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Saturday, August 30, 2008

One recall yesterday: Accessory bags

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

Bonne Bell Recalls Children's Cosmetics Accessory Bags Due to Risk of Lead Exposure - Click through for additional pictures.


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

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Three recalls yesterday: Strollers, hoodies & wooden toys

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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CPSC Advisory: Don't use Simplicity 3-in-1 and 4-in-1 Convertible "Close-Sleeper" Models

Two babies have been strangled to death by Simplicity 3-in-1 and 4-in-1 Convertible "Close-Sleeper" models. So the CPSC is advising consumers to stop using them, and asking for help to spread the word. Six retailers have agreed to stop selling and recall the bassinets - click through to the press release for a list of the recalled model numbers.

The most disturbing thing about this advisory is that Simplicity's assets were bought by a company called SFCA, Inc. earlier this year, and SFCA is refusing to cooperate with the CPSC, claiming it's not responsible for Simplicity's previously produced products. This appears to be one of those cases where increasing and preserving profits are more important than saving lives.

I urge all parents to boycott all Simplicity products. If their bottom line is all they care about, then that's where we need to hurt them.

SFCA is owned by Blackstreet Capital Partners, a private equity firm. I can't tell what other companies they own from their web site, but the site does conveniently list email addresses for their "Team". In any case anyone wants to let them know how unacceptable their lack of cooperation is. ;)

I'd really like to get the word out about this - both the advisory and the boycott. Please help by spreading the word to your family and friends, on your own blog, Stumbling, Digging, etc. Thanks!

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fraudulent Coupons - Part 2: It's not always the consumer's fault

Last month, I discussed how fake coupons cost everyone. But of course, the problem remains. And it turns out that it's not always the consumer's fault. A couple of weeks ago, a marketing company decided to experiment by posting high-value coupons on Facebook. Not being a Facebook member, I never got around to joining and seeing them for myself, but I read about them multiple times on the various coupon sites that I check regularly.

It didn't take long for forum members to start questioning the validity of the coupons. But initial reports were that the marketing company had confirmed that the coupons were valid. These reports were quickly followed by claims that a hacker had posted invalid coupons. Not surprisingly, that led to conflicting reports that the marketing company was going to honor the valid coupons and reports that the company wasn't going to honor any of the coupons. Eventually, the company announced that it would not honor any of the coupons and that stores should stop accepting them. Naturally, by the time the final announcement was made, many consumers had used the coupons.

An argument could be made that the coupons were so inherently suspicious that consumers should have known better than to use them. But that argument is weakened by the fact that the marketing company initially validated the coupons.

According to this Seattle Times article, the general consensus is that the marketing company should bear the blame - and the financial losses caused by the use of the coupons. The company published coupons that bore no security features, such as print limits.

For the average coupon-user, the whole incident is cause for concern. Coupon forums are ablaze with talk about all printable coupons being rejected, and all coupons being closely scrutinized - new developments since the Facebook coupons came out. Even though I never used one of the Facebook coupons, I have been worried that my printable coupons will be rejected at the stores where I've never had any problems before.

If there is a lesson for the average consumer here, it is to be knowledgable about coupons and be able to recognize when a coupon is suspicious. And hopefully, the independent marketing firm that started all of this has taken enough of a financial hit that no one will do anything this careless again.

What do you think about the Facebook coupons and the subsequent fallout?

Hat tip: IheartCVS.

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PSA: Don't forget your flu vaccines this year

I've been asked to tell you about a new campaign called Flu Vaccination: Choose Your Administration, which seeks to increase awareness of the need for the flu vaccine. (The campaign is sponsored by the company that makes FluMist.) You can learn more about the flu vaccine and the different ways it can be administered at the CDC web site.

The timing of this campaign is striking, because I was just reading an issue of Parents magazine, which highlighted the work of a man who lost his three-year-old daughter to the flu and now raises awareness of the importance of the flu vaccine. It's entirely possible (likely?) that his daughter would have survived if she'd been given the vaccine.

I've already made an appointment for the boys to get their flu vaccines next month, and Marc and I will be getting vaccinated then as well. A couple of years ago, the pediatrician's office was out of the shot, so I received the FluMist vaccine. That was how I learned that it's 50% more expensive than the shot, at least with my insurance company. So given a choice, I'd recommend the shot just for financial reasons - although the injection site does hurt for a day or two.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Weight Watchers Week Six: Some Weight Watchers Tips

I'm happy to report that Weight Watchers is really working for me, so I thought it would be a good time to share some details on what I've been doing. Although I offer these tips in relation to Weight Watchers, the general principles are, of course, applicable to any healthy lifestyle.
  • Earn activity points. If I could share only one tip, it would be to exercise. With Weight Watchers, you earn "activity points," which means you can eat that much more on the days you exercise. I love it, because on days when I work out long and hard, I can easily earn an extra four to six points, enough for a whole extra meal.
  • Think long term. It's nice to see that Weight Watchers' "it's not a diet, it's a lifestyle" motto is more than just lip service. At my last meeting, one of the women, A., mentioned that she leaves herself about three points for dinner, and ends up having tomato sauce with shirataki noodles.* Our leader, W., asked if A. could keep that up in the long run, to which A. replied that she figured it would be different once she was in maintenance. W. was obviously perturbed, and emphasized that the maintenance phase isn't that different from the losing phase. She impressed upon us that now is the time to cultivate a lifestyle that we can live with forever. It made a lot of sense to me, since I am in this for the long haul - this will be the last "diet" I'm ever on. I have no intention of gaining any of the weight back and every intention of keeping it off forever. I have visions of taking "active" vacations when the boys are old enough, and watching the men's marathon at the Olympics has even got me thinking, "I think I can do that!" (Although it would take me a heck of a lot longer than two hours to run 26.2 miles.)
  • Allow for "failure." Weight Watchers' Flex Plan comes with a daily points allowance and a weekly points allowance. I always eat all of my daily points, because I don't want to send my body into starvation mode, and in fact, I usually eat more than that, since I almost always earn at least some activity points. But I save my weekly points for those "moments of weakness" - like when the kids are throwing extra-vigorous tantrums, my blood pressure is soaring, and those cookies on the counter look particularly tempting. Or when I have a PMS-induced craving for chocolate cake. I know these moments are going to happen each week, and by saving my weekly points for them, I can indulge without any guilt.
  • Prepare for the unexpected. This goes along with the previous tip and saving weekly points. There have been a couple of times when I didn't really have an ideal low-point option, and had to settle for a food that contained more points than I had planned for. But again, I didn't stress about it too much because I knew I had room in my "points budget" because I hadn't eaten my weekly points yet.
  • Don't eat all of your weekly points. Even though I save my weekly points for unexpected temptations, I have never eaten all of them. Not only will I lose weight faster because I'm taking in fewer calories, it also helps make up for any underestimating I may have done with my tracking during the week. Maybe there was a day when I actually ate 26 points but only tracked 24 because I underestimated a portion or forgot about the bite I took off of one of the kids' plates.
  • Have a contingency plan. I keep a few favorite low-point foods around for unplanned moments. For instance, on Saturday, Alex wanted hot dogs. I'm not crazy about hot dogs, though, and I didn't want to waste points on them. So I made hot dogs for the rest of the family and pulled a four-point frozen Smart Ones dinner out of the freezer for myself. I like to keep a few of these on hand at all times just for such occasions, and I've found that my meeting leader has booklets containing coupons for Weight Watchers products so I can easily combine sales and coupons. Other foods I like to keep on hand are Special K cereal, rice cakes, and Laughing Cow Light cheese.
So those are my tips for succeeding on Weight Watchers. I'd love it if you'd share yours in the comments!

