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Friday, October 31, 2008

Kudos to Kellogg's & their customer service

Kellogg's has provided excellent customer service the last three times I've contacted them, so I thought it was high time to highlight them. The first two times, I used their online contact form to complain about their products. The first time, I opened a new box of cereal to find that the inner plastic bag was not sealed. The second time, I found a hard, dark object in a box of Mini-Wheats, and told them that I was throwing out not just the box I'd found the object in but also the other unopened boxes of Mini-Wheats that I already had.

Each time, I provided all of the information that I thought they might need to identify the batch the cereal had come from, and offered to send the cereal back to them. Within a week of each complaint, I received an email thanking me and stating that I would be receiving something in the mail. The "something" turned out to be coupons good for a free Kellogg's product, and the second time, I received four coupons to compensate me for the loss of four boxes of cereal.

The most recent contact came in the form of the Fuel for School rebate, which took place in August through September. The promotion required the purchase of 10 Kellogg's items, all on one receipt. You had to send in the receipt and the 10 UPC codes along with the rebate form, and you'd get a $10 check.

I sent in my completed form and forgot about it, knowing that rebates usually take at least eight weeks to process. But about a month after I'd mailed in the rebate, I found a stray UPC code from a box of Rice Krispies treats on my desk. I pulled out my copy of the materials I'd sent in and sure enough, there were only nine UPC codes. I was so mad at myself, and for the next four weeks, I waffled between writing off the $10 rebate and emailing customer service to see if they would push the rebate through anyway.

Kudos to Kellogg's, because they pushed my rebate through without my contacting them. Much to my surprise, I got the rebate check a couple of days ago. It's possible they didn't catch the missing UPC code since nine pretty much looks like ten, but regardless, I really appreciate receiving my $10 even when I didn't completely fulfill the requirements and they would have been within their rights to deny my rebate.

As I wrote this post, I remembered a fourth recent contact with Kellogg's, in which I sent in for a free book that's part of their United Through Reading promotion. The book came quite quickly, and best of all, it came with a Target coupon for $1 off any book. I used the coupon the other day to get a free truck book for Alex from the dollar section.

Thanks for everything, Kellogg's!

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

One recall today: Earth Friendly wooden toys

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

Wooden Toys Recalled by Earth Friendly Due To Choking Hazards - Click through for photos of additional toys.


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

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Halloween Safety Tips from the CPSC

The Consumer Product Safety Commission sent out these safety tips for a safe Halloween:

Costumes
  • When purchasing costumes, masks, beards and wigs, look for flame-resistant fabrics such as nylon or polyester, or look for the label "Flame Resistant." Flame-resistant fabrics will resist burning and should extinguish quickly. To minimize the risk of contact with candles and other fire sources, avoid costumes made with flimsy materials and outfits with big, baggy sleeves or billowing skirts.
  • Purchase or make costumes that are light, bright and clearly visible to motorists.
  • For greater visibility during dusk and darkness, decorate or trim costumes with reflective tape that will glow in the beam of a car's headlights. Bags or sacks also should be light-colored or decorated with reflective tape. Reflective tape is usually available in hardware, bicycle and sporting goods stores.
  • Children should carry flashlights to see and be seen.
  • Children should wear well-fitting, sturdy shoes. Oversized high heels are not a good idea.
  • Tie hats and scarves securely to prevent them from slipping over children's eyes and obstructing vision.
  • If your child wears a mask, make sure it fits securely, provides adequate ventilation, and has eye holes large enough to allow full vision.
  • Swords, knives and similar costume accessories should be made of soft, flexible materials.
  • Supervise pumpkin carvings to avoid lacerations.
Treats
  • Warn children not to eat any treats until an adult has examined them carefully for evidence of tampering.
  • Carefully examine any toys or novelty items received by trick-or-treaters under three years of age. Do not allow young children to have any items that are small enough to present a choking hazard or that have small parts or components that could separate during use and present a choking hazard.
Decorations
  • Keep candles and Jack O' Lanterns away from landings and doorsteps where costumes could brush against the flame.
  • Indoors, keep candles and Jack O' Lanterns away from curtains, decorations and other combustibles that could catch fire. Do not leave burning candles unattended.
  • Remove obstacles from lawns, steps and porches when expecting trick-or-treaters.
  • Indoors or outside, use only lights that have been tested for safety by a recognized testing laboratory, such as UL. Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Discard damaged sets.
  • Don't overload extension cords.
Image credit: Baby lobster costume at Amazon.com.

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Your best financial investment may be your good health (but you should also practice sound money management)

I came across an article titled Medical Debt Sending Many Over Financial Brink. The gist of the article is that most people manage to get along financially until there's a crisis of some kind, which causes them to fall behind in payments, eventually leading to catastrophes like foreclosure and bankruptcy. The article claims that half the time, the precipitating crisis is a medical one.

This quote was how the article ended:
"I don't know if we have enough working years left to buy a house," Donna said. "That's pretty heavy punishment for having gotten sick."
My instinctive reaction was to think, "Well, could you have done anything to prevent your illness?"

And that made me think: Investing in good health could really be worth thousands of dollars in the long run.

Of course, there are many other reasons to want to be in good health, but if money is what motivates you, then by all means, use it to get in shape, lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, eat less meat and saturated fats, eat lots of fruit and veggies for the antioxidants and flavonoids, etc. No one can guarantee that you won't end up with huge medical bills at some point, but at least you've reduced your risk (and increased your quality of life).

As it turns out, Donna had uterine cancer, which I honestly don't know much about. But her husband had "serious artery disease," which sounds to me like the average heart/cardiovascular problem that's common in older men. The really disturbing part of their story is that they were "technically fully insured" throughout their medical crises. But, reading between the lines, I gather they didn't have much savings and that's why they couldn't pay the annual out of pocket maximum under their insurance plan. The max was $9,000 - obviously a lot of money, but not exactly an astronomical amount.

I'm not judging Donna and her husband - for one thing, I just don't know enough about them to form any kind of opinion. But I can speculate and point out that a lifetime of sound money management would probably have left them in a position to pay that $9,000. The article doesn't say how old they are, but since they have grown children, I am going to guess they are at least in their late 40's, and probably more like in their mid-50's. If they had: (1) carried their mortgage as their only debt; (2) saved for retirement; and (3) built up an emergency fund, they would not be in the situation they're currently in.

Of course, doing these three things is not easy. But I know it can be done, even on a very low income. Thanks to the internet and especially blogs, I read such success stories every day. It's just a matter of prioritizing and acting according to those priorities. And if you don't prioritize and act accordingly, then at some point, you have to pay the price.

