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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 15

Today was Day 15 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I gave a very small but meaningful gift to Marc this morning: I took out the kitchen trash.

This is something I don't do very often. I don't like doing it, and we agreed early on that garbage removal would be his job (and of course, I do some of the things that he doesn't like doing).

I don't know if he even noticed that I had taken out the trash this morning, but I do know it made his morning a little easier because he didn't have to do it himself. In marriage (as in personal finance), the little things really do add up. So I was glad I could do this for him.

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Congratulations to the winners of the 29-Day Giving Challenge Giveaway!

I used Random.org to generate five numbers corresponding to the winning commenters in The 29-Day Giving Challenge Giveaway. The five people below will receive a paperback copy of the preschooler book, The Crayon Box That Talked.

Thank you to everyone who entered! I've got a lot of new book ideas for my kids now!

And the winners are . . .
#6 - GinaVA3 of Mommy Making Money
#12 - WindyCindy
#1 - MoneyCommonSense of Common Sense with Money
#16 - FunkyFrum of Kosher Vegan
#3 - CleanClutterfreeSimple of Clean Simple Finance

Congratulations, winners! Please email me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com with your mailing address.

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Thinking about weaning . . . how do you know when it's time?

The first time I was breastfeeding, the decision on when to wean came easily. I was pregnant again and I wanted some time off before I had to start all over again. This is obviously a personal preference. One of my friends has a son who's one month older than Alex and a daughter who's four months younger than Tyler, and she never stopped, meaning she's been nursing for over three years straight now! She's content with her choices, and I'm content with mine.

I think weaning gets tricky when Mom and Baby have different wants. Sometimes Baby seems to lose interest in nursing before Mom is ready to give up - I've been assured by my lactation consultant that this is something Mom can work through and Baby will start nursing again (at least if Baby is less than a year old). I wouldn't know, since I have the opposite problem. I'm pretty much ready to quit nursing but Tyler still loves it. It may be in part that he's simply used to nursing first thing in the morning and last thing at night as a matter of routine. But sometimes when he wakes up from a nap screaming, nursing is the only thing that will comfort him, which makes me hesitant to stop. (I otherwise don't nurse him during the day anymore.)

I had planned to nurse Tyler until he is 18 months, which is a little more than month away. But over the weekend, we went to the beach (it was 100 degrees) and I wouldn't go past the edge of the water because I was wearing cropped jeans. I was thinking that I really ought to wear shorts, but I can't because my legs bear ugly scars from the pemphigoid gestationis that developed when I was pregnant with Tyler. I have been looking forward to using self-tanner to minimize their appearance after weaning Tyler. (There probably isn't any harm, but I just wanted to be one hundred percent safe and make sure no unnecessary chemicals got into my breastmilk.) So since this past weekend, I've been thinking about weaning a lot.

A review of articles on weaning on authoritative web sites like Babycenter, Kellymom, and La Leche League yields what common sense already told me: weaning is least traumatic for the child if his lead is followed, and should be done gradually. (Breastfeeding.com seems to suggest that a mother should nurse until her child is five or six years old, when the first permanent molars appear and "infancy" ends. My reaction: No way!)

The simple fact of the matter is that I am ready to start cutting out those last nursing sessions. And I'll try to do it as painlessly as possible. In our case, it will mean offering food (usually cereal) when Tyler wakes up in the morning. And Marc will probably take over bedtime with Tyler - they can do books, and then Marc can put Tyler in his crib. In the meantime, I can start Alex's bedtime routine.

How long will it take? I'm not sure. Unlike the last time, I don't have a definite timetable (back then, I wanted six months off so I had a hard deadline). And of course, I have mixed feelings about this. Nursing really is a special bonding time. But I'm ready to have my body back to myself!

What are your experiences with weaning?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One recall today: Nintendo lapel pins

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

Nintendo Recalls Lapel Pins Due to Risk of Lead Exposure - Click through for a larger version of the image.


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

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The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 14

Today was Day 14 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I woke up this morning to a very sad email. A friend reported that another friend in our circle had had a miscarriage in the second trimester for the second time in less than a year. I thought about calling but decided to write a note instead, since everyone handles grief differently. I mailed it this evening, and hope that my friendship and love give my friend some small measure of comfort.

Please pray for my friend, her husband, and their three-year-old daughter. Thank you.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 13 plus a tip for a great freebie

Today was Day 13 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I gave some CVS-brand acetaminophen gelcaps and Alavert allergy tablets to my brother-in-law, who will use the medication. I got both for free at CVS last week. Actually, I made money by buying them, thanks to coupons. (If you don't know already, learn how to play the Drugstore Game yourself!)

I also gave some candy to the boys' daycare teachers, but I always bring them something on Mondays so I don't really count this as part of the Giving Challenge.

Earlier in the challenge, I sent my parents a free flipbook from FlipClips. It's a service that turns a short (30-second) video into a fun little flipbook. My parents seem to like theirs a lot! To find out how to get a free flipbook yourself, read my post over at CFO Reviews.

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My favorite bolognese

My favorite bolognese, or meat sauce, is this Ragu Alla Bolognese from Cooking Light. The recipe was published in 2002 and since then, I've modified (and doubled) the recipe to my own (and Marc's) preferences. The longer it simmers, the better it tastes.

Our Favorite Bolognese
Serves 14 to 16 (Freeze the leftover sauce in individual or meal size portions.)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 cup finely chopped carrot (Note: I like to puree the onion, celery and carrot in a food processor for a finer texture in the sauce.)
2 pounds ground beef
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2-4 bay leaves
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 1/2 cups whole milk, half and half, or heavy cream
4 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or pot over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and carrot; cover and cook 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove onion mixture from pan.

2. Add beef to pan; cook over medium heat until browned, stirring to crumble. Add wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Cook 5 minutes. Add the onion mixture, broth, and tomato puree; bring to a simmer. Cook 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (Note: I've been known to let this simmer for four hours or more. It concentrates the flavor and makes the beef super tender. Just make sure the top level of the liquid never goes below the level of the meat and veggies.)

3. Stir in milk, half and half or cream, and minced parsley; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 40 minutes (or more). Discard bay leaves.

4. Serve with your favorite pasta and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 12

Today was Day 12 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I sent my friend C. a copy of the preschooler book, The Crayon Box That Talked.

Christine and Clean Clutterfree Simple left a couple of great ideas for giving on my update yesterday - thanks, ladies!

Don't forget, tomorrow is the last day to enter my giveaway of The Crayon Box That Talked. I've decided to give away two more copies, for a total of five copies up for grabs, so your chances of winning are better than ever!

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 11

Today was Day 11 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I re-thought my idea of giving a stranger a box of candy, after it occurred to me that I myself would be suspicious of food from a stranger. So, it's back to square one in search of ideas for giving beyond my comfort zone.

In the meantime, today I sent e-cards to my two best friends, K. and B. I met them in my breastfeeding support group a few weeks after Alex was born. Our sons are only three months apart in age, so we are constantly tapping each other for parenting support and ideas. They are, quite simply, wonderful women, and although our busy schedules sometimes keep us from getting together for a few weeks, I know they're always there for me (and vice versa, of course). I am infinitely grateful to be blessed with their friendship and I just wanted them to know that.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 10

Today was Day 10 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I'm still trying to come up with some ideas for giving beyond my comfort zone. I actually had one today, but totally forgot to do it. I went to the post office to mail some photos of the boys to my grandparents, which was my gift for the day. But I had intended to bring along a small box of candy for whoever was helping me while I was there, and I simply forgot to take the box with me when we left the house. I think I'll try to remember to bring it when I leave the house tomorrow and give it to some random person, though.

