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Friday, May 30, 2008

Save your expired coupons!

If you're like me, you have a huge stack of coupons that are going to expire tomorrow, May 31. Instead of throwing the coupons away, please consider sending them on to The Happy Housewife. She will forward them to military families overseas, who can use the coupons at the commissary or base exchange for six months after the expiration date. Click on the button below for details:

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Should you dye your gray hair and if so, when?

I've always had a few gray hairs, but in the last few weeks, I've been noticing a lot of them. Enough that I am starting to wonder if I should do anything about them.

Keep in mind that I've never colored my hair before. Ever. I haven't even had a perm since high school. My hair is healthy and shiny and has always been my crowning glory, my favorite feature. But now . . . I'm starting to get a little self-conscious about all the grays.

I'm 34. I feel too young to be worrying about gray hair. And yet, there's no denying that I have a lot more gray hairs than I did just a couple of months ago.

So, what's a girl to do?

As I see it, I have several options:
  • Do nothing. This is my inclination, but only if I don't get more gray hairs. I'm leaning toward this option because it's the cheapest, it's the easiest, and frankly, I'm terrified of coloring my hair. What if it looks bad? What if it damages my hair? I think I'd prefer some visible grays to a bad color job or unhealthy hair.
  • Color my hair at home. This would be less expensive than going to a salon. But I'm hugely intimidated by the prospect of coloring my own hair. How would I know what shade to get? What if I do it wrong? Even if I managed to get it right, how often would I have to do this? How much time will it take? (At least I know that I could get hair color inexpensively, thanks to The Drugstore Game!)
  • Get my hair colored at a salon. Not surprisingly, this is my least favorite option. Primarily because of cost. But also because it feels like an admission, a defeat. I feel it makes me old. I don't have anything against aging, but I hate the feeling that my life is just slipping past me. When did I get so old that I need to cover up my grays? I also have no idea how I would find the time to get my hair colored regularly; I can't even find one hour every six months to get my hair styled.
  • I can also manage my stress better. When I was younger, I noticed that the number of gray hairs increased during times of stress. During exams, especially, I would suddenly find little streaks of gray. So I'm thinking that maybe I've been internalizing too much stress and that's why my hair is turning gray. While I'm not thrilled about the idea that I'm so stressed out to the point of manifesting it physically, I think this would be preferable to turning gray simply because of age. Unless I've already reached the max number of grays for the rest of my thirties, in which case I can learn to live with it.
  • I can eat better. Or more precisely, I can eat foods that are supposed to help hair grow dark. I grew up hearing that seaweed in particular makes hair dark, and fortunately, I love the stuff!
What would you do?

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Two recalls today: Children's jewelry sets & remote-controlled helos

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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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Two recalls today: Another hooded sweatshirt & a Little Tikes phone

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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Welcome Money Saving Mom Readers!

Money Saving Mom mentioned my guest post over at Get Rich Slowly about The Drugstore Game, which is fantastic because I rely on Money Saving Mom for scenario ideas for CVS as well as info on the latest deals at drugstores and grocery stores.

If you've found Chief Family Officer for the first time via Money Saving Mom, WELCOME! My favorite topics to discuss are family finances, cooking, and parenting. With prices on the rise lately, I've been working hard to keep my family's expenses from rising along with them. I share my tips here at CFO, and The Drugstore Game has become an integral part of my money-saving strategy.

If you're interested in reading more about The Drugstore Game, you may want to read about some of my recent experiences. You can also read about the details of some of my transactions and pick up a few tips on playing the game over at my other blog, CFO Reviews.

And if that's not enough to keep you busy, you may want to check out the Best of CFO.

If you like what you see here, why not subscribe to new posts via RSS or email? You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. Thanks for stopping by!

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Our budget & emergency fund will really pay off in June

I've said that my best financial decision of 2007 was the creation of an Infrequent Bills Account ("IBA"), which is what I use to pay annual and semi-annual bills. To determine how much to contribute to this account each month, I added up the annual amount of each of the applicable bills and divided by twelve. Each month, I take that amount and transfer it to the IBA. If necessary, I first deduct the amount of the bill I will be paying that month.

I had forgotten that June is when four of our life insurance premiums hit. Added together, they account for the entire month's IBA contribution. In fact, I'll be taking some money out of the IBA to pay for May's car insurance bill, which I had charged to our credit card and will be paying off in June. Because of the IBA, these bills are all taken of without any stress.

Some people treat their emergency fund as untouchable except in true emergencies, such as a job loss, while others consider their emergency fund their primary savings account, to be tapped for unscheduled, unbudgeted expenses. I fall into the latter group, and I am expecting to have to tap our emergency fund in June for a couple of reasons.

First, due to a lack of foresight on my part, I allowed Alex to put a small dent into a car that was parked next to us. The owner of the car insisted on exchanging insurance information, so although I think it may hurt him in the long run to file a claim on the dent, he may very well do so. I'm just glad that I don't have to worry about where the money to pay for this claim will come from (although it may very well be covered by our insurance policy, which in turn might cause our premiums to rise).

Second, like PaidTwice,* we have some unplanned medical bills coming up (nothing to worry about, though). Like PaidTwice, the amount left in our Flexible Spending Account probably won't cover the bills in their entirety. Again, I'm grateful that we have a solid emergency fund in place so that I don't have to worry about how we'll pay these bills.

The funny thing is, at the same time that I'm grateful we have the money set aside, I'm still a little frustrated that these unexpected expenses are setting us back in our quest to achieve our financial goals!

*If you don't know I've Paid for This Twice Already, I highly recommend checking it out. PaidTwice writes openly about her family's debt and how she's paying it off. Her budget accounts for every incoming penny, and she shares the real numbers each week on Tell All Tuesday. I really enjoy her frankness and accessible style of writing, and I think you will too.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Some random food-related links

If you've read CFO for any length of time, you've probably gathered that I love to cook. When I am stressed, I head for the kitchen (where, admittedly, I eat as I cook). When Marc takes the boys out and gives me an hour to myself, I head for the kitchen and cook undisturbed (albeit in a rush, as I try to whip out my dishes and clean the kitchen before the boys get home). So here are some random food-related links:
  • Yesterday, Marc kindly took the boys to a museum and I promptly headed to the kitchen to make my favorite macaroni and cheese (which we had for dinner tonight) and this Easy and Yummy Cake from Thrifty Mommy. I used a box of yellow cake mix, which I had gotten a while ago when it was inexpensive (on sale and with a coupon, of course!). Following a comment on this Chowhound thread, I added a small box of vanilla pudding mix to the cake mix, then combined the mixes with 3/4 cup milk, 3/4 cup canola oil, and 4 eggs. I didn't bother putting anything on top of the whipped topping, since many people (including me) hate coconut. Chocolate shavings would have looked nice and been delicious but I didn't have time to shave the chocolate. I delivered the cake to the boys' teachers today, so I didn't get to try the cake myself. But the teachers raved about it, and the cake was so easy, I'm definitely making it again!
  • One of my favorite food blogs to read is French Laundry at Home, where Carol Blymire writes about making every recipe in chef Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. She's made some amazing (and amazingly disturbing) foods, but none compares to the pig's head in this post. Let's just say that I don't think I could eat meat if I were a butcher or farmer. Click through at your own peril.
  • Finally, head over to What's That Smell? for a chance to win a $10 Starbucks giftcard.

