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Friday, February 29, 2008

Are you concerned about inflation yet?

I'm starting to be. Mostly because I went to Target and picked up a couple of staple toiletries that I haven't bought in several months. The store brand contact lens solution was $5.99 for two 12-oz. bottles - up from about $4.34 at the beginning of January. Neutrogena body wash (the orange kind with salicylic acid) was also $5.99. It was $4.99 the last time I bought a bottle.

Plus MetaMommy tells me that the price of flour is rising dramatically. Add that to the rising cost of milk and eggs, and we're talking noticeable budget adjustments.

I'll post about how to cope with these rising costs after I've gotten some sleep.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

One recall today for Munire Furniture cribs + a crib safety warning

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

Munire Furniture Recalls Cribs Due to Fall Hazard - The recall includes the following models: Majestic Curved Top and Flat Top Cribs, Essex Cribs, Brighton/Sussex Cribs and Captiva Cribs. Click through for pictures of all recalled models.



Today, the CPSC also issued a press release on crib safety. They emphasize the following points:
  • To reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation, place baby to sleep on his or her back in a crib that meets current safety standards.
  • To prevent suffocation never use a pillow as a mattress for baby to sleep on or to prop baby’s head or neck.
  • Infants can strangle to death if their bodies pass through gaps generated between loose components, broken slats and other parts of the crib and their head and neck become entrapped in the space.
  • Do not use old, broken or modified cribs.
  • Regularly tighten hardware to keep sides firm.
  • Infants can suffocate in spaces generated between the sides of the crib and an ill fitted mattress; never allow a gap larger than two fingers at any point between the sides of the crib and the mattress.
  • Never place a crib near a window with blind or curtain cords; infants can strangle on curtain or blind cords.
  • Properly set up play yards according to manufacturers’ directions. Only use the mattress provided with the play yard. Do not add extra mattresses, pillows or cushions to the play yard, which can cause a suffocation hazard for infants.
  • Routinely check nursery products against CPSC recall lists and remove recalled products from your home.
  • Sign-up for automatic e-mail recall notifications at www.cpsc.gov.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Calculating my non-cash charitable contributions - and trying something new in 2008

I am nearly done with the tax organizer that our accountant sent us. There are only two things left to do, and I am waiting to hear back from our accountant before I do one of them. I'm dreading the other thing, however - namely, calculating our non-cash charitable contributions.

I've written before about how I log every item donated before it goes into a bag and out the door. Unfortunately, knowing what I donated and putting a dollar value on it are not the same thing. And over the course of a year, we donate hundreds, if not thousands, of items. I have a long list of shirts, pants, books, kitchen goods, and other items that we donated throughout the year. Now I have to give everything a fair market value, and add it all up. Ugh!

An anonymous comment on last year's post recommended DeductionTraQ, a free service for tracking donations. It apparently uses eBay sales prices to determine FMV. I'm going to give it a try for 2008 - I'm hoping it will be a gift to my future self (i.e., the self who will be in exactly the same position one year from today).

In the meantime, I have no choice but to go through all the receipts and lists and draw up a list for our accountant (some of it is done, otherwise I would try DeductionTraQ right now). The good news is, we donated more than ever this year, so we'll be getting a nice deduction when it's all done.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

We'll be buying that new car soon (and financing it)

So much for my goal of paying cash for a new car later this year. However, we think we've made a good decision to go ahead and buy a new car now (or in the next month or so). The biggest factor is that our 1997 Honda Accord needs some work if we're going to drive it for the rest of the year. So rather than spend $1,000 on a car that we're only keeping for a few more months, we've decided that it makes sense to just trade it in and buy a new car now.

As I've mentioned before, we've had a hard time deciding what car to buy. Nothing has strongly appealed to us, though we eliminated SUVs and minivans from consideration due to their higher fuel consumption. We're happy with our 2003 Nissan Altima, so we're going to test drive a 2008 model and if we like it, we'll end up with a second Altima in our garage. Fortunately, the 2008 model looks a little different from the 2003, so it's not like we're buying the exact same car. Marc took a look at the hybrid version of the Altima but discovered that it has half the trunk space, which would be a problem for us.

I've been studying the tips in the car-buying series at Gather Little by Little, and at his recommendation, went to Edmunds.com. I priced out a V-6 model with no bells and whistles - it comes to $23,211, which includes a $1,000 cash back rebate with dealer financing at 3.9%. I plan to finance $19,000, which will give us a monthly payment of about $350 for 5 years. Then I'll put the money that we had saved up for the car purchase and make a large payment toward the principal on my remaining student loan (the interest on that loan is higher than 3.9%). We'll still have both loans paid off within two years, at which point we'll be debt-free except for our mortgage.