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Tax rebates going out early

Update: Don't Mess With Taxes has a different revised schedule, with direct deposit rebates being completed on May 12.

Thanks to Living Almost Large for letting me know that I can expect to get my tax rebate early. According to this MSN article, direct deposit rebates will start going out on Monday (four days earlier than the original schedule). What's more, all direct deposit rebates are expected to be completed by next Friday, May 2 (the day they were supposed to start).

Tax rebates being sent by mail will start going out on May 9, a week earlier than originally scheduled. But the completion date for mailed rebates remains the same (July 11).

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My Life in Six Words

A few weeks ago, Cindy at Go Workout Mom tagged me for the Six Word Memoir meme. I haven't done anything about it because, well, I had a hard time summing up my life in six words. But as a person who likes to excel, I've struggled with perfectionism throughout much of my life. Since I've become a mother, I've become more aware than ever of how important it is to let go of my need/desire to be perfect and be content with "good enough." So, here's my life in six words:

I'm not perfect, but good enough.

I remind myself of this constantly, as I find myself wanting to do everything exactly right for my boys. But I discovered early on that it's simply impossible - in large part because there is no "right" way of doing so many things as a parent. Is it better to continue trying to breastfeed and be miserable in the meantime, or should I just quit and be rid of the stress? Should I let my 12-month-old cry it out? Should I go back to work or become a stay at home parent?

There are just too many variables in parenting and the hardest part is, you'll never really know if you did the "right" thing. Maybe if you'd done something differently, it would have been better for your child. But those kinds of doubts will eat away at your spirit.

On the other hand, if you take a step back and simply admire and appreciate your children for who they are, it's easy to see that what you did was "good enough." And that's really all that matters.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on being a good enough parent, so please leave a comment!

As usual, I won't tag anyone, but if you'd like to participate, consider yourself tagged! And leave a link to your post in the comments so I can check it out :)

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

No surprise: Cooking at home is cheaper than eating out

An LA Times editor did the kind of food experiment I would do if I had the time (and no kids): eat at mid-range restaurants and compare the cost to cooking at home.

He started out with quite a few rules, but most of them made sense to me: dinners only (because breakfast and lunch are so cheap to make), no $1 burgers from fast food joints, no alcohol. And he seems to have made the kind of meals I would make if I had the time: "seared, sesame-crusted wild albacore accompanied by haricot verts with shiitake mushrooms and toasted almonds and a side of organic yams" sounds delicious, although I probably wouldn't pair tuna with yams.

Here's the pertinent number-crunching:
The total for a week's worth of restaurant dinners for two was $257.08; home cooking: $148.14. Removing the outliers, a mid-range L.A. dinner was $40 for two, while shopping for insanely high-end ingredients at a snotty supermarket ran $18.
Sure, you might be able to eat out for less than you spend on groceries if you eat only the most inexpensive fast food. But if you want a healthy, well-rounded diet, cooking at home will always save you the most money. (And probably be healthier too!)

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The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 9

Today was Day 9 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I'm trying to come up with some ideas for giving beyond my comfort zone. But in the meantime, I sent off three copies of The Crayon Box That Talked to my friend R. She has three-year-old twins and a 12-month-old, and I thought it would be nice if each of them could have a copy of the book. Since it's a paperback, she actually can't give it to her 12-month-old, but I know that I enjoy having duplicates of a few things in the house for my boys sometimes, so I figured it couldn't hurt.

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A bittersweet night

I've been having some bittersweet feelings and thoughts tonight. You see, we received a Kaboost today. It's a very clever booster that goes under a chair to boost the chair up so a child can sit in the chair and still reach the table. I'll be posting a review of the Kaboost after we've had a chance to use it for a week or so.

But in the meantime, it's already had a major impact on our household. Tonight at dinner, Alex sat in the Kaboost. Which meant Tyler moved out of his highchair and into the Fisher-Price Healthy Care Booster Seat. The booster seat has been Alex's setup at the dining table for over a year now. Tyler's been pointing to it vigorously and indicating that he'd rather sit in it for the last few days, but I didn't realize the impact that the move was going to have on me.

For one thing, I no longer have to wash the high chair trays. We have three removable trays, plus the big tray that attaches to the chair. Since we've had the high chair for over 2 1/2 years now, the big tray has been washed hundreds of times and the springs in the latches rusted and broke several months ago. I'm thrilled that I longer have to fight to secure it in place. And not having the three removable trays in my dishwasher will mean I can put more in the dishwasher. Not to mention the space we'll gain when we get rid of the high chair.

Seeing both of our kids seated at the table, Marc and I shared some "Wow, they're growing up so fast" moments tonight. Tyler ate his food off of a plate, not a tray. And he was right there at the table, instead of a little removed in the high chair.

I know I can't fight the changes and I don't really want to. But I do wish I could bottle their cuteness and innocence and preserve at least a little bit of it forever.

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School lunch: Buy at school or bring from home?

The boys' daycare offers prepared hot lunches every day at $3.50 per day for all of the children except infants. (I'm sure that seems astonishingly high to many of you, but apparently it's average for the Los Angeles area.) At first, I always brought Alex's lunch from home. But when Tyler was born at the end of 2006, I started buying lunches for Alex simply to reduce stress.

Toward the end of last year, when Tyler was off purees and feeding himself, I began thinking about bringing Alex's lunches again. But I was afraid that he would balk, wanting to be like the majority of his classmates. I started slow, studying the meal plan for a meal I knew he didn't like and bringing lunch from home on that day. We have to order a month's worth of meals at one time, so I did this once in January and once in February to see how Alex reacted.

He didn't mind at all. Whew! So in March, I packed one lunch a week for him, and this month, I've been packing two lunches per week. To my complete surprise and delight, Alex has asked if he can bring lunch every day. I guess I won't be buying lunch next month.

Weaning Alex off school lunches instead of doing it in one fell swoop is as much for my benefit as it is for his. My preference is to pack leftovers, as I often do for Marc and me, but there aren't always leftovers to be had. (And more often than not, it seems, Alex rejects dinner or eats only a very small amount.) So by giving myself a prolonged transition period, I am giving myself time to figure out how to pack lunches that Alex will eat that also don't require much prep time in the morning, and how to shop for these lunches when I only go grocery shopping once a week.

Sometime in the next week or so, I'll share some fast lunches that work for us. In the meantime, check out Lunch in a Box and Just Bento for some great ideas.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 8

Today was Day 8 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I have a few boxes of candy that my parents sent me, so I gave one to our neighbors during our playdate today.

I've been thinking about this challenge and how only some gifts seem to "count" in my mind. A good example is today, which happens to be Administrative Professionals (aka Secretaries) Day. Both Marc and I gave gifts to our respective secretaries. I also wrote a check as a wedding gift to a friend who's getting married, since we can't attend the wedding. These gifts just don't seem to be in the spirit of the 29-Day Giving Challenge, since they're gifts I would have given anyway.

Another way of looking at it, I suppose, is that giving these gifts didn't bring me any particular joy. While Marc and I both like our secretaries and appreciate their work, the gifts we gave today were mostly out of obligation. And while I'm sure the happy couple will appreciate a cash gift, it's not like I spent a lot of time picking out something meaningful. (They didn't register because they don't really need anything, and since the bride and I aren't especially close anymore, I wasn't confident I could pick out something that they would really like.)