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Breastfeeding Tyler: The finale

This post has been updated!

Read my previous posts on this topic:
After discussing weaning about a month ago, I both followed Tyler's lead and led him to the end of breastfeeding. In the last month, he's easily switched from nursing first thing in the morning to eating Cheerios. If he had fought it, I would have delayed weaning, but instead, it went pretty smoothly. Bedtime was a slightly more difficult transition, with Marc taking the lead for a few nights. But I think it was actually harder for me than for Tyler, seeing how easily he gave up nursing for books and songs.

I'm reasonably confident that we nursed for the last time this past Friday, and unless I find myself in excruciating pain, I have no plans to nurse him again. So I can tally up the total cost of breastfeeding Tyler and compare it to the cost of breastfeeding Alex, and to the cost of buying formula for over a year.

At last count, I had spent $771, and I don't think I bought anything nursing-related after that. My greatest expense by far was the milk supply boosting supplement, More Milk Special Blend. Of the $771, $505 was spent on Special Blend. It was worth every penny, of course, because I don't produce enough milk without it. But without it, I would have spent only $266 on breastfeeding - on a few new bras and tops, lanolin, and nursing pads. Not bad.

I didn't track the cost of breastfeeding Alex, but my guess is that the total was around $1500. This includes all of the nursing gear I bought the first time around - bras, shirts, pillows, washable pads, my pump, etc. So I definitely spent less this time, mainly because I already had much of what I needed, and because I didn't need to spend as much on lactation consultations.

How much did I save by not buying formula? According to Baby Cheapskate, the lowest price for name-brand formula is $19.99 for a 25.7 ounce can, which works out to 78 cents per ounce. I plugged that number into KellyMom.com's cost benefits of breastfeeding calculator and came up with a cost of $7961 to formula feed a baby for one year.

Updated: Much thanks to reader Michele for pointing out that the 25.7 ounce can is a powder that creates 191 ounces of formula, which works out to about 10 cents per ounce. Plug 10 cents into the KellyMom calculator and you get the much more palatable figure of $1020 for one year's worth of formula. Much better!

I'm sure that number could be lowered by using coupons and/or store brand formula, but regardless, I'm convinced that I saved a lot of money by breastfeeding Tyler. And he and I are both better off for it, too. Not only did we bond via breastfeeding, he'll have (I hope!) a strong immune system because of it. And I've hopefully reduced my risk of breast cancer. You can't beat that!

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Drugstore Game: Addressing some concerns

I got some very nice responses to my Drugstore Game guest post at Get Rich Slowly, but at the same time, the majority of comments there were negative. I think some of the concerns were valid, and I want to address them.

One observation that came up a few times was that even better than buying paper towels, no matter how inexpensively, is not buying them at all and instead using washable rags. And the commenters are right. This is one of those times when it's possible to be frugal, green, and clutter-free. However, while I'm trying to use fewer paper towels, I'm finding the transition to be a somewhat painful one. With two young kids, convenience seems to win out most of the time. I'm making progress, and in the meantime, I'd at least like to spend as little as possible.

More than a few people were put off by the inclusion of the Spaghetti O's I mentioned buying at Walgreens. I wish I'd thought to mention that I'd bought them specifically to donate them to the Stamp Out Hunger food drive. I responded to the first commenter who brought this up, but there were people who obviously didn't read it. I think the point here, however, is that The Drugstore Game can allow you to give more than you would otherwise, and if money is really tight, it can also help you feed your family.

The majority of negative comments seemed to be about time. As in, the commenters feel their time is too valuable to cut coupons and look for deals. Quite a few people responded that their coupon-cutting doesn't take much time at all. Several people noted that this is a very individual issue, and I agree. Whether The Drugstore Game is worth your time depends on who you are. In my case, I (obviously) think the time is well worth it. But that may be because my kids are young and The Drugstore Game is something that I can do even while I'm caring for them. I clip and organize my coupons while they're playing. They are both active kids who need to get out of the house a lot, and so I often make a trip to CVS or Walgreens our "outing" of the morning or afternoon. Or we'll stop by a drugstore to kill some time on the way to a playdate.

I have sometimes wondered if I'll want to stop playing The Drugstore Game or at least make fewer trips to the stores when the kids are older and I don't have to constantly be in the same room where they're playing or take them out of the house as often. It's possible, but I do think I'll keep playing to some extent because . . .

The Drugstore Game is a lot of fun. At least to me. But I'm weird like that (and so are a lot of other people, apparently). It's not for everyone. (Many of my friends think I'm nuts.)

But if you enjoy doing something and it saves you money, why wouldn't you do it?

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Alopecia areata

What is alopecia areata? It's an autoimmune condition that results in hair loss. Why am I discussing it? Read on . . .

Recently, Tyler and I were in the car and when we stopped at a red light, I began pulling my hair into a ponytail. As I reached back with my left hand, I thought my scalp felt funny. And then I realized that I had a bald spot. It was about the size of a quarter and hidden by the rest of my hair, which is presumably why no one had ever noticed it before. I panicked! I called my primary physician and got squeezed in that same day. My doctor assured me that the condition wasn't indicative of anything serious and that the only possible cause he could test for was my thyroid, and told me to see my dermatologist.

The thyroid test came back normal.

A few days ago, I saw my dermatologist, Dr. R. He diagnosed the bald spot as alopecia areata. While typically occurring in children, the condition can occur at any age.

Dr. R said that alopecia areata occurs when white blood cells congregate under the skin, cutting the hair off from nutrients, which results in it falling out. He injected my scalp half a dozen times with a very diluted cortisone solution, which he said would dissipate the white blood cells in the area. Dr. R said that without treatment, the alopecia areata might spread. Yikes!

I had (of course) Googled "random bald spot" immediately upon my discovery of the bald spot and concluded that it probably was alopecia areata. The articles I read said that one of the potential causes was stress, and I had been very stressed out since the holidays last year due to a situation with some family members. But when I mentioned stress to Dr. R, he was somewhat dismissive. He said stress was a possible trigger, but it wasn't the actual cause. He likened stress to the trigger of a gun, and the cause to a bullet. The bullet is the actual cause of death; the trigger is just what got the bullet going. He said that genetics are the likely cause, but I got the impression that no one knows the cause of alopecia areata for sure.

For the time being, I am optimistic that my hair will start growing back within four weeks. If it doesn't, Dr. R said he'll give me another round of shots. And I don't want that - the shots really hurt!