As a side note, I asked Marc about getting a 2007 Altima, since it would come with 1.9% dealer financing. But he pointed out that the car would have been sitting around for at least a year, and quite possibly baking in the sun (the first dealership we plan to go to has at least two storage lots where the cars are parked outside, and the Southern California summer sun is intense). Plus the difference in total interest paid would be negligible, particularly in light of the fact that the loan will be paid off within two years. So we'll go with the 2008 model.

Image credit: Edmunds.com.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another egg price update

I never expected to be giving weekly updates on the price of eggs, but after discussing it twice now (here and here), I might as well mention that after last week's sticker shock of $1.69 per dozen, the price this week dropped a little bit to $1.49.

So, it's not as good as it was originally at $1.19, but still better than $1.69!

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Two recalls today: necklaces and dart boards

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, February 21, 2008

Recent Recipe: Cooking Light's Waldorf Slaw

I've been cooking quite a bit lately. Doing a weekly menu helps, though some weeks I am more organized than others (hopefully Unclutter's worksheet will help in that regard). My challenges include:
  • No spicy dishes (so the boys can eat too).
  • No nut ingredients, unless added at the end as a topping (to prevent food allergies in the boys, especially Tyler since he's still so young).
  • Marc must have variety.
  • Animal protein is preferred, especially my little carnivore (who ate a huge serving of meatloaf tonight).
I will occasionally make something just for Marc and me, particularly a side dish. This slaw was one of those dishes, and I liked it so much, I ate almost all of the leftovers by myself.

Waldorf Slaw from CookingLight.com
Makes 10 1-cup servings

2 cups chopped Braeburn apple (about 1 large apple) (I used a Gala apple, since that is our preferred apple when it comes to taste.)
1 cup chopped peeled Bartlett pear (about 1 pear) (I used a D'Anjou pear, because that was what we had on hand.)
1/2 cup raisins
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 (16-ounce) package cabbage-and-carrot coleslaw (I used a broccoli slaw, since I don't like cabbage that much, and it was fantastic. I also added some shredded carrots.)
1/2 cup low-fat mayonnaise
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (Use a Meyer lemon if you can find one!)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Combine mayonnaise, buttermilk, rind, juice, salt, and pepper, stirring well with a whisk. Drizzle mayonnaise mixture over cabbage mixture, and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Note: I combined the wet ingredients and spices in a bowl the night before, then added the apple, pear, slaw, carrots, and raisins when I got home from work and let it marinate while I finished dinner. It would be fine to make it the night before though, since it was even more delicious the next day.

CALORIES 89(33% from fat); FAT 3.3g (sat 0.6g,mono 0.3g,poly 1.1g); PROTEIN 1.7g; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 44mg; SODIUM 187mg; FIBER 1.2g; IRON 0.5mg; CARBOHYDRATE 15.4g

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Improving My Personal Finance Management: Learning about income-producing investments

NCN of No Credit Needed has asked readers, What One Area Of Your Personal Finance Management Would You Like To Improve?. My answer came immediately: investments.

I think we have a solid grasp on budgeting, spending, saving, and paying off debt. The one place where we could use a lot of improvement is investments. Mostly short and mid-term investments, or as I sometimes like to think of them, income-producing investments. Because we're doing fine with retirement and even college savings, where the timeline is over 15 years (goodness, it is possible that Alex will be heading off to college in "only" 15 years?!).

So what I'd really like is an alternative income stream, something unrelated to our jobs that produces a fair amount of money each month. But my investing knowledge is mostly about short-term, liquid investments where the focus is on preserving capital (like CDs) and long-term investments (like index funds).

I'm lacking knowledge in the intermediate range, however. I don't think it should be too hard to learn about mutual funds that focus on generating income as well as growth, since I already know a fair amount about how mutual funds work. But I'd like to learn more about tax-exempt funds, as well as other instruments (like Treasury securities and TIPS). My learning process will probably be slow, just because of my schedule, but I'll post updates when there's something to share.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the price of eggs, generally

Thanks so much to everyone who commented on my update about the price of eggs out here in Los Angeles. It's so interesting to learn what eggs cost throughout the country. One thing is clear: the price has gone up everywhere.

So I did a quick search and discovered this January 8 article asserting that the price increase is due to a reduced supply and increased demand. The gist is that farmers are reducing the number of chickens to comply with (voluntary) increases in cage space, some farms have closed, and people are eating more eggs. I know that I buy a lot more eggs now than I did a few years ago, and it's not all because I have more mouths to feed.