*I just have to mention how that grosses me out. I love shirataki, but can't imagine eating them with a bolognese.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

One recall today: Stroller toy

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

Stroller Activity Bars Recalled by International Playthings 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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Guest Post: The Drugstore Game vs. The Warehouse Club: The Hard Numbers

This is a guest post from Mercedes of Common Sense with Money, which is one of my daily reads. Check out her post on how to make money on air fresheners at Walgreens this week. If you like what you see, why not subscribe to her RSS feed?

When I first started watching the household spending, I turned to warehouse clubs to cut back on the cost of every day items. During the last 10 years I have been a member of BJ's, Costco and Sam's. At first I was very excited about the savings, but eventually I started noticing that every time we went shopping to those stores we never left with a bill lower than $125.

Then at the beginning of this year I decided to give using coupons an honest try. When I first started doing this, I kept finding stories of people saving a lot of money by shopping at Walgreens and CVS. At first, I didn't want to believe it since I always thought that buying in bulk was the cheapest way to get certain household items.

But I am a convert and today I want to show you the hard numbers. First, I want to show you some of the things I would have bought at Costco at the end of July and how much I would have spent. Then I want to show you how much I paid for those same things at either Walgreens or CVS.

Costco Purchases:
Charmin toilet paper $19.17 big pack less $2 in store coupon = 17.17 or 23 cents per regular roll
Cascade Advanced Gel $7.99 less $1.50 in store coupons = 6.49 or 5 cents an ounce
Colgate 360 Toothbrushes $11.99 8pk less $5 in store coupon = 6.99 or 87 cents a brush
Colgate Toothpaste $9.88 less $2 in store coupon = 7.88 or 1.97 a tube
Pantene Shampoo $7.99 less $2 in store coupon = 5.99 or 15 cents an ounce
Total Spent: $44.52

But instead I bought these products at either Walgreens or CVS and paid:
Charmin toilet paper (on sale at the end of June): 10 cents per regular roll after ECBs and coupons
Cascade Gel: less than one cent per ounce after Register Rewards
Colgate Toothbrushes: free after ECBs during May
Toothpaste: free every month after coupons, RR and/or ECBs
Two bottles of Pantene shampoo: were free after rebate and coupons at Walgreens
Total spent: $7.30

Sure, playing The Drugstore Game may not offer the convenience of doing your shopping all at once the same way the warehouse clubs do. But at the same time, your wallet doesn't take one big hit every time you shop there. I have also never heard anyone talked about getting paid for shopping at Costco, or making money while shopping there. You also don't have to pay a yearly fee to shop at CVS or Walgreens.

Playing The Drugstore Game also gives you the opportunity to stockpile items for less money spent out of pocket than buying at the warehouse clubs. The best thing about this is that you don't have to play the game forever or with the same intensity. Once you build up a stockpile of the items you need, you can sit back and take a break. During these past eight months, I have been able to save thousands of dollars by shopping at these stores. That has allowed us to maintain not only our standard of living but also increase the amount of money we save for our and our children's future. To me, that is a great achievement considering the current state of our economy.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: Maytag Epic Washer

Earlier this year, we had to buy a new washer. I shared the great deal I got, and promised a review. Now that it's been six months, I have enough info - including data from our electric and gas bills.

The Details

The washer we got is a Maytag Epic (sorry, I don't remember the model number). It's a front-loading high efficiency washer. It holds four cubic feet, so it's large enough to wash a queen size comforter. That was important to me, since with two little kids, we never know when or what kind of emergency laundry will need to be done.

The Performance

One of my concerns with getting an HE washer was performance. Having read that top-loading HE washers don't really get clothes clean, I was a bit wary. But we've had no problems at all.

I like that even though it's a front-loading washer, I can still stop the cycle for the first few minutes and throw in a stray sock or towel that escaped my initial loading. I risk having some water drip onto the floor when I do this, but since the washer is in the garage on a concrete floor, a little bit of water doesn't pose a problem.

I love having a drawer where I can add liquid fabric softener at the start of the cycle. I used to never use liquid fabric softener because I couldn't be bothered to remember to go to the garage to add it mid-cycle. But now that that's not a concern, I find myself using liquid fabric softener exclusively. It smells better, and also seems to be on sale more frequently. (I do, however, recommend against the Target brand, only because the bottle leaks when you're pouring.)

The drawer does pose a bit of a problem, in that water often pools there. Opening the drawer after the clothes have been removed from the washer allows the water to drain out, but of course, I don't always remember to do this. That, in turn, has resulted in a little bit of mildew buildup, though it's easy to remove.

The one thing I absolutely hate about this washer is the timer. When I start an average load, the timer starts off at 40 minutes. Everything seems to go along fine, until the last three minutes. Somehow those last three minutes last four or five times as long. In fact, I've found myself standing in the garage with the timer at 0:01 for a good five minutes, if not longer. It doesn't help that even on the loudest setting, the end buzzer can't be heard outside of the garage.

The Numbers

It's a little harder to find HE detergent on sale, partly because the drugstores don't always carry it - especially in my preferred variety of unscented, uncolored, etc. So my detergent stockpile is not what I would like it to be. This is one area where we are spending a little bit more money than we used to.

Efficiency-wise, the washer has not had enough of an impact to justify the cost. In other words, I would never recommend someone buy an HE washer to replace an older washer that's working just fine. We are using a little less hot water each month, but not significantly less. And our electricity usage has remained the same, since HE washers run longer than traditional washers (presumably they need to agitate longer because they use less water). However, the longer running time of the washer seems to offset somewhat by the shorter running time of the dryer, since our clothes come out less wet than they did out of the old washer. It will be quite a few years, however, before we recoup the cost of the washer in hot water savings.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I like our washer. But I wouldn't recommend it, simply because of that darned timer. If that wouldn't bother you, though, then by all means, this is a reliable washer at a good price (especially after rebates).

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Today's Ebates double cash back store: Barnes & Noble

I try to check Ebates every day to see what the double cash back store of the day is because it's possible to get some great deals. If I think the store might be of particular interest, I mention it here.

Today's Ebates double cash back store is Barnes & Noble, which will give you 8% of your purchase back. Ordinarily, I wouldn't think this was a deal worth mentioning, but students in search of the best prices on textbooks probably ought to give it a look, especially since shipping is free on orders over $25.

To learn more about Ebates, read my original review. If you sign up through my referral link, you'll get a $10 bonus when you make your first purchase by September 12. (Disclosure: So will I, thanks!)

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Walgreens Update

So I discovered a problem with waiting for a $5 off $20 purchase coupon and planning ahead for it: stores run out of popular items. In retrospect, it seems obvious and I should have planned for it, but I was surprised yesterday evening when my favorite store was out of the Walgreens water pitcher filter. I even went to a different, bigger Walgreens and they were out, too.