If you have alopecia areata, you have my sympathy. While not a serious health condition in the sense that it doesn't seem to impact anything but hair growth, it's still no fun. And my bald spot is in the best place it could possibly be, where no one can see it. Others aren't so lucky.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Please advise me on the best handheld vacuum!

With the kids eating in the car just about every day, I've been longing for a powerful handheld vacuum to clean up all the crumbs. And the sand. Whether he's at the beach, the park, or the playground at preschool, Alex always seems to have a few ounces of sand in his shoes.

But I keep putting off the purchase because I don't know what to buy.

So I'm asking for your advice: Which handheld vacuum is the best available?

Review: Ebates

I mentioned at the end of last year that I learned a whole lot about shopping online and saving money during the 2007 holiday shopping season. One of the things I learned was to never, ever shop without going through some kind of rewards portal if at all possible.

In the last few months, my favorite shopping portal has become Ebates. The premise is simple: each merchant gives you back a percentage of your purchase. The percentage depends on the merchant, and some give back more than others. Every three months, Ebates sends you a check or deposits your cash back into your PayPal account, as long as you've accumulated more than $5.00 in cash back from purchases (in other words, credit from sign-up bonuses and referrals don't count toward the $5.00 minimum).

Ebates has hundreds of merchants signed up, and the process of shopping through them is super simple. All you have to do is go to their site, find the merchant, click through, and shop like you normally would. You can also use coupon codes for extra savings. Ebates will even tell you that coupons are available when you call up the merchant, so you can elect to apply the coupon automatically when you click through. This worked well for me when I bought a bouquet through Teleflora for my mom for Mother's Day a few weeks ago.

I got my first payout earlier this month, and it went straight into my PayPal account without a problem. (I would have reviewed Ebates earlier, but was waiting until I had received a payout. And I have!) It's very easy to select PayPal as the payment option: just click on "My Account," then scroll down to the bottom of the page to edit "Payment Options."

I'm sure someone will comment that FatWallet is also a great shopping portal and I don't doubt it. I've been told that some of the merchants give more cash back at Ebates and others give more at FatWallet, so it pays to sign up with both sites. I just haven't felt the need to join FatWallet yet, but I might before this year's holiday shopping season. If I do, I'll be sure to review it for you.

In the meantime, if you want to sign up with Ebates, they are currently offering a $10 bonus to new members. (Update: I think you have to make a purchase by June 30 to get the bonus.) If you sign up through this affiliate link, I'll also get $10 and possibly a $10 Target giftcard. So if you use the affiliate link, thank you! (It looks like there is no sign-up bonus if you don't use an affiliate link, I'm not sure why. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know!)

Have fun shopping!

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Seven recalls today

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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Welcome Lifehacker Readers!

Lifehacker picked up my guest post over at Get Rich Slowly about The Drugstore Game, which is very cool because I love Lifehacker!

If you've found Chief Family Officer for the first time via Lifehacker WELCOME! My favorite topics to discuss are family finances, cooking, and parenting. With prices on the rise lately, I've been working hard to keep my family's expenses from rising along with them. I share my tips here at CFO, and The Drugstore Game has become an integral part of my money-saving strategy. Incidentally, since I've been getting a lot of criticism about the processed foods I bought at Walgreens (or so it seems), I just want to point out that I bought that food specifically to donate it to a food drive.

If you're interested in learning more about The Drugstore Game, you may want to read about some of my recent experiences. You can also read about the details of some of my transactions and pick up a few tips on playing the game over at my other blog, CFO Reviews.

And if that's not enough to keep you busy, you may want to check out the Best of CFO.

If you like what you see here, why not subscribe to new posts via RSS or email? You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. Thanks for stopping by!

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10 Tips for Minimizing Life Insurance Costs

After my friend's husband died last week, I wrote about figuring out how much life insurance you need and what kind of policy you should get. Since I've hopefully spurred at least some of you to get new policies if you need them, I figured I'd better share some tips for saving money on your premiums:
  1. Buy term. - It's much more affordable than whole life. (But find out why you may want or need a whole life policy.)
  2. Shop around. - While you want to make sure you get coverage with a reputable company that's going to be around for the full duration of your policy, you also want to get the best deal. Different insurers charge different premiums. One possible easy way of comparing prices might be to work with an independent insurance agent. Some "independent" agents work almost exclusively with only one or two companies, so be sure to ask for quotes from several insurers.
  3. Check with your employer and/or union. Your employer or union may automatically provide you with a policy, or at least offer a reasonably priced policy that you can purchase. While you don't want to assume that it's the best policy for you, it's definitely worth looking into. If this policy is relatively inexpensive up to a certain amount, you could always use it in combination with other life insurance policies.
  4. Pay your premium annually. - The more payments you make each year, the more convenience fees the insurer probably charges. The best thing about this tip is that it's one you can take advantage of even after you've purchased your policy.
  5. Be in (or get in) good health. - This is rather obvious, but healthy people pay lower premiums. While you can't do anything about your family's medical history, you can make sure that you are a healthy weight, and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure at a healthy level.
  6. If you smoke, quit. - Enough said.
  7. Don't engage in overly risky activities. - For instance, if you skydive, fly private planes, or have a dangerous job, your premiums will be higher.
  8. Consider giving plenty of details to the insurer's representative who questions you. - "Have you seen a therapist?" is apparently as standard question, and I have had to disclose that I have. But I explained that it was to help me work through the grief of two miscarriages. I also explained that my dramatic weight gain and loss was due to pregnancy. I don't know if these explanations made a difference, but they certainly didn't hurt - I was classified in the lowest risk category.
  9. Find out if rates are lower for multiples of $250,000 of coverage. - For example, $500,000 of coverage might cost the same or less than $450,000 of coverage.
  10. Don't buy more than you need. - Unless it costs less, of course, as in Tip #9. While I emphasized that it's important to have enough, you'll just be throwing money away if you buy too much insurance.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Legal Advice for Boomers: What to ask your doctor

I recently reviewed a book full of practical and legal advice for Baby Boomers and their loved ones called Alive and Kicking. I learned a lot from the book, and the authors were kind enough to send me some columns to use as guest posts. Here's the last one.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

It's flu season. Your spouse wakes up with the classic signs: fever, cough, aches and pains. What do you conclude?

Flu.

You're not alone. Most probably, your doctor would too. "A lot of that going around." Both of you might be wrong.

In a terrific new book, How Doctors Think, Dr. Jerome Groopan warns that doctors often misdiagnose, perhaps 1 out of 10 times, perhaps slightly more. Like the rest of us, they tend to jump to conclusions. To make sure they haven't, Dr. Groopan recommends we ask three questions:
  1. What else could it be? ("Well, now that you mention it, it could be . . .")
  2. Is there anything in the exam or tests that doesn't fit? ("Well, now that you mention it, your fever isn't typical.")
  3. Is it possible I have more than one problem? ("Well, now that you mention it, sometimes folks get the flu because they are already sick with . . .")
A good friend, Dr. Jack Boyer, suggests a fourth question: Have you considered whether I want to get the treatment or not?