I just posted a poll over at CFO Reviews, so I'm going to post one here, too (if you're reading this via RSS, please click through to the post to vote):
Has the increased price of eggs changed your grocery shopping or menu planning?
Absolutely
Not at all
I haven't really thought about the price of eggs
Ew, eggs are gross!
  
pollcode.com free polls

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Two recalls today: Cinderella car and Spiderman water bottles

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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Reconsidering Prosper - Thinking about Lending Club

When I first started thinking about becoming a P2P (person to person) lender, the only place to do it was Prosper. Then Lending Club came along, but I figured the two would be much the same. And now that I've set aside the money I'm going to lend, I figured I'd just go with Prosper since I'm already an affiliate there.

Then I read this post from The Dough Roller and realized that the two companies aren't necessarily the same and that rates and fees can vary - sometimes significantly. Obviously, more comparison is warranted.

Fortunately, I have a pretty good idea of type of borrower I want to lend to (I'll be going with relatively low risk borrowers since I've read that default rates get pretty high with the higher risk borrowers - unsurprisingly). I'm going to use the info provided by DR to compare rates and fees on the type of loans I would be comfortable making before I decide which company to go with. I may even diversify my risk and lend with both companies.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

We bought a new washer and paid 35% less than MSRP

As I've discussed previously, our washer was going to need replacing sooner rather than later. It turned out to be later than I thought it was going to be, and for a new problem rather than the one that had a repairman at our house six times last year. Two Fridays ago, the tub simply stopped spinning. It was time to get a new washer.

Marc and I had previously discussed where we would buy our washer when the time came. We had ruled out Best Buy and Circuit City, based on all of the negative experiences we've read across the web, and we weren't crazy about Sears either (even though we bought a new fridge from them last year without a problem). It just so happened that earlier in the week, I had read some comments on where to buy a new appliance on this thread at The Consumerist, and the numerous suggestions on buying from a locally owned store persuaded me that was the way to go.

So the next day we went to a fairly large local store, where my in laws had purchased all new kitchen appliances a year or two ago. I asked some questions, narrowed our choices down to two models, one GE and one Maytag, and asked the salesman to write the model numbers down so I could research them. That night, we looked the models up online and found many complaints about the GE and few about the Maytag. So even though the Maytag cost $220 more, we decided to go with the Maytag. I went back to the store on Sunday and made the purchase (they don't do phone orders). The store's price was also the MSRP: $999. Because they didn't have any in stock, the salesman gave me the choice of ordering it and waiting until Saturday for delivery or buying the floor model at a $70 discount. (Note: I probably should have taken FMF's advice and asked if he could do better.) I really didn't want to go a whole week without a washer, and I liked the discount, so I took the floor model. It was delivered this past Wednesday and seems to work fine - I'll post a review of it after I've used it for a while.

Because it's a high-efficiency model, the washer is eligible for a $250 rebate from LA DWP and a $35 rebate from The Southern California Gas Co. That reduces the original price of $999 to $644. I'm considering the cost as charged to our tax rebate.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Price of Eggs

One thing Meredith and I talked about during our interview was the price of eggs. I was shocked to learn that the dozen I bought for $1.19 would go for more than $1.95 in her part of the country.

Well, when I went to Trader Joe's this week, I found myself in front of the egg case with two other women. All of us stared at the pricing sign, which now said:
$1.69

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

An open plea to the neighbors who ended up with our mail: please return it, pronto!

I feel bad for J.D. of Get Rich Slowly - a couple of days ago, someone stole some mail from his mailbox. Unfortunately, I can relate only too well to how he's feeling. You see, sometime last week, our mail carrier put our tax organizer package sent by our accountant in one of neighbor's mailboxes.

At least, I'm surmising that's what happened to the package (I'll call it a package but it's really a thick envelope). I know it was sent out on the 5th and that it hasn't arrived yet. I've double checked with our accountant to make sure they sent it to the right address. Our mailbox is in a communal area, and apparently the mail hasn't been delivered by our regular carrier lately since there have been lots of envelopes left out for the rightful addressee.

Normally, I wouldn't worry so much, but the package apparently contains one document that lists our social security numbers. I'm not sure why the accountant sent the package to our house since they have our PO Box on file too. Of course, as I've mentioned, we haven't been impressed by the woman who took over from our last accountant. It's looking more and more like we'll be looking for someone else to handle our accounting matters for us next year.

In the meantime, I want to say to the neighbors who ended up with our mail:
I don't want to believe that one of our neighbors would commit identity theft. I want to believe that you've simply thrown your mail into a pile and not sorted through it yet, and haven't realized that you're sitting on something important to us. Please return the package to us, unopened, so that I don't have to worry for eternity that our social security numbers are out there for some enterprising unethical thief to have wreak havoc with. Let me also say, in the nicest way possible, that if you do decide to engage in criminal behavior with the information in that package, I will do everything I can to see that you are prosecuted and sent to jail. So please, just return the *$(& package!
Update: I'm feeling a little foolish now. The package postmarked February 5 arrived today, several hours after I published this post. I don't understand why it takes the USPS 10 days to deliver something from Santa Monica, but I'm very relieved to know that our social security numbers aren't compromised. Whew!