I thought about substituting another Bioinfusion shampoo and Duracell batteries, but decided to try a third Walgreens today instead. I'll let you know if I get lucky.

I did make a purchase at the second Walgreens yesterday. I picked up two packages of plastic spoons and a package of plastic forks for 39 cents each. And I found the Walgreens "Children's Activity Book" that I've read about on various coupon sites, so I grabbed a copy of that as well. It was 99 cents and contains various Walgreens coupons for kid-related products like Johnson & Johnson, Band-Aids, and Huggies. The coupons don't expire until March 31, 2009, and some stores allow you to keep and re-use them since they are store "Instant Value Coupons" similar to the ones in the Easy Saver Rebate book. I should be able to recoup my 99 cents back and more between now and the end of March.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

My Walgreens plan

Since Walgreens came out with a two-day only coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase, I'll be making a stop today or tomorrow. The big factor in my decision is the free-after-monthly-rebate water pitcher filter that fits Brita pitchers, since I've been waiting for this coupon to buy the filter.

Here's my plan:
3 bags of Walgreens brand plastic ware, 39 cents each with weekly ad coupon (I'm starting to stock up for Tyler's birthday party) - $1.17
6 bubble mailers, 39 cents each with weekly ad coupon - $2.34
water pitcher filter - $6.99
Bioinfusion shampoo - $5.99
6 boxes Jello, 39 cents each with weekly ad coupon - $2.34
3 boxes Jiffy, 39 cents each with weekly ad coupon - $1.17

Total: $20.00 (I couldn't have hit that total exactly if I'd been trying)

I'll pay $15 plus tax, and I'll get rebates of $6.99 for the filter and $5.99 for the shampoo, plus 10% because I'll have them applied to a Walgreens gift card, for a total rebate of $14.28. Or in other words, I'll get all of the above for 72 cents plus tax.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review: Take Time for Your Life by Cheryl Richardson

About ten years ago, I saw a woman on The Oprah Winfrey Show named Cheryl Richardson. I'd never heard of a "life coach" before, but that's what Richardson's title was. And she was promoting her new book called Take Time for Your Life.

Intrigued, I bought the book and have loved it ever since. I hadn't touched it in several years, but took it down from my bookcase a couple of months ago, thinking that I might sell it on Amazon. Instead, I found myself rereading it - and remembering why it is such a great book.

The overarching theme of Take Time for Your Life is "extreme self-care." Richardson emphasizes that in order to be happy, and to be able to give of ourselves to others, we must take care of ourselves and meet our own needs. And "needs" refers not just to basic needs like sleep and food, but to nourishment of the soul. She encourages readers to figure out what nourishes their spirit, and offers tools to help fit that nourishment into their daily lives.

She also suggests practical and detailed ways to figure out your priorities, manage time, get control of your finances, and make your dreams come true. Of course, it's not as simple as that, but I do believe the book can help you get there.

I like the many anecdotes in the book about clients she's worked with. They help to illustrate her points with specific examples of how her recommendations work. One of my favorite examples is of the woman who couldn't bring herself to sort through the endless stacks of papers she'd accumulated. Richardson told the woman to sit on the floor with the papers, light a candle, and ask why she had a mental block against dealing with them. That was how the woman realized that her notes for a novel she'd always wanted to write were buried in the papers and that tossing the papers would mean tossing out her dream of writing that book.

I admit that it's kooky, but it also resonates with me. I don't know that I would go so far as to conduct a seance with a bunch of papers, but the story is a good reminder to look beyond the surface and ask myself what's really going on.

That's actually a big part of why I like this book: the solutions presented aren't ones that I would ordinarily think of on my own. I might not actually want to pursue any of them - such as hiring someone to do my housework - but I appreciate having a new perspective from which to view my problems and solutions.

Since the book has been around for a while, it should be easy to borrow from your local library. Alternatively, you might just want to poke around Richardson's web site and maybe sign up for her weekly newsletter, or buy the book used from Amazon for $4.00 including shipping.

As for my copy of Take Time for Your Life? It's back on my bookshelf.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Drugstore Game Burnout - Revisited

I might hit Walgreens later this week, especially if a one-day only coupon comes out (those are great for picking up free-after-monthly-rebate items). But otherwise, I'm not seeing anything that makes me want to run out and shop.

We've talked before about burning out on The Drugstore Game by shopping too much, but I don't think what's going on here. I think it's more that I'm well-stocked and none of the sales are calling to me. Thanks to my plays in The Drugstore Game for the last six months, we have no urgent needs. I can wait for the very best deals to come along, and thanks to my price book, I know that the deals I'm seeing this week don't fall in that category. It's worth noting that I realize others probably do see fantastic deals out there - but we all have different needs. For instance, my kids aren't in school yet, so I won't go out of my way for inexpensive or even free school supplies.

While I'm not burned out, I think it's still good for my mental health to take a week off from The Drugstore Game anyway. Instead of sorting coupons and putting together deals, I can cook, write, and play more with the kids.

However, I see that next week at CVS, there are a few things I will probably want to pick up. ;)

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Is The Drugstore Game hurting Target?

I just read that Target's quarterly profit fell 8% last quarter. The same article reports that Wal-Mart's profits rose 17% and attributed the difference to customers' perception of Wal-Mart as the place to go for the best prices on basics, and Target as the place to for the best prices on trendy stuff. The article quotes an analyst who says Target needs to market themselves as a store that can help families save money during tough economic times.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart because there isn't one convenient to me, but I see many of its prices on various coupon web sites that I routinely read. And so I know that their prices seem to be lower - at least generally - compared to Target's. In fact, Target's prices are often higher than supermarket sale prices, especially when coupons are factored in. For example, this week, Target has Frosted Flakes cereal on sale for 2 for $5. But last week at Pavilions (a Safeway company store), there was a "super coupon" for 2 for $3.

Having said that, I still go to Target at least once a week. This week, I picked up a pack of Luvs diapers. Jumbo packs are on sale for $6.99, and I had a $5 off coupon that I'd received in the mail a while back. I've never tried Luvs and was waiting for a sale just like this to try them out. (Angie at Baby Cheapskate was happy with them, so I'm optimistic. I'll let you know my thoughts after Tyler wears a few. But it's worth noting here that the Luvs jumbo pack of size 5s contains 30 diapers, whereas the Pampers jumbo pack contains just 26.)

But I just don't spend as much money at Target as I used to. I'll walk past bottles of shampoo and conditioner on the clearance shelves and shake my head. I can get those for free at a drugstore, I'll say to myself. I've even passed up Pampers on clearance at Target, even though I have coupons, because I can get them for even less at CVS.

Obviously, I haven't single-handedly reduced Target's profit by shopping there less. But if there's a whole bunch of us that have turned to The Drugstore Game to buy what we used to get at Target, then maybe The Drugstore Game has had an impact on Target's profit. What do you think?

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Desperately Seeking . . . Witching Hour Advice

I think most families have a "witching hour" during which the kids become rather unmanageable. And for most families, the witching hour seems to be before dinner, and much of the advice on the topic involves getting dinner on the table faster.