So far, I think it's really the random, unexpected gifts that have been the most fun to give. But then, that's always been the case for me. To make this challenge really meaningful, I'm going to have to go outside my comfort zone and reach out to some acquaintances and strangers. I'll let you know how that goes . . .

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Potty Training Tips

Alex started potty training a couple of months before he turned two - right after Tyler was born. We didn't do anything to suggest that he start, having read that a time of major upheaval - like the arrival of a sibling - is a bad time to start potty training. But Alex expressed interest and we weren't going to stop him. Or more precisely, Marc wasn't going to stop him. For Tyler's first months in this world, Alex spent the vast majority of his time at home with Marc, while I took care of Tyler. I carved out an hour here and there to spend alone with Alex but with Tyler nursing every two to three hours, my time with Alex was scarce.

A friend whose daughter is now 20 months recently asked me for some potty training help and I was a little dumbfounded. After all, Marc and Alex's daycare teachers did most of the work. However, after thinking about it for a while, I've come up with some tips:
  1. For boys, Daddy's participation can really speed things along. From our own experience as well as speaking with my friends who have boys, it seems that having Daddy's example really makes a huge difference. The boys whose dads consider bathroom time their "private time" seem to lag the most when it comes to potty training. (Not that Daddy's participation is absolutely necessary. I'm just saying that it seems to speed things along.)
  2. When a child shows an interest in using the potty, make potty training a priority. There seems to be a period around a child's second birthday when the child gets interested in the potty. But with your first child, this period can catch you off-guard. By the time you figure out a good potty training routine, the child's interest has waned, making potty training that much harder. It's easier the second time around, since you already have the potty training equipment and are more prepared to rush to the bathroom. The best way to prepare for the first child's interest period is to talk to parents who have already been through potty training and find out what worked for them.
  3. Utilize peer pressure. If your child goes to daycare or has exposure to older kids, seeing others use the potty can spark her interest in potty training. If that happens, take advantage of it. Ask the daycare teachers to take your child to the bathroom with the other kids, even he or she is younger than the others.
  4. Don't treat potty training differently from other activities. There is a natural fear of traumatizing a child by forcing him to use the potty. But once it's clear that the child is capable of using the bathroom regularly, treat the child's refusal to go like any other disobedience. It took us a while to realize that Alex was fully potty trained and simply refusing to go to the bathroom before leaving the house because, well, he's a headstrong toddler. We have since had success in treating bathroom time like any other activity, such as taking a toy away (or threatening to do so) when he refuses to cooperate.
  5. Use rewards. We used a sticker chart with Alex, although I think he might have been too young to fully understand it. I'm not a big fan of using food as a reward, but one of my friends had great success using yellow and brown M&Ms. Her son got a yellow M&M when he peed in the potty, and a brown M&M when he pooped.
  6. Let your child read on the potty. This can be a little tricky, since a child who loves to read might not tell you that he is done simply because he'd rather keep reading. But giving your child an activity to do while on the potty will help him be patient, particularly when he's learning to poop on the potty.
  7. Be matter of fact. Like many people, I have a strong aversion to public bathrooms. But I've had to quash my distaste to facilitate Alex's potty training so that he doesn't pick up on it and become reluctant to use the bathroom in public places.
  8. Have the right equipment. Your child may prefer sitting on the big toilet, but most kids I know seem to prefer a child-size potty that allows them to keep their feet on the floor. (These also have a handy shield in front for boys to keep the urine in the potty.) I've found that the flushable wipes, which I thought were silly before Alex started potty training, are actually fabulous. It's surprisingly hard to wipe a little kid's butt when he's standing, and the flushable wipes make it easier to get in there. Plus I don't worry about stretching skin the way I do with toilet paper.
  9. Finally, I liked this tip over at Parent Hacks: Line the potty with toilet paper for easy cleanup.
So those are my tips. What are your best potty training tips?

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 7

Today was Day 7 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I donated $50 to the boys' daycare to support their Earth Day fundraiser. I haven't heard how it went, but I hope it was a huge success!

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One recall today: Beco Butterfly Carrier

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

Beco Baby Carrier Recalls "Beco Butterfly" Infant Carriers For Fall Hazard


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

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Our Car Buying Experience - Part Three: 5 Lessons Learned to Reduce Stress and Cost

Read Part One: The Negotiations and Part Two: Financing and the Trade-in.

After we bought our car, I thought about the things that worked well and things I wish I'd done a little differently. Here are the lessons I came away with:
  1. Negotiate by email. Whether your email communications start with a car buying program as I discussed in Part One of this series, or you initiate the communication via the dealership's web site, negotiating by email is the way to go. The dealership can't strong arm you if you're not in front of them, and you don't waste a lot of time sitting in their little room waiting for the salesman to get back from consulting with his manager. Email negotiation also gives you the opportunity to price match - we bought our car from a dealer that agreed to match another dealer's offer of $500 under invoice. Finally, once you've agreed on a price, ask the dealership to email you a breakdown of the taxes and fees you'll be expected to pay so there aren't any surprises when you go in to close the deal. (This will also give you a chance to look up any suspicious fees.)
  2. Make sure the car is on the lot. Five years ago, Marc and I found ourselves at a Mazda dealership waiting for a car. After we'd completed all of the paperwork, we were told that although the car we wanted was listed in their computer system, it appeared that it had been sent out for customization and the closest car they could offer us was $800 more. We were mad. It was classic bait and switch, as far as we were concerned. Not only did we walk away from Galpin Mazda, we will never do business with the entire Galpin family. This time around, we made sure the car was on the lot before we went in (well, after a little hiccup).
  3. Mention any trade-in only after you've agreed on a purchase price. Otherwise, the salesman might try to recoup the trade-in value on the purchase price. For more on this topic, see Part Two of this series.
  4. Plan your financing before you go in. Knowing how you are going to pay for the car is at least as important as negotiating a good deal. If you are going to finance the purchase, make sure you find the best loan available to you. Know what deals the dealer is offering on financing, and what the restrictions are. In our case, Nissan was offering a $1,000 rebate with 3.99% financing or a $1,250 rebate with no financing. Since I knew we'd be paying off the car quickly and we were able to get a 4.99% rate with USAA, it made sense for us to take the extra $250. But if we'd planned to make payments for the full five years, it would have made sense to go with Nissan's financing. (For example, a $20,000 loan at 3.99% for five years results in $2094 interest paid; $20,000 at 4.99% results in $2640 interest paid, or $546 more.) Also, if you know you don't want or think you might not want dealer financing, then get preapproved with a different lender and take proof of the preapproval with you when you buy the car.
  5. Finally, always be prepared to walk away. If you ever feel that the deal isn't right for you, walk away. Marc and I were prepared to leave when the dealership offered us a mere $2300 for our trade-in. This is obviously easiest to do when the car purchase isn't urgent, but even if you do really need a car, it's not worth closing a deal that will make you miserable as soon as you walk out the door. Tell the dealer that you need to think about it some more and leave. If you have to, you can always start over with another dealership. But getting out of a contract once you've signed it is, at a minimum, a huge hassle - and at worst, might not be possible.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

The economics of deciding where to go to college

Once you (or your child) are accepted into college, you'll receive a financial aid package from each school (assuming you applied for financial aid - and why wouldn't you?). It turns out, though, that while the application is standardized, financial aid packages aren't.