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Good customer service from Sharebuilder

I posted a few months ago about buying my first individual stock purchase - a tiny fraction of Berkshire Hathaway that I bought through Sharebuilder. At the time, Sharebuilder was offering a $90 bonus to Costco's Executive level members, which we are. The bonus was actually my main motivation for buying the stock, since essentially the stock was free. The only problem was, we never got the bonus.

Calling Sharebuilder about the bonus has been on my to-do list for a couple of weeks now, but today I finally realized I could use their online contact form so I sent them a quick email explaining the problem. Within a few hours, I had the following response:
Thank you for contacting us about Costco cash card you never received. We have credited your account with $90, that you are free to use in any way you wish.
I was close to writing off the $90 just because I didn't want to deal with the hassle of contacting them, but it turned out to be painless and worth the effort. I've withdrawn the $90 and will be using the money to fund my first Prosper loan. Stay tuned!

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Follow-up to my interview with Meredith

I've unfortunately been too busy to listen to the entire podcast of my interview with Meredith of Like Merchant Ships and expand on what Meredith and I talked about, and I know there were many things I wanted to add! But rather than make you wait, I'll offer some thoughts now from memory, and later I'll give you some of the finer points that have escaped me for the moment.

On balancing work & family
This is the hardest part of my life, and I'm actually quite lucky in that I have a well-paying job that still gives me a pretty decent quality of life. In fact, I probably have the best quality of life of any attorney I know, although I've limited my opportunities for career advancement in exchange. I do think it's important to not try to have it all. Five years ago, I wouldn't have been able to imagine that I wouldn't care that much about my career. The turning point for me came when I had two miscarriages and put having a child ahead of work. I realized that I didn't miss the importance of work and have been happy about my priorities ever since.

On grocery shopping & budgeting
I mentioned in the interview that I shop off a list at the market but that I could save more money if I considered what I have on hand before making my weekly menu. Part of the reason I shop the way I do is that we are frugal but money isn't particularly tight, i.e., I don't have to watch every penny. If I did, I would plan out my shopping in much greater detail. Instead, I budget primarily to meet a savings goal. However, I did learn in January that I can probably increase my monthly savings amount by controlling my impulse spending.

On being a part of an online community
We only briefly touched on the subject of the support we get from our online friends, but I think it's safe to say that both Meredith and I really enjoy being a part of an online community. Personally, I can't say enough about how much I've learned from my readers and other bloggers, and how much I enjoy sharing my own knowledge in return. And especially because I blog about money, which is a sensitive topic for most people, I have greatly enjoyed forming online friendships with people who share similar values. I think it's one of the very best things about blogging!

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

One recall today: girl's bracelet for lead

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

Mission City Press Recalls Girl's Bracelet Sets 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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Inexpensive Valentine's Day gift: hidden hearts

If you need a last-minute gift idea today, this is for you. I picked this idea up years ago over at The Dollar Stretcher. It's inexpensive, easy, and keeps on giving:

Cut out as many hearts as you feel like making out of red construction paper or any paper that you have on hand. (Don't remember how? Fold a piece of paper and cut the shape of a half heart on the folded edge. Unfold and you have a heart-shaped piece of paper.) On each heart, write down something you love about your sweetie. Here are some examples:
  • I love your laugh
  • I love waking up next to you
  • I love the way you change all the poopy diapers
Then hide the hearts in all the places your sweetie will find them - in a coat pocket, a shoe, a drawer, the computer keyboard, etc. He or she probably won't find them all at once, so the gift will keep on giving for a while.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

One recall today: More drawstrings

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

Boys’ Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Recalled by Siegfried & Parzifal Due to Strangulation Hazard

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

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My Lenten Resolution: Be Kinder

For those who don't know, Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Scripturally, it is the time when Jesus resisted Satan's temptations out in the desert. Therefore, it is customary for Catholics (I'm not sure about other Christian denominations) to make a sacrifice during Lent to remind themselves of Christ's sacrifices.

When I was younger, I made the common sacrifice of not eating chocolate. For someone who loves chocolate as much as I do, this is no small sacrifice. But at the same time, I never felt like a better person for it.

Throughout the last ten years or so, more often than not, I haven't done anything for Lent at all. But this year, I resolved to be a kinder, gentler person. My starting point was to spend a little time every day reading Richard Carlson's book, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.

The chapters are all two to three pages (and the dimensions of the book itself are pretty small). This makes it easy for me to read in small pockets of time, like when I'm brushing my teeth. And I've found that the book centers me - it reminds me of what's important and what I want to prioritize.

