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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WFMW: What do you put in an inexpensive Easter basket besides candy?

This week is a reverse Works for Me Wednesday, when the participants get to ask their readers for help. And I need your help! Tell me: What inexpensive non-food items can you put in an Easter basket?

I don't let my boys eat candy, so I don't want any food in the basket. And the last time I checked the Salvation Army store, they didn't have a toy section. (I'm afraid to go to Goodwill, they have the worst parking lot ever. But I may brave it, if I have time.) Also, we have enough craft supplies to host a dozen crafting parties without spending a dime.

So ... any suggestions?

Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips dilemmas at We are THAT Family.

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Minimizing the cost of printable coupons

I have a confession: I haven't been buying the Sunday newspaper lately. I do get the coupons from my in-laws, who only clip one or two coupons per week – so I do have one set of each week's coupons. But that's it.

I don't trade or buy coupons, but I seem to always have enough to buy what my family needs. And I realized that this works for me in large part because of the availability of printable coupons. Coupons.com is my favorite single source, but I'm always finding links to other printable coupons too.

I have found myself wondering if the coupons are worth the cost of printing them, but I always conclude that they are. After all, how much can it cost to print out three coupons per sheet of paper, even in colored ink? Less than the $3 those coupons will save me!

Still, there's no point in paying more than you have to. Here are some ways to keep the cost of printing coupons down:

Minimize the ink volume. The easiest and fastest way to minimize the amount of ink you use is to change your printer settings so that the default print setting is for the lowest ink volume. You may have to locate your printer's manual or click around a bit to figure out how to change the settings but it's absolutely worth it. On my printer, at least, the lowest ink volume is still perfectly clear. If yours is too light, increase the ink volume incrementally until you are using only as much as you absolutely must.

Consider printing in black and white only. Color ink is more expensive than black ink, so you'll save money if you print in "grayscale," as it will appear in your printer options. But, I actually don't do this because I feel cashiers are less likely to question my coupons if they're in color.

Stop the printer after your coupon has printed. Many manufacturers set their coupons to print an ad on the bottom of the page underneath the coupon. If I'm paying attention, I'll interrupt the printing once the coupon has been printed, thus saving the ink that would have been used to print the ad.

Use coupons for free or cheap ink cartridge refills. This week, you can get a free black or color cartridge refill after rebate at Walgreens. It looks like the black ink refill will be $2.50 ($10 minus $7.50 rebate) for the rest of the month. Color will be $7.50 ($15 minus $7.50 rebate).

Look for sales on printer paper. A ream of 500 sheets lasts a long time, but does run out eventually. There's a sale at Staples this week. Hammermill CopyPlus reams are $7.98, and buy one get one free. There's also a $3.99 easy rebate when you buy two, so you'll pay $3.99 for two, or $2 each. (I found this deal via Northwest Arkansas Deals, which lists it a little differently – I'm guessing that their prices are just lower than ours here in pricey Southern California.)

Reuse printer paper. I'm all for recycling, and an easy way to recycle is to use the blank side of paper that's already been printed on. I only do this when there's very little printing on the one side, again because I feel cashiers are less likely to question a coupon that looks "clean." However, when the coupons don't take up an entire page, I take the blank part that's left and use it to write my shopping list, to do lists, and other notes.

When possible, print coupons at the store. I always do this with Target coupons, which can be printed at the registry kiosks in the store. I started doing this several months ago, after I read that some cashiers refused to accept the coupons because they looked copied. The store I go to most often uses blue paper in their kiosks, so it's very obvious that I printed the coupons directly from the Target web site. (To print coupons at the kiosk, choose the option for Target.com, scroll down to the bottom of the homepage and click on "Grocery Coupons.")

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Giveaway: Yoplait Get Active Prize Pack

This week's giveaway is three Yoplait Get Active Prize Packs, featuring lots of gear to make your summer more fun. Each prize pack includes a travel cooler (to take your Yoplait yogurt on the road), a jump rope, a water bottle and an outdoor game set that includes a beach ball, paddle ball, jai alai and a frisbee.