According to this LA Times article, all financial aid packages are different. Some of the schools offer scholarships without stating whether they are renewable after the first year, some list loans without providing any details about the loans themselves, and some list "student employment" as a source of aid. And figuring out the "net cost" of attendance isn't easy because determining the cost of attendance at each school can be tricky, even if the school provides an estimate (and some don't).

But estimates are all you have to work with. So add up the fixed expenses (tuition, fees, and room and board if your child will be living in a dorm). Then try to estimate the discretionary expenses, using the school's estimate as a guide (this includes books, food and rent if your child will be living off campus, transportation costs, etc.). And both numbers to get the total cost of attending the school. You'll probably get a different total for each school.

Add up the amount of scholarships and grants - these are funds that don't need to be repaid. Don't include loans. Subtract the amount of scholarships and grants from the total expenses you calculated earlier. This number is your "bill" for the year, and the number you should use to compare the costs of attending each school. Just make sure that the scholarships and grants are renewable, and that the conditions for renewal are realistic.

Should your child attend the school with the lowest cost? I don't necessarily think so, but that's an issue for another day.

How do you pay for the portion that's not covered by scholarships and grants? Hopefully you've saved money for this day, in a Coverdell ESA, 529, or other account. If not, or if savings aren't sufficient to cover the expenses, it's time to investigate student loans. Before you (or your child) take out a loan, make sure you understand all of the terms, and have a plan for repayment (which is also an issue for another day).

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The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 6

Today was Day 6 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I sent my friend G. another copy of the book, The Crayon Box That Talked.

Every Monday, I bring in goodies for the boys' daycare teachers. So today, I also gave rice krispie treats. :)

Don't forget to enter my 29-Day Giving Challenge Giveaway!

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The 29-Day Giving Challenge Giveaway: The Crayon Box That Talked

As I mentioned a few days ago, I have quite a few extra copies of a paperback version of the preschooler book, The Crayon Box That Talked. I'm giving away some of the books to friends I don't see all the time as part of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. But over the weekend, I had a brilliant idea: Why not give away a few copies to some of my favorite people - my readers?

To be entered to win, all you have to do is leave a comment telling me what your child's favorite book is by 9:00 p.m. PDT on Monday, April 28. I'll use a random number generator to pick three winners.

Actually, there are two more things you must do if you are a winner: You must make it easy for me to obtain your email address. And you must respond to the email notifying you that you won within the time specified in the email.

One entry per person. This giveaway is open to residents in the United States and Canada. Good luck!

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 5

Today was Day 5 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. We had Passover dinner at Marc's parents' house, and both of his surviving grandparents were there. So I gave them and his parents sets of recent photos of the boys.

Stay tuned for a 29-Day Giving Challenge giveaway - I'll post the details tomorrow!

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A Passover Recipe: Pommes Anna

Since we always have potatoes for Passover, I've adapted this recipe from a Cooking Light recipe by substituting a good quality olive oil for the butter (and increasing the amount a little bit). I like that it's a little unusual and the presentation is so elegant.

Passover Pommes Anna
Serves 8

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 pounds peeled baking potatoes, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, optional

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Combine salt and pepper in a small bowl.

2. Spread 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on the bottom of a 10-inch cast-iron or ovenproof heavy skillet over medium heat. Arrange a single layer of potato slices, slightly overlapping, in a circular pattern in pan; sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt mixture. Drizzle 3/4 teaspoon olive oil over potatoes. Repeat the layers 5 times, ending with oil. Press down firmly to pack the potatoes together.

3. Cover and bake at 450° for 20 minutes.

4. Uncover and bake an additional 25 minutes or until potatoes are golden. Loosen edges of potatoes with a spatula. Place a plate upside down on top of pan; invert potatoes onto plate. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
Image credit: MyRecipes.com.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 3

Today was Day 4 of the 29-Day Giving Challenge. Alex and I had a playdate with my friend B. and her son M. at a mall with a carousel. I tried to buy M.'s ride, but B. insisted on giving me money so that didn't work. Instead, I sent my parents a little surprise that I hope they'll like.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 3

Today was Day 3 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. One of the favors at Alex's birthday party last month was a paperback version of the preschooler book, The Crayon Box That Talked. I have a bunch of copies left over, so I'll probably be giving away quite a few of them during this challenge. Today, I sent a copy to my friend Patti for her 3-year-old daughter. I hope she enjoys it, Patti!

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One recall today: Charm key chain

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

Wal-Mart Recalls Charm Key Chains Due to Risk of Lead Exposure


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

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Kroger offers an extra 10% on your money - should you take it?

The grocery store chain Kroger announced that it will give customers who turn their tax refund or rebate checks into store credit an additional $30, $60 or $120 (depending on whether you convert $300, $600 or $1200). The conversion program will be available beginning May 2 at all Kroger stores, including Kroger, Baker's, City Market, Dillons, Fred Meyer, Fry's, Gerbes, Hilander, Jay C, King Soopers, Owen's, Pay Less, Ralphs, Smith's and QFC.

Since my refund and rebate will be directly deposited into my bank account, I was pleased to read the following:
Customers who do not have a hard copy of their government-issued checks may still take advantage of this offer with cash, a credit card or by presenting a valid personal check to the Customer Service center.
I don't spend at lot of money at Ralphs, but I do shop there a couple of times a month - often enough to make it worthwhile to convert $300 into $330.

In deciding whether you want to take advantage of the Kroger program, consider the following:
  • How often do you shop at Kroger stores? Your gift card won't expire, but the longer you have it, the more likely it is that you'll forget about it and not use it up. (Which is probably what Kroger is counting on many people to do.)
  • How much interest would your money earn in savings? While it's unlikely your money will earn 10% interest, the longer it would be sitting in your savings account, the more interest it will earn. So this factor needs to be considered in conjunction with the first factor.
  • Do you earn rewards when you pay for your groceries? If you pay for groceries with a credit card, you may be earning rewards for your purchases. Some credit cards offer 3% cash back on grocery purchases. That diminishes your 10% return from Kroger. (But note that you can acquire your gift card by paying the refund or rebate amount with a credit card, which would make this point moot.)
  • How disciplined are you when it comes to grocery shopping and staying within your budget? The Kroger gift card won't help your finances if you use it to buy frivolous items instead of sticking to your grocery budget.
Other retailers are also offering bonuses for converting your refund or rebate to a gift card. In fact, Sears made their announcement on Tuesday.

Did I miss anything? Can you think of anything else to consider?

Via My Good Cents and The Consumerist.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Days 1 and 2

Yesterday was Day 1 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. When I arrived at the office, I dropped off a box of baby clothes for my colleague who's having a baby boy in a few months (it's her first child). I got a very nice email thanking me for leaving her more money to buy diapers.

I also picked up a small bottle of carbonated nigori sake for Marc. Nigori is his favorite alcoholic drink and I thought he'd enjoy this unusual variety (he thought it was just okay - but it's the thought that counts!).

Today, Day 2, I passed on some additional baby-related items to one of the boys' daycare teachers. She's expecting a baby girl in a few months so she doesn't want any of the boys' clothes, but she's happily accepted an assortment of baby gear from us.

My thoughts so far: Giving is fun, but to give something every day, I'm going to have to plan ahead!