For example: Being kind relieves stress, and eliminating stress is more important than being right. We recently took Alex to Disneyland (more on that in another post) and we found ourselves in line behind a family of three - a mother, a father, and their young daughter, about four years old. A minute or two later, another family of three appeared behind us - a grandmother and her two grandsons, the younger grandson also appearing to be about four years old. Within minutes, the young boy had slipped in front of Alex and me and was holding hands with the girl. It turned out that the families had waited together at an earlier ride and the kids had immediately become attached to each other.

For about five minutes (we were in line for a while), I waited for the family in front of us to tell Alex and me that we should go ahead of them. That way the kids could be together and the adults wouldn't be talking past us, and Alex and I wouldn't have the grandmother and her older grandson invading our personal space from behind. But it became clear that the family in front had no intention of yielding their place in line. Yet it was stressing me out that the grandmother and her older grandson were practically on top of Alex and me in order to keep up with the younger grandson. So I told them to go in front of us.

Part of me felt "wronged" by the family that had been in front of us. But I made it easier for that grandmother to keep up with her grandson, and I was lot less stressed once Alex and I were out of the situation. In this case, being kind and giving up a couple minutes of waiting time made me feel a whole lot better. I think practicing this kind of behavior will make me a better person and a better Christian, and after all, that's what Lent is all about.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Money-Saving Tip: Read the inserts that come with your bills

I highly recommend that you read - or at least skim - every insert that comes with your bills. If you've gone paperless, there should be a link to the inserts that would have been included when you're logged into your account.

The inserts include helpful information that you need to know: fee increases or decreases (granted, these are less frequent but they do happen - I noticed a few months ago that my bank no longer charges for American Express gift cheques); changes in insurance policy coverage for insurance bills; the length of any grace period in which you have to pay your bill, etc.

In my case, I just noticed that our natural gas provider offers a $35 rebate on Energy-Star rated washers. Before this, I was only aware of the LA DWP rebate. The DWP rebate is significantly more ($250) but $35 is hardly negligible.

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One recall today: Toy helo

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

Remote-Controlled Helicopter Toys Recalled By Soft Air USA Due to Fire and Burn Hazards - 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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Monday, February 11, 2008

5 Ways to Securely Dispose of Your Canceled Credit Cards

The following is a guest post from Heather Johnson, a freelance business, finance and credit writer, as well as a regular contributor for BusinessCreditCards.com, a site for comparing business credit card offers. She welcomes questions, comments, and freelancing job inquiries at heatherjohnson2323@gmail.com. If you're interested in publishing a guest post on CFO, send me an email at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you switch credit cards or simply just close a credit card account, it’s important to dispose of your old credit cards properly. Otherwise, your private financial information could be compromised, ending up in the hands of thieves and setting you up for identity theft. Cutting or shredding your cards is not enough these days; you have to get creative to ensure that your cards have been completely destroyed. Here are 5 ways to do it.
  1. Use a microwave: Cook your card in the microwave with a glass of water for about 30 seconds. This will only destroy the embedded smart chip, so you’ll need to cut up and shred the card afterwards. Remember to throw the pieces out on alternate trash days.
  2. Beat it: Use a hammer to break the chip to powder. You have to do this thoroughly to prevent thieves from putting the chip back together. Make sure you wear protective eye gear so that the pieces don’t fly into your eyes.
  3. Heat works: Throw the card in the fire or in your barbecue and roast it for a while. The card and chip will both be destroyed. Or, run a hot iron over the chip and card to melt them and destroy the information they hold.
  4. Blend it: Your blender is good for more than just margaritas. It can destroy your credit cards, too. Blend unwanted cards to small bits before throwing them out.
  5. Lock them up: Put all of your unwanted cards in a box and lock it up in a safe deposit box at your bank. To be even more cautious, cut up the cards to bits before you take them to the bank.
If you're interested in destroying your credit cards, you may also enjoy this post at BeingFrugal.net. - Ed.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Welcome Like Merchant Ships Readers!

I had a blast being interviewed by Meredith at Like Merchant Ships yesterday. She's posted the podcast at Frugal Conversations. You can listen to the podcast on your computer by clicking the "play" arrow, or download it by clicking the widget to get to the Blog Talk Radio site. I've discovered that I like to download the podcasts and load them onto my mp3 player so I can listen to them whenever I want.

If you've found Chief Family Officer for the first time via the podcast, WELCOME! As Meredith mentioned, my favorite topics to discuss are family finances, cooking, and parenting. I'm a mother of two young boys and also work full-time as an attorney. I've been blogging since June 2005, when my oldest son was just a couple of months old, so my blogging reflects the changes in our lives as my sons grow up. For example, I started off by posting a lot about breastfeeding, but more recently I've discussed potty training.