This question shifts focus from sickness to treatment, a treatment which may be routine, proscribed without much thought: what are its costs and benefits?

Of course, it is easy for me (and probably Dr. Groopan) to sit safely behind our computers urging you to be brave, urging you, recalling the 60's, to "Question Authority!"

It is always a good idea to take someone with you, not only to ask to the difficult questions, but to actually hear what the doctor says – often patients are so emotionally involved that they really don't hear what's said. If you can't get someone to go with you, when it comes to the difficult questions, blame me:
"Doc, I know you are absolutely correct in your diagnosis but a column I've read tells me I should feel guilty if I don't ask you . . ."
Many of us feel we are imposing on our doctor's time. Our job is to quickly state our compliant ("Sore throat, doc") and then sit back and answer questions – and, of course, to breathe deeply and, perhaps, cough. In most office visits, doctors start asking questions in the first 18 seconds of the visit. The best advice Dr. Groopan received in his medical training:
"If you listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis."
The best advice you might receive:
"You are not wasting your doctors' time; you are telling them the diagnosis."
What we have to say matters. Don't just state your complaint and sit back and let your doctor do the driving. Insist on disclosing all your symptoms even if they seem trivial. Even if they are embarrassing. (I could give examples but fear the wrath of my editor.) Remember this: doctors have heard it all before and they come to cure you, not judge you.

"Am I dying?" "Is my mother dying?" There will come a time, and you know it, when these questions will be very much on our minds. Yet we shudder at the very idea of asking them. Don't expect your doctors to volunteer the information. In A Death Foretold, Dr. Nicholas Christakis tells us that doctors shy away from terminal prognosis. Why? There are many reasons. For one, it tends to undercut their sense of professional competence, their belief that they can cure most anything. Further, many doctors are as uncomfortable with the idea of death as are the rest of us. And they fear making self-fulfilling prophecies. In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a character is told that another died after his doctors have given him only weeks to live.
"He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians."
So there you have it. Patients and their families don't ask about death and doctors don't volunteer. The result?
"The great majority of American die in institutions rather than at home as many would prefer; most die in pain being in the care of health providers; many die alone; and many have deaths that are financially devastating for their families."
So writes Dr. Christakis.

"Am I dying?" "Is my mother dying?" You will need to know. As long as everyone is in denial, intensive care treatment continues. Doctors will not terminate it on their own. Living Wills indicating that treatment should not be continued are generally ineffective unless that decision is supported by members of the family. But that won't happen as long as family and physicians don't discuss death.

Avoiding a bad death is not our only concern. We want a good death, a natural death, not in an hospital among strangers, but at home surrounded by family and friends. Hospice care can do that. It provides medical help (doctors, nurses, and pain medications) as well as grief counseling for patient and family. Medicare picks up almost all of the costs, not only in the last days or weeks of life, but for the last six months of life.

How do you get this wonderful care for your mother? For yourself? It may be difficult and you may not want to know, but all you have to do is ask.

Kenney Hegland is a Professor of Law at the University of Arizona and has taught at Harvard and UCLA. Robert Fleming in one of the nation's leading elder law lawyers. Visit their website at www.legaladviceforboomers.com.

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Welcome Get Rich Slowly Readers!

I have a guest post today over at Get Rich Slowly about The Drugstore Game. Regular players of the game won't learn anything new, but if you're still learning how to play, you might want to check my post out. And if you're not a regular reader of GRS, you should be! J.D.'s posts are always informative and accessible, which is why GRS is one of the most successful and popular personal finance blogs.

If you've found Chief Family Officer for the first time via Get Rich Slowly, WELCOME! My favorite topics to discuss are family finances, cooking, and parenting. With prices on the rise lately, I've been working hard to keep my family's expenses from rising along with them. I share my tips here at CFO, and The Drugstore Game has become an integral part of my money-saving strategy.

If you're interested in learning more about The Drugstore Game, you may want to read about some of my recent experiences. You can also read about the details of some of my transactions and pick up a few tips on playing the game over at my other blog, CFO Reviews.

And if that's not enough to keep you busy, you may want to check out the Best of CFO.

If you like what you see here, why not subscribe to new posts via RSS or email? You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. Thanks for stopping by!

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The Drugstore Game Dilemma: What to do when you start to run out of ECBs

I've been burning through my ECBs lately, unable to generate enough to completely replace the ones I've been spending on things we really need, like tissue. (We've been going through a lot of tissue lately - I hate allergy season!) CVS has also had some great deals that I couldn't pass up, even though they weren't money-makers.

I still have about $20 of ECBs left, but if I keep going, I'm going to whittle those down pretty quickly. There just aren't enough money-makers in the store, even with the $3 off $15 purchase coupon, unless I do five transactions per visit. Unfortunately, the CVS stores around me don't seem particularly receptive to that (the employees at the two Walgreens I go to have been so much nicer).

So I've been thinking about ways to acquire more ECBs or giftcards without spending any money out of pocket. Here's what I've come up with:
  • My Points - I'll be writing a review of the MyPoints program very soon, but in a nutshell, you earn points that you can redeem for your choice of giftcards. A few days ago, I cashed in 3600 points for a $25 CVS giftcard, which will hopefully arrive soon (I'm just waiting to receive the card before I publish the review). With the way I shop at CVS now, I should be able to stretch this $25 giftcard into hundreds of dollars worth of products.
  • CVS Advisor Panel - If you join the CVS Advisor Panel, they'll send surveys and reward you with ECBs for completing them. Unfortunately, I've only received one survey so far (giving me $10 ECBs), and I've been signed up for about two months now. About a week ago, I figured out that I hadn't completed the profile, so I did that in the hopes of triggering more surveys. Nothing's come yet, but I'm remaining optimistic.
  • Fill prescriptions at CVS. - CVS frequently offers giftcards for filling new prescriptions, and many stores accept competitor coupons. So I'll start saving the coupons and the next time I need a prescription filled, I'll head to CVS first.
That's all I've got. Does anyone have other suggestions?

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Drugstore Game Mindset: To stock up or not to stock up elsewhere

I've mentioned before what an adjustment it was for me to start buying things I don't need so that I can maximize my ECBs at CVS. That was really hard for me, since it seems so illogical. But I've got a good grasp on how the math works out now, and I don't have a problem with it at all.

What I am struggling with now is the notion of not stocking up. You see, we're really low on toilet paper and paper towels right now. Our favorite TP is Charmin and our favorite paper towel is Bounty. And Target is having a pretty good sale this week: 24 big rolls (equivalent to 48 regular rolls) of Charmin and 12 big rolls (equivalent to 16 regular rolls) of Bounty for $13 each. Buy 2 qualifying products and get a $5 giftcard. I have store coupons for $1 off Bounty and 75 cents off Charmin, as well as 25 cents off manufacturer coupons for each product. That brings the total down to $23.75. Subtract out the $5 giftcard and I could get a good stash of both toilet paper and paper towels for under $20. The breakdown of the cost per unit comes to 19.5 cents per regular roll of toilet paper and 58.6 cents per regular roll of paper towels, the best price since I started keeping a price book again.