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Teaching our children value and to accept "no" as an answer

This post was inspired by Michelle at Scribbit, who wrote about her decision not to pay for her kids' college education and other alternatives to help prepare children for college financially. One of her suggestions is to teach children to "think cheap," since public universities are a fraction of the cost of expensive private colleges.

Her post got me thinking about my dentist, whose oldest will be entering college in the fall. His daughter's first choice is Tufts. My dentist's first choice for her is UC Davis. The difference in annual expenses? Approximately $25,000.

My dentist doesn't want to say no to Tufts just because of money. And his daughter simply isn't used to her dad refusing her something, particularly when it comes to something as important as education and certainly not just because of money.

My conversation with my dentist reminded me of my own decision on where to go to college. Foolishly, I picked the most expensive private school that I had gotten into - one that hadn't offered me a scholarship. Even more foolishly, my parents didn't say no. (If you're reading this, Mom and Dad, sorry.) Or maybe it wasn't that foolish, at least from a non-financial perspective.

Here's the thing: If my parents had said no, there's no way I would have understood. I probably would have resented them for it - particularly my dad, since he was the family's financial manager. The problem is, I wasn't used to being told I couldn't have something simply because of money.

I grew up very privileged, particularly when it came to experiences and education. My parents spent a lot of money over the years to provide me with enriching experiences and a top-notch education. So by the time it was time for me to go to college, I fully expected that they would prioritize those two things more than, say, managing the expense. And they did.

In retrospect, I wish I'd been mature enough to understand the sacrifice they were making and that they had refused to make it. I'm sure the money could have been put to a much better use, which isn't to say that I didn't have a great experience and that part of who I am is surely due in part to that time in my life. And I'm certainly grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made. But 15 years after graduating, nothing about where I went to college matters. I realize now that all that really mattered after graduation was my GPA, my major, and how hard I worked.

So what I have learned to pass on to my kids?

I've learned to say no.

Not to everything, of course. But I do already explain to my three-year-old that we aren't buying a certain item that he wants because he has too many of the same type of toy at home, or it's not on sale or a good value (even a 99-cent toy is a waste of money if it breaks immediately). As the boys get older, I'll expand the concept to other things (e.g., why get an iPhone when there are less expensive phones that do the same thing?). I know they won't always understand. But at least it won't be a surprise when Mom and Dad refuse to pay $200,000 per year for college (which is probably what private universities will cost!).

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One recall today: Push toys

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

Push Toys Recalled by Santa’s Toy Corp. 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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Review: Oriental Trading Company

I had heard good things about Oriental Trading Company, so I decided to check it out for Alex's birthday party last month. I highly recommend it.

Their craft kits are inexpensive and easy to use. They didn't have any garbage truck-themed crafts, so I had to settle on a couple of dinosaur crafts - magnets ($3.95 for a kit that makes 12) and picture frames ($11.95 for a set that makes 24). I also picked up some adorable plush dinosaurs to give away as favors ($14.95 per dozen).

The crafts were a big hit - I was more than a little pleased that the three-year-olds didn't need too much help with them, and a couple of the moms in particular had a blast. (I sent the leftover supplies home with them!)

OTC's shipping rates aren't exorbitant, but I was able to find a free shipping code so I didn't have to pay for shipping. I also made my purchase through Ebates, which earned me 4% of my purchase back.

I was really pleased with OTC's selection (well, except for the lack of garbage truck-related products!), and I'll definitely be ordering again from them in the future.

Full disclosure: I am not an affiliate of Oriental Trading Company. I just thought other parents might find this post helpful.


Image credit: Oriental Trading Company.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Does giving really make you feel good?

Siel at Green LA Girl posted about the 29-Day Giving Challenge, and I've decided to join in too. Here's what the challenge's web site has to say about it:
Commit to give away one item a day for 29 days in a row and share how the experience impacts your life. Why? Because to see the world change, we have to do something to change the world.
Being a frugal girl, of course I want to do this challenge with minimal damage to my wallet. So this seems like a good time to give away stuff I no longer want/need to better homes.

I'll start tomorrow by taking in a big box of baby clothes to a friend at work. She's expecting a baby boy in a few months and I've got some nice outfits that I'm happy to pass on.

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The new car vs. used car debate revisited

There are so many personal finance bloggers who write about buying a new car as one of the worst financial decisions a person can make that I decided to revisit the issue.

As I've mentioned previously, Marc and I considered buying a used car before we ultimately bought our new Nissan Altima. After all, the numbers don't lie. A wisely chosen used car would almost always cost less money than a new car. (See Million Dollar Journey's analysis on this subject.)

But that's the rub.

We don't have any confidence in our ability to choose a used car wisely. Of course, we would choose a car that's reliable, is only a year or two old, and has low mileage. We'd order a Carfax report and have the vehicle inspected before we bought it.

But we don't have a good mechanic anymore. We haven't found a mechanic we trust since our last one went loony after his divorce. Oh no, wait. That was the dentist. He's the one who lost it after his divorce. I guess the mechanic was always loony to start with.

Aaaaanyway . . . last year, golbguy wrote a great series on buying a used car. He addressed our major concern and described how to properly inspect a used car before buying it. It was gibberish to me, and I knew neither Marc nor I would be able to inspect the car in the way golbguy described. That was when we decided that the right decision for us was to buy a new car.

It's not just that peace of mind is worth something (a lot, in my book). It's also that, unless you get a used car in great shape, you can end up with major car repair bills. I speak from experience - my first car was used and turned into a huge headache. Admittedly, my first car was a five-year-old Honda Accord, not a one-year-old car, but still, it should have had far fewer problems than it did.

We now have two cars that we plan to drive until they're each over 10 years old. (The Honda Accord that we traded in for the new Altima was 11 years old. The car we traded in for our old Atima was 12 years old.) In the long run, we might be losing a few thousand dollars by buying new cars. But I think we more than make it up in peace of mind and fewer car repair bills.

Now it's your turn: Do you prefer to buy cars that are new or used?

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Monday, April 14, 2008

A free alternative to lottery tickets

I think it's safe to say that most personal finance experts and bloggers would advise against buying lottery tickets (CleverDude being the one exception that comes to mind). But it's equally safe to say that everyone at some point or other dreams about winning the lottery or coming into some sort of windfall. I'm certainly no exception.

Rather than wasting money on lottery tickets, however, I've come up with an alternative that's equally satisfying. And it's free!

Instead of buying lottery tickets, enter contests and sweepstakes instead.

In about the same amount of time it would take you to drive to a store, stand in line, purchase a ticket, fill in the bubbles, and do whatever else you have to do (I'm not sure because I've never bought a lottery ticket in my life), you could easily enter a few contests or sweepstakes online. And let me say again, it's free!

I acknowledge that you give up some privacy when entering contests or sweepstakes, because you have to provide an email address at the very minimum. But you can set up a free email address that you use only for contests and sweepstakes.

Larger contests and sweepstakes will often ask for additional information, such as your name, age, address and phone number. In such cases, you can also usually provide just a first initial instead of your whole name and a post office box if you have one. Also, don't forget to check the opt out box if you'd rather not receive marketing communications. For additional tips on entering sweepstakes, check out some tips from The Baglady. Don't forget to read the fine print and keep in mind that prizes are generally taxable (just like lottery winnings).