In our case, however, the witching hour happens after dinner, when I'm cleaning the kitchen and the kids are bursting with energy. No matter what Marc does to engage them, we always seem to end up with two little boys who won't follow a single instruction. Unfortunately, we live in a townhouse and don't have a yard, otherwise it would probably be a simple matter of opening the back door and letting them loose.

We have considered putting the dishes off until the boys are in bed, but that would mean that by the time I have washed the dishes, prepped food for the next day, and exercised, it would be after 9:00. I'd still have blogging-related work to do, and even the bare minimum takes 20 to 30 minutes. And since I like to shower at night, it would after 10:00 by the time I got in bed. The alarm goes off at 5:00, so this schedule leaves absolutely no couple time for Marc and me, which is unacceptable.

Does anyone have any suggestions? I love my two little boys, but they more than a handful sometimes! Thanks!

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

One recall today: Mini-helo battery

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

Hobbico Inc. Recalls Batteries Used In Radio-Controlled Helicopters Due to Fire Hazard - Click through for a picture of the battery.


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

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Weight Watchers Week Five: For me, it's about personal integrity

Back when I was in high school and college, I loved self-help books. They helped me figure out who I wanted to be, where I was going to go, and how I wanted to get there. One of the books I read was a book that was hugely popular at the time, Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The aspect of the book that made the biggest impression on me was the discussion about personal integrity. Maybe it was because my dad often talked about the importance of integrity and pointed out ways that people disregarded it. Whatever the reason, everything Covey said about it made a lot of sense to me, and I really internalized the notion that integrity is key to successful relationships - not just with others, but with ourselves.

I've been overweight since I was about eight years old, when we moved in with my grandmother for a year to an area where I didn't have any friends and got quite lonely. I learned to quash my feelings by eating, and that tendency got worse over the years. About ten years ago, I realized the connection between my emotions and food and since then, I've worked hard to break it.

In the last 25 years, I've been on dozens of diets and tried to lose weight countless times. Sometimes I succeeded, but it was always temporary, because my emotions would get the better of me and I'd start eating again. But now, I'm finally at a place where that doesn't (usually) happen.

And this is where my personal integrity kicks in. During my teens and twenties, I hated myself for not being able to lose weight. I thought it made me a bad person. When I finally understood the connection between my emotions and food, I was able to be kinder to myself but I still felt out of control. But now that I am no longer hostage to my emotions (or to food), I know that failing at Weight Watchers would be a devastating blow to my personal integrity.

It's not so much about the numbers on the scale as it is about the effort I give it. If I try my absolute best to lose weight and it doesn't happen, I have nothing to feel bad about. (I will, however, head straight for my doctor for some tests.) On the other hand, if I slack off simply because I lack commitment, then I'll feel terrible about breaking a promise I've made to myself.

I've been on Weight Watchers for four weeks now and I'm determined to succeed. The number on the scale is heading in the right direction, which is definitely rewarding. But the boost in self-confidence and self-worth that I get from keeping my promise to myself is even more rewarding than that.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Amazon Selling Tips: Listing your item

Last month, I explained how you can sell your possessions on Amazon.com Marketplace, and promised to share some tips gleaned from my three years of selling there. Here's the first set of tips, on listing your items. (Sorry it so long, Sam!)
  • Read Amazon's explanation of how the Marketplace works. Be sure you understand what fees are involved, how shipping credits work, and what your responsibilities are. Decide whether you can meet the obligations imposed, especially shipping items within two business days of the order.
  • Decide what you want to sell. Unless you have a Pro or Subscriber account, you can't create a listing, so your very first step should be to make sure the item you want to sell is listed on Amazon.
  • Next, check other sellers' prices and decide whether the item is worth listing. At this point, you should decide what profit will make the item worth selling. When I first started selling on Amazon, I was on maternity leave after Alex's birth, and getting to the post office was easy. So as long as I made any profit, I listed my items. But these days, with time at a premium, I only list things that will make a profit of $5 or more. You can see what profit you'll make before you complete the listing - on the page where you confirm the listing, Amazon lists the price, fees, and the total you will receive. Don't forget to subtract your shipping costs from the total to determine your profit.
  • Set your price. Are you pricing your item to sell, or are you pricing your item for maximum dollar? If it's the former, set a price at or just below the lowest competitor's price. If it's the latter, you'll need to look at the competitors' prices for items in comparable condition.
  • Give a detailed and accurate description of the condition of the item. As a buyer, I like to see that the seller is letting me know exactly what to expect. I have avoided some big-volume sellers because they provide no description, and I believe that I have sold many items despite my comparatively low volume because I list specific details, such as a tiny bent corner on a paperback, or a scratch on a CD cover.
  • Complete your listing and put the item in a safe, easy to locate place. Be sure the item remains in the same condition you described in your listing, and that you can find it easily when it sells. I keep all of my items for sale in a bag under my desk. The kids know not to go there, it's easily accessible, and I know exactly where all of my items are.
Those are my selling tips - please add your own in the comments. And stay tuned for my tips on what to do after your item is sold.

Update: Part Three: Shipping.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Money Saving Tip: Check the address for recurrent online payments

I switched to online banking a while back, and pay most of my bills this way. One habit I got into early on was to always check the payment address of my credit card issuers before I scheduled the payment. It's probably an unnecessary precaution, since I'm positive my bank sends payment to the credit card issuers electronically.

But I once read a story about someone who send their credit card payment to the same address month after month, and one day discovered they'd been hit with a late fee because the payment address had been changed and they hadn't noticed. (I don't remember why they weren't just using the slip and envelop that come with the bill, but that's beside the moral of the story.)

I bring this up because for the first time ever, one of my credit card issuers changed the payment address this month. Like I said earlier, it probably wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't caught it, but still, I'm glad I don't have to worry about whether my payment will be timely applied.

As a side note, I only bother with this step for credit card issuers and irregular payees. I figure that with utilities and such, they'll contact me before anything really bad happens and I'll be able to sort things out quickly at that point.

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Weight Watchers Week Four: The Power of the Mini-Goal

I didn't start out intending to give weekly updates on how Weight Watchers is going for me, but I seem to make a discovery each week that's worth sharing. For instance, I realized this week that one reason Weight Watchers is really working for me is that I can set as many mini-goals as I want, and it's easy to track my progress.

For example, every day, I aim to stay within my daily points allotment and I aim to earn some activity points. I also have weekly goals for total activity points and leftover weekly points allowance. (The way the Flex plan works, you get a daily Points allowance and 35 weekly points that you can "spend" any way you'd like, but I try not to eat all of the weekly points.) I do try to eat all of my daily points, including any earned activity points, so that my body doesn't go into starvation mode, but I figure I'll lose weight all the faster if I eat as few weekly points as possible.

The Weight Watchers E-Tools function has a daily check list for glasses of water, fruit and veggie servings, dairy servings, multivitamin, healthy oils and activity. When you reach your daily goal, it gives you a happy face, and I try to get that happy face in all categories every day. (The dairy and healthy oils are my weak points - I love both, but I end up not eating them since they tend to be somewhat high in points.)