Here are some posts that I think Like Merchant Ships readers will enjoy:If you like what you see here at CFO, please consider subscribing to new posts via RSS or email. You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. Thanks!

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Caring for your child's teeth

February is National Children's Dental Health Month, so the folks at Oral B have asked me to share some information with you. Here's what they have to say about cleaning your child's teeth:
Children’s oral health needs differ throughout their childhood, so parents need to encourage good habits early on. Teaching healthy oral care early in a child’s life will make for happy smiles in the future.
When to Begin:
  • Clean newborn baby’s gums with a damp washcloth following feedings to prevent the buildup of plaque, bacteria that accumulate on teeth and cause decay.
  • When their child’s first teeth appear, parents should brush them for two minutes twice a day to begin instilling the recommended regimen, focusing on the teeth that conduct most of the chewing and back teeth where cavities often first develop.
  • To make brushing a fun experience, brush with your child to set a good example, and sing a song or recite a nursery rhyme for two minutes to help along the brushing process.
  • Visit the dentist when children’s first teeth come in. A good rule of thumb is: "First visit by first birthday."
Why is it important to take care of your child's teeth from infancy? Because more than 50 percent of five to nine year-old children have at least one cavity or filling.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Podcast interview coming soon!

I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by one of my favorite bloggers, Meredith of Like Merchant Ships, earlier today. We chatted about the All Cash Spending Experiment, grocery shopping, parenting and more. I was shocked to learn that eggs in her part of the country are up to $1.95 per dozen - I pay $1.19 at Trader Joe's.

I'll let you know when Meredith has posted a link to the podcast on her sister blog, Frugal Conversations. And then I'll take a page out of the book of Jenn at Frugal Upstate and post all the things I wish I'd said.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

How to keep your baby warm at night

Having just posted about not putting anything in your child's crib except for your child, I thought I would share how I keep Tyler warm at night. Even here in Southern California, the temperature does get chilly. It's often in the 30's when we wake up, which I realize is warm compared to some parts of the country but if you live there, you probably have your heater on at night while I don't.

The secret to keeping Tyler warm is simple: layers. He usually sleeps in three layers. A footless Gerber-brand thermal sleeper goes on first. This is pretty fitted so it really hugs his body. Second is a footed fleece Gerber-brand sleeper in size 12 months. Third is the same fleece sleeper but in size 18 months.

If it's warmer than usual, we stop at the second layer. If it's colder than usual, I add a fleece Halo sleepsackover the third layer. If your child has outgrown a sleepsack but isn't ready for a blanket, you might try out a Big Kids sleepsack.I haven't needed it, but I would put Tyler in a onesie before putting him in the thermal if it were extra cold.

Finally, flannel sheets are another way of making things warmer in the crib without extraneous items. Unfortunately, I tried flannel sheets last winter but the only ones I could find were elasticized at the corners only instead of all the way around and made me nervous. If you're looking for fully elasticized flannel sheets, reader Carol M recommends the ones at Land's End. If I'd known about them last year, I definitely would have bought a pair, but since I'm not sure if Tyler will be sleeping in a crib next winter, I'm going to hold off for now.

Question for readers: What are your tips for keeping your baby warm at night?

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

PSA: Don't put a Boppy in your child's crib

I was horrified to read this post from Consumer Reports, which says that in 2006, three children in one county died due to the improper use of a crescent-shaped pillow in their crib. As someone who hesitated about using crib bumpers (and used only breathable bumpers), it's never occurred to me to put anything in my children's cribs except my children.

But I couldn't help noticing that one of the moms at Tyler's daycare put a Boppy in her daughter's crib when her daughter was about a year old. Her daughter slept on her stomach with her head and shoulders on the Boppy. I cringed inwardly but I'm not good friends with the girl's mother, so I didn't feel comfortable saying anything. Fortunately, this girl has moved into the next room and no longer naps in a crib at daycare.

This seems like a good time to emphasize the importance of an empty crib. As the American SIDS Institute says, "There should be nothing in the [crib] but the baby - no covers, no pillows, no bumper pads, no positioning devices and no toys." For more tips on preventing SIDS, visit their web site.

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Two recalls today: jewelry and egg-shakers

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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How much discretionary spending do you plan for each month?

So I mentioned previously that we spent about $500 less than we usually do by not buying things just because they're a great deal. And I know that can seem like a crazy number for impulse purchases, so I wanted to explain that this includes things like diapers on sale and stocking up on things we already have plenty of at home.