Image credit: Indiamarks.com.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

One recall today: Casper the Friendly Ghost Figurines

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

Halloween Figurines Recalled by Coyne’s & Company for Lead Hazard


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

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Works for Me Wednesday: an inexpensive nursing pad alternative

This isn't my own tip, although I definitely would have tried it if I'd known about it or thought about it on my own back when I was nursing. A Parents magazine reader suggested it in the November issue, and I thought it was a good tip that probably works well:

Instead of using disposable nursing pads, cut a pantyliner in two. It's thinner and because the adhesive covers the entire back, it'll stay in place better. It's also probably equally absorbent, at least once you're past the engorgement stage.

This is also a great way to use those free pantyliners that are so often available through The Drugstore Game.

Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips over at Rocks in my Dryer.

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Giveaway: If You Take a Mouse to the Movies

I couldn't pass up the chance to participate in the Bloggy Giveaways Quarterly Carnival, so I'm giving away a copy of the paperback version of Laura Numeroff's book, If You Take a Mouse to the Movies.

We first discovered Laura Numeroff's "If you" series last year, when a friend gave us a copy of If You Give a Moose a Muffin. We loved it so much, we purchased If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

The story in all of these books is delightfully silly, and the illustrations are entertaining, so I'm sure you'll have fun reading If You Take a Mouse to the Movies with your child(ren). It's recommended for ages 4 through 8, but if it's like the other "If you" books, even a 2-year-old can enjoy it. (We just got our own copy and haven't read it yet.)

To enter this giveaway, simply fill out the form below. (If you're reading this in a feed aggregator or email, you'll need to click through to the post to reach the form.)

For an additional entry, subscribe to my feed via RSS or email and fill out the form again to let me know you've done so.

For a third entry, spread the word about this contest - tell a friend or write about it on your own blog. Then let me know about it by filling out the form again.


You can enter up to three times (one for each type), and you must submit separate entries for each type. I'll select the winner using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. The winner will have 48 hours to send me their address, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5. Sorry, this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.

And if this is your first time visiting Chief Family Officer, please stay a few moments and have a look around. I post daily on family finances, parenting and cooking. A good place to start is the Best of CFO, where you'll find posts on my best financial move of 2007, a how-to on making Cookie Monster Cupcakes, and a rundown on techniques for making baby food. 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, and good luck!

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Help! What questions would you ask Dr. Jim Sears?

Wow! I got really lucky and won a very cool giveaway over at Mommy Daddy Blog Reviews. My prize includes the opportunity to ask three questions of board-certified pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears (son of the Dr. Sears and also of the TV show The Doctors). But I don't know what to ask! So I'm asking for your help:

What would you ask?

I need to respond with my questions pretty quickly, so any prompt responses would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Review: Febreze Fabric Refresher

I received a couple of Febreze Fabric Refreshers products to try, and I guess I'm just not their target audience. I don't mind the products, but I just don't see the point in using them.

The Lavender & Vanilla Comfort scent is a little strong, but fades into the background quickly. It's fairly light, and not offensive. The original spray bottle is easy to use, and the Décor Collection really does look nice enough to leave out on the table, even when company is over.

I suppose I might feel differently about these products if I had a smelly pet or other odors in the house that needed to be dealt with. But to me, these sprays are nice but superfluous. It's obvious that many people disagree with me, however, and love using these products around their house. Scent products have often been moneymakers in The Drugstore Game lately, but there are quite a few posters in the coupon forums who are happy to get these products even when they have to pay for them.

And since I'm a big supporter of our troops, it's nice to see that Febreze is too. They're sending bottles of Febreze to Go to troops stationed abroad. I suppose if anyone can use these products, it's them! And you can help send more Febreze overseas by buying Febreze products at Family Dollar stores: For every Febreze item purchased between now and Veteran''s Day, Febreze and Family Dollar will send a bottle of Febreze To Go to troops serving abroad.

If you'd like to try some Febreze products out for yourself, I'll make it a little easier by giving away two sets of Febreze coupons. Each set contains the following coupons:
  • 50 cents off any Febreze Fabric Refresher
  • 50 cents off any Febreze Air Effect
  • $1 off any Febreze candle
  • $1 off any Febreze Noticeables Starter Kit, Dual Refill Pack or 2 Single Refills
These coupons are from a Right at Home mailer and expire on March 31, 2009. I'll also include any Febreze coupons that come out in the next P&G circular, which should be in Sunday's paper.

To enter, simply fill out the form below. (If you're reading this in a feed aggregator or email, you'll need to click through to the post to reach the form.)

For an additional entry, subscribe to my feed via RSS or email and fill out the form again to let me know you've done so.

For a third entry, spread the word about this contest - tell a friend or write about it on your own blog. Then let me know about it by filling out the form again.


You can enter up to three times (one for each type), and you must submit separate entries for each type. I'll select the winners using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. Winners will have 48 hours to send me their address, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4. Sorry, this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.

Good luck!

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Walgreens deal alert: Wait until next week to buy the free-after-rebate Almay mascara

According to the preview of next week's Walgreens ad, all Almay cosmetics will be on sale for buy one, get one free. So if you haven't already purchased it, wait until then to buy the Almay mascara that's free after rebate during the November EasySaver period.

There were $1 off Almay coupons in the 8/3, 9/14 and 10/12 newspapers. I've noticed that at my favorite store, buy one, get one free items ring up as full price on the first item and zero on the second item. So the register will probably beep if I try to use two coupons. On the other hand, if the register at your store rings up each item at half price, then you should have no problem using two coupons.

Thanks to peace3 for pointing out this deal at A Full Cup.

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This year's most expensive colleges

This is timely, in light of this morning's post on paying for private university: CampusGrotto has a list of the most expensive colleges for the 2008-2009 school year.

Here's the top 10 for tuition only:
  1. Bates College - $43,950
  2. Middlebury College - $42,910
  3. Colby College - $42,730
  4. Union College (NY) - $40,953
  5. Connecticut College - $40,900
  6. George Washington University - $40,392
  7. Vassar College - $39,635
  8. Sarah Lawrence College - $39,450
  9. Bucknell University - $39,434
  10. Colgate University - $39,275

And here's the top 10 for tuition plus room and board:
  1. Sarah Lawrence College - $53,166
  2. George Washington University - $50,312
  3. New York University - $50,182
  4. Georgetown University - $49,689
  5. Connecticut College - $49,385
  6. Bates College - $49,350
  7. Johns Hopkins University - $49,278
  8. Skidmore College - $49,266
  9. Scripps College - $49,236
  10. Middlebury College - $49,210
Here's a list of the 100 most expensive schools by tuition. And here's a list of the 100 most expensive schools by total cost.