All of this has made me realize the importance of mini goals and their power to help me achieve larger goals. My main goal is to get down to my goal weight but I don't really focus on that final number on a daily basis. Instead, my focus is on whether I am achieving my mini goals and whether my weight is decreasing on a weekly basis. And of course, continued success in achieving my mini goals will result in the overall achievement of my main goal.

Most importantly, however, I can see how the power of mini goals applies to all areas of my life. And it probably applies to your life, too. If there's something you've been wanting to achieve, try breaking it down into daily mini goals. I bet you'll see some amazing progress before you know it!

What about you? Have you had success with mini goals?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guest Post: The Blame Game – How to Bug Out of It

The following is a guest post from Deb Wunder of The Dangling Conversation. It's a follow-up to her post from yesterday on The Blame Game.

In my last post, I noted that not playing the blame game was one of the best ways to start moving forward with you life, and toward your goals.

In this one, I hope to share a few tips for doing so.

Stop Catastrophizing

The bad news is that, if you grew up in the Western Hemisphere, you probably learned how to apply blame and guilt from the very beginning. It's part of that work ethic our parents try to teach us.

The good news is that not playing the blame game is a skill that can be learned.

Most of what we do is driven by what we tell ourselves. Things like Rational-Emotive Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and other forms of behavioral therapy show us ways to modify those internal tapes.

Now, I'm not recommending that everyone run out and sign up for behavioral modification programs. Far from it. While actual therapy might be necessary in extreme cases, what I am saying is that you can use some of the same techniques these programs teach to modify what you tell yourself about things.

Albert Ellis, one of the founding fathers of Rational-Emotive Therapy, has a list of some of the things we tell ourselves to upset ourselves. He notes that we take a fact, A, and work ourselves into a lather about it by telling ourselves B, C, and D. We tell ourselves over and over how terrible, horrible, and awful it would be if something happened, and how all our friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances would think we were total losers if it did. He further notes that we have pretty firm ideas of how things should be, and if things differ from that idea, we beat ourselves up about it.

We can, with a little bit of being consciousness, and watching what we tell ourselves, greatly reduce the amount of blame we place on ourselves and on others.

So, since I have asserted that we can change such things, let me share how this works with me.

Since a tendency to catastrophize is all too human, when I see myself taking that road, what I try to do is to magnify it until the consequences I'm imagining are so over the top that even I have to laugh at myself. Once I'm at that point I can usually pull back and examine how much I'm overreacting.

I also try to watch for "should-ing" on myself. When I go down that route, I try to stop short and see if whatever I think should be could more appropriately be considered, "I would like it if . . ." or "It would be nice if . . ." instead.

Now how does this work out in terms of debt reduction? Okay, let's take a look. My roommate is not the greatest at managing her finances. She's going to be sixty this month, and if someone else does not write out her rent checks, they tend to resemble those rubber balls we used to play with: they bounce every time. Now I can tell myself it stinks that I have to write out the checks (and hound her for her share), and I can be resentful about it. I can work myself into a real sweat about how terrible, horrible, and awful it is that I have to do this. In fact, many people would do this. The thing is, you can make choices about how you react to situations. In this instance, what I try to do is to note that this is just the way it is, and since I can't change the roommate, if I want to keep a roof over my own head, I can accept that this is just how things are, and write the darned checks. Blaming the roommate is not going to change the situation - in fact, it will just make her dig her heels in more, and will cause more problems for us, possibly eventually blowing up our friendship.

Now this seems like a fairly obvious thing, but for a lot of people it isn't.

Be Accountable

Another way to stop playing the blame game is to be accountable, and be willing to accept, or at least deal with, the consequences of your actions.

As I mentioned in my last post, my ex had put a hotel stay on his credit card for me (we were running security at an sf convention). In turn, I had promised to pay him out of my next paycheck. Then my roommate got scammed, and all of a sudden I had to scramble to make the rent. This ex and I had been together for fourteen years, and have a long history of his dealing with my financial irresponsibility. I had, over the last four years repaired a lot of the damage, but not all of it. Add to this that money is one of my ex's hot buttons. Now I was faced with having to call him and tell him that I had to break my word.

As much as I dreaded making that call, I did so. Ten minutes on the phone, the worst fight he and I have had in nineteen years, and my promises to pay him back from my next check notwithstanding, that broken promise destroyed four years of hard work. Not only that, he couldn't believe how my roommate could do what she had, and came over to talk to her about it. I knew how bad the reaction was going to be, but I also knew that I could just break my word at the last minute, with no explanation and hope for the best, or I could tell him what happened, and deal with the consequences of my action.

My ex later gave me credit for not waiting to tell him there was a problem, so he could work around it. And since I did keep my word to pay him from the following check some of the damage was undone. I still have a lot of work to do, and a long distance to go, but facing the consequences of my actions was a hell of a lot better than just taking the cowardly way out.

And that is the biggest part of stopping the blame game. Become accountable. Stop making excuses.

Treat Criticism As Feedback

Another part is learning to accept criticism as feedback. Randy Pausch tells a story about how one day his coach was really riding him about how poorly he was performing. And after the practice, well, I'll let Randy's words tell the rest . . .
one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, 'yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn't he?' I said, 'yeah.' He said, 'that's a good thing.' He said, 'when you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.' And that's a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. Is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.
Dr. Pausch also said,
Get a feedback loop and listen to it. Your feedback loop can be this dorky spreadsheet thing I did, or it can just be one great man who tells you what you need to hear. The hard part is the listening to it. Anybody can get chewed out. It's the rare person who says, 'oh my god, you were right.' As opposed to, 'no wait, the real reason is . . .' We've all heard that. When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.
So, the biggest tips I can give you are: stop catastrophizing, be accountable, don't beat yourself up, and listen to criticism as feedback instead of censure. Doing those things will take you far on the road to both stopping playing the blame game, and getting on toward your goals and dreams.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What is Twitter?

After my post yesterday announcing that I'm now on Twitter, Briana asked me to describe Twitter. I'll give it my best shot, and then I invite you to provide a better explanation, since I'm new at this and still learning the ropes.

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging site. Users send updates, also known as "tweets," of up to 140 characters. You can "follow" someone on Twitter and get all of their updates, and you can block people from following you if you want to (to avoid stalkers, I suppose). There are more technical details that I'm not up on, but I know that there are multiple ways to send and receive tweets, for instance.

I've seen Twitter used to send updates on the most mundane activities, such as "Off to drop the kids off at school" and "Just had breakfast." And that might be interesting to my husband or my parents, but I doubt anyone else cares one whit.

I prefer using Twitter to send quick bites of info, such as an insightful but random thought or an interesting link. And that's why I intend to tweet only once or twice a day, about shopping deals, links and hopefully an occasional brilliant idea.

But the beauty of Twitter is that how you use it is entirely up to you.

One last thought about Twitter: if you're still not quite sure what it is or what it involves, but you already use a feed reader, subscribe to someone's RSS feed. I first figured out how Twitter works by subscribing to Parent Hacks and Just Bento and reading their tweets. If you're curious, you can subscribe to my Twitter feed here.

Now it's your turn: What's your take on Twitter?