This giveaway is tied in with Yoplait for Kids products, so I had the chance to try some. I ended up with the Trix yogurt cups and while they taste like yogurt, I have to admit that the color scares me. I suppose if your child will only eat bright colored yogurt, then you do what you have to do, but personally, I'm going to stay away from the artificial coloring as much as possible. I have no problem with regular Yoplait though, and think it's a pretty tasty yogurt. And Alex does like the occasional Go-Gurt that we sometimes get with a kid's meal - I'll probably like those more when I don't have to worry so much about it getting all over the place!

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 CFO 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, tweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, write about it on your own blog, etc. 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. Only one entry of each type per email address will be counted. 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. PST on Tuesday, April 7.

Good luck!

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Monday, March 30, 2009

How Toddlers' Brains Work

I have no background in early education, but still, I think the topic of brain development is fascinating. And this article on how toddlers' brains work actually has some potentially practical applications. I don't know how practicable they are in daily life, but it's interesting to know that my kids don't think ahead yet.

The study found that while 8-year-olds can anticipate the future, 3-year-olds "call up the past as they need it." The example given was telling your 3-year-old to get her jacket because it's cold outside. But the child just stores that information and it doesn't register until she gets outside and feels cold – at which point she'll think, It's cold outside, Mom said I should get my jacket.

The suggestion for handling this situation was to tell the child, "I know you don't want to take your coat now, but when you're standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom." Of course, I'm not crazy about the idea of letting the child outside without a jacket to begin with, which is why I question whether this new research can result in ways of communicating that can or will actually be implemented.

But, I think this helps with my biggest frustration – the not listening. Now it (kind of) makes sense that when I told Alex to stop dragging the toe of his shoe on the ground because it was ruining the shoe, he acted as if he hadn't heard and kept doing it. I suppose it would have registered at some future time, when he noticed that there was a hole in his shoe: Oh, that's why Mom told me not to drag my shoe. It's not excusable, of course, but my new understanding of what's going on (or not going on) in his brain will hopefully give me more patience.

Now I just have to figure out how to phrase things so he'll actually process the information on the spot. Is it even possible?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Giveaway: 2 TurboTax web cards (free federal & state preparation + e-file fees)

This giveaway rewards the procrastinators who haven't filed their tax returns yet. I am giving away two prepaid access codes for TurboTax Premier Online. Each code includes one free federal and state preparation and e-file fees, and is valued at approximately $85.

TurboTax wants to reward those with a sense of humor, so they've asked me to collect your favorite April Fool's jokes. (Maybe someone over there is looking for ideas?) So to enter, simply leave a comment with your favorite April Fool's joke or story and a way to contact you easily. (In other words, if you're not a blogger, leave your email address - I'll delete the comments after the giveaway is over to thwart the spam-bots. If you're a blogger, make sure I can easily locate your blog and through your blog, your contact info.) Enter as many times as you like, so long as you have a different joke or story. (Be sure to leave your contact info each time.)

If you don't have a joke or funny story, you can still enter if you're subscribed to CFO via RSS or email - just leave a comment telling me you're a subscriber. Or, enter by spreading the word about this contest – tell a friend, tweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, write about it on your own blog, etc. Then let me know about it by leaving a comment.

I'll select the winners using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. The winner will have 48 hours to respond, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. PST on Tuesday, March 31.

And while you're entering contests, through April 1, you can enter TurboTax's Super Status contest, which has lots of different prizes - right now, you can win a trip to the U.S. Open (golf, not tennis).

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Becoming debt-free: Sometimes you just need to believe it's possible

We are very close to paying off my remaining student loan, which would leave us with the mortgage as our only debt. For some reason, I had assumed until today that we would shift what we've been paying on the student loan into savings for retirement and the kids' education. It had simply never occurred to me to wonder how long it would take to pay off the mortgage if we continued the debt snowball.

Until today.

Out of nowhere, I began to wonder would happen if we applied the student loan payment to our mortgage. I was shocked to see that we could pay off our mortgage in just over six years.