My favorite contests to enter are the smaller ones, particularly blog giveaways. They usually require just an email address unless you win. And the odds are considerably better since the number of entries is smaller. Of course, the prizes are smaller, but you still get the thrill of winning. And it's really not so different from buying scratch-off lottery tickets where the most frequent prize is a few dollars.

So where can you find contests and sweepstakes to enter? You can always check out my other blog, CFO Reviews, for starters. There are also sites that aggregate giveaways and contests. Some of my favorites are PRIZEY, An Island Review, and Freebies4Mom (which posts links to free samples as well as sweepstakes).

I know there are lots of other sources out there, so please share your favorites in the comments!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

3 Signs You May be a Victim of Tax-Related Fraud

The following is a guest post from ID theft expert Brian Lapidus, chief operating officer of Kroll’s Fraud Solutions.

3 SIGNS YOU MAY BE A VICTIM OF TAX-RELATED FRAUD

1. You are unable to file your return electronically, because a prior return included your SSN.

Take Action:
Submit your return by paper and include proof of SSN ownership (i.e., a registered letter from the Social Security Administration).
2. You have received a W2 or 1099 form from a company with whom you have never been employed nor had a financial relationship.

Take action:
Contact the company in question by phone, with a follow-up letter, to request a corrected W2 or 1099, maintaining call notes and copies of all related documentation. If receipt of document was not due to an error by reporting company, file a police report.

Maintain records until you receive a notice from the IRS.
3. You received a notice from the IRS advising you of unclaimed wages or income.

Take action:
Contact the assigned IRS agent listed on the notification. He/she will work with you to ensure that you are not held liable for any fraud-related or errant wages/earnings.

If you do not notify the IRS of a dispute, the IRS will assume the reporting is accurate. As a result, the wages/income will be processed and the IRS will send you a bill. Continued failure to notify the IRS can result in wage garnishment or tax levies.

Follow all instructions and provide all information or documentation to the assigned IRS agent, as requested.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why I Decided Not To Join Revolution MoneyExchange

In the last few weeks, many (if not most) personal finance bloggers have been encouraging people to join Revolution MoneyExchange (a service akin to PayPal) through referral links. The referrer gets $10 and the person creating the new account gets $25, so it seems like a good deal. If you like the blogger who referred you, presumably you're happy to help them earn $10 for something that also makes you money.

I was all set to sign up, but being an attorney, I always feel obligated to read the fine print that I'm required to say I've read before signing up. I hit a roadblock when I read the privacy policy. The part that concerned me says (emphasis added):
INFORMATION WE COLLECT
We collect information about you from the following sources:
  • Information we receive from you, including information on applications or other forms, such as your name, address, social security number, assets and income;
  • Information about your transactions with us, our affiliates, or others, such as your account balance, transaction and payment history, parties to transactions, and credit card usage; and
  • Information we receive from a consumer reporting agency, such as your creditworthiness and credit history.
INFORMATION WE DISCLOSE
We may disclose all of the information that we collect, as described above. You may opt out of the disclosure of such information, other than as permitted by law.
Maybe it's because I'm recovering from a rough bout of the flu (the kind that makes your joints and back ache, and has given me a killer sore throat for the last three days), but I just didn't find the opt out to be enough reassurance that they wouldn't disclose my social security number and other information to just anyone. For obvious reasons, I find it much more reassuring to deal with a company who starts from the customer-centric position of, "We will protect your personal identification and never disclose it without permission or as required by law." (See, e.g., Mint.com's privacy policy.)

I've had a PayPal account for years, but I had no recollection of what their privacy policy says. So I checked it out. What I found is too long to quote here, but it includes this reassurance:
PayPal will not sell or rent any of your personal information to third parties in the normal course of doing business and only shares your personal information with third parties as described in this policy.
Basically, it's the opposite of what Revolution MoneyExchange says.

I realize that it's most likely Revolution MoneyExchange doesn't intend to do anything different from PayPal and will protect its customers' personal information in much the same way, using it for marketing purposes only (and of course, to perform the services it's designed to perform). I just don't like it when a company gives itself more wiggle room in certain areas than it really needs. The risk to my privacy and personal information isn't worth $25.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

When procrastination pays (or, thank goodness I hadn't gotten around to creating a Lending Club account!)

Update: I was waiting for DebtKid to weigh in on this issue, since he writes for LendingClub's blog. He has a much more optimistic interpretation of LendingClub's actions.

I've mentioned previously that I'd like to get in on the P2P (person to person) lending scene. After reading posts from avid P2P lenders like Lazy Man and Money, The Dough Roller, and Moolanomy, and carefully reviewing both the Prosper and Lending Club sites, I decided to join Lending Club and make four $25 loans (using a $90 Sharebuilder bonus plus an extra $10).

Except that I never really sat down and signed up. I intended to review the fine print one more time, but I never made time to do it. In this case, it turns out, procrastination was a very good thing.

Earlier this week, The Dough Roller and Cash Money Life posted about this notice from Lending Club:
Lending Club has started a process to register, with the appropriate securities authorities, promissory notes that may be offered and sold to lenders through our site in the future. Until we complete the registration process, we will not accept new lender registrations or allow new commitments from existing lenders. We will continue to service all previously funded loans during this period, and lenders will be able to access their accounts, monitor their portfolios, and withdraw available funds without changes.

The borrowing side of our site will remain generally unaffected by this registration process; borrowers can continue to apply for loans and new loans posted after April 7, 2008, will be funded and held only by Lending Club.

Until the registration process is completed, the company will undergo a quiet period and will not be able to respond to press and other inquiries about Lending Club or the registration process during that time.
It looks like if I'd already funded loans, they wouldn't be affected, but this event simply shakes my confidence in Lending Club. I don't know enough about lending laws to figure out what the problem is with Lending Club, but I do know that I'm happy I didn't create that account with them. (LazyMan thinks Lending Club is dead.)

I'm still interested in lending with Prosper, but I think I will wait a few weeks to make sure there's no reaction to Lending Club's actions first.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Two recalls today: Fake teeth and seasonal pens

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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Our car buying experience - Part Two: Financing and the Trade-in

Read Part One: The Negotiations and Part Three: 5 Lessons Learned.

Financing
As soon as we got serious about buying a new car, I started looking into financing options. I checked the rates at all of our banks, including credit unions, as well as Nissan's rates. Nissan offered 3.99% with a $1,000 rebate or a $1,250 rebate with no dealer financing. When I went through USAA's car buying service, I discovered that they had an online auto loan application with 4.99% financing, so I applied online and was approved within minutes. I simply printed out an electronic check to take to the dealership. (Note: The 4.99% rate was for online applications only, and required automatic payments set up with a bank account.)

When we got to the dealership, I intended to put down a hefty down payment of over $10,000 on my credit card (which I pay off in full each month) - but I was told that they only will charge a maximum of $5,000 to a credit card. The money for the down payment was sitting in our liquid CD account, which is generally highly accessible. However, it takes a day or two for funds to be transferred into a different account. I considered giving the dealership a check and asking them not to cash it for a couple of days, but rather than risk bouncing the check, I opted to finance a greater amount than I had originally intended. Once the loan was completed, I set up an electronic principal payment that brought the loan amount down to the amount I wanted it to be in the first place.

Setting up our financing through USAA was super easy, and gave us a net gain over dealership financing because of the additional $250 rebate. The dealership, knowing that a check from USAA would never bounce, had no problems with the set up. In fact, the only hiccup occurred because we registered the car in both our names, but the loan was in my name only. Marc had to sign a release before the loan could be finalized.