These items cost considerably more at CVS. I haven't looked at the shelf prices, but online, one roll of Bounty is $1.99 and a roll of CVS brand paper towels is 99 cents per roll. Similarly, a 12-pack of Cottonelle is $9.99, or 83 cents per roll (the only Charmin they sell online is a 36-pack for $28).

Here's where I start to drive myself a little batty. Should I just spend $20 at Target in one fell swoop, stock us up for the next couple of months, and keep an eye out for deals at the drugstores in the meantime?

Or should I buy one or two packs per CVS visit? If I do this, I will only pay $1-$2 per transaction (yes, Gina, I've gotten much better at this!), but I will burn ECBs in the process, leaving me with fewer ECBs than I started with for future purposes.

Part of me - a big part of me - wants to hit Target, and kill the anxiety of possibly running out of toilet paper especially. (Although we wouldn't run out, at least not completely, since we always keep a spare roll on top of each toilet.) The rest of me says that I should play The Drugstore Game the way it was meant to be played and things will work out. Especially because I'm working on ways to get more CVS money (ECBs and giftcards - more on this tomorrow), and hopefully June will mean new money-makers.

What would you do?

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Sleep is a lot like cash - or at least, it should be

When you think about it, sleep is a lot like cash - at least to parents. I was thinking about this last night at about 10:30, when Tyler was screaming in his crib. This is unusual for him, which is why I was up with him.

And thinking about needing an emergency sleep fund.

You see, before Alex was born, I thought I couldn't possibly function on less than 8 hours of sleep every night. The knowledge that I would have to survive on less than that was one of the things that scared me most when I was pregnant with him. And yet, about a year after he was born, I found that I could comfortably live on 7 hours per night.

And then we had Tyler. Sometime before Tyler's first birthday, I started getting 6 to 6 1/2 hours of sleep every night. And you know what? It was actually okay. It turns out that I, who once thought I needed a solid 8 hours of sleep each night, can actually get by on 6 to 6 1/2. To put that in perspective, we're talking 10 1/2 to 14 fewer hours of sleep each week, and more than 546 fewer hours of sleep each year. But I need that time to get things done (like writing this post!).

And normally that's fine. I get my 6 to 6 1/2 hours of sleep and I'm fully functional the next day.

But if I don't get my minimum 6 hours of sleep, I'm a mess. Today was awful, because I lost more than an hour last night patting Tyler and resting my hand on his back so that Alex could go back to sleep and Tyler would get some rest (it was one of those times when as soon as I moved my hand away, he started screaming again).

And that's why I need an emergency sleep fund. I want to be able to make a deposit here or there, let it build up, and then be able to make a withdrawal when I need it. Can someone start working on a sleep bank for me?

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Two recalls today: Little Rider Toys & Lil' Snugglers Blankets

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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Do your kids want to work this summer?

I was 16 when I got my first real job working as a floater at a department store. (Boring, minimum wage of $5 per hour, too easy to spend the little I did make because of the 30% employee discount, but I figured it was better than McDonald's. And mostly, I was an ignorant teen who didn't know a darn thing about saving.)

My friend's daughter, who is 13, has a much better first job. She'll be "working" as a camp counselor-in-training. Since she's too young to be employed under California law, she's officially a volunteer. But she gets a $500 cash "scholarship" at the end of the summer. Not bad for a 13-year-old.

If your child wants to work this summer, there are some legal rules you'll need to know, such as whether a permit is required and how many hours per day and week your child is allowed to work. The federal government's blog, Gov Gab, has a handy post with links to helpful sources.

The most important link is worth bookmarking. It's the U.S. Department of Labor's Youth Rules site, and is all about the federal and state rules for young workers. If you have kids who are old enough to work (or will soon), I highly recommend checking it out.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Legal Advice for Boomers: Tips for raising grandchildren

I recently reviewed a book full of practical and legal advice for Baby Boomers and their loved ones called Alive and Kicking. I learned a lot from the book, and the authors were kind enough to send me some columns to use as guest posts. This one is about raising grandchildren.

Raising Grandchildren
After all the years, after all the alarm clocks, after all our work, it has become our time, our time to be that quiet person, sitting with our sleepy grandchildren, whispering "Hush."
Well, maybe not.

Many grandparents not only put their grandchildren to bed, they wake them in the morning, feed them, get them off to school, and, as the years go by, stay up late, fretting until they come home.

The US Census Bureau reports that more than six million children (that is, about one in 12 of all children) are being raised by relatives other than their parents. Of that number about 3/4 are being cared for by grandparents. If that's you, read on.

First, support groups. The AARP's "Grandparent Information Center" offers information on raising grandkids. Email: gic@aarp.org or phone 1-888-OUR-AARP. Another source of help: Generations United: www.gu.org.

Second, financial help. If you are retired and your grandchildren are under 18 (or older if disabled), they may be entitled to Social Security benefits, particularly if you have adopted them. If you are having difficultly making ends meet, contact your local welfare office or Area Agency on Aging. Don't overlook the possibility of claiming your grandchildren who are living with you as dependents on your income taxes.

What are the legal concerns?

Housing. Some "adult" communities prohibit kids. Best to try to work things out with whoever is in charge, hopefully not Darth Vader. If you are threatened with eviction or other legal action, a good lawyer may, by careful reading, find that the documents do not, after all, apply to your situation – these insights are known by your bitterly disappointed adversary as "loopholes." (Never do anything simply because an adversary tells you that the law requires it; always check with a lawyer: if there are no loopholes, there may be nitpicks or at least a good quibble.)

Custody. Physical custody does not equal legal custody. Not having legal custody can lead to problems — doctors may insist on a parent's consent to a medical treatment, and school and welfare officials might also require it. If the child's stay with you is to be temporary, say over the summer or until the parents can relocate, then a Parental Power of Attorney should suffice in most states. Signed by the parent (better yet, notarized - bells and whistles always help), it will give you power to act in the parent's stead in relation to medical and educational decisions. Even a letter, signed by one parent, is better than nothing.

Things become much more complicated if your grandchildren are living with you more or less permanently.
Sally, 22 and unwed, leaves her six-month-old baby with her parents "until she can work things out." She has an irregular work history, a minor drug problem, and a scuzzy boyfriend. Two weeks ago she went out for a pack of cigarettes; other than one collect phone call from Oklahoma, she hasn't been heard from since.
Our advice: adopt.

Unless you have legal custody, Sally can reappear, years later, and pick up the child, insisting "This time I will make a go of it." Children need love and permanence. A general Power of Attorney does not guarantee permanence. It can always be revoked by the parent – or even by the other parent. Without legal custody, both you and the children will be hostage to the whims of the parents.(If you adopt your grandchild, it need not be forever. If the parents gets their act together, you can return physical custody to them.)