I was shocked to see how those numbers add up. After all, my "impulse" purchases are often for practical things. Yet I talked myself out of buying clothes for the boys. I talked myself out of buying things on clearance that I might be able to use, including toys that might have been good birthday gifts. I didn't buy things that caught my eye just because "it would be nice to have them on hand." And my menu planning also helped to ensure that I didn't buy much that I wasn't going to use.

I have also made it a priority to declutter my house, and so I try not to bring in things that aren't consumable. That certainly helps keep purchases down as well. It now seems realistic that I can decrease my discretionary spending by at least $250 per month. I can certainly think of many other things to do with that $250 per month - not least of which is to add it to our new car fund!

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Two recalls: sketchbook and sweatshirts

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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Recall: Evenflo Discovery Infant Car Seats

Before I get into the details of this recall: Does anyone know where I can sign up for car seat recall notices? I've checked the NHTSA page on child safety seat recalls but not only does there not appear to be a way to sign up for an RSS feed or email notification, there doesn't even seem to be a current list. Maybe I'm just missing something that someone can point out to me?

In the meantime, Evenflo is voluntarily recalling one million Discovery Infant Car Seats (models 390, 391, 534, and 552). Manufacturer and NHTSA tests show the car seat can "potentially become separated from its base in high impact side collisions similar to those in the tests." If you have one of the recalled car seats, Evenflo is offering a "free supplemental dual-hook fastener that has proven that the seat remains attached to the base in the event of such collisions." For more information, including how to obtain the dual-hook fastener, see the official notice.

Via Baby Bargains Book Blog and Consumer Reports.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

One recall today: Toy rake (lead)

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

Children’s Toy Gardening Rakes Recalled by Downeast Concepts; Violates Lead Paint Standard



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

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I'm considering re-financing our mortgage

The recent rate cuts got me thinking about re-financing our mortgage (and I'm not the only one). We're a few years into our 30-year fixed rate mortgage so rates would have to drop quite low in order for us to end up paying less total interest than we would pay with our current mortgage, assuming we re-financed to a new 30-year fixed rate mortgage. A 15-year mortgage is out of the question since it would raise our monthly payment, something I'm not interested in at this time.

However, I came up with a scenario that makes re-financing quite attractive. It looks like we could save thousands over the years by refinancing now at a lower rate and then paying the same amount we pay on our current mortgage. Here's an example:
  • Current mortgage payment: $1200 - Total interest paid after 30 years: $120,000; interest paid to date: $30,000
  • Mortgage payment after refi: $1000 - Total interest paid after 30 years: $100,000; total interest paid if monthly payment is $1200: $80,000
Obviously, I've made up these convenient numbers, but the bottom line is that paying the basic monthly payment after a refi in this scenario would result in total interest paid of $130,000 versus $120,000 without the refi. However, continuing to pay $1200 per month after the refi results in total interest paid of only $110,000. That's basically the position we'll be in if we can get a good rate now.

The problem is that mortgage rates have been going up. And we wouldn't benefit from a refi at the current rates. But now that I'm aware of this scenario and there's a possibility that rates might go down, I'll be keeping an eye on rates and ready to pounce if they drop far enough.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

The All Cash Spending Experiment is over (yes, already)

Well, that was short-lived. We didn't even make it through the first weekend before throwing up our arms and giving up on the All Cash Spending Experiment. The big reason the experiment failed, as my husband put it, is because spending only cash saves money by making you miserable. His sentiment actually reminded me of a comment left by Living Almost Large, who said that she was unhappy spending only cash because she was such a tightwad, spent nothing and ate the cheapest meals possible.

For us, the biggest problem wasn't that we were too cheap to spend money. The problem was that there was too much effort required to spend money at all. We almost always have one or more of the kids with us, which it makes it darn near impossible to count bills. Which meant that we quickly accumulated wads of one dollar bills and handfuls of change. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. We both carry small wallets and found it difficult to pull out the appropriate bills in a timely fashion. And it was impossible to stuff all of the bills into my wallet. Plus we both hate carrying change in our pockets.

Another difficulty was that because I had a one-year-old with me when I went grocery shopping, I completely forgot to total up the cost of the items as I added them to my cart. I had a ballpark figure in my head based on what was on my list and how full my cart was, and I actually came within $2 of the amount. But the All Cash Spending Experiment didn't factor into my shopping at all, and just made paying for the groceries more complicated and stressful.

It won't be a factor since we've ended the experiment already, but one problem that arose initially is that we didn't have enough cash in our checking account to last the month. Because we pay for almost everything with a credit card and then pay the credit card balance off in full each billing cycle, we essentially get a no-interest loan from the credit card company each month. Therefore, our monthly budget is set up to pay the credit card bill and other monthly bills, and to transfer a set amount into savings each month. Well, as of February 1, we had only a fraction of the amount in our checking account that I expected us to spend for the month. I have some "extra" checks coming in later this month that I would have used to cover at least part of the difference, and I could have dipped into savings if we'd needed it. But I just thought I'd point this problem out in case anyone who's in a similar situation decides to try the All Cash Spending Experiment for him or herself.