In case you were wondering, the school my dentist's daughter is attending is not in the top 10, but is in the top 25. Yikes!

Via The Consumerist.

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Paying for a private university education

Earlier this year, I shared the conversation I had with my dentist about his daughter's dilemma on where to go to college. She had gotten into a couple of excellent University of California schools, as well as a well-known private university on the east coast. UC schools run about $25,000 per year. The east coast school is $50,000 per year. Needless to say, my dentist really wanted his daughter to attend a UC. But her first choice was the east coast school.

I just saw my dentist for a cleaning and was eager to find out what his daughter had decided. I wasn't surprised when he said that she's out on the east coast, and that she's having the time of her life. I was surprised when he said he had to take out a second mortgage to pay for her tuition. After all, not only is he a dentist, his wife is an attorney. But $50,000 per year is a lot of money, especially when you consider it's after taxes.

It's not like my dentist is one of my best friends, so I didn't feel comfortable asking if they'd saved money for college while their daughter was growing up. I don't know much about their finances, but I'd like to think that they had saved enough to pay for at least one year's expenses.

I have a strong emotional response to my dentist's situation, although I can't quite put my finger on what the emotion is, exactly. It's just that they're going through what my dad and I went through. I chose an expensive private school because it "felt right," without regard to cost. I don't know exactly how my parents paid for it, but I know it wasn't easy for them.

I greatly appreciate the sacrifices they made for me, and I know I wouldn't have been pleased if they'd tried to knock some sense in me during my senior year of high school. But if I could do things over again, I would definitely pick a less expensive school - or at least one of the schools that had offered me a scholarship. Knowing what I know now, I can't believe I put my parents through that - or that they let me put them through that.

My dentist is fairly young, so I expect to be seeing him for many more years to come. I'm interested to see where his younger daughter ends up going to college, and what his older daughter ends up doing for a career. While you can't put a price tag on the experiences she'll have at her school, financially speaking, I find it hard to believe that the investment her dad is making will have been worth it compared to the education she would have gotten at a UC. But maybe she'll prove me wrong.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

CPSC advisory: Tagless labels can cause rashes

Update 10/31/08: Mercedes at Common Sense with Money reports that you can call Carters and they will send you a prepaid label so you can return your Fall 2007 tagless clothing for a full refund.

The CPSC issued an advisory on Friday stating that the tagless labels on Carter's brand clothing can cause rashes, although it says that the advisory only applies to Carter's Fall 2007 line and only to the type of labels in the picture to the left.

Supposedly, the type of tagless labels to the right don't cause rashes.

I first learned about the possible connection between rashes and tagless labels a few weeks ago on Z Recommends, but it wasn't until the advisory came out on Friday that it suddenly occurred to me that the red scratches on Tyler's upper back and shoulders might be related to the tagless Carter's pajamas he's been wearing for a couple of months now. (Before that, he wore one-piece pj's from Babystyle, but then he started wanting to be more like Alex and sit on the potty before bed time.) I don't know if the pj's are the cause of Tyler's scratches (they don't look like the picture linked to on ZRecs) but I've stopped putting Tyler in the pj's and we'll see what happens. The thing is, Alex wore these pajamas one or two years ago, but they didn't do anything to his skin. However, Tyler has much more sensitive skin than Alex does, so that alone isn't evidence that the pj's are innocent.

For more on the topic, read the Z Recs reaction to the CPSC advisory. Of course, keep in mind that their opinion may be different from yours and/or mine, but at least it's another take on the issue. And if your child has a weird skin thing going on near where the tag touches their body, stop using the clothing and see what happens.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

I Spy a Pumpkin giveaway winner

Thank you to everyone who entered the I Spy a Pumpkin giveaway. Congratulations to the lucky random winner:

Windy!

Windy, you have 48 hours to email me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com with your mailing address.

Stay tuned, because I have another giveaway planned for next week!

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Cloth diapers may not be as environmentally friendly as we've been led to think + a lesson on misleading reporting

I came across this British news article that says a new government study has shown that cloth diapers are more damaging to the environment than disposable diapers unless parents practice certain measures, like always line-drying the diapers, using them "for years" on multiple children, and not using excessively hot water in the washer.

I was suspicious of the article, though. They seemed to be saying the water temperature in the washer shouldn't exceed 60 degrees Celsius, which is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Consumers in the U.S., at least, have been told for years to set their hot water heater to 120 degrees for both safety and environmental reasons, so I'm not sure how many people would actually be using excessively hot water in the washer.

But what really confused me was the end of the article, which offers a comparison in which the cloth diapers were "washed at 90C." If "90C" is 90 degrees Celsius, then it converts to 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which seems absurdly high. And that made me think I just wasn't understanding something fundamental.

So I managed to find a direct link to the British government study (pdf). Skipping ahead to the "Conclusion" section on page 21, I found that the true conclusion of the study is that the global warming impact of the "average" use of both types of diapers results in a difference of only 20kg of carbon dioxide equivalents over the course of two and a half years. The disposable diapers come in at 550 kg, while cloth diapers come in at 570 kg.

The report makes the obvious observation that how the cloth diapers are washed dramatically affects their global warming impact. Washing them in fuller loads, line-drying them, and reusing the diapers on a second child reduced their global warming impact to 370 kg in two and a half years. Conversely, tumble-drying cloth diapers increases the global warming impact to over 800 kg.

So what's the bottom line? Cloth diapers aren't always the environmentally friendly choice. And while I haven't done the math, my guess is that, depending on your shopping and laundry habits, it may not always be the most budget friendly choice either. (Neither disposable diapers nor laundry detergent - especially the dye and fragrance free kind, which are recommended for babies - are inexpensive.) On the other hand, if you use the cloth diapers on multiple children, wash as few loads as possible, and line-dry the diapers, you'll probably save both money and energy.

But if you're on the fence about what kind of diaper to use, I'm not sure this is a decision you can make ahead of time. In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are some things you just can't know until after the baby is born. Your child may end up having extremely sensitive skin such that cloth diapers are infinitely more comfortable for him. Or your child may turn out to be so colicky that you don't have the time or energy to line-dry and fold cloth diapers.

One final note about an interesting aspect to this study: according to the article (which, as we've established isn't entirely reliable), British government officials have tried to bury the report. I'm not quite sure why, except to guess that someone high up expected the report to show that cloth diapers are far better for the environment, and is crushed that that wasn't the conclusion.