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Someone please "steal" & implement my business idea: Weight Watchers Points by text messaging

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was taking Millionaire Mommy Next Door's advice and doing a progressive mental exercise to open my mind to more money. The exercise starts with spending $100 on day 1, and then coming up with a supportive action to bring that money into your life. The amount of money doubles each day. Like MMND, I haven't done it for 30 days in a row, so I'm still on day 15. But it's been a very interesting exercise, since doubling the money each day increases the amount rapidly. (Ah, the beauty of compounding.) Because aside from long-term calculations for retirement, insurance or education expenses, I've never thought in such huge amounts of money before.

What would I do with $819,200? (That's the amount for day 14.) I actually wrote in my journal:
I realize what a happy, satisfied life I lead when I just want to take the money and invest it.
I'd be perfectly happy to have that amount of money to my name, but I had to think hard about how I would spend it. (I decided that I would buy a home in Hawaii, in case you're wondering.)

The really challenging part of the exercise is coming up with ways to bring these increasing amounts of money into my life. For many of them, I find myself trying to come up with business ideas - which, since I'm not an entrepreneur, isn't that easy for me. But I came up with a business idea over the weekend that I wish someone would implement:
People on Weight Watchers' Flex plan can send the business a text message inquiring about the number of points of a certain food or asking for a low-point recommendation from a chain restaurant. The business looks it up and replies with another text message.
For example, this past weekend, we stopped at Jack in the Box. I wish I had looked up the nutrition values at Dotti's Weight Loss Zone before I left the house, but it was too late. So I found myself wishing for another way to find out how many points were in each item. I had a good feeling about the Chicken Fajita Pita, which indeed turned out to have only 6.5 points, but I could easily have blown 10 points or more on something I didn't even want that badly. A texting service certainly would have been handy. My cell plan doesn't include text messaging (I believe each one costs 10 cents) but I'd add it if this service were available (and more reasonably priced than buying a Blackberry with internet service).

Anyone?

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Guest Post: The Blame Game, or How to Become Your Own (and Everyone Else's) Worst Enemy

The following is a guest post from Deb Wunder (who comments here as Otherdeb). She is a published short story writer from Brooklyn, and has a blog called The Dangling Conversation. She also makes beaded jewelry and knits (and apparently is pretty good at it, since she takes commissions for both), reads anything she can get her hands on, and gets paid to keep a high school cafeteria under control ten months a year. She is between half and three quarters of the way to becoming debt-free.

When things go wrong, it seems natural to try to cover your rear end. In fact, in most offices, the game of CYA has been elevated to an art form. However, many folks often try to carry it over to other areas of their lives, which is where it falls apart.

The worst time to play the blame game is when you are trying to eliminate debt and clean up your act. This is a process that demands your honesty, and your willingness to stop blaming and making excuses.

For one thing, while almost all of your friends would help you out once or twice, no one wants to hear your pleas for them to bail you out over and over again. In fact, by the third or fourth time, most of them will be wondering whether your tales of woe are even true.

My Story

For example, my ex has bailed me out repeatedly for a very long time. Even as he growled about all my excuses, he helped. When I got my wake-up call four years ago, and stopped lying to myself and others about money, he - quite naturally - didn't believe my promises to reform. See, he'd heard them all before, along with all my excuses for needing help.

Well, I still owed him a lot of money, but I had been doing a lot better at keeping my word to him. So, four years later (about a month ago), based on the fact that I was now keeping my word, he put a bill on his credit card for me, with the agreement I would pay him back from my next paycheck. This would have been fine, except my roommate got scammed to the tune of $2,000, and all of a sudden, my next paycheck was needed to keep a roof over our heads.

I knew that this was going to be rough, but I called my ex and told him the situation, and when I would have his money. All the years I had made excuses bit me on the tush at that point, and I sat there and listened while he yelled at me about how I was reverting to my old behavior. Four years of trust-building was destroyed in about five minutes, because of all the times I had made excuses over the years. He eventually talked with my roommate and found out that I was, indeed, not making an excuse, but the damage was done. I did repay him from my next check, but I now have four years of work to redo. (He did give me credit for calling him immediately, and not waiting until the day I was supposed to pay him back.)

Blaming Only Makes Things Worse

Further, blaming others does nothing to rectify the problem; in fact, it exacerbates it. If you keep blaming others, you never get to look at what you are doing to cause the situations you find yourself in, so you never find real ways to fix them.

My roommate has had to be bailed out over and over again regarding her finances. Each time she swears she will do better, and about six months down the road she messes up again. And every time she messes up it's a bit worse. Her mother, her best friend, and I have all had to deal with this. In fact, the time that served as my wake-up call was when she lied to her mother and her best friend and told them I was bullying her into paying most of my share of the rent. I never would have known this was going on, except that her best friend threw that little tidbit in my face out of the clear blue sky after my roommate had bounced a huge check on her mother. At that point, the three of us started comparing notes, and found out that we all had been bailing her out over the years.

Even that wasn't enough to stop her blaming everyone but herself for her problems. The result: Last month I got a call from her mother, who was finally exhausted from my roommate's excuses, saying that she would no longer be able to write out the rent check for us (she wrote the rent checks to the landlord who had tired of my roommate's excuses and had been going to evict her until her mother offered to write the checks). I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for her mother to make that decision. Yet even her mom finally got tired of her excuses.

The bottom line: blaming others not only does not fix the problem, it exacerbates it. It is nothing more than a mechanism for avoiding taking responsibility for the choices and decisions you make in life. And it will, sooner or later, backfire on you every time.

Come back tomorrow for Deb's tips on getting out of The Blame Game.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

CFO on Twitter

I've thought for a while now that it would be fun to Twitter and send out random thoughts that occur to me sometimes. The main reason I haven't signed up is because I have a very basic cell phone plan and no intention of changing that. And if I wasn't constantly receiving and sending updates, then joining Twitter didn't seem to make sense.

But then, Danielle over at Kids Meal Crowd asked me to "keep up" with her on Twitter. (I was going to say she asked me to be her friend, but I suppose that only applies to MySpace.) I took it as a sign.

And I joined.

If you'd like to follow me, my Twitter ID is CFOblog.

I'll probably only send out one or two Tweets a day, and we'll see how it goes. I plan to tweet random thoughts, quick Drugstore Game and other shopping deals, and interesting links. In fact, I just tweeted an article comparing Weight Watchers to Dungeons & Dragons.

You can also follow me via RSS. However, it unfortunately seems to take a day or two for the RSS feed to update - maybe that's something that will improve as I twitter more.

Thanks for inviting me to the party, Danielle!

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New prizes at Swag Bucks

Search & Win

Last month, I reviewed SwagBucks, where you search and win bucks that you can redeem for prizes. Thank you to everyone who signed up using my referral link! I hope you've been earning lots of Swag Bucks, because there are new prizes in the SwagBucks Store.

In addition to my favorite prize (the $5 Amazon certificate) SwagBucks now offers some popular video games, like Wii Fit and Mario Kart, as well as older games like NCAA Football '07 for the XBOX 360. Additionally, every SwagBuck you earn will give you an entry in a contest to win a Nintendo Wii.