You'll need legal help here. However, having seen the tremendous heartbreak that can flow from leaving things up in the air, we strongly advise that you get legal custody of the children: the cost will be well worth it, both for you and your grandchildren.

If you adopt, you have all the rights and obligations of a parent, including the legal duty to support the child. (But you are probably already supporting the child – it has been our experience that young, unwed moms, with drug problems and scuzzy boyfriends, living somewhere in Oklahoma, don't contribute much financial support anyhow.)

Inheritance. If you die without a will, your children, not your grandchildren, will get what you have. If you want to leave your grandchildren money, there are a host of problems (giving money to minors can create problems) and a host of alternatives such as trusts. Again a trip to your lawyer is advised.

Kenney Hegland is a Professor of Law at the University of Arizona and has taught at Harvard and UCLA. Robert Fleming in one of the nation's leading elder law lawyers. Visit their website at www.legaladviceforboomers.com.

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Going against the grain: When to get a whole life insurance policy

Let me start this article off by noting that I am by no means an expert on life insurance. What I state here is simply my own opinion, based on what I've read and learned over the years. Always do your own research and make your own informed decision based on what is best for you and your family.

As I mentioned the other day, I've been thinking about life insurance since my friend lost her husband. They have two young boys also, so her loss has really got me wanting to make sure we've done everything we can to prepare for the unthinkable in case it happens. Because sometimes it does.

I've already discussed how to figure out how much life insurance you need, but I didn't really talk about the difference between term and whole life insurance.

Term insurance is very simple to understand. Your policy is for a set term (usually between 10 and 30 years). You pay a monthly or annual premium that's based on your age, gender, health, and personal and family medical history at the time you obtained the policy.

Whole life insurance is a little more complicated. The policy isn't for a set term but rather it's for the rest of your life. Partly because of that, the premium is considerably higher than the premium for a term policy. But (and here's where things start to get confusing for me), unlike with term insurance, part of the premium of a whole life insurance policy goes toward an investment component. Generally, the return on the investment portion of a whole life policy is such that it's not considered a good investment, i.e., you could get a better return on your money elsewhere.

There are other types of life insurance also - universal and variable - which are similar to whole life in that they also have an investment component (and these are all often grouped together as "whole life"). The differences between these types are related to the investment component, i.e., what types of investments are available.

So how do you know if you should get term or whole life insurance?

Generally, you always want to go with term. It's much more affordable and it's all most people need.

But there are times when you need life insurance for your entire life. For example, if you have a disabled dependent who may outlive you but will be unable to support herself, you may want to consider a whole life policy.

If you think you'll need some life insurance but not that much when you are older, you can purchase a small whole life policy and get the rest of your coverage as a term policy. The advantage of doing this is that the premium on the whole life policy will be significantly lower than if you wait to get a new policy when your term policies expire. And if you keep your whole life policy for 20 or more years, eventually you will end up with a pretty good cash value in the investment portion of the policy. (Although some experts would recommend that you simply invest the money you would have paid toward the premium instead.)

If you decide a whole life policy is right for you, you still have other decisions to make. Within whole life policies, there are variables that I don't quite understand that need to be taken into account. You'll probably want to talk to an expert to help you decide exactly what kind of policy is best for you.

If you want to learn more about whole life insurance, check out the following articles:

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

More on Kaboost + a high chair/booster mat tip

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the fantastic chair booster called Kaboost. I wanted to show you what it looks like on our dining chair:


Jennifer of Furore and Frenzy might recognize the mat it's sitting on. It's the largest office chair mat I could find at Staples, after reading the best tip I've ever gotten from Parents magazine (which is saying something, since I've picked up quite a few good ones). The chair mat is so much easier to clean than the flimsy high chair mats you find in the baby section.

I also wanted to share a couple of videos about the Kaboost. The first one is a simple demo video showing you how the Kaboost works:


The second video is a cute one showing the mom at table level:

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Best of Chief Family Officer

I've been blogging for almost three years, so I thought it would be a good idea to assemble my best posts. If you like what you see here, why not subscribe to new posts via RSS or email? You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. (If you're new to reading blogs, start here.)

Money Management/Saving Money
Cooking
Parenting

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Warning: Your identity as a parent is taking over your life and you probably don't even realize it

Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week at the boys' daycare, and I've been busy coordinating Alex's classroom's contribution. Alex is in the younger preschool class, and we're teaming up with the older preschool class for maximum impact. I'm responsible for collecting money from the parents and I had to laugh today when I flipped through the envelopes and saw the one that said:

Teacher Appreciation Week
From: Steven's Dad

I have the feeling I might appreciate this even more if I actually knew Steven's dad, but Steven is in the older preschool class and I only have a vague idea of which boy he is. And I haven't the faintest clue who his dad is.

But I can certainly relate to him! All of the kids in Alex's class call me "Alex's mommy" - as in, "Alex's mommy, look, I have a Cars shirt on today." And whenever I send out an email to the other parents, I always put "Alex's mom" underneath my name - otherwise, how will the parents know who I am?

It's a weird feeling to be known only for being a mom, at least in some circles. And I'm sure that's never going to change. I'll always be "Alex and Tyler's mommy" to some people.

The big question is: as the years go by, will I think of myself as "mommy" rather than Cathy? I don't think so. But I've been known to be wrong.

What have your experiences been?

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How much life insurance do you need?

The sudden death of my friend J.'s husband a couple of days ago has got me thinking about life insurance again, and specifically, whether Marc and I each have enough coverage. As much I hate paying the premiums, thinking about how much worse J.'s situation would be if her husband didn't have adequate life insurance is making me wonder if we should add a policy.

But how do you decide how much life insurance is enough?

I remember struggling with this question after Alex was born. I knew Marc and I needed to purchase additional policies (we already had policies that we'd purchased after we bought our house) but I wasn't sure how much coverage to add. I used various online calculators, but I felt the same way about them as I do about retirement calculators: there are too many uncertain variables.

For instance, perhaps our biggest expense in the next 15 to 20 years will be paying for a private school education for the boys. (We might still send them to public school, but I have a lot to learn about the exemption system in LAUSD before we make a final decision.) The calculators take college expenses into account, but not private primary and secondary education expenses. That's not really a problem, since there's almost always a miscellaneous expense category, or the expense can be added into college expenses. The real problem is that it's hard to predict how much private school tuition will run 10 years from now. It's equally difficult to predict how high college expenses will be in 15 to 20 years.

If I assume that tuition will increase at 6% per year, a top private school will cost nearly $480,000 by the time Alex graduates from high school. A less expensive but still reputable private school will cost nearly $200,000. If Alex were to attend USC, SavingForCollege.com says it will cost $524,000 without aid. Attending UCLA will still cost over $250,000. So we're talking anywhere from $450,000 to $1 million just for educational expenses for each child. Probably. (I figure if the kids have lost a parent, the least we can do for everyone is eliminate these expenses as a source of stress and worry.) At this point, before our oldest has even started kindergarten, it's simply impossible to know which number is more realistic. For me, this kind of uncertainty is what makes life insurance calculations so difficult. (Ditto for retirement calculations.)