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Two recalls today: Lighters & Didj batteries

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, October 22, 2008

One recall today: Wireless guitars

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

Rage Wireless Guitars Used with Popular Video Gaming System Recalled Due to Chemical Burn Risk - Click through for an additional photo.


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

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Our biggest spending pitfall: Eating out

I've mentioned previously that after dinner is our daily witching hour, when the boys are bundles of energy and emotion. (They're like that before dinner too, but it's even harder after dinner.) Although Marc didn't complain much, I could see that taking care of the boys while I made dinner and then cleaned up afterward was taking its toll. So for the last couple of months, I've mostly stopped cooking and we've been buying a lot of takeout and fast food.

The financial impact has been noticeable. It's been worth it, because I have my usual chipper husband back. And in some ways, the whole point of having money is to make life easier. Buying pre-made food definitely makes a big difference in our quality of life.

However, it hasn't been entirely easy for me to watch our spending go up and our saving go down, especially when our net worth is simultaneously heading south due to the stock market. So I'm ready to try making a few adjustments.

The main adjustment is going to be buying more convenience foods at the market. As we've noted in the past, pre-made convenience foods from the grocery store are still cheaper than fast food or takeout. But this adjustment to our eating patterns requires me to make a mental adjustment and forego the "all or nothing" approach that tends to come naturally to me.

For example, I'm very fond of my macaroni and cheese recipe. I can make it from memory, and it's really delicious. It's also, as far as macaroni and cheese goes, quite healthy. I use Barilla Plus elbow macaroni (because I've yet to find whole wheat elbows), add chopped spinach or grated carrot and lean ground beef, and use organic milk, RBST-free cheese and butter, and whole wheat flour. So the thought of serving a boxed macaroni and cheese to my kids, instead of this delicious wholesome meal, was downright repellent. And it pained me all the more because I knew they'd love the boxed mac and cheese and probably even prefer it over my from-scratch version.

But I used the $5 off $25 Whole Foods purchase coupon over the weekend to buy a few boxes of their store brand organic mac and cheese. The kids devoured it when I made it. And having made it once, I've realized that I can pretty easily add a few things to it to make it a little healthier.

The next time, I'm going to add a half pound of cooked lean ground beef and a jar of winter squash baby food. I bought some jarred organic baby food, and cooked up a pound of ground beef when I had ten minutes to spare. I froze the ground beef in two half-pound portions, so all I have to do is take it out of the freezer, put it in a colander, and drain the cooked macaroni over it. The hot pasta water will help defrost the meat. Then I'll make the sauce in the pan, stir in the baby food, and add the ground beef and macaroni. If I could just find a boxed mac and cheese that comes with whole wheat pasta, I'd actually be pretty satisfied with the nutritional content of this meal. And it'll take only a fraction of the time it would take me to make my from-scratch version, plus I can get most of the kitchen cleaned up and start prepping the next day's lunches while the macaroni is cooking.

I'm hopeful that adjustments like this will reduce the amount of money we spend on eating out, and on food overall. If you have any quick and easy meals that your kids love, please share them in the comments so we can all benefit!

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Today's recall: One million cribs

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

Today, the CPSC issued the two separate recalls listed below. But the pictures accompanying the recalls look identical to me, and the problems appear related. (Click through for closeups of the problem pegs.) The bottom line is that if you have a Delta crib, you should definitely check the recalls to see if it's included.

Infant Death Prompts Recall To Repair 600,000 Drop Side Cribs By Delta Enterprise; Spring Peg Failure Can Cause Entrapment and Suffocation Hazards


Infant Death Prompts Recall to Repair 985,000 Delta Enterprise Drop Side Cribs; Missing Safety Pegs Can Cause Entrapment and Suffocation Hazards

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Computer crisis

Marc and I are a good team in a lot of ways, and one thing we have in common is our financial goals, including being frugal and not spending money frivolously. However, sometimes we aren't completely on the same page. So although I've told him for the last couple of months that we can afford a new computer and that he should get one, he insisted that he was getting on fine and would be able to wait until the holidays.

But on Sunday evening, his monitor greeted us with the BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH. His computer hasn't turned on fully since, so he's pretty sure something burned out inside.

Unfortunately, we're not very savvy when it comes to hardware, and we don't have any computer savvy friends we can call upon to take a look inside. He's going to take it somewhere to get looked at, but he didn't waste any time ordering himself a new computer either. (Assuming the old computer is easy and cheap to fix, we'll be taking it over to his parents' house. Fortunately, Marc is good about backing things up, so we didn't lose anything of importance.)

We're not huge fans of Dell to begin with, and I had really wanted to avoid Dell after reading about PaidTwice's monitor nightmare. But there just wasn't a compelling alternative. So we ordered a Dell, which should arrive in about 10 days.

In the meantime, I'm sharing my computer with Marc so I'm spending a lot less time on it. Which is good, in a way. But it does mean that I'll be slow to respond to emails and comments, so I apologize in advance and thank you for your patience and understanding.

And stay tuned. The I Spy a Pumpkin giveaway ended tonight, but I've got another giveaway planned already.

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Learning a little more about magnet schools every day

I suppose it's partly because I bring up the subject every chance I get, but I'm learning about more about LAUSD's magnet schools every day. Yesterday, I had a long chat with a colleague who lives one town over and whose son is in fourth grade at an excellent public school. My colleague and his wife are naturally preparing for middle school, so he was able to give me more information about how the process of applying to magnet schools works.

I learned that you can only apply to one magnet school each year. I already knew that the admissions process is a lottery, and that students earn "points" that increase their chances each time they don't get into the school they've applied to.

I also knew that you have to accumulate points by applying to schools you don't want to get into so that you'll have the most points possible when you apply to the school you do want to get into. My friend told me that you can earn a maximum 4 points each year, that the maximum number of total points is 12, and that you lose your 12 points whether or not you get into the magnet school that year.

I also learned that the Choices Brochure (pdf) lists the number of open slots and number of applicants, which is particularly useful in identifying schools to apply to when you are just trying to earn points. (You do, of course, run the risk of getting in. And if you do get in and decide not to go, you start over with zero points the next year.)