So that's the new plan: Pay off the mortage by mid-2015. We'll save over $100,000 in interest. I was a little concerned that with our new plan, refinancing in January may have cost us money, but I'm happy to report that we'll come out ahead by $5,000 (i.e., if we hadn't refinanced and started accelerating the mortgage in a few months, we'd have paid $5,000 more than we will now).

Of course, nothing is set in stone. The new plan presupposes that we'll be sending the boys to public elementary school or a very affordable private school, and that Marc and I will hold on to our jobs. With the current state of the economy, I don't want to take anything for granted. But even with the extra principal payment each month, we'll still be able to save, as we have done while paying off our non-mortgage debts, so we will remain financially stable.

And the end of being in debt is in sight!

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Guest post at Coupon Cravings

Coupon Cravings is one of my daily reads, so I'm delighted to have a guest post there today on strategies for getting your coupons accepted. Check it out, and check back regularly because Erin always posts the best deals.

And if you're new to CFO from Coupon Cravings, WELCOME! I hope you'll stick around, get to know me a little bit, and pick up some useful parenting, cooking and financial tips. You may want to read the introduction to Chief Family Officer or plunge right into the Best of CFO. And while you're here, sign up for the fabulous search and win site Swag Bucks and get 5 Swag Bucks to start, then enter this week's giveaway for two $5 Amazon.com gift certificates!

Ground Beef Hash

Marc said the Serious Eats recipe for Roast Beef Hash sounded really good to him, so I've had it in the back of my mind for a few weeks. When planning this week's menu, I realized that I needed to use up some potatoes that had already begun to sprout, but I didn't have any leftover roast beef. No problem, though, I (almost) always have ground beef in the freezer. The barely cooked yolk of a fried egg really turns this dish into something special. I also increased the quantity so that there would be leftovers for lunch.

Ground Beef Hash (adapted from Serious Eats)
Serves 6

1 pound ground beef
2 teaspoons onion powder
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large Russet potatoes, cooked, chilled, peeled and diced into 1/4 inch cubes*
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 eggs, over easy

1. In a large nonstick skillet, brown the ground beef over medium heat for approximately 15 minutes, stirring to crumble as much as possible. When there is just a little bit of pink left, add the onion powder, salt, pepper and dried oregano. Continue cooking until browned. Drain and set aside.

2. Return the skillet to the stove over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Add the potatoes, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until browned, stirring frequently. (Turn the heat down to medium if the potatoes look like they are going to burn.) Add the ground beef, garlic and thyme, and more salt and pepper if desired. Stir and cook for 5 minutes or until heated through.

3. Add the heavy cream and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the desired dryness is achieved. Top each serving with a fried egg.

*The Serious Eats recipe calls for freshly boiled potatoes or leftover boiled potatoes. I'm lazy always short on time and hate boiling potatoes if I don't have to. I scrubbed my potatoes really well, poked them with a fork, and microwaved them on high until they were done and I could easily insert a knife. Then I parked them in the fridge until it was time to make the hash, at which time I peeled and diced them.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Six recalls today: Lots of hoodies & a fishing pole

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

Children’s Hooded Fleece Jackets with Drawstrings Recalled by Golden Grove Trading Due to Strangulation Hazard



La Jolla Sport Recalls Children’s Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Due to Strangulation Hazard - Click through for pictures of additional styles.


Children’s Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Recalled by Dysfunctional Clothing Due to Strangulation Hazard - Click through for pictures of additional styles.


Children’s Fishing Poles Recalled by Zebco Due to Violation of Lead in Paint Standard - Click through for a close up.


Children’s Hooded Sweatshirts Recalled by MM Compound Due to Strangulation Hazard


Children’s Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Recalled by Rusty North America Due to Strangulation Hazard - Click through for pictures of additional styles.


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

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Cooking & feeding the kids: So far, so good + we're saving a lot of money

We're going on week three of not eating out (much). I've been cooking pretty much every night, and stashing a few things in the freezer (like my favorite bolognese) for future meals to make things easier on myself.

I know that shopping at multiple stores is saving us money but I couldn't tell you how much right now. My monthly bill is completely skewed by purchases for Alex's birthday party, which have been made during my regular shopping trips over the course of a few weeks. I should have a better idea of what's going on with my grocery bill in about a month.