I'm still happy we tried the experiment, even if it was a total failure. I would have always wondered "what if" if we hadn't. And it helps a lot that I discovered in January that my resolution not to buy things just because they're on sale paid off to the tune of approximately $500. That's about how much less we spent on discretionary expenses than we normally do. It's not all me, of course. It's a team effort to diligently try not to spend money on impulse purchases. So we proved to ourselves that we don't need an All Cash Spending Plan to save money.

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Responsible money management is not about affordable payments

This post at I've Paid for This Twice Already on "The ‘Can We Afford The Payments' Mentality" got me thinking. Back in 2003, when Marc and I bought our first car together, we divided the responsibilities as follows: Marc did the technical research, deciding what kind of car we should get and what a reasonable price was; I handled the financing research.

I knew enough about car buying and money management to know that the most important thing was the total price of the car, not the monthly payment. So I repeatedly fended off the salesman's efforts to get me to quote an acceptable monthly payment. Even though I knew I wanted a payment of approximately $350, I never uttered that figure to him. He was so frustrated when I told him for the third or fourth time that I simply wanted to know what the total cost of the car would be that I knew most people must not hesitate to say what monthly payment they can afford.

In 2003, when we bought the car, I thought we were doing pretty well when it came to money. We got a great price on the car, our good credit got us the extremely low interest rate of 1.9% on the loan, and our monthly payment was less than $365. The thing is, it never occurred to me to buy a car without a monthly payment.

Admittedly, back in 2003, we probably couldn't have afforded to pay cash for a new car unless we saved for a couple of years (and we really needed a new car then). We didn't want to buy a used car for reasons I've discussed previously. But it never occurred to me that we could buy a new car without payments until a few months ago, when I resolved to pay cash for our next car.

I guess over the last five years, I've abandoned the payments mentality completely. I suppose the only time I might go into debt is to buy investment real estate, although I don't really see that in our future since neither Marc nor I want to take care of tenants. But otherwise, I don't think we'll be borrowing money again - ever.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Preparing for tax season

As I've mentioned previously, we hired an accountant to do our taxes for the first time last year. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I wasn't exactly surprised to receive a thick workbook that required me to fill in almost all of the information that would go on our 1040. Part of me thought, "Why I am paying someone to fill out my 1040 when I'm doing so much of the work myself?!" But another part of me was happy to have the peace of mind that came from knowing a professional was going to see everything, and I reminded myself (as FMF has pointed out) that making my accountant's job easier reduces the amount I have to pay him.

I learned last year that filling out the worksheet was a little different from doing my own taxes, since I had to send in supporting documents, even if they weren't documents that needed to be sent to the IRS. In the past, I simply accumulated tax-related documents in a manila folder in my filing cabinet, then sorted through them as I prepared my 1040. This worked fine since I didn't need to send in many supporting documents and I just kept a pile of papers to one side as I worked. But for some reason, this no longer worked for me last year, when I had to make copies of some documents but not others. I resolved to find a better system for tracking my 2007 documents to make my life easier when the worksheet arrived in 2008.

I'm expecting that worksheet any day now, so we'll see if my new system works better. I'll report back after I've finished the worksheet, but in the meantime, I want to share what I did:

I re-purposed a multi-compartment file folder like this one.Then I labeled the pockets as follows:
  • Income - This includes pay stubs, 1099s, and other forms related to income.
  • Medical - I don't expect to be able to deduct medical expenses (it's such a high threshold) but I keep documents related to my medical flexible spending account here.
  • Childcare - I keep all documentation relating to childcare here, including documents related to my dependent care flexible spending account.
  • Charity - All receipts for charitable donations go here.
  • Other deductions - Documentation relating our mortgage, property taxes, etc., go here.
These categories roughly correspond to how the worksheet is organized, so my plan is to fill out the information for one category, make copies of the necessary documents, and then move on to the next section. This should enable me to complete the worksheet faster than I did last year, and in a way that's more conducive to interruptions since I have so few blocks of time. I recall that last year, I would get frustrated at having to set the worksheet aside because I would have to re-orient myself to the jumbled documents when I came back to it.

I've been tempted to acquire another file folder to organize this year's documents that have already started coming in, but for the time being, I'm holding off. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to complete the worksheet before the end of February, at which time I can transfer the documents to a manila folder in my filing cabinet and move the 2008 documents into the compartmented folder.

Question for readers: How do you organize your tax-related documents?

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