Trying to understand all of this gave me quite the headache. Even worse, I know what the top magnet middle schools in our area are and the odds of getting in are quite slim. So what we really need is a backup plan that's actually appealing. At the moment, we only have backup plans that are tolerable:
  • We could move to an area with better schools.
  • I could go back to work to pay for private school tuition.
  • We could apply for an exemption to a better non-magnet school.
I suggested, reluctantly, that we could consider homeschooling but Marc was adamant that it's not an option. It's not ideal to me either, so it's more a relief than anything to eliminate that as a possibility. However, as I said, none of these secondary options are ideal. But at least we have some time to think about it.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

LAUSD Program Choices

I hope you all don't mind coming along for the ride, because my recent posts about debating between private and public schools are just the beginning. And I have a feeling that I'm going to be talking a lot about the Los Angeles Unified School District's Choices Program in the months to come. The program includes magnet schools, which is likely to be our first choice for the boys' middle and high school education. But I know very little about the process of getting into a magnet school, so I'll be learning as much as I can about the process, the options, and how we can maximize our chances of getting the boys into our preferred school.

I am definitely grateful to have the magnet option, because I've determined that our default middle and high schools are unacceptable. They have low or average testing scores, are located in not so great neighborhoods, and don't have great reviews on the GreatSchools site.

I was poking around on the eChoices web site when I discovered that they're holding an informational fair (pdf) on Saturday, Nov. 1. We're going to attend and hopefully make a good start in learning how to navigate the whole magnet school process.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

More Quick Product Reviews

My first post on quick product reviews was well-received, so here are a few more reviews. I've included items that were new to me, but not necessarily new on the market. I acquired these items through The Drugstore Game and free sample sites.
  1. Bounty Basic paper towels - These are bigger and stronger than CVS brand towels, but not nearly as strong or thick as regular Bounty, which is our usual paper towel. I'll buy these again at a good price, but not as my first choice.
  2. Electrasol Powerball Tabs - I got these when they were a moneymaker at Rite Aid, but didn't like them because sometimes they didn't dissolve completely. This may be because I use the "short wash" cycle on my dishwasher, and/or because my dishwasher is quite old. I will probably still buy them if they are free, but they're not my first choice (which remains Cascade gel).
  3. Electrasol Gelpacks - These were also a moneymaker at Rite Aid, and I got them because I didn't like the tabs. I again found that sometimes there was a residue left in the dishwasher, which could be due to the reasons already mentioned. There was less residue if I filled the rinse cup with vinegar (which is a fabulous frugal alternative to commercial rinsing agents). Again, I'd buy these if they were free, but not as my first choice
  4. Kotex Ultra Thin Pads - The last time I used Kotex before I tried it recently was 20 years ago. I remembered them as unwieldy thick pads, and completely inferior to Always. But a free sample from Wal-Mart showed me that Kotex had caught up with the times, and that I was wasting money by being brand loyal to Always. I've since bought quite a few Kotex pads, since there are often good coupons and sales.
  5. Walgreens brand pads - These seem to work as well as name brand pads.
  6. CVS brand pads - Ditto. I'm definitely not brand loyal to any feminine pad anymore.
  7. Scott Extra Soft toilet paper - A month of two ago, Wal-Mart offered a full size roll of this toilet paper as a free sample. And it turned out to be a perfectly acceptable toilet paper, if you're okay with public restroom quality toilet paper at home. But since our preferred brand is Charmin Ultra, this Scott TP is just too thin for us and we won't be buying it unless it's totally free.
  8. Cottonelle toilet paper - Although we don't like Cottonelle as much as Charmin, it's an acceptable substitute at the right price. And the CVS deal a couple of weeks ago was definitely the right price - we actually have more Cottonelle than Charmin in our stockpile now.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

A new wrinkle to the public vs. private school dilemma: Should I stay home?

Not surprisingly, the issue of whether to work outside the home has been an ongoing one for me since Alex was born. Before that - say, five years ago - I would have told you that I would always work outside the home. I'd gone to an excellent law school, worked hard, and gotten my first choice job upon graduation. I enjoyed my work and I was good at it.

And then, Marc and I decided to have a baby. I suffered my first miscarriage five years ago last month. That, followed by a second miscarriage four months later, changed everything for me. I became so focused on having a baby that work became secondary. And to be honest, it's never regained its previous status as a major priority in my life.

My long-term goals are no longer career oriented. So as Alex approaches kindergarten age, I find myself pondering my own options.

I finally ran the numbers and concluded that yes, we can afford for me to quit my job if Alex attends public school. I'm not saying that I would definitely want to quit my job if I had the option, but at least it is now an option. However, if we decide that private school is right for him, then I'll have to keep working in order to pay his tuition.

I could, of course, work at home. And I have no doubt that I would, regardless of whether the boys go to public or private school. But I have doubts about whether I could guarantee enough income working from home to cover two private school tuitions (since Tyler would be joining Alex in just two years).

Needless to say, my research into our local public schools has become a greater priority than my research into the private schools. While I'll still compile a short list of schools in the next year, my focus is now going to be on whether there's a good reason not to send the boys to the local elementary school.

The public school is holding an open house for prospective families next month. Stay tuned!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Two recalls today: Basinette & Walker

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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Reacting to the economy again: Cutting back on retirement savings in favor of reducing debt

As I mentioned last week, I've been thinking about reducing my retirement savings and using the money to pay off debt instead. We've decided to go ahead with the plan, and I'm very excited about it.

It wasn't an easy choice to make. The standard advice during tough economic times - especially for folks like us who have decades until retirement - is to keep up with retirement savings. And we are big believers in saving for retirement. We are committed to not being a burden to our children in our old age, and to retiring with enough years and money to fully enjoy ourselves.

However, I'm confident that the choice we've made to reduce our retirement savings for a year is the right one for us. The money will be redirected toward paying off my student loans, which will be paid off in full in a year - leaving us with only the mortgage as our debt.

One reason I say this is the right choice for us is the psychological benefit. I can't tell you how excited I feel about having zero non-mortgage debt.

Another reason this is the right choice for us is the financial freedom we'll gain from paying off my loans. The monthly payment we make is pretty substantial, and we'll be able to redirect all of those funds into other financial goals. Like retirement. Or saving for college. Or paying for private school, should we decide to go that route.

A third reason to opt for paying off my loans right now is the guaranteed 4.5% rate of return. In this economic climate, that's pretty tough to beat.

And the fourth reason for paying off my loans is the strong likelihood that any money we invest in the market right now will lose value. And there's a very real possibility, if not probability, that it will not have regained its value by the time my loans are paid off. As Janette mentioned on my last post, I could park the money in a money market fund until the market recovers, but by then, I will have paid off my loans and be in a position to invest more than the contributions that I won't be making.