But I think our grocery bill has pretty much stayed the same, while our overall spending on food has gone down significantly. This is because leftovers usually double as lunch and planning our meals ahead of time means I'm not wasting (as much) food.

A huge bonus to all of this is that we're all eating healthier. Although I must admit that there have been times when one or both boys has gone to bed having eaten only a bowl of fruit for dinner.

Overall, though, there have been fewer battles at the dinner table as we've continued to follow Ellyn Satter's plan. Serving all of dinner at once, instead of holding back the fruit that I know they'll eat, has made a big difference. If the boys don't like the entree, they just eat a lot of fruit (I take it for granted that they won't even try the veggie, though of course I hope that'll change someday – I'm picking my battles, though). I am much happier not having to scramble every night to come up with half a dozen alternatives the boys might eat.

I'll end this post with a couple of new recipes I've tried recently:

CrockPot Korean Ribs from A Year of CrockPotting - Marc and I liked these a lot. I left out the jalapeños because I forgot to buy them, and I'm not sure I would have used them even if I'd remembered them because I worry that even a hint of spiciness will freak the kids out. In any event, I didn't miss the peppers and the meat was very tasty.

Miso Chicken Piccata from Cooking Light - I made a lot of adjustments to the recipe, some intentional and some not. I used dark miso, left out the capers, and cut back on the lemon juice – all of those were intentional. I also left out the flour - most definitely not intentional. By the time I realized what I'd done, the chicken was all cooked, so I substituted cornstarch. Which would have worked beautifully if only I'd dissolved it in cold liquid before adding it to the pan. But I didn't. And ended up with lumps that I had to strain out. Needless to say, I made a lot of unnecessary work for myself. On the bright side, though, we all liked this dish fairly well – it wasn't outstanding, but I'm a big fan of anything the kids eat without complaining.

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Guest post at Get Rich Slowly

I have a guest post this morning over at Get Rich Slowly on the cost of having kids. You'd think I'd be prepared for the comments after my last guest post on The Drugstore Game but I have to admit, they still sting a bit. Fortunately, I know that regular CFO readers know that I don't regret having my kids - but that I'm also not one to shy away from the simple fact that having children has a big financial impact. Check it out and let me know what you think!

And if you're new to CFO from GRS, WELCOME! I hope you'll stick around, get to know me a little bit, and pick up some useful parenting, cooking and financial tips. You may want to read the introduction to Chief Family Officer or plunge right into the Best of CFO. And while you're here, sign up for the fabulous search and win site Swag Bucks and get 5 Swag Bucks to start, then enter this week's giveaway for two $5 Amazon.com gift certificates!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Works for Me: Homemade Pizza Dough Tip

I made homemade pizza for the first time in a long time last week, and to start, I turned to my new favorite cookbook, Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything.I didn't use the recipe in it because it called for instant yeast, while I only had regular. But the information about pizza yielded the best tip I've ever come across: Let the dough rest during shaping.

If you've made homemade pizza dough before, you've no doubt had the experience (or should I say, frustration) of shaping your pizza and having the dough shrink back. Bittman says that when the dough starts to shrink, you should leave it alone for a few minutes. Depending on how big your pizza is, you may have to do this lots of times, but it works.

I made small, individual-sized pizzas, and I had to leave the dough once or twice while shaping it. (Based on Bittman's writing, I was generous with the olive oil during shaping, so the dough was in no danger of drying out.) This was the first time I've ever been able to get the dough as thin as I like, all the way out to the edges. Marc and I agreed that it was the best homemade pizza I've ever made!

Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips at We are THAT Family.

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Two recalls today: High chairs & pacifiers

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

Fisher-Price Recalls 3-in-1 High Chairs Due to Fall Hazard


Pacifiers Recalled by OKK Trading Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a close up of the pacifier.


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

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Giveaway: Two $5 Amazon gift certificates to Swag Bucks users

Search & WinThis week's giveaway is exclusively for readers who registered for Swag Bucks using my referral link. It doesn't matter when you registered – if you registered using my referral link, you're eligible to enter this giveaway. It's my way of saying THANK YOU for using my referral link. If you haven't registered yet, be sure to get the bonus code for 2 extra Swag Bucks so you get a total of 5 to start!