The Trade-in
We had a 1997 Honda Accord EX sedan to trade in. I looked up the trade-in value at Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds.com, and also spoke to a friend's husband who's knowledgeable about used cars. Edmunds' low value was about $2600. KBB's low value was about $3500. My friend's husband said we could expect to get about $4000 to $5000 in a private party sale, and about 30% less than that from a dealer.

The first time I mentioned the trade-in to the salesman was the morning of the day that we were going in to buy the car. All of the negotiations were done at that point, and I made a final call to confirm that the car was actually at the dealership before we drove out there. I decided to mention at the end that we'd be bringing in the Honda, and I could detect a bit of perturbation in the salesman's voice when I did.

But when we arrived at the dealership, everything went fine. We test drove the new car, agreed that we wanted to buy it, and the salesman went over the Honda, then left us in his office while he took the papers over to the appraiser. Based on the numbers I'd collected, I was prepared to negotiate for $3000. It was still a shock, though, when the salesman came back with an offer of $2300. Marc and I looked at each other and prepared to leave - we'd agreed before arriving at the dealership that if the trade-in value wasn't acceptable, we'd walk away. After all, the new car wasn't an urgent purchase. The salesman tried to guilt us into taking the offer by telling us that he'd gone out of his way to bring the car in (repeating his story that it was highly unusual for them to get the car on the lot before the paperwork has been completed) and complaining that we hadn't mentioned the trade-in to him before (as if that should have any impact on the purchase price of the new car).

Finally, the salesman ran to get his boss, who was probably the sales manager but also was apparently at least somewhat responsible for selling the used cars, since he talked to us about what he personally was going to do with the Honda - something about selling it at auction. He told us in his most sincere manner that the most he could get for the Honda at auction was $2700, so he would give us $2700 and hope to break even on it. Marc and I discussed the offer for a minute and agreed to take the offer. (Read this if you're wondering why we didn't just sell the car ourselves - and read Patrick's post, too.)

Some thoughts on financing
As you might recall, one of my goals this year was to pay cash for a new car. Obviously, that didn't happen. But we should have the car paid off in June, which is pretty darn close to my original goal. (We took the loan out in March and will have it paid off in less than three months.)

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

One recall today: Toy robots

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

OKK Trading Recalls Toy Robots Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard

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Follow those safety tips: they exist for a reason

Last week, a friend of a friend lost her one-year-old daughter after the little girl got tangled up in a window-shade cord and suffocated to death.

Several years ago, a colleague lost her four-month-old daughter to SIDS. This happened about a month after I had my second miscarriage, and it hit me particularly hard. I remember thinking that it was unbelievable that even if you manage to get to the point of having a baby, you could still lose him or her. This little girl is the reason I followed the SIDS prevention guidelines to the letter.

Not surprisingly, I think that when a tragedy hits close to home, it has a greater impact. But today I'm begging all parents to take those extra steps to keep their children safe.

Here are a couple of related starting points:Finally, The Wastrel Show has a tip for keeping teens safe.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Two recalls today: Magnetic dart boards and kids' board books

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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Mock Fried Zucchini Strips

I used to make something similar to this recipe back in college, using eggplant. I think it was a Cooking Light recipe, but it was so long ago, I can't be sure. In any event, this is probably our favorite way to eat zucchini (well, Marc's and mine, anyway - the boys don't eat vegetables anymore).

Mock Fried Zucchini Strips
Serves 4

1 lb. zucchini
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
approximately 2 tsp of Italian seasoning (or use a mix of oregano, basil and parsley; you can also substitute 2 cups of herbed breadcrumbs for the panko and spices)
1/8 tsp salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly cover with cooking spray.

2. Wash the zucchini and cut the ends off. Slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips.

3. Crush the spices with your fingers, and combine them in a shallow dish (I like to use a pie plate) with the panko and salt.

4. Spread a very thin layer of mayonnaise on both sides of a slice of zucchini. Dredge the zucchini in the panko mixture, pressing the panko in for maximum coverage. Place the zucchini on the prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining zucchini.

5. Bake the zucchini for 20 minutes, turning halfway through, until golden brown. They will be crunchy and tasty - the perfect light accompaniment to your favorite spring and summer dishes.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

One recall today: Plush insects

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

Plush Insect Toys Recalled by Dollar Tree Stores Due to Choking Hazard


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

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Creative strategies for coping with rising costs - Part Five: Final Thoughts

In this series, Creative Strategies for Coping with Rising Costs, I am discussing ideas for saving money and cutting costs in order to maintain your lifestyle as prices increase. Read the series: Part One: Back to Basics, Part Two: The Drugstore Game, Part Three: Finding Time For Cost-Cutting Measures, and Part Four: Unusual Ideas For Saving Money Without Reducing Your Standard Of Living.

In the previous parts to this series, I discussed ways to minimize your expenses and maximize the money you have to avoid reducing your standard of living as prices continue to rise. (Speaking of rising prices - I saw a gas station selling premium gas for $4.13 this past weekend. Crazy!)

In this final part of the series, I want to discuss one basic concept that can have a huge impact on your finances: SIMPLICITY.

I know it seems contradictory, after I've suggested that you start a price book, play the Drugstore game, and call upon your creativity to save money and stretch your dollars. After all, none of these ideas is about simplifying your life.

But there's a lot to be said for simplicity and the impact it can have on your finances. For example, if you pare down your wardrobe to only the clothes that fit and that you wear, you'll know exactly what you have and therefore you won't go out and buy something only to discover that you already had what you needed. And in sorting through your clothing, you may discover pieces that you'd completely forgotten about and are delighted to see again.

Additionally, creating space makes room for all kinds of wonderful things to happen in your life. In my case, in the months before I met my husband, I went through a tremendous growth experience in which I shed myself of much physical and emotional baggage. And then the man of my dreams showed up, and there was room in my life for him. I'm not sure that my husband and I would have met if I hadn't made the changes I'd made, and I'm positive that even if we had met, I wouldn't have been able to accept the wondrous event that it was.

And so my final suggestion is that you go through your house and eliminate all those things that you no longer need or want. Equally important, don't fill the space back up. Instead, let whatever it is that you need and want come to you. I'm confident that your standard of living (and your level of happiness) won't just remain the same, it'll go up.

If you tried any of the ideas in this series, I'd love to hear about your experiences and share them with my readers (with your permission, of course). Please send your story to me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Makeup Report: How things turned out

Thank you to everyone who responded to my call for help and advice on the makeup issue. It was so wonderful to get so many responses, the only problem was that they were so diverse, it was hard to decide what to do. The frugal girl in me naturally wanted to spend as little as possible and head straight for the drugstore. But other parts of me thought Sephora or department stores would be a better bet, since the products would be less likely to irritate my skin and I could pick out the exact right shade.

So, my original plan was to head to Sephora to try out Bare Escentuals. But I ended up at CVS for my weekly shopping trip first, and they had a great deal on Maybelline products. Jazmin at Makeup Moxie had given their mineral foundation a great review. And although she had recommended a L'Oreal foundation for me, I tend to react badly to L'Oreal products so I decided to try the Maybelline foundation since it was right there. I also bought Great Lash mascara (waterproof formula), Superstay Lipcolor, and nail polish. Using some ECBs, I paid less than $20 out of pocket for all of this (and I got some ECBs back).