There are a couple of points I want to make, though. First, we're still saving for retirement. We'll just be saving a little less.

And second, this is what's right for us. As demonstrated by the comments of Mercedes, Janette and Tony's Mom on my last post, it's not the right decision for everyone. The retirement vs. pay off debt debate is one that's frequently addressed in the personal finance blogosphere, and for good reason. The decision on how to prioritize is an individual one.

I know one thing, though: I can't wait to be debt-free!

Image credit: Yahoo! Finance.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One recall today: Toy boats

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

Toy Boats Recalled Due to Burn Hazard


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

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Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day 2008, and the topic this year is POVERTY.

Here are four ways that you can help eliminate poverty:
  1. Shop smart and give free or inexpensive items to food bank and other charities. Many people who play The Drugstore Game donate their surplus to worthy causes. Gina at Mommy Making Money routinely mentions dropping off free or cheap groceries at a local food bank. Erin at Coupon Cravings hosts a weekly $5 Charity Challenge, through which she encourages her readers to donate $5 worth of purchases to a charity each week. Why not join your fellow frugal shoppers and donate your extra items?
  2. Donate to a charity that provides microloans. Marc introduced me to the concept of microfinance a couple of years ago, and I've been a big fan of it ever since. The concept got worldwide attention with the selection of microbank founder Muhammad Yunus as 2006's Nobel Peace Prize winner. Microloans involve making small loans to very poor people who can't qualify for a traditional loan from a bank. For example, I currently have a loan through Kiva.org to a woman in Tanzania who borrowed a total of $175 to expand her business, which is selling fruit and vegetables. The loan allows her to buy more produce, which results in increased profit. If the cycle is continued, it can lead men and women out of poverty and into greater financial security.
  3. Teach someone a new skill. If you sew, you could teach someone how to make their own clothes, or maybe some cute craftsy item that would sell on Etsy. If you cook, you can teach someone basic cooking skills and maybe a set of basic recipes, like Jamie Oliver is apparently doing over in England.
  4. Teach a young person basic financial skills. Personal finance bloggers like to complain about the lack of formal education on finance. But that's not the only way to make sure future generations know how to manage their money. Kids can learn from any adult in their lives.

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Works for Me: Clean during bath time

I have to admit that during the last few months, I've been finding it harder than ever to keep a clean house. But earlier this week, I suddenly realized that I could at least keep the kids' bathroom clean by scrubbing it while they're in the bath. It seems obvious enough, but for some reason had never occurred to me (partly because Marc and I had been trading off on bath time duty). The last few days, while the kids have been in the bath, I've been standing at the sink, scrubbing bath toys with a sponge and soap, something I thought I'd never have time to do. It doesn't help me get the rest of my house clean, but it's working for me.

For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head over to the fabulous Rocks in my Dryer.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

One recall today: Bar magnets

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

Bar Magnets Recalled by Home Science Tools Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard


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

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Giveaway: I Spy a Pumpkin

Since Halloween is on its way, I'm giving away a copy of the book, I Spy a Pumpkin.

We've had a lot of fun with the I Spy books, admiring the clever photography and using the books to teach new words to the boys. So I'm confident this book will be a welcome addition to your library.

To enter the giveaway, simply fill out the form below and click "submit." That's it!

For an additional entry, subscribe to my feed via RSS or email and fill out the form again to let me know you've done so.

For a third entry, spread the word about this contest - tell a friend or write about it on your own blog. Then let me know about it by filling out the form again.


You can enter up to three times (one for each type), and you must submit separate entries for each type. I'll select the winners using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. Winners will have 48 hours to send me their address, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 21. Sorry, this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.

Good luck!

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Reiterating the importance of a Price Book

I've been reading a lot of posts in various coupon forums for the last few months, and it's generally fairly easy to spot a good deal: the item in question will be free or mere pennies after the sale price and coupons.

But sometimes, someone will ask, "Is this a good deal?" And whether the item in question is laundry detergent or hot dogs, the same answer always pops into my head: You'd know if it was a good deal if you kept a price book along with the coupon binder.

If you don't know what a price book is, read my explanation from earlier this year. And then start one. You don't have to maintain it forever, just until you've been doing it long enough to be able to recognize a good deal when you spot one. I have maximum price points in my head for almost all of the things we buy regularly, and I adjust that price as the deals get better or worse.

For example, a few months ago, I was happy to see Kleenex (our preferred brand) on sale for $1 if we needed it, and if we didn't, I tried to wait for a price of around 90-cents. But during the last few weeks, there have been some amazing sale prices of 64 cents for Puffs (after coupon at Walgreens) and 77 cents for Kleenex (this was at CVS, and the price came down to 47 cents if you factored in the ECBs). So now I'm looking for a sale price under 80 cents.

If you already have a price book, please consider leaving a comment about how it's saved you money. Let's inspire everyone to make their own!

Image credit: No Credit Needed, who has an awesome downloadable price book template that I highly recommend.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Drugstore Game this week: One trip to each of the Big 3

In keeping with my decision to simplify The Drugstore Game, I only made one trip to each of the big three drugstores this week. The only one I really wanted to go to was CVS, but I stopped at Walgreens and Rite Aid also because I had to do something with the boys. Here's how my transactions went:

CVS
2 Always Infinity @ $4.98 each - $9.96
Colgate Max Fresh w/ Beads - $2.99
Odor Eaters foot spray - $5.99
Total before coupons: $18.94

Coupons used: 2 $2 Infinity, $1 Colgate, $11.79 ECBs

Paid: $2.74 including tax on a gift card

Received the following ECBs: $9.96 for the Always and $2 for the Colgate

If you're looking for an item that's advertised in the weekly ad and can't find it on the shelf, always look on the endcaps. I found both the Always and Colgate that way. The shelves actually had a few of the items, just not the type that I wanted. But the endcaps were fully stocked.

Walgreens
Tuf paper towels - 59 cents w/ weekly ad coupon
Walgreens-brand elastic bandage (like an ACE bandage) - $2 on clearance
Visine - $4.99
2 Walgreens travel tissue at 29 cents each - 58 cents
Rimmel foundation - $7.49
Dixie napkins - $2.99
Quilted Northern - $4
Total before coupons: $22.64

Coupons used: $2 Walgreens brand elastic bandage, $2 Visine from weekly ad, $2 Visine, $1 Rimmel, 50 cents Dixie, $1 Quilted Northern from EasySaver catalog, $1 Quilted Northern, $4.50 RR, $4 RR, $2 RR

Paid: $4.34 including tax on my rebate gift card

Will receive: $7.49 + 10% bonus for a total of $8.24 for Rimmel monthly rebate

I bought the Tuf paper towels to see if they're any good. I actually like the Tuf brand trash bags more than the Kirkland brand bags from Costco, but from the outside, the paper towels don't seem that great. I also picked up the toilet paper to try it out. We've never used Quilted Northern before and thanks to Paid Twice, who tipped me off to the good deal, this is our chance to see if we want to add this brand to ones I keep my eye on.