Using the 45 Swag Buck redemption rate for a $5 Amazon gift card, each Swag Buck is worth about 11 cents. Mario Kart costs 500 Swag Bucks, which works out to $55 - less than the $74.98 (including shipping) that it will cost you at Amazon. So if you've got a little time, this could be an easy and inexpensive way to acquire a very nice holiday gift for someone (or for yourself, of course).

To learn more about SwagBucks, read my review.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Improving kids' fast food meals

It's disturbing but sadly not surprising that kid's meals at fast food and chain restaurants are incredibly unhealthy. It turns out some of the meals contain more calories than a child is supposed to eat in an entire day.

I have to admit that we have continued to grab fast food several times a week, despite my decision to explore prepared supermarket foods. But Marc and I have worked together to minimize the negative nutritional impact of these meals. Here's how:
  • We never give our kids the full meal. Most of the time, we don't even order the kid's meal and instead get adult-size chicken strips or nuggets. But even when we do order a kid's meal, we dole out only a couple of fries. And we order a diet soda that we keep for ourselves.
  • If healthier substitutions are available, we make them. This is a pretty obvious one, but is worth stating. Opt for apples instead of fries, lowfat milk instead of soda, etc.
  • The kids drink water. We always have water in the car with us, and that's what the kids get to drink. Tyler is somewhat allergic to milk, and I prefer that Alex drinks organic milk, so we generally don't make that substitution and instead get the kid's meal soda for ourselves and give the kids water.
I don't know how well this will work as the kids get older and have more awareness about the options we're not giving them. Of course, my hope is that by then, we'll be eating a lot less fast food and this won't be an issue!

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Friday, August 08, 2008

PSA Reminder: Don't give cold medicine to your young child

I reported the FDA's health advisory warning against giving cold and cough medicine to children under the age of two back when it was first issued. But apparently young children are still showing up in emergency rooms as a result of taking such meds. You should know that giving these meds to young children can cause life-threatening complications.

If you're concerned about your child's cold or cough, the FDA recommends contacting your pediatrician or a pharmacist.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

One recall today: Fisher-Price toy

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

Fisher-Price Recalls Learning Pots and Pans™ Toys Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a close-up of the offending parts.


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

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When is it worth hunting for cheaper gas?

It's no secret that gas is cheaper at Costco than it is anywhere else. So earlier this year, when gas hit the $4 mark (gosh, was it really only a few months ago?), we got in the habit of filling up at Costco every week. We'd go early in the morning and there would rarely be a line.

But for the last month or so, as gas prices went over the $5 mark at some stations here in Los Angeles, we would arrive at Costco and find the line unacceptably long. For some reason, a line that's just two cars deep at Costco means a solid 20-minute wait. With two kids in the car, a wait that long simply isn't an option. So we bit the bullet and filled up at a nearby gas station for 10 to 15 cents more per gallon.

You've probably noticed, though, that gas prices have come down some. It would seem that many of Costco's patrons have noticed too. This week, there was no line when we went to fill up. Even though Costco's price for premium is now 20 to 30 cents less than other gas stations.

It made me wonder at what point do people think the trip to Costco isn't worth it. Whether it's waking up early to beat the crowd or driving out of their way to get to Costco, I wonder at what price point do people decide it's not worth the savings.*

As for us, now that we're in the habit of getting gas at Costco, we'll keep it up. Regardless of what the price of gas is, we'll always be saving money by buying our gas there than somewhere else.

What do you think?

*On a related note, check out One Caveman's Financial Journey's article about continuing to save money on gas even as prices fall.

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Three recalls today: Apparently it's difficult (or expensive) to make a safe drawstring

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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Quick Giveaway: CankerMelts

Update: This giveaway is now over. Congratulations to Pheobie, who wins a box of CankerMelts!

CankerMelts are a new product for healing (surprise!) canker sores. They are time-release discs that stick to the inside of your mouth and heal canker sores in 1 to 5 days, using an extract from the root of the licorice plant. You can learn more about CankerMelts here.

I have one box of CankerMelts to give away to the first reader who emails me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com with their mailing address.

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Weight Watchers Week Three: Volumetrics is definitely onto something

I'm loving Weight Watchers for the fact that I can work any food I want to eat into the plan. I can have anything I want, just not everything I want. Fair enough - life usually works that way.

But I don't have a lot of points left after eating foods like kalua pork, which is so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it. I normally eat kalua pork with white rice, but that's it's eight points for a mere four and a half ounces of pork and a half cup of rice. That's not enough for a meal for me. So I filled it out with veggies. Lots of veggies.

In fact, I'm eating more fruit and vegetables than I ever have in my entire life because they're low in Points. I sometimes feel like I'm on the Volumetrics diet, which is about filling up on foods that are low in calories. The idea is that people like to eat and to feel full, so they just have to do that on low-calorie foods in order to lose weight. Volumetrics just didn't appeal to me because I don't want to eat mostly fruit and vegetables. But of course, that's a big part of what I'm doing now.

I guess the difference with Weight Watchers is that the ability to indulge is built in. It seems I needed the structure that Weight Watchers provides, while still giving me the flexibility to eat what I want and when.

One fabulous site that was recommended to me by friends who were already doing Weight Watchers is Dotti's Weight Loss Zone. The Restaurants section lists the Points value for hundreds, if not thousands, of foods from restaurants and even some stores. If I know I'm going to grab something from a restaurant while I'm out, I consult this site before I leave the house.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Two recalls today: More cribs

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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Amusing legal ruling: Lottery tickets are not an investment

I subscribe to Westlaw's "Headnote of the Day" and thought today's was pretty funny:
Purchase of lottery tickets was not an underlying investment of capital for tax purposes.
Wolman v. C.I.R.,, 180 Fed.Appx. 830 (2006)
In other words, don't try to claim the amount you wasted on lottery tickets as an investment loss. :D

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Guest Post: Try Online Grocery Shopping

The following is a guest post from Chris McGinn. She writes at Digital Landing - Hitting Home, a blog about finding new ways to save time and money, and get more out of your digital lifestyle. Thanks, Chris - this is an eye-opening post, since I never would have thought that online grocery shopping might actually save money!

A couple of months ago I began a new way of grocery shopping—using my local store's online ordering. After my second son was born in February, my grocery visits had deteriorated into a grab-and-go spendfest as I tried to gather food before he began to cry and I need to leave.
With the rising cost of groceries, I needed a new plan.

I had already learned valuable lessons from my first son's birth, as in: 1) shop with a list; 2) shop alone if you can; and 3) shop once a week, but my system was rocked by the new baby who was a little less accommodating that the first had been. Forget using coupons, staying on a list and remembering everything you were supposed to buy. It just wasn't happening.

So, when a new grocery store opened near my house with online ordering and drive-thru pick up, I thought I should give it a try. It didn't hurt that they waived the $4.95 fee for your first order to give it a test drive. A single-mom neighbor of mine was already using a similar service at another store and she swore by it.