Another equally important and yet tenuous area of calculations is living expenses. How do you estimate your living expenses for 10 or 20 years from now? The calculators require you to input your current living expenses, and then use a formula to project expenses. But a family's expenses change through the years. Right now we pay for daycare and an occasional activity. But in a few years, we'll probably be paying for private school, sports teams participation and maybe lessons of some sort. I'm expecting our living expenses to rise considerably in approximately three years, when both boys are in school and participating in organized sports/activities, yet it's hard to predict exactly how much those things will cost. Or what if we decide to move? The mortgage, insurance, taxes and utilities would all change. But all I can do is guesstimate.

And that's really what it comes down to - your best guesses.

In the end, the best way to figure out how much life insurance you need is to come up with a range based on your best guesses. And then try to buy as much life insurance as you can afford.

One thing to note is that if your children are very young, a typical 20-year term policy may expire before your child's school years are over. You may want to consider a 25-year policy instead.

Life insurance, like wills, is one of those topics that's no fun to think about but absolutely necessary to have. Especially if you have family counting on you. Just think of what life would be like for them if you didn't have life insurance. That should be all the motivation you need to make sure you get those policies in place . . . before it's too late.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Writing an End-of-Life Letter

Last week, I reviewed a book full of practical and legal advice for Baby Boomers and their loved ones called Alive and Kicking. I learned a lot from the book, and the authors were kind enough to send me some columns to use as guest posts. Here's the first one.

A Letter to My Family and Doctors Concerning End-of-Life Matters
I don’t mind the idea of dying. It’s just I don’t want to be there when it happens. - Woody Allen
Probably you have a Living Will, somewhere around the house. It directs what treatment you want during your last illness, most likely insisting on "no heroics" – the terrifying image, the stuff of countless TV shows, being hooked to machines in ICU for weeks, dying a slow and painful death, bankrupting your family.

Living Wills aren't very effective. Studies show that, despite what your Living Will might say, doctors generally do what your family directs. We recommend a letter.
It may be the most important letter you will ever write. It will improve the odds that your Living Will will be followed and there are even better reasons.
"Everyone knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it. Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live." - Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
How to get beyond denial? Not by checking boxes; but by writing about your final illness.

Your letter can trigger a meaningful family talk. Parents and their adult children often find it next to impossible to discuss end-of-life matters, matters that fester. "Will I become a burden to my family?" "What should I do if mom can't care for herself?" The hardest part is starting the discussion. Here a perfect ploy: "I just wrote this letter concerning my final illness. I want you to read it; then we'll talk."

What issues might you address? Hospice (a wonderful choice), cardiopulmonary resuscitation (usually a bad choice: they work best on TV), feeding tubes, organ donations, autopsy, burial, and funeral arrangements (Sitting Shiva or Irish Wake). In our book, Alive and Kicking, Legal Advice for Boomers, we go into these matters in detail.

What might get in the way of your family and doctors following your wishes? Family members may not agree as to proper treatment and some might insist that "love means keeping our parent alive." Consider:
I hope my family will carefully listen to each and come to agreement. If not, I appoint _______________ as the final arbiter and as my health care power of attorney. If _______________ cannot serve, then I appoint ________________. I know your decisions may hasten my death; no one should feel guilty or feel that the only way to show love is to prolong my life. The opposite may be true.
Fear of legal trouble may prevent your doctors from giving adequate pain medications and may encourage them to pursue heroic, yet hopeless, measures.
Pain. I want adequate pain medication even if it causes addiction or hastens death. No one should take any action complaining that I received too much pain medication.

End-of-Life Medical Treatment. I do not want my life extended if my prognosis is grim. No one should take any action complaining that the treatment I received was not aggressive enough.
Doctors may be reluctant to give a prognosis, particularly a grim one. This leads to tragic results: children for out-of-state may arrive too late and expensive, painful, and fruitless procedures may be followed.
Prognosis. I want my family to insist upon a prognosis of my condition, even if it is a negative one.
In any event, be sure to include, at the end of your letter, something for your family to sign:
We, the author's family members, have read and discussed this letter with the author. We understand it and agree to follow it. Signed . . .
Writing the letter will not be pleasant: denial is not for nothing. But there are huge dividends:
"Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live."
End-of-life discussions sound dreadful. But, once beyond the awkwardness, you will find them deeply moving, filled with relief and humor. Details don't matter. The value is now, not then, the simple message to your family: "I love you, I trust you, and it's time to spend a few minutes talking about my final illness; it's really nothing to dread." And perhaps, "Pass the wine."

As to then, when the tough decisions must be made, not to worry; you'll probably be run over by a bus.

Kenney Hegland is a Professor of Law at the University of Arizona and has taught at Harvard and UCLA. Robert Fleming is a leading Elder Law attorney. Visit their website at www.legaladviceforboomers.com.

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The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Final Thoughts

My 29-Day Giving Challenge ended yesterday on a sad note, but overall, the experience was an extremely positive one. The challenge showed me that I can find opportunities to give if I just look for them. It also reminded me of how much fun it is to give a random surprise gift just for the sake of giving.

I did find that the challenge grew tiresome if I hadn't already planned a gift and I didn't spend the day constantly looking for a giving opportunity. Then I found myself at the computer just before bedtime racking my brain for something to give to someone. Fortunately, that only happened a couple of times, but I have to admit that in some respects, I'm glad the challenge is over.

What's changed? I've discovered that giving is like a muscle, in that the more you give, the stronger the urge to keep giving. Even though the challenge is over, I will now always be on the lookout for opportunities to give a gift, no matter how big or small. And I know that the size of the gift doesn't really matter . . . what really matters is the act of giving itself.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 29

Today was Day 29 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I'm ending this challenge the same way I started it off: by passing on some clothes Tyler's outgrown to a colleague who's expecting a baby boy.

I was going to share some thoughts about the challenge, but instead of writing, I spent most of the day thinking about my friend J. For a while, we kept in touch in spurts - we'd talk several times during the same week, and then not talk for months. A few years ago, she moved several hundred miles away and we've pretty much kept in touch via sporadic email exchanges and Christmas cards. Today I found out that her husband was killed in an accident yesterday. It's really hit me hard because they have two boys, just like us. The youngest is just two months older than Alex, so J. and I were pregnant at the same time. The oldest is about three years older than them. And I get teary every time I think of them having to grow up without their dad.

Unfortunately, I only met J.'s husband once. So I can't do what I really wish I could do, which is write down some memories that they can read when they're older and have a little piece of their dad back.