I was delighted to find the elastic bandage in the clearance section. They're very handy to have, and a free item is always good. I don't remember what insert the coupon was in, just that I clipped it from a Sunday newspaper quite some time ago.

If I'd been paying more attention to the price tags rather than my shopping list, I would have realized that the Visine was $4.99, and that the weekly ad coupon was for $2 off, not for the price of $2. Because it was free after coupons in other parts of the country, where it's regularly priced at $3.99, I just took it for granted that it would be free for me. Ninety-nine cents isn't bad for Visine, but I wouldn't have bought it if I'd realized at the time that it wasn't going to be free.

Another price I wish I'd been paying more attention to was the $2.99 charged for the napkins. I could have sworn the shelf tag said 2/$5. My receipt does indicate that the napkins were on sale, so maybe I read the tag wrong, or read the wrong tag. I probably would have still gotten them since we're starting to run low on napkins, but I do like to know what I'm actually paying at the point of sale.

Finally, I bought the travel pack tissues to make sure I had as many items as I did manufacturer coupons, which includes the Register Rewards. I'm happy to have used those up, since now I don't have to worry about using them before they expire. I have one left from last week's Tylenol deal, but that one doesn't expire until December and I'm sure I'll use it by then.

Rite Aid
Chapstick True Shimmer - $1.99
Child Throat Coolers - $2.99
Simply Saline - $3.99
Total: $8.97 plus 74 cents tax

I'll get back the $8.97 in rebates. As I mentioned earlier in the week, there are lots of free-after-SCR items next week (though the deals started yesterday here), all cold and flu-related. Since you're not supposed to give children under the age of four cold or cough medicine, it wasn't worth buying any of those items. I thought the throat coolers and saline would make a nice addition to our medicine cabinet, and the Chapstick will be a moneymaker after the mail in rebate in tomorrow's newspaper.

I will probably skip Walgreens and Rite Aid next week unless I have time to kill (or a Walgreens $/$$ coupon comes out), but the CVS ad looks awesome. There are quite a few free-after-ECB items, and All laundry detergent is on sale for buy one, get one free. I'm just worried that they may have stopped making the HE version of All Free & Clear - not only could I not find it at CVS the last time I checked, Target didn't have it either. :(

How did your shopping go this week?

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Friday, October 10, 2008

The Economy: How are you responding?

I haven't talked about it much, but that doesn't mean I'm unaware of the current financial crisis our country is going through. I was initially planning to write about how I'm ignoring the meltdown and plugging along because I have faith that eventually things will turn around. But then I realized that it's not quite true.

I do have faith that things will eventually get better. That much is true. But it does appear that in the short term, things are going to stay bad and probably even get worse.

What isn't true about my original statement is that I'm ignoring what's happening in the economy. For one thing, I've already reacted by spreading my money around. Instead of keeping almost all of our funds at one bank, we've transferred enough money to cover a couple of months' expenses to two other banks. I hate the added complication to keeping track of our money, but the peace of mind is worth it.

Another thing I'm thinking of doing is stopping some (not all) of my monthly retirement contributions and using that money to pay off my student loans instead. It would accelerate the payoff date to sometime next year, which is tantalizingly soon. It would mean a guaranteed return of 4.5% after taxes. But it would also mean risking a (small) percentage of my retirement savings if the market turns around in the next year (although I could cut the payments and increase my contribution whenever I want to).

I'm also keeping a close eye on mortgage rates again. With the Fed rate cut earlier this week, I'm hoping that rates will go down enough to make refinancing worthwhile. We've been in our house for long enough and have a low enough rate that rates would have to get absurdly low for us to benefit while still making the regular monthly payment. But if we are able to refinance to a lower interest rate and continue making the same payment that we're currently making, then we would be able pay off the mortgage faster and save tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the life of the loan.

Are you doing anything to respond to current economic conditions, and if so, what?

Image credit: Yahoo! Finance.

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Weight Watchers coupon giveaway winners

Thank you to everyone who entered the Weight Watchers coupons giveaway. Congratulations to the lucky random winners:

Janet F., Rebecca C., and Kathie R.!

You have 48 hours to email me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com with your mailing address.

Stay tuned because I'll be giving away another book next week!

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One recall yesterday: Nerf blasters

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

Hasbro Inc. Recalls to Repair Nerf Blasters; Child’s Skin Can Get Caught in Plunger of the Toy


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

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Continuing dilemma: public school vs. private school

I'm sure that in many places, there's no question that children will attend the local public school. But out here in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, it seems every parent - at least in our socio-economic class - has gone through or is going through the public versus private school debate. It's a topic I regularly revisit with all of my friends who have kids the same age, and a regular topic at birthday parties and such.

When Alex was born, there was no doubt in our minds that he would be attending private school. But in gathering information over the last two years, I've discovered that the best private schools are so expensive, we'd really be stretching to send two children there for a combined 15 years. The school that was originally my top choice is charging just shy of $20,000 for the 2008-2009 school year for tuition alone. That's just tuition for grades K through 6. Middle and high school tuition is even more expensive (at this rate, it will be $35,000 by the time Alex enters 7th grade). And that doesn't include books, fees, and obligatory fund raising contributions (which one of my friends tells me is about $5,000). Even though we have a good income, it's not that good, or at least I'm not confident that we could keep up with 6% annual increases.

Other schools in the same echelon are at least as expensive. So I've pretty much crossed the top schools off my list, and I've been searching for middle-tier private schools with correspondingly "middle-tier" tuition. I've also been looking harder at our local public elementary school. So far, I've discovered that they are almost on par, at least academically. But academics aren't everything, and I'm not sure how to figure out where we'll find the best fit. We are also concerned about what comes after elementary school, since we don't know much about the local public middle and high schools but have vague negative impressions about them.

Alex will start kindergarten in a little less than two years, so I see this school year as my chance to do a lot of research, figure out our realistic options, and narrow our choices. (I haven't mentioned homeschooling because it's just not something we're comfortable doing and not something that we'd consider.)

In the next few months, I plan to talk with other parents, research the different schools, and meet with school officials (especially at the public school). I'd love your advice here: What has been most important factor in ensuring your child has an overall positive experience at school? And what questions would you ask if you were me?