In the past few months, I have learned a lot about the pros and cons of this grocery system and overall I definitely recommend it. To see if this might be for you consider the following:

Pros
  1. Drive-thru service. Seriously, this is the main reason I think this is the way to go. I drive up. They bring out the bags, load it in my car and I sign the receipt. Two minutes and no extra car seat buckles. Also, I can often combine it with another trip and save gas.
  2. Easy view unit-pricing. To really find the best deals, you have to pay attention to unit pricing. If you are shopping with kids, this is nearly impossible as it is always printed microscopically small and inevitably on the bottom shelf. With the online function you can not only easily see the unit price, you can actually sort by unit price. Say you want the cheapest potato chips, you can quickly sort to see which brand is the least per ounce.
  3. Easier to stick to your list. Shopping online has made it easier for me to stick to my list. For one thing you aren't walking down the aisles so you have to search for things by category like Produce>Fruits>Apples. Also, my store's interface allows you to save lists and to have a "master list" of all the items you buy so you can quickly add the staples with just a click. Also, deals on items that I regularly buy are highlighted on this list so I know when to stock up.
  4. Easier to get deals and use coupons. My store highlights current specials in red so they are easy to see. They often show how much you actually save as well. In addition, because I'm not running through the store, I have time to compare my purchases to my coupons so I don't leave out any and I buy the right products.
  5. Avoid impulse buys. This is huge. Grocery stores are designed around our shopping habits and purposefully tempt us with enticing deals. Get Rich Slowly posted that 60 to 70% off all of our grocery purchases are not planned! This is a shocking number, but likely very true. I have found that I spend 25-50% less when I shop online than I do when I go in the store.
  6. Expert shopping. The people who know the store best are doing the shopping for you. While not necessarily always true, you can hope that they may pick the best produce or best looking cut of meat for you. Of course, the opposite could also be true. I always put "no substitutions" on my order so they call me if there are ever any issues. For example, my shopper noticed that the chips I had ordered had changed the bag size for the same price. She pointed it out to make sure I still wanted them. I would probably not have caught the change.
Now, it's not a perfect system. Here are some of the pitfalls I have encountered:
  1. Scheduling a pick-up. You have to order at least 4 hours before you need to pick up the groceries and you have to give a 30-minute window when you will be coming to collect them. I find it hard to think far enough in advance to plan around nap times, eating times, etc because our schedule is always changing. If you had a set schedule, however, this wouldn't be an issue.
  2. Limited hours. Really this is only a problem because they don't offer the service on Sunday, which is the day I usually want to have my shopping done. I have to do my ordering now on Thursday or Friday rather than thinking about groceries on the weekend when I have more time.
  3. New impulse buys. While you avoid a lot of impulse buys by not being in the store, you aren't completely off the hook. My store uses a splash page with 2-3 specials for each category I select. You have to avoid temptation here, but it is still easier than being in the store.
  4. Limited selection. I've been impressed for the most part with the wide selection available online. It is basically everything in the store except sometimes they don't have all the flavors, sizes, etc for each product. For example, my son likes a particular yogurt snack. The site only offers strawberry, but the store carries three flavors. You can get around this by leaving notes in the text box on your ordering page.
  5. Shopping more. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but a few weeks it made me shop more because I tried to hit another nearby store for their best deals only and then swing by the drive-thru for the bulk of my groceries. If you are a hard-core couponer, this may work in your system, but I think I'll cut that to once a month. The point of not going in is partially to save money from impulse buys and this didn't help.
  6. A note about coupons. You can still use coupons, just like you normally do, however, they apply to the next online order rather than the current one because you bring them when you pick-up the groceries and you have already paid online. This kind of keeps you coming back because otherwise you have to forfeit the coupons or go through the hassle of getting them to apply this in-store.
In general, I think I will use this system at least 2-3 times a month. I think I will still have to go in person at least once to get things that aren't available on the site and to just see what might be new in the store. I definitely suggest you investigate your local stores to see what options they have for "virtual shopping" because it not only saves time, it can save a lot of money.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

I heart construction workers

No, I'm not a fan of construction workers in the way you're thinking! Rather, each day on my way to work, I pass a construction site that has a steady stream of arriving workers. And I marvel that each and every one of them is carrying a well-worn cooler. As a big fan of bringing lunches from home, I love seeing a culture where this is the norm.

I'd love to see a study about how this came to be. Do the roots of this culture go way back, to when construction workers didn't have ready access to prepared foods and cold drinks on the job site? (The construction project I pass is close to quite a few restaurants, cafes and fast food places, plus there are lunch trucks.) Or is it a culture of frugality, where they universally agree that schlepping a cooler full of food and drink to save money is the thing to do?

And of course, I can't help but wonder what's in their coolers . . .

Image credit: Amazon.com.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Higher diaper prices kick in tomorrow


Update 8/3/08: Pampers are on sale at CVS today through Saturday. At least in my weekly circular in Los Angeles, the price is $7.99. So with coupons, it's a good time to stock up!

I picked up a copy of the weekend newspaper today, and the Target circular for this coming week is actually advertising jumbo-size packages of Pampers and Huggies for . . . $10.79. If you urgently need diapers, pick them up today while they're still $9.99. (If you're buying Pampers, pick up a copy of the weekend newspaper first - there's a $1.50 off Pampers coupon in the P&G circular.) try to wait until next week, when they'll be on sale at CVS. There were Pampers coupons in last Sunday's paper, and there's another one in this Sunday's paper. You might also find Huggies coupons on the shelf ("blinkies"). Thanks so much to Tara of Deal Seeking Mom and Gina of Mommy Making Money for the sale/coupon info!

And so the price increases continue . . .

Image credit: Amazon.com.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Emergency Funds: Another example of why you need one

More than 200,000 California state employees are now working for federal minimum wage, or $6.55 per hour.* And they're the lucky ones. Part-time and seasonal workers were fired.

All because the state legislature can't pass a budget, even though the last fiscal year ended on June 30. (And because Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently doesn't care if California ever has another Republican governor. He signed the executive order bringing about this situation.)

Sure, the employees now receiving minimum wage will eventually be reimbursed the difference in their salaries. And the part-time and seasonal workers will probably get rehired.

But in the meantime, how many employees have an emergency fund that will see them through to the passing of a budget? I have no idea, but I can guarantee that not everyone does.

Where does that leave them? The Sacramento Bee State Worker blog reports that Golden 1 Credit Union will offer interest-free or low-interest loans to state employees. An interest-free loan sounds pretty good, but it's only available to members who had direct deposit set up before June 30. The low-interest loan at 4.99% is available only to members who joined before June 30 and signed up for direct deposit after June 30. All other employees must turn elsewhere for higher-interest loans.

That's a hefty penalty for an innocent state worker to pay. But just how innocent is the employee who doesn't have an emergency fund?

After all, an emergency can strike at any time, whether it's a catastrophic illness or your employer refusing to pay you what they owe. We all have an obligation to ourselves and to our loved ones to be prepared for such events to the best of our ability. It may be too late for California's state employees to build their emergency funds up before they need them, but their predicament should serve as a reminder to all us of to make sure that we are financially prepared for an emergency.**

*The state minimum wage is $8.00 per hour. (source)

**It's possible state employees will never miss a penny from their paychecks. State Controller, John Chiang, who issues the checks, has indicated that he will not comply with the governor's executive order. So if a budget is passed before the state runs out of money, all should be well. And this will all just have been a lesson learned. Until next year, when the legislature fails to pass the new budget in a timely manner . . .

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