Since J. and I aren't that close, I'm a little at a loss as to what I can do for her. I did send out a note today that included some money. I have no idea what their financial situation is, whether her husband had adequate life insurance, etc. But even if he did, it will probably take a little while for the policy to pay out. So I wrote that she should use the money for whatever she needs, or she could add it to the boys' college fund. I may also be contributing to a group gift later, but we'll have to see about that.

I just wish that I could give more.

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Chocolate & Zucchini Cake

I've been wanting to make a chocolate and zucchini cake for a few weeks now, so when Marc took the kids out for an hour on Sunday, I decided that my Mother's Day gift to myself would be baking a cake. It seemed only right to turn to the recipe in Clotilde Dusolier's Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook. (Read my cookbook review from last year.) The recipe from the book (below) is almost identical to the one on her blog. The modifications I made are in italics.

Clotilde Dusolier's Chocolate & Zucchini Cake

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature or 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 pat butter or teaspoon olive oil for greasing
2 cups all-purpose flour (I used 1 cup of all purpose flour and 1 cup of white whole wheat flour.)
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa (I used regular fair-trade cocoa, not Dutch-processed, and the cake came out fine.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules (I omitted these since I didn't have any.)
3 large eggs
2 cups unpeeled grated zucchini (about 1 1/2 medium zucchini; you can use the remaining 1/2 zucchini for optional garnish)
1 cup good-quality bittersweet chocolate chips (I didn't feel like chopping up a bar, so I used large fair trade bittersweet chocolate chips.)
Confectioners' sugar or melted bittersweet chocolate (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 10-inch springform pan with butter or oil. (I don't have a 10-inch pan so I used a 9-inch pan and baked the cake for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick in the center came out almost clean.)

2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a food processor, process the sugar and butter until creamy. (Instead of a food processor, I used my stand mixer, as I normally do when baking. A hand mixer would work well also.) Add the vanilla, coffee granules, and eggs, mixing well between each addition.

3. Reserve one cup of the flour mixture and add the rest to the egg mixture. Mix until just combined; the batter will be thick. (And it really was thick; don't worry, though!)

4. Add the zucchini and chocolate chips to the reserved flour mixture and toss to coat. Fold into the batter and blend with a wooden spoon, taking care not to overmix. Pour into the prepared cake pan and level the surface with a spatula.

5. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the pan to loosen the cake, and unclasp the sides of the pan. (I was unclear whether I was supposed to actually remove the sides, so I just left it and it was fine, there were no sticking problems later.) Let cool to room temperature before serving. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar, glaze with melted chocolate, or decorate with a few slices of raw zucchini (you don't have to eat them, though).

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 28

Today was Day 28 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I realized that I hadn't given Marc anything during this challenge, so I bought him a little something (I'm bummed they were out of Boba Fett, though).

Since tomorrow is the last day of the challenge, I'll wrap it up with some thoughts about giving.

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The Fine Line Between Frugal, Green, and Clutter-free

I've actually been thinking about this topic for a while now. Most of the time, being frugal and being green go together. If you're frugal, you generally buy fewer items, you drive less often, you reduce, reuse and recycle. Because of this, your home is also generally less cluttered.

But as I declutter my home, I find that the line between these areas becomes very fine. There are many things that I might need someday. It wouldn't be frugal or good for the environment to have to buy them new all over again. But keeping these things around makes my home more cluttered. It also increases the possibility that I'll forget I have these items and buy new ones anyway.

I'm still finding a balance that works for me. But I would love any tips you have to share, because this is definitely an area that I struggle with.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

The 29-Day Giving Challenge: Day 27

Today was Day 27 of my 29-Day Giving Challenge. I sent my parents a little gift to let them know that we're thinking about them.

I have to admit, the end of this challenge is getting a little weary. I seem to be running out of steam!

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CVS FAQ Roundup

I don't know if more people are playing The Drugstore Game or if I'm just more aware of the discussion about it, but I keep seeing helpful posts on different sites and wanted to highlight a couple.

First, Gina at Mommy Making Money explains why she buys things she doesn't need. I just wish I'd known this info a couple of months ago when I first started shopping at CVS!

Second, Jenny at Tavita's Purse explains how she rolls over her ECBs at CVS and uses them to pay for necessities. I particularly like how she calculates how much she has to "spend" by adding up coupons.

What are your best Drugstore Game tips?

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More proof that playing the Drugstore Game pays off

Last Monday, I calculated that I've saved $50 in two months by playing The Drugstore Game, but Gina from Mommy Making Money commented that the $80 I spent was still a lot of money compared to what Drugstore Game experts spend (like herself, although she's too modest to say that!).

She's right, of course. The experts spend maybe $2 per week to keep their families stocked on toiletries, paper goods and even food. They do this by rolling store coupons, even if it means they don't need what they buy.

I finally got a taste of how to do it right on Friday, when a trip to CVS resulted in $1.81 out of pocket to go home with an eight-pack of Bounty Basic paper towels, a Venus Embrace razor, and a tube of Aquafresh toothpaste. But the important thing was that I spent $7.98 in ECBs and received $7.99 in ECBs back. It was the first time I felt like I'd really played the game well, although I'm not convinced I'll be able to replicate the experience.

On Saturday, I headed to Walgreens with three transactions planned out. You can read about all the details here. I had a $10 Register Rewards coupon from a previous purchase (which had cost me about $7 out of pocket for five tubes of toothpaste, two small boxes of aluminum foil, and a small bottle of Dawn). After four transactions, I had spent $9.78 and left with:
  • five tubes of toothpaste
  • three bottles of Cascade dishwashing detergent
  • a box of two Mr. Clean Magic Erasers
  • two boxes of 3-oz. paper cups
  • a Venus Embrace razor
  • a tube of Blistex
  • an Oral B Cross Action toothbrush
  • four cans of Spaghetti O's
  • three cans of Campbells condensed soup
  • one can of tomato paste
  • and one box of cereal
I bought all of the food with a $10 Register Rewards coupon that printed out after the third transaction and donated the food to Saturday's Stamp Out Hunger food drive. I will also get $4.99 back for the toothbrush purchase, since it is free after rebate this month. (Actually, I'll get $5.49 back because Walgreens adds 10% when you get your rebate on a Walgreens giftcard.)

This week was the first time I used the Register Rewards at Walgreens, and it was particularly successful because I picked up a lot of things that I will use for a super low price. By combining coupons and store rewards, I stocked up on many things that my family will use. And I picked up some things that I can donate.

I'm not sure that I can recreate this success every week, but I'm loving all the savings right now!

If you'd like to learn more about how to play The Drugstore Game, read my introductory post. Then head over to CFO Reviews, where I've been posting about my Drugstore Game experiences and today am sharing my sources for finding the best deals.

P.S. This was the best week for Register Rewards at Walgreens since I started playing the Drugstore Game a couple of months ago. But while my Walgreens purchases were a bit out of the norm, the fact remains that it is completely possible to pay less than $5 each week (and often more like $2) out of pocket to keep your family stocked up on necessities.

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