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

One recall today: Girls' sandals

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

Rack Room Shoes Recalls Girls’ Sandals 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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Working mom's dilemma: Traveling for work

I've been fortunate so far in being able to avoid traveling for work since Alex was born. But that will likely change next week, when I will probably have to go out of town for a night. Marc and I generally handle bath time, book time and bed time together. So I have no worries about leaving him to be responsible for the kids while I'm gone. Heck, he's better at all of those things than I am.

And although I'll miss Marc and the boys while I'm gone, I'll be gone for such a short time that I can't help but think how refreshing it will be to get a full, uninterrupted night of sleep.

What I find myself dwelling on is the disruption to our daily routine, especially my daily routine. So my question to all of you seasoned travelers (and wives and husbands of seasoned travelers) is this: How do you handle the disruption?

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

One recall, three items: necklaces, CD players & MP3 players

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

Children's Necklaces, CD and MP3 Players Sold at Limited Too and Justice Stores Recalled by Tween Brands Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard



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Weight Watchers Week Eleven: I'm going to run a 5K!

So last week, I mentioned that I was thinking about registering for my very first 5K. Thank you so much if you commented - I really appreciate your encouragement and insight! I discussed the 5K with Marc, and I should have known that he'd be fully supportive and encouraging.

So I did it! I signed up and now I'm working hard on pushing my body to run faster so that I can complete the race as fast as possible. I've found that running intervals really improves my speed, so I plan on running them at least twice a week.

I don't expect to win or even to place, and I'm definitely not going to push my body too hard (I have an ugly history of knee problems), but my motivation to complete the race as quickly as possible stems from knowing that Marc will be taking care of the kids by himself while I'm running. In fact, I don't know what he's going to do with them during the race, or if they'll even come with me since the race starts at 8:00 and I presume I'll have to be there quite a bit earlier to check in. I'd love any suggestions on how to prepare for the race or suggestions for what Marc should expect on race day while I'm unavailable. The web site says there's an "expo" and there's also a one-mile family race, so I know it will be a family friendly environment. But I'm wondering if there will be enough to keep two little boys from throwing tantrums out of boredom, or if Marc should just find something else to do that morning, like take them to the aquarium.

Meanwhile, as to Weight Watchers itself, I'm finding myself thinking less about losing weight and more about developing healthy eating habits that I can maintain for a lifetime. For me, that mainly means learning to control the amount of sweets I eat in a day, and to balance out my eating over the course of a day or two. In other words, if I have a big lunch, it's perfectly fine to skip dinner or just have a bite or two of something.

I am feeling less constrained by things I "should" be doing, and feeling okay about doing things my own way. I may not lose weight as quickly as if I followed Weight Watchers' guidelines to the letter, but I will be able to stick with the program for a lot longer. For example, there are days when I don't track my points. Not because I intend to eat a lot and don't want to be accountable, but because I forget or am not near a computer. But instead of feeling that the lack of tracking is a huge failure, I shrug it off and start tracking again the next day. That may not sound like much, but it's a big step for me :)

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Simplifying The Drugstore Game

I've been overwhelmed at work lately, sometimes to the point of tears. And I have to admit that in some ways, not playing The Drugstore Game would reduce the amount of stress I am experiencing - in other words, I could reduce stress by buying whatever I want whenever I want without much consideration of the cost. But that would just stress me out in other ways, since I hate wasting money and knowing that I was overpaying would drive me nuts.

And then there's the fact that playing The Drugstore Game makes me happy - and you can't put a price on happiness. I love planning my transactions and figuring out how to save the most money. Once I've figured out my transactions, I look forward to going to the store for days, until I can get there. I've been known to toss my bags into the trunk and take my receipt out so I can bask in the glow of my low out-of-pocket cost before I drive away.

So there's no way I'm sitting on the sidelines of The Drugstore Game just because I have too much work to do. But I've decided to simplify things somewhat to get the most bang for my buck. Here's how:
  • I'm going to pass up more deals. As I mentioned last week, I decided to forego the free-after-SCR-and-coupon razor at Rite Aid. It turns out that I also missed out on some free toothpaste. But those are exactly the types of deals I'm going to pass up from now on. I don't need toothpaste, razors, shampoo, conditioner, or toothbrushes. So I'm definitely not making a special trip to get them, even if they are free or a small moneymaker.
  • I will make fewer trips. There's a CVS every couple of miles near my house, and I've been known to hit three or four during a particularly hot week. I've also been known to pop into multiple Walgreens stores in a single day or week. But I'm going to cut back on the number of times I go to a store now. In fact, I'll probably visit each store only once a week. I will miss out on some deals, but the added stress, time and effort outweighs the added savings.
  • I'm going to limit myself to one transaction per store and absorb slightly higher out of pocket costs. One key to minimizing out of pocket expenses in The Drugstore Game is to break transactions up so as to maximize the use of coupons, particularly where you can "roll" ECBs or Register Rewards into the next transaction. It's also part of the fun of minimizing expenses while maximizes purchases. It takes me a little more time and effort to plan multiple transactions, but the real stress comes from having to be extra organized and know which coupons go with which transaction, and being prepared for the first transaction to not go perfectly, which can throw off the subsequent transactions. By doing only one transaction per store, I'll end up paying a little more out of pocket. But for the time being, the reduced stress, time and effort are worth the added cost.
I still expect to save a lot of money compared to shopping in other stores. This is largely because now that I have a great stockpile of most things that we use, the only deals I chase are the ones for the few things that we do need or will need soon.

The ECB deal on Renu contact lens solution last week at CVS is a good example. Marc and I both wear contacts, and we only have a couple of bottles of solution in our stockpile, which isn't enough to last us through the end of the year. We've also used up all of the funds in our flexible spending account, so anything we spend on contact solution won't be reimbursed. And, contact solution isn't cheap - last I checked, a 12-oz. bottle of Target brand solution was $5.99. After coupons and ECBs, I was able to get one 12-oz. bottle of Renu for $2.49 and two bottles for $2.99. And I hope that this will be enough to keep us going through the next great sale, when I'll stockpile again.

Another benefit of The Drugstore Game is that I don't have to shop every week because of my stockpile. So if things get so crazy at work that I can't make it to a drugstore one week, that's fine.

But I hope that doesn't happen. Not only will I be unhappy from having to work that much, I'll be unhappy about missing my savings high.

Did I miss anything? Share your tips for simplifying The Drugstore Game in the comments!

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