So what's this giveaway? Well, two of you will win a $5 Amazon.com gift certificate. It seems appropriate because that's the only prize I've ever redeemed my Swag Bucks for, and you've helped me earn them.

To enter, just 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 see the form.) Be sure to include your first name and last initial, because that's how I'll check that you're listed in my referrals. If you're not sure if you registered with Swag Bucks through my referral link, feel free to enter anyway. I'll just exclude your entry if you aren't on my referrals list.

One entry per person. I'll select the winners using Random.org and announce them here on CFO as well as contact them by email. The winner will have 48 hours to respond, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. PST on Tuesday, March 31.

Good luck!

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Happiness = Matching your goals & your actions

It seems like everyone I know is complaining about their financial picture these days. I sympathize because I know that our financial picture is better than most, but we're still tightening our belts because it seems some kind of income reduction is on the horizon.

Meanwhile, I want to make an observation that applies not just to finances but to life in general: the happiest people are the ones whose words and actions match.

Finances are an easy way to illustrate what I mean. I have a friend who makes decent money but has a hefty mortgage, so money is always tight. He complains about not having enough money, but doesn't do anything about finding a second or third source of income. He says he's trying to bring in more money by doing some tutoring, but he actually spends his time on other, non-income-generating hobbies. And when someone suggested he stop some of his extracurricular activities so he would have more time to spend on tutoring, he simply shrugged it off. I can't help but wonder sometimes if he likes being miserable.

On the flip side, I have a friend who's lost her job but is balancing finding a new job with arranging educational services for her preschooler, who was recently diagnosed as having high-functioning autism. She says her family needs her to work, and she's working hard to find something new. She diligently completed the requirements for getting unemployment benefits, despite having to deal with a mind-numbing bureaucracy and an insanely rude employee who brought her to tears. She vented to me about that, but not in a self-pitying way. Meanwhile, she found a job but two days before she was to start, she was told they couldn't hire her after all. So she's looking again, and is optimistic that she'll be able to find something soon.

Needless to say, she's a happier person than my other friend, who seems to want something other than what he says.

I go back to something I've said before: To achieve financial success, you have to be honest about your priorities.

What are my male friend's true priorities? I don't really know. But I know he's not going to be happy until his words start to match up with his actions.

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Exclusive CFO code when you register for Swag Bucks

Search & WinI've mentioned Swag Bucks many times now and I want to thank everyone who signed up for Swag Bucks using my referral link because I've gotten lots of bucks thanks to you! Apparently the folks at Swag Bucks noticed too, because they've given me a chance to give new "Swaggernauts" two bonus Swag Bucks for signing up through CFO.

What is Swag Bucks? In a nutshell, it's an incredibly easy way to earn free money. Or stuff. All you have to do is search through their site or tool bar and you'll earn Swag Bucks, which you can redeem for prizes like gift certificates, video games and more. I've only ever redeemed my Swag Bucks for Amazon.com gift certificates, because it's the best value (for me, anyway, since I've now earned hundreds of dollars in Amazon gift certificates).

If you haven't registered for Swag Bucks yet, then today's the day! You'll get 3 Swag Bucks for signing up, and another 2 Swag Bucks when you enter the code CFOBLOG. Just be sure to use my referral link. The code will expire at midnight on Friday, March 27.

Once you've signed up with Swag Bucks, consider following them on Twitter, subscribing to their blog, downloading their toolbar, and becoming their fan on Facebook. Codes for free Swag Bucks have been posted on each of these media, and the faster you collect Swag Bucks, the faster you'll be able to collect free prizes. (Enter free codes on the "My Account" page - you can get there easily by clicking on the box on the homepage that tells you how many Swag Bucks you have.)

If I have one complaint about Swag Bucks, it's that the free codes are often way too time-sensitive. Sometimes they'll only be good for an hour or two, and by the time their blog feed has been updated in Google Reader, the code's expired.