When I got home, I opened the foundation, dug out old Bobbi Brown makeup brush, and dusted on the powder. I've always preferred powder foundation, but still, I was surprised at how easy it was to apply. I used a light hand, and felt the foundation looked quite natural. The lipstick was a little drying, but I expected that in a long-lasting formula. (Some readers suggested a lip gloss instead, but I get annoyed at how quickly gloss comes off.) The mascara wasn't transforming, but it went on easily, stayed on, and came off at the end of the day with minimal effort.

Overall, I was extremely pleased with the Maybelline products.

Which isn't to say I wouldn't have preferred something more expensive. If I wore makeup regularly, I'd love to compare Maybelline Minerals to Bare Escentuals, for instance. But for my purposes, the Maybelline products were great. My expenses were minimal, and I got what I wanted.

Even better? I had a lot of fun. It turns out that when I'd tossed out all my old makeup, I'd saved almost all of the things that I could. I was pretty confident that I wouldn't have tossed my Bobbi Brown brush, so I wasn't surprised to find it easily. But I was surprised to find not one but three eyelash combs. They were parts of sets that came as gifts with purchase from department stores, back when I used department store skin care products. It was a reminder of how much fun I used to have experimenting with makeup, say, ten years ago.

I'm back to being barefaced again, because it's so easy and because Marc prefers me that way. But I have a feeling it won't be years before I wear makeup again this time.

Thanks again for helping me have so much fun with it!

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Friday, April 04, 2008

FINALLY! The NHTSA offers email notification of car seat recalls

I've complained before about not being able to sign up for email notification of car seat recalls, and having to depend on traditional news sources and consumer advocacy groups for the information. Well, the NHTSA must have gotten a fair number of requests/complaints, because they now offer email notification. Yay!

Go to www.safercar.gov to sign up. You'll see that you can also sign up for email notification of tire recalls, in case you're interested in that as well.

Via Consumer Reports.

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Human accountant vs. Tax prep software

Judging from comments I've gotten when I've mentioned my accountant, I'm not the only one who wonders whether paying a substantial fee to have another human prepare my tax returns is worth it, especially in this day and age of tax prep software. Gina over at Lifehacker wondered the same thing. Only this year she used both to do a side by side comparison.

It turns out that TurboTax came up with a smaller total of tax owed, but her accountant caught a mistake by one of her employers that TurboTax didn't (apparently it didn't affect the amount owed, though). And she doesn't know yet why TurboTax reached a different result.

The best thing about Gina's report, at least for me, was this sentence:
There are always questions inside TurboTax that you respond to with just a tinge of doubt, and just a few of those can mount into a larger sense of uncertainty.
It's precisely this feeling that causes me to pay between $500 and $1000 to have my tax returns prepared for me. (Did that number make you cringe? Me too. I haven't received my bill for this year yet, and I'm praying it's on the lower end of that range.)

So I guess whether you should hire a human accountant comes down, at least to some degree, to your risk tolerance. Mine is fairly low - primarily because of the potential consequences (all of my hair would probably turn white if I received an audit notice and I wasn't sure I'd done everything right). So I'll stick with an accountant for the foreseeable future.

What about you? Do you think it's worth paying an accountant?

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Two recalls today: Sunglasses & activity centers

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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Which is faster: cake from scratch or a box mix?

I admit to buying cake mix on sale for speedy baking when I have to take something somewhere. But is it really faster?

The Kitchn says no.

They timed themselves preparing cake batter from scratch and again from a mix. The cake from scratch took 5 minutes 25 seconds to prepare, while the cake mix took 5 minutes 13 seconds. They excluded the time it took to grease and flour the pans since each batch was going to make a 9-inch round and 12 cupcakes.

Taste results aside, could this really be accurate? Using a cake mix is really no faster than baking from scratch?

What do you think?

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

One recall today: Boys' hooded jacket

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

Children’s Hooded Sweatshirts Recalled by Brents-Riordan Inc. Due to Strangulation Hazard - Click through for an additional photo.


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

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Our car buying experience - Part One: The Negotiations

As I previously mentioned, we recently bought a new car - a 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE. (See my posts here and here on how we came to choose this car.)

About a month ago, when we decided it was time to buy a new car, I started at Edmunds.com and calculated the "True Market Value" of the car we wanted - a 2008 Altima with an automatic V6 engine and no options. It came to $23,211. That wasn't too bad.

Then I kind of put car-buying on the back burner until J.D. at Get Rich Slowly linked to a Metafilter thread on determining a reasonable offer for a new car. One of the commenters noted that USAA has a car negotiation service (similar to AAA and Costco). Since I'm a USAA member, I immediately logged in and submitted my information.

I've never used AAA or Costco's program, so I don't know how different they are from the USAA program. But what happened with USAA was that after I gave my consent to send my name, phone number and email address to participating dealerships, I immediately received a notice from USAA that the closest dealership's price was $100 over invoice, or $22,350. I was asked if I wanted the system to search for a dealership with a lower price, so I clicked the yes button and received a notice that a dealership further away would sell the car to me for $500 under invoice, or $21,750. (The price included a $1,250 manufacturer rebate - I'll discuss the rebate more in Part Two, about financing.)

Later that day, I received emails from both dealerships asking for more information about what car I wanted to buy. That was a little frustrating since USAA must have sent them all of that information - really, all I should have had to provide was the color of the car I wanted. But in any event, the first thing I did was confirm with the second dealership that their USAA member price was $500 under invoice and it was. I then asked the first dealership if they would match it and they said they would. Great!

Or maybe not. We wanted a V6 with no options and both dealerships insisted that they couldn't locate such a car. In fact, I can't count the number of times we were told that there were only two cars in all of the western United States in the color we wanted ("precision grey") with the minimum options of floor mats and splashguard (at an additional $238). Nissan apparently simply doesn't make V6s without the floor mats and splashguard (as if they couldn't just take the mats out!). I find it incredibly deceptive for Nissan to call these "options" when they're apparently really "features," but that's a story for another time. We weren't in a huge rush to get a new car, so we told the dealerships to let us know when they found a V6 in precision grey with no more than mats and a splashguard and we'd come in.

Over the next three weeks or so, a few days would pass and then I'd get an email asking if I was still interested, and I'd send the same response: "here's what I want, if you can get it, let me know." Eventually, it became apparent that the first dealership actually really wanted our business and the second dealership didn't care that much (I'm assuming because they wouldn't have made much money off of us - it was also the beginning/middle of March at this point, so they may not have been worried about their quota yet).

Finally, I received an email from the first dealership saying they had found the car we wanted and could we come in? Since the dealership was near our house, Marc and I met at home and cleaned out the Honda Accord we'd be trading in. That was when I received an email from the salesman saying that he wanted to be sure we knew that the car wasn't actually at the dealership, it was three hours way. Say what?!

Needless to say, we didn't go in that day. The next week, we were told by a different salesman that he would have the car on the lot, so we made arrangements to go in. I exchanged multiple phone calls and emails with him to make sure that the car was indeed in his possession, and off we went. (The salesman insisted that the practice of not having the car on the lot was routine and it was "highly unusual" for them to bring the car in first. Are there really hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who willingly spend half a day waiting for their new car to be brought in?!) In any event, I can't tell you how nice it was to be able to go in knowing what the cost of the car would be and there wouldn't have to be any haggling or pressure to buy options we didn't want.

Read Part Two: Financing and the Trade-In and Part Three: 5 Lessons Learned.

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