and seeing the actual account balances. On some sites, it’s unavoidable because it’s the first thing that’s displayed when I log in. And some of the sites I can avoid but some of them I need to get into for reasons other than checking the account balance.

When I see those low numbers, especially when I know that the number is less than what I’ve deposited into the account, it’s hard not to get depressed, or at least not feel a little bit down. That’s when I start wondering what else I could or should be doing. And if I don’t stop my mind from wandering off too far, I’ll end up driving myself crazy with “what if”s and “I wonder”s. What if I used our savings to pay off our debt? I wonder if we are diversified enough. What if I put the money that I was going to invest in the stock market into a CD? I wonder if I should change the allocation of our retirement contributions? And so on and so forth.

The easiest way to maintain my sanity is to avoid seeing those low account balances in the first place. So I do what I can to minimize the number of times I have to log in on the various web sites. I take a quick glance at paper statements to make sure they look about right and then file them away. I try as hard as I can not to think about the money I’m losing, and to focus on the fact that my dollar-cost averaging will pay off in the end.

Which isn’t to say I won’t be relieved when this plunging stock market ride is over.

What about you? Are you staying the course, and if so, what are you doing to calm your fears?

Image credit: Yahoo! Finance

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Menu planning really saves me money

So I've been menu planning for the last three weeks and I've really been enjoying myself. I've also been saving some money because:
  1. We're not eating out. I usually cook so that there are enough leftovers for Marc and I to take to work the next day for lunch. That means the one meal I make for dinner keeps us from buying dinner and the next day's lunch.
  2. I'm not buying food we won't eat. When I don't know ahead of time what I'll be making, I'll just throw stuff into my cart at Trader Joe's because I might or I could make something with it. But if I don't use it - and the odds are good for that because I'm not planning ahead - it simply gets thrown out if it's a perishable. If it's not a perishable, it languishes in my pantry until I clean out my cupboards for the post office's annual food drive.
I got proof of the money-saving benefits of menu planning this past weekend, when I skipped my weekly Trader Joe's trip because of heavy rain. When the rain had let up, I headed off to the large Whole Foods in our area (there's a smaller one that's closer but its selection is hit and miss). I bought all of the items on my list, plus several different meats since I try to buy organic or hormone and antibiotic-free meat whenever possible and Trader Joe's has a very limited selection. I also made a stop at Ralphs to pick up the one item I couldn't find at Whole Foods.

Even with the extra meat I bought, my weekly total was about $100, a little less than what I usually spend each week at Trader Joe's. This may not seem impressive, but usually when I buy that much meat at Whole Foods, my total for the week is $150 to $200. So we'll probably have a slightly lower than normal grocery bill for the next couple of weeks, thanks to the meat that's now stocked in the freezer.

We are also eating healthier, since I plan for a vegetable side dish when I plan out my meals ahead of time. When we get take out or fast food, we rarely eat vegetables (french fries don't count!). But since I started making dinner every night, we are eating vegetables with each meal. Well, Marc and I are, and sometimes Tyler. Alex invariably ignores the veggies I put on his plate. I guess I can't win ‘em all.

Epilogue: Alas, the best laid plans ... well, you know how that goes. I had turkey sloppy joes in the slow cooker for dinner tonight, only to come home and discover that I had left the cooker on "warm" instead of "low." Marc had the brilliant idea of making almond butter and banana french toast, so that's what we had, along with some ham. While it's not ideal, paying for lunch tomorrow isn't bothering me nearly as much as thinking about all the food that I wasted!

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

How do you find an accountant?

I've mentioned previously that we hired an accountant to do our taxes last year, and we were pretty happy with him (let's call him Harvey). Harvey had been my in-laws' accountant for many years, and I trusted my father-in-law's judgment in this regard, so it was an easy decision to have him do our taxes last year.

However, Harvey retired at the end of last year, though I didn't find out until last week. Our account was transferred to another accountant in the firm, but I'm not thrilled by the fact that the only reason I found out about the retirement and transfer was because I called to make an appointment with Harvey. My father-in-law, whose taxes are a lot more involved than ours, says the new accountant (let's call her Susan) seems well-qualified and he's going to give her a year or so to prove herself. And since I'm not really interested in searching for a new accountant this tax season, we'll just stay with her as well.

But I've been wondering what we'll do if we're not happy with Susan, which seems a real possibility considering that I'm not pleased with how she and the firm handled the transfer of our account. Word of mouth and referrals is my favorite way to find new professionals. I have one friend who's been with her accountant for years, so I can ask her for a referral. I could also ask our estate planning attorney.

Hopefully, things will work out with Susan, but just in case they don't:

How do you find a new accountant?

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Update on using the Reynolds Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealer

Earlier this month, I reviewed the Reynolds Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealing System and said I would report back on whether the bags are washable. Good news: it appears that they are. Of course, I only washed and reused one quart-size bag, but I had no problem using the vacuum sealer on it once it had dried. However, if you decide to wash and reuse these bags, I ask you to keep in mind Reynolds' warning against reusing bags because of cross-contamination.

In more good news, I've discovered that the vacuum sealer is a huge help with meal planning and I've been storing many bags in the fridge (rather than the freezer). I can chop vegetables days in advance, then seal them until the day I need them. I've also been using the bags to store cheeses that might grow moldy before I use them up. Although I haven't done a detailed cost analysis, I think the fact that the bags help me cook more at home during the week more than makes up for their higher cost. I'm more likely to stop for fast food on the way home if I have an hour's worth of cooking and clean-up to do, but cut that down to a half hour because the prep work is done and I'm excited to cook when I get home. And of course, you can't discount the health benefits of homemade food versus fast food, or the savings from bringing leftovers to work for lunch.

All in all, I'm very happy to have the Handi-Vac in my kitchen drawer and look forward to making many meals with its help.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Another lead recall

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

Toy Wooden Block and Train Sets Recalled By Christmas Tree Shops Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard - Click through for additional pictures.


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Last night's dinner: Bacon-Wrapped Tofu

Sorry I don't have pictures! I am always so busy preparing and serving dinner that it never occurs to me to take a picture until it's way too late!

I used this recipe at Just Hungry to make the bacon-wrapped tofu. It was very tasty, and I definitely plan on making it again.

However, next time, I'll use longer pieces of bacon for each piece of tofu. I made the mistake of having the ends just slightly overlap, forgetting that meat shrinks when cooked. By the time the tofu and bacon were done, most of the ends were coming off the tofu. I made the sauced version, knowing that Marc would prefer it, and it went wonderfully with rice.

Unfortunately, neither boy liked this, although Alex actually took a couple of bites, which is a major improvement over his previous encounters with tofu. It didn't matter, though, because Marc and I enjoyed the dish and agreed that it's a keeper worth making again.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Two recalls: lead & magnets

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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What will you do with a tax rebate?

In case you missed it, President Bush says he wants to give a tax cut in the form of an $800 cash rebate to individual taxpayers this year ($1600 to taxpayers filing jointly). If the tax rebate comes to fruition, what would you do with it? This is a question that many personal finance bloggers have been discussing - most pf bloggers have prudent plans for their rebate, such as beefing up their emergency fund or paying off debt.

I think such plans are admirable, and (assuming we weren't outside the income limits for receiving a rebate) my first inclination would be to add our tax rebate to our car payment fund. However, it seems to me that simply saving the money would be rather unpatriotic. After all, the rebate is part of an "economic stimulus package" that's supposed to help revitalize the economy. And I'm nothing if not a patriot. I love my country. I want us to thrive, prosper and succeed as a nation.

So I've been thinking. If the rebate comes toward the end of the year, when we'll be buying our new car, I'll be all set. The money will go toward the car. But if the money comes months before (or after) that, we could spend it on something that we've been wanting but have been putting off for some reason or another. Like a washer, if we still need a new one. Or new blinds (I would love to replace all of the blinds in our house). Part of the money could go toward a Scooba. I think I'll make a list of things that I would like to spend money on if we had more money to spend. And then, if we happen to get that rebate, I'll have a lot of ideas on how to spend it.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Fed rate cut doesn't help me personally (actually, it hurts)

The Federal Reserve reduced its interest rate to 3.5% this morning. There was once a time when I loved seeing the Fed cut its rates. The last time the Fed slashed rates like this (about 6 years ago, I think it was), the monthly payment on my private student loans dropped from $400 to $270. I was just learning about personal finance at the time and I knew just enough to keep paying the $400 per month so I would pay off my loans faster.

Since then, I've paid off my private loans. And now I have no adjustable-rate debts. I have a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. I have a consolidated student loan. And that's it. Which means the Fed's rate cut does nothing to help my personal financial situation.

In fact, not only does it not help, it hurts. Because the interest rate that I earn at the bank will probably now drop and I won't earn as much interest on my liquid savings as I would have before the rate cut.

The only personal silver lining that I can find is the hope that rates will keep dropping so that I'll be able to re-finance my mortgage for a rate that's even lower than my already low rate. Oh, and that when we buy our new car later this year, we'll be able to get a really sweet financing deal (like 0%) so we can redirect the money we would have used to pay for the car toward my student loan.

In the meantime, I know it's probably futile, but I really hope that the people who could truly benefit from this rate cut take advantage of it and pay off their debts. Our country's economy would only improve if everyone were in a personally strong and stable financial position.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

February: Month of the All-Cash Spending Experiment

I mentioned to Marc that I was thinking about doing an all-cash experiment, and he said he would be okay with it, so that was the deciding factor for me. Neither of us is thrilled at the prospect of using an all-cash system, but we are both interested in seeing if it really does save us money. So, we've agreed that February will be the month of the All-Cash Spending Experiment.

I think it's important to note that the purpose of the all-cash experiment isn't to reduce our monthly expenses, per se. And I'm not going to drag myself and one or both kids to AT&T, Verizon, or LA DWP to pay my bills in person. Instead, I keep thinking about a point Meredith made, that the fear of not having enough money at the cash register will curtail impulse purchases. So that's the purpose of this experiment: to see if going to an all-cash system curtails discretionary spending by 10% or more.

We'll be following a couple of guidelines to help us stick with the experiment:
  • When it comes to paying for gas, we'll still use our credit card. It's just not practical to pay with cash, since you have to pre-pay, yet you don't know exactly how much you'll need for a full tank. And there's usually at least one kid in the car, which would mean we'd have to take him out of his car seat, take him inside, then strap him back in. I can't think of anything that would derail the All-Cash Experiment faster than something that requires this much effort. So we'll be paying for gas with a credit card.
  • Bills will continue to get paid the way they normally do, whether by online banking or credit cards or checks. As I mentioned previously, I'm not going out of my way to pay bills with cash. I suppose there would be some psychological effect to walking into my mortgage lender's office with my mortgage payment all in cash, but I'm just not at the point where that's something I want to do. The one place that I could do it without any real extra effort is the boys' daycare, since I have to go there anyway, but I don't want to put off the director by showing up with that much cash.
  • I also reserve the right to do some shopping online, which naturally requires a credit card. Or a debit card, I suppose, but I never use my debit card and I like the extra consumer protection I get from using a credit card. But I don't expect any online shopping to have much effect on our end-of-month tally – I've been sticking to my second financial resolution for the year and haven't been buying much.
So basically, most if not all of the cash we spend in February will be brick-and-mortar store and restaurant purchases. Places like Trader Joe's and Target, Coffee Bean and Jamba Juice. I'm actually kind of excited to see the results. And of course, I'll keep you updated once we enter the month of February and the experiment begins.

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Two recalls yesterday: Play stoves and Cranium Cadoo

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Last night's dinner: Baked Fish

For dinner last night, I made the best fish dish I've made in a long time: Cooking Light's Easy Baked Fish Fillets. It was fast, tasty, and different from what we usually eat. Kid note: My kids didn't particularly enjoy this. Alex, who likes salmon, spit this out. Tyler ate it when I disguised it with mashed sweet potato.

Easy Baked Fish Fillets from Cooking Light

1 1/2 pounds grouper or other white fish fillets
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 1/2 tablespoons butter or stick margarine, melted
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place fish in an 11 x 7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.
2. Combine lime juice, mayonnaise, onion powder, and pepper in a small bowl, and spread over fish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs; drizzle with butter.
3. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Sprinkle with parsley.

Notes:
1. I used thin slices of frozen cod from Trader Joe's in a 13x9 baking dish and cooked them for 15 minutes.
2. To get the breadcrumbs, I processed one slice of bread in my electric food mill, and as I said, the fish was delicious. But I think the next time I will substitute panko for a little crunch.

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Why and how I budget

Flexo at Consumerism Commentary wrote an interesting post about budgeting the other day, which I highlighted in my daily roundup. But I've been thinking about it since, especially as I come across other posts on budgeting, most notably FMF's post yesterday about how he budgets.

Flexo's post suggested that stringent budgets that account for every penny are a useful tool in certain situations - for example, when money is so tight it's hard to make ends meet or when trying to get out from a mountain of debt. Flexo further suggested that when a person/family has a comfortable income and doesn't need to track every penny, budgets can be "looser" but still helpful. In fact, Flexo created a budget for himself for 2008. FMF's budgeting post caught my attention because his description of how he budgets was similar to what Flexo suggested.

Flexo and FMF got me thinking about how I budget. Maybe this is because I've been thinking that I need to update our budget in Quicken. I usually re-visit our budget when there is a significant change, such as a raise or a new (or eliminated) expense. It's important to me to update our budget at such times because what I use my budget for is to figure out how much I can direct to savings and debt repayment each month.

Basically, I enter all of our expenses into Quicken. Whatever's left can go toward savings and debt repayment. If I'm not happy with those figures, I take a closer look at our discretionary expenses and see where I can make cuts. These days, our discretionary spending is about as low as it's going to get, at least in the budget. But that's okay, because I'm pretty happy with our savings and debt repayment plans. I'm not as diligent as I probably should be about tracking expenses, but every so often I do get caught up and then I can check to see if our spending is in line with what I'd planned for. If I'm lucky, I'll see that I over-budgeted in a category and that we can increase our savings and/or debt repayment, although more often than not, over-budgets and under-budgets cancel each other out. The most important thing? Our budget works for us.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My experience with a home protection plan (aka home warranty) + an update on our washer

When we bought our townhouse, our agent made sure it came with a home warranty from American Home Shield. We had been told during the inspection that the air conditioning unit was old and would need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Sure enough, during that first year of home ownership, our air conditioner died. AHS sent out a technician who went up to the roof, saw that ours was the only unit that hadn't been replaced, and said, "You need a new one." It wasn't long before we had a new unit, which needed to be installed with the use of a crane.

It turned out that shortly before we got our new air conditioner, my in laws got a new air conditioner as well, and also needed a crane for installation. When all was said and done, they had paid many thousands for their new air conditioner and its installation. We paid a service fee of $45 and something like $90 for the disposal of the old freon.

Notwithstanding the complaints I heard from friends about the shortcomings of their home protection plan (which usually involved a "this isn't covered"), AHS seemed like a pretty good deal to us.

It's now several years later and we've had many more experiences with AHS. We don't really have any major complaints - the work that hasn't been covered is clearly stated as not covered in the written contract. And the work that has been covered has been fine. What we've discovered, though, is that there's a fair number of things that aren't covered, as stated in the contract.

The Washer Update
And then there's our washer. When I mentioned previously that we've had someone out to fix it multiple times, I was referring to someone sent out by AHS, since our washer is a covered appliance. The service fee is now $55, so each visit that's occurred more than 30 days after the last one has cost $55 (visits within 30 days of the first visit are covered by that service fee). As I said, they've been out multiple times for the same problem. The washer is very old, but it does work fine after it's been repaired, at least for a while. But even though the same technician has come out, he's never once suggested that a new washer might be in order. (Part of the warranty is that if the appliance is not repairable, they'll replace it.)

I didn't feel that I could legitimately argue with the technician that he needed to tell AHS they owe us a new washer. After all, the washer is technically repairable. But I also wasn't going to keep paying $55 every couple of months. At this point, Marc and I both reviewed the AHS contract and decided that it was no longer worth keeping. So I called AHS and was transferred to the retention department.

I explained the problem and the representative, let's call her Virginia, said she could see from their records that we had indeed requested a technician for the same problem six times in the last year. She also noted that we had been good customers for years and said she didn't want to lose us over this. She asked if I would give her a chance to see what she could do. Since there's only a couple of months left on our contract and our refund would be small, I said yes.

Virginia was supposed to call me back but didn't. I had to call her. At least she'd given me a direct number. She said that she'd spoken to several technicians and none of them could offer a good cause for the problem, except that perhaps I was improperly loading the washer and causing it to go out of balance. I told her that wasn't the case, so she said she would send me two service fee coupons and that the next time I needed a repair, I should call her directly so that she could arrange for a different technician to come out. And I could pay with one of the coupons. All of this contingent on me not canceling the contract. I agreed.

So that's where we stand now. The washer will probably need repairing in the next 3 to 6 weeks, if history is any indication. I've decided that I'll give AHS til the end of the current contract to either permanently fix the washer (which probably isn't possible, given that the contract expires in two months) or to give me a new washer. If neither of those things happens, I won't be renewing with them.

In the meantime, I've discovered that buying an Energy-Star rated washer (like the one pictured from Sears) would get me a $250 rebate from LA DWP.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One recall today (for lead - sigh!)

If you think have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

Toy Wrestler Figures Recalled by A.A. of America Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Cosco Touriva and Regal Ride car seats recalled

Certain Cosco Touriva and Regal Ride car seats manufactured from September 28, 2004 through September 20, 2007 have been voluntarily recalled because the elastic straps that secure the fabric pad to the child restraint shell may come loose and become accessible to the child, who could then loop the elastic strap around portions of his or her body.

All registered owners affected by the recall will be contacted by the manufacturer and provided with a free repair kit. If you're not a registered owner, or to see which models are affected, click through to the manufacturer's safety notice for more information.

Via Consumer Reports.

Note: This recall began in December, but I guess because it wasn't issued by the government, information was slow getting out.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Review: iRobot Roomba 4220 Discovery SE

After reading about Lazyman's Roomba a few months ago, I began thinking seriously about getting one. See, I hate vacuuming. Actually, I loathe it. And I have very little time for it. In fact, I'd be waaaaaaay too embarrassed to actually reveal how often infrequently I vacuum. The only reason I didn't have a Roomba before reading Lazyman's post was because I didn't think it would actually work. But since Lazyman seemed pleased with his, I was intrigued (and hopeful).

And then one day in November, Woot! offered a Roomba 4220for $130 with $5 shipping. I couldn't resist. Especially since someone could "give" it to us for the holidays (in fact, it's officially a gift from my in-laws).

I'm concerned that my long hair is going to create problems in the long run (I've been cutting the hair off the brushes when I remember), but overall, I'm pretty pleased. I use it in one room at a time, but that's fine because I can set it and go. I do try to clear the floor so as to get maximum coverage, although the Roomba can't get into corners. The battery life is pretty brief, only about 45 minutes to an hour, but charging time is only 2 hours, so it's not bad. On days when I'm in and out of the house, this means I can vacuum a couple of different rooms in a day, all while I'm not actually doing any of the work.

There are some major pros to the Roomba:
  • First and foremost, the Roomba is relatively effortless to use. If you stand and watch it, you'll find yourself thinking that there's no way it can cover the entire room in the seemingly illogical way it retraces its steps and covers the same ground while leaving entire patches of the room untouched. But when you return, it will be obvious that the Roomba did eventually cover the entire room.
  • The "virtual walls" work well. I use these to keep the Roomba from tumbling down the stairs. But you could also use the virtual walls simply to keep the Roomba in a contained area that you want it to focus on.
  • The Roomba can get where your upright vacuum can't reach. I don't think the area under our bed has been this clean since we first moved in.
So the pros are substantial. There are, however, quite a few cons:
  • The charging base doesn't seem to work properly. The Roomba is supposed to head back to the base when it's done but ours always seems to have trouble docking. It also didn't stay charged in the base when I left it there for a couple of days. However, there's an easy fix, which is simply to plug the a/c adapter directly into the Roomba.
  • The coverage area per use is relatively small. I had originally intended to let the Roomba do one level of our house at a time but because of the way it works, I think it's only good for one room at a time. This hasn't been a problem in terms of time, though.
  • The Roomba can't handle much deviation in surface. For example, the Roomba got stuck going from the master bedroom into the master bath, because there's about a one-inch drop from carpet to linoleum. It's not a huge problem, but I have to remember to close the bathroom door before leaving the Roomba to run in the master bedroom.
  • Long hair is supposed to be a problem and needs to be removed by hand, according to the manual, although this hasn't become a problem for us yet.
  • The Roomba can't get into corners, so I still need to break out the upright on a regular basis. But at least I can do that less often.
Before purchasing the Roomba, I read some reviews that said many owners love their Roomba like a pet and develop an emotional attachment to it. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be one of them.

But, I think the Roomba is saving me enough time from vacuuming that I am considering getting a Scooba.Like vacuuming, scrubbing my kitchen floor is something that I do embarrassingly rarely. So I think a Scooba could really improve my level of happiness since I want a sparkling clean kitchen floor. Besides, I want to improve my kitchen because it's the feng shui money center of my house. I'm going to give my Roomba a few more months to prove its worth, and if all continues to go well, I'll consider getting a Scooba - of course, only at a great price!

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Two recalls today: Coin banks and Pacifiers

If you think have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Should you use an all-cash spending plan?

Yesterday, The Happy Rock posted about his failed cash only spending experiment. Then this morning, Kacie at Sense to Save discussed how much she hates carrying cash. These two posts got me thinking about an all-cash spending plan, mostly because The Happy Rock said he was hoping to save 12-18% by switching to all cash (figures per Dave Ramsey, apparently). I've gotten comments here about the benefits of using only cash, too.

I've mentioned before that I'm currently in the "charge everything and pay off the balance in full each month" club. Since Free Money Finance and SingleMa do the same thing, I'm in good company. And Marc and I are quite responsible. Not only do we pay off our credit cards in full each month, we contribute to 401(k) plans, pay off debt (student loans and mortgage), and save money. Our spending is definitely not out of control.

But that's not to say that we couldn't spend less each month. For Alex, Christmas lasts the whole year - by which I mean, he constantly gets new toys (though many of them are from his grandparents, not us). We eat very well. And now that I'm really trying not to buy things just because they're heavily discounted, I realize how many things I've bought that I really don't need.

So I'm seriously considering an all-cash experiment. If I decide that I can/want to do it, then I'll talk to Marc and try to get him on board.

What's giving me pause? Let's go through the list:
  1. Losing credit card rewards. We have one card that we use the most, and two others that we use for certain purchases. All of them come with rewards, and I hate the thought of not getting that benefit.
  2. I don't like the thought of carrying a lot of cash. Marc and I both have small wallets. And I don't like carrying a lot of cash around because it makes me feel vulnerable. I suppose I could only carry what I think I'll need for the day and leave some at home.
  3. I hate going to the bank. I haven't used an ATM in years. I don't even know the pin for my ATM/debit card. If I need cash, I get it when I go to the bank to make a deposit. I'm afraid that going to all-cash will require extra trips to the bank, and it's not like I have any extra time these days.
  4. I don't want to be caught short. It would be humiliating to go to pay for something, only to realize I don't have enough money. I suppose I could carry a credit card for these situations, though - and try not to get into these situations in the first place!
  5. Cash doesn't carry the same kind of protection as credit cards. We wouldn't be able to dispute a charge through the credit card company if something we purchased didn't live up to expectations (though I admit, this is a rare occurrence.)
Finally, I'm not convinced we really will save money. But my gut tells me we would. And even a 10% reduction in spending would be nothing to sneeze at - 10% of our monthly discretionary expenses would be more than we earn each month in credit card rewards. I'm definitely going to have to think about this - maybe as an experiment.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Baby Food Recipe: Pureed Chicken (slow cooker method)

I know, it sounds gross. And yet, if you're making your own baby food and you don't plan on raising a vegetarian, you're probably going to need to make Pureed Chicken. Here's my method:

Pureed Chicken

1. Add 1/2 to 2 pounds of chicken tenders or boneless skinless chicken breast to a crockpot appropriate to the amount of chicken you are cooking. (Personally, I prefer to cook 1/2 pound chicken tenders in my 1.5 quart slow cooker, but I'm sure many people have a 4 quart or larger slow cooker, which will work just fine with a larger amount of chicken.) Add enough water to completely cover the chicken and cook on high for 4 to 6 hours or on low for 6 to 8 hours, until chicken is completely cooked and tender.

2. If you want the smoothest puree possible, remove the chicken from the crock to a food processor. Puree until smooth, adding as much of the cooking liquid as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Let the puree cool completely, then transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.

3. For a textured puree (which is great for getting baby used to chewing), remove the crock from the cooker and let cool for an hour. Transfer to the refrigerator until the chicken is cold. Transfer the chicken to a food processor and puree, adding cooking liquid to achieve the desired consistency. Freeze in ice cube trays or in a large plastic container (if you didn't add much of the cooking liquid, you'll be able to "chip" the frozen chicken and put the desired amount into a bowl for serving).

Note: Tyler switched to finger foods before I started letting him have seasoned food, but you could add seasoning when cooking as long as it isn't too spicy.

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Final lesson in paying off student loans: Don't let the lender steal from you

A few months ago, I gave some tips on how I'm paying off my student loans. I wanted to add a final tip to that list for when you send in the final payment if you do so early.

You see, the final payment I made on my private law school loans resulted in a slight overpayment of $1.15. I only know this because it said so when I logged on to check my account. I waited a few months, figuring the lender would eventually refund the balance. Nothing doing, even after I received the "Congratulations, you paid off your loan!" letter three months after the final payment. So I finally used their online contact form and asked them when I could expect a refund. Here's the response I got:
A request has been submitted to mail the refund to you. Please allow 7 to 9 business days for processing and mail time. Thank you, [Lender]
So here's my final tip for paying off student loans: Don't let them get away with stealing your money when you send the final payment.

While $1.15 isn't a lot of money, the total of overpayments must add up, thus the lender's hope that I would just forget/not notice the money and gift it to them via inaction. I'm so glad I don't have to have any more contact with them! (Well, I hope so - I'm still in that 7 to 9 period ...)

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

One recall today for children's trailer bikes

If you think have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

Pacific Cycle Recalls Children’s Trailer Bicycles; Can Detach from Adult Bicycle and Injure Children - Click through for additional pictures, including a detailed picture of the offending part.


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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PSA: Take your child to Disneyland before his/her third birthday

Note: This post is intended primarily for Southern California residents.

Children under three get into Disneyland for free. Alex's third birthday is a couple of months away, so we are planning on taking him for the first time before then. We were hoping for one of the really good "local resident" deals that Disneyland occasionally has, but so far there doesn't seem to be one. The best deal I can find is the "2fer", which gives you admission to both Disneyland and California Adventure on different days. We're not really interested in making two trips to Anaheim in the next couple of months so this deal doesn't really do anything for us.

Regular admission is $66 per person (3 to 9 year olds are $56). There seem to be deals if you want to stay more than one day, but of course that doesn't apply to us. I've checked Auto Club (a.k.a. AAA) as well as some other locations and simply can't find any discounts. I have a friend who works for Disney so I may call her for help.

If we end up paying full price, the total will be $132 for tickets for Marc and me, plus $11 for parking. That's just for admission and doesn't include anything we buy inside the park. We can afford this, but I do not understand how a family of four can afford to go more than once every couple of years! Although if we lived closer, I'm sure we'd consider getting annual passes with parking.

Most importantly, though, I'm looking forward to seeing the look on Alex's face when we get to Disneyland!

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Family Resolution: Use my new voice recorder

One my holiday gifts was the SanDisk Sansa e280 MP3 Player.Marc picked it because I had asked for an MP3 player, and also mentioned several times that I would love to have a digital voice recorder to capture the gems that Alex spouts on a regular basis. The voice recorder idea was inspired by an old Thingamababy post, and I was thrilled that the Sansa has a built-in recorder.

Of course, I've now had the recorder for close to a month (it was a Hanukkah gift) and have yet to use the voice recorder feature. I haven't even read the instructions for it. And there have been more than a few occasions when I've thought, I need to record that! Like when Alex was singing "Jingle Bells" every day - few things are cuter than a little boy belting out "laughing all the way" followed by "ha-ha-ha"!

So there you have my family resolution for the year: Use my voice recorder. Often. Because there are going to be memories that ought to be preserved forever.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Adjusting to feeding a family of four (already)

I knew when I gave birth to Tyler that the day would come when I couldn't believe how much my sons could eat. I just didn't expect it to be so soon. I mean, Tyler just turned one and Alex isn't even three. And yet, if I cook for four, there's pretty much nothing left over. Maybe just enough for one person. Certainly not enough for lunch for Marc and me, which used to be the case.

I know I have to adjust, but it's not as easy as it seems, mostly because I'm always pressed for time. So if I make macaroni and cheese, it's an all-in-one dish. I make it with whole wheat pasta, ground beef, carrots and spinach. Because there are veggies already in there, I rarely make a side dish, which would be the ideal way to stretch the mac and cheese. But now if I want the same amount of leftovers, my alternatives are to make more mac and cheese or to also find the time to make a side dish of veggies.

I would prefer the latter. It would be healthier and cheaper. And maybe Alex will finally eat some vegetables (he's good with fruit, not so much with veggies). Again, it's mostly the time issue that gives me pause. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that I could hardly find the time to cook anything.

Meanwhile, it blows my mind to think that this is just a taste of what's to come. Two growing boys will soon, I expect, each eat more at a meal than Marc and I eat combined. I'm going to need a bigger slow cooker and more casserole dishes!

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Review: Reynolds Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealing System

The folks at Reynolds sent me one of their Handi-Vac Vacuum Sealing Systems to test out, and I have to say, it's wonderfully easy to use. The Handi-Vac works with a special zip-top freezer bag that's easy to close. You then just put the Handi-Vac on top of the little specially marked escape hole and suck all the air out. It is a little tricky getting the sealer into the exact right position, but once it's there, it works quickly. I didn't even have to read the directions to figure out how the system works. And not-quite-three-year-old Alex was able to operate the sealer while I held the bag in position for him.

The Reynolds folks claim that "[s]toring food with the Handi-Vac System helps to preserve the texture and appearance of fresh foods by virtually eliminating freezer burn." I haven't had my pancakes in the freezer for very long, but I can tell from the lack of air in the bag and past experience that there will be less freezer burn than there would have been otherwise.

But would I actually recommend that you buy this product? It depends. For one thing, you probably don't need yet another gadget in your kitchen (I certainly didn't). And for another thing, the bags aren't cheap. Plus, unlike traditional vacuum sealers, you only have the choice of quart-size or gallon-size bags (from my understanding of traditional vacuum sealers, as gathered by watching a few infomercials over the years, you can customize the length of your bag). A box of 14 quart-size bags was $2.84 or 20.3 cents per bag (a box of 10 gallon-size bags was the same price). I can buy 40 Target brand quart-size freezer bags for $2.17, or 5.4 cents per bag. And use a straw to suck the air out of the bag - this has worked reasonably well for me in the past.

I freely admit, though, that the straw method isn't quite as effective as the Handi-Vac. And if you have a lot of trouble with freezer burn, then I think you might easily make up the cost of the bags in the amount of food you don't end up throwing out. Also, Reynolds recommends against re-using bags because of cross-contamination, but I think you could re-use bags if nothing's leaked. For example, my frozen pancakes are individually wrapped in plastic and I see no reason why I couldn't re-use the bag once all of the pancakes are gone. I have no idea if the bags are washable or if that would damage the seal, but I'll let you know if I remember to experiment (I re-use bags all the time, but I've never been converted to the Tightwad Gazettewashing crowd).

Another nice thing about the Handi-Vac compared to traditional vacuum sealers is that you can take out a portion of what's in the bag, suck the air out, and throw the remainder back into the freezer again. This works beautifully with my individually wrapped pancakes.

The bottom line: If you've been wishing for a vacuum sealer and the limited bag sizes won't be a problem for you, this is a good option. The Handi-Vac starter set, which comes with three quart-size bags, is $9.49 at my local Target.

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A heating alternative for nighttime: a heated mattress pad

We had guests stay with us over Christmas, and I was concerned about keeping them warm enough in our downstairs area while we slept upstairs. Our townhouse unfortunately has a crazy way of being significantly warmer upstairs, such that turning on the heat to make the downstairs comfortable makes the upstairs feel like a desert. In fact, living in Southern California, we really only use our heater for 20 to 30 minute stretches a couple times a week to give the downstairs area a little bit of help warming up first thing in the morning.

But sleeping downstairs all night is a different matter from coming down in the morning. I was toying with the idea of a space heater, despite the safety concerns, when I read this post over at Money Changes Things, recommending a heated mattress padas a means of keeping heating costs down.

I loved the idea and immediately ordered one. And my guests loved it too. They turned it on a little while before they got into bed, and if it was really cold, kept it on low all night. It was especially nice in the morning, when temperatures hit their daily low. I've packed the mattress pad away until we have overnight visitors again, but wanted to suggest this method to anyone looking for an alternative means of keeping warm at night.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Make Cookie Monster Cupcakes

A while back, I posted this picture and said they'd be great for a toddler birthday.


Well, they were. I made them for Tyler's birthday party and I wish I could say that they looked like this (insert picture here) but alas, I failed to take a single picture of the adorable cupcakes that I made. I am thinking of making just one more so that Tyler will have a picture in his keepsake box. I do what I can to take away his "shortchanged second child" ammunition, because really, he's not.

In meantime, I can at least tell you how to make these. You'll need:

Cupcakes (I used vanilla, but I think any flavor/color will work)
Buttercream frosting
White frosting (you could go with all white and skip the buttercream if you want)
Blue sprinkles
Chocolate chips
Medium-size chocolate chip cookies, broken in half or thirds, or bite-size cookies

1. Frost the top of the cupcake. (I made a buttercream frosting for this, but you could use your favorite canned frosting, no problem.)

2. With a knife, cut a slit in the top of each cupcake, about one-third of the way from one side, to form the mouth.

3. Cover the frosting with blue sprinkles.

4. Put the white frosting in a bag fitted with a medium round or star tip (or simply do what I did and buy white frosting in a tube). Put two dollops of white frosting on the top of the cupcake opposite from the mouth.

5. Push one chocolate chip into each dollop of white frosting, tip first, to complete the eyes.

6. Insert a cookie piece into the mouth.

Photo credit: princess_of_llyr

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Minimizing my taxes in 2008

I know, I know, it's January 3. But I don't need to worry about my 1040 right now because I have all of my documents in one place (I'll post more about that some other time), and all I really have to do is wait for our W-2s, 1099s, etc. to arrive in the mail.

So in the meantime, I'm turning my thoughts to 2008 taxes. I'm sure my CPA will be less than thrilled when I call to make an appointment and say that I want to discuss strategy and planning. I know this is the start of his (extremely) busy season. Or maybe I'm wrong and he'll actually be happy to do some planning with me, knowing that it'll make things easier in the long run.

In any event, I'm convinced that we could reduce the amount we pay in taxes, I'm just not sure how to do it with our current financial goals. So I want to meet with our accountant and talk about it. It'll be a lot easier to make adjustments to our tax bill if we have the entire year ahead of us than if we only have a few months.

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First recall of the year: Toy wagons covered in lead paint

If you think have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

Toy Wagons Recalled by Tricam Industries Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Readers solve my problem with a simple solution: A timer

Invariably, when I ask a question here, I get such thoughtful, helpful answers from you all reading out there, and it makes me so happy to be a part of this wonderful online community. Actually, this last time, I wasn't even asking a question. I was just sharing my second financial resolution for 2008, which is passing up great deals on things I don't need. I gave the example of a fancy rice cooker that was nearly 70% off and had a timer, a feature I've found myself wanting.

Jenn from Frugal Upstate and Tracy both (brilliantly) suggested that I simply plug my current rice cooker into a timer like this one.

It turns out I didn't even have to go out and buy one. We haven't used them in years, but Marc and I did use some once upon a time to turn our lights on when we went on extended vacations. Marc even found one that was still in its package. It now has a happy home in my kitchen! Thanks, Jenn and Tracy!

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