I've found that I can usually earn Swag Bucks by searching in the morning and at night. Without referrals, I earned my first Amazon gift certificate, which costs 45 Swag Bucks, in less than a month. So don't wait any longer to sign up - start searching and winning now!

And since this code is just for new Swaggernauts, I'll have a special giveaway for anyone who's signed up for Swag Bucks using my referral link tomorrow.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Revisiting the school issue: We're still torn between public and private

Last fall, I wrote extensively about our dilemma of whether to send the boys to public or private school. After doing some research, I concluded that our local public school would be more than adequate. But then came California's budget crisis and uncertainty about what that means for our local school. (I feel much like this local mom.)

Marc and I had just decided that we'd apply to one of the private schools I visited a few months ago and if Alex got in, we'd send him there. But his pediatrician has encouraged to go with our public school because there would be more opportunities available to him through LAUSD's gifted program (which he thinks Alex would get into).

So now I'm torn again.

Fortunately, Alex won't start kindergarten until 2010, so we have a year to see what changes are made at the public school. Hopefully they'll be minimal!

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Update on my Amazon customer service saga

Last month, Amazon messed up the payment method of an order, which instigated a series of emails and phone calls on my part to try to fix things. First they made things worse, then they made things better, then they made things worse again. It got to be so frustrating that I couldn't even bring myself to keep you updated until I had a better idea of what I was going to do.

When I last wrote about this debacle, I was waiting for Amazon to deduct the full amount of the payment - $72.13 - from my gift card balance. But for some reason, they only deducted $65.

I waited for nearly two weeks to see if they would deduct the remaining $7.13 but nothing happened. So I've given up.

I feel I've given Amazon more than enough chances to correct their initial error. I've sent at least five emails and made two calls since I noticed the initial error. I just don't feel like going through the hassle of contacting them by email – which will likely get no response – or by phone, which simply results in the agent sending the gift certificate department a message that may or may not get a response. And the chances of them botching yet another attempt to correct the error seems, well, astronomical at this point – perhaps guaranteed.

One interesting development through all of this has been that I didn't purchase anything from Amazon for over a month. I couldn't tell you the last time that happened in the last nine years, when I first started shopping at Amazon. Even as I've become more frugal, I've been able to get great deals at Amazon on things I would have bought elsewhere (mostly gifts). And earning Amazon gift certificates through SwagBucks made shopping at Amazon even more appealing.

I never got around to writing that letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – though I'm still thinking about it, just because it's completely unacceptable that Amazon doesn't respond to customer service emails.

I also thought about not shopping at Amazon anymore, and have spent the last month when I wasn't buying anything from them wondering if the savings and convenience are worth it. For better or worse, my answer is yes. I placed my first order since this fiasco started last night.

I've already made my decision, but I'm curious: what would you have done?

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Recipe: Brownie Bites

Recently, I wanted to make brownies, but realized that I'd run out of brownie mix. I've never been happy with a from-scratch brownie, but I didn't want to spend the money on a mix that wasn't super cheap - in other words, a sale + coupon + electronic coupon resulting in a price of less than $1 per box. Thankfully, the internet is the most wonderful thing ever invented and it took me just a few minutes of searching to find an easy brownie recipe with lots of positive reviews.

I settled on this Brownie Mix in a Jar II recipe, but tweaked it according to the recommendations in the reviews. It was pretty good, so I'll definitely make it again. And I'm also going to keep it mind as a potential gift.

Brownie Bites (adapted from AllRecipes.com)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups white sugar
1 cup melted butter
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional
2 cups powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13 inch baking pan.

2. Combine the dry ingredients (flour through sugar) in a large mixing bowl. Add the melted butter, eggs and vanilla. Mix until dry ingredients are just moistened. Add nuts if using, and stir briefly to combine.

3. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted two inches from the center comes out clean.

4. Let brownies cool completely. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the brownies into 1-inch squares.

5. Pour the powdered sugar into a large zip top bag. Add ten or so brownies, close the top of the bag, and shake gently. Remove the powdered brownies, and repeat with the remaining brownies.

Note: When I make this recipe for regular brownies, rather than brownie bites, I will follow the recommendation to add a cup of chocolate chips. I was afraid to do it this time because I didn't want the brownies to be too soft for cutting or too sweet after the powdered sugar coating. I think it was the right call, because the brownies were the perfect texture for cutting into small cubes. They also weren't especially sweet, so I think the chocolate chips will make a great addition.


Update 4/3/09: Thanks to commenters Jennifer Y. and Clean Clutterfree Simple, who recommended this Baker's One Bowl Brownies recipe.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One recall today: Educational craft kits

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

Educational Craft Kits Recalled by FloraCraft Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard - Click through for additional photos.


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

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Meet my blogroll: Mommy Making Money Moneywise Moms

Gina went and changed her blog name right after I posted this. Her blog is now Moneywise Moms, but it still has the same great content!

Gina of Mommy Making Money Moneywise Moms is a great example of a mom who doesn't work outside the home, but who makes big contributions to her family's financial success by spending wisely and bringing in money, and she shares her expertise on her blog.

Each month this year, Gina is sharing how she contributed to her family's income. In January, she brought in $189.90, and in February, she contributed $635.94!

Gina also posts weekly deals at the stores where she shops, and although she's an expert CVS shopper, I love seeing her grocery deals since that's where I need the most help. There's a Safeway-affiliated store called Pavilions near my house, and Gina's posts are what made me actually start paying attention to the deals there. I don't go every week, but when she points out a particularly awesome deal, I make sure to stop by and take advantage of it.

Right now, Gina is giving away a very cool set of Ziploc Organizers, so be sure to stop by and visit her!

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Works for me: Keep cinnamon sugar in the cinnamon spice jar

A tip over at Parent Hacks suggested keeping cinnamon sugar in an empty salt shaker for speedy cinnamon toast. I thought it was a funny tip, because I do what my parents did when I was growing up: I take a jar of cinnamon that's half empty, add sugar to it, and shake it up a bit to combine the cinnamon and sugar. I always have two jars of cinnamon in my spice cabinet – one that's just cinnamon and another that's cinnamon sugar.

If you do the same, I would recommend labeling the one that's cinnamon sugar – I can always tell the difference because of the sugar crystals, but my darling husband who doesn't cook thinks they look exactly the same.

Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips at We are THAT Family.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Two recalls today: Bears & shoes

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

State Farm® Recalls Good Neigh Bears® Due to Choking Hazard


Nordstrom Recalls Girl’s Shoes Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard - Click through for photos of additional styles.


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

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Giveaway: Happy Graduation by Margaret McNamara

This week's giveaway is a paperback Ready-To-Read Level 1 version of Margaret McNamara's book, Happy Graduation!

It's already mid-March, and graduation season will be upon us before you know it. I thought this would be a nice book to give a young child who will be "graduating" soon - I had preschoolers going into kindergarten in mind, but the book is recommended for ages 4 through 8 so it's suitable for older children as well.

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 CFO 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, tweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, write about it on your own blog, etc. 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. Only one entry of each type per email address will be counted. 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. PST on Tuesday, March 24.

Good luck!

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Quick Product Reviews Part 4

If you like these reviews, don't forget to read my previous quick product reviews: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Most of these items were free or almost free thanks to coupons and sales.

Garnier Fructis Fortifying Deep Conditioner - I got this conditioner free in a bonus pack last fall as part of a money-making deal at Walgreens. (Thanks again, Mercedes!) I liked the product a lot, but wouldn't pay money for it when I'm getting all of my hair-care products for free in The Drugstore Game.

Clean & Clear Continuous Control Acne Cleanser - I used up my last bottle of ProActiv cleanser and really didn't want to pay the high price for a new one. Since the active ingredient is benzoyl peroxide, I looked for a drugstore cleanser with it as the main ingredient and found this product. It's a lot harsher than ProActiv, so it's dried my skin out a little bit, which the ProActiv never did. It also did nothing to prevent PMS-induced breakouts, which was a little worse than with ProActiv but only lasted about three days. The end verdict is that I'm sticking with this product for the price, which is less than one-third the price of ProActiv.

Head & Shoulders Intensive Solutions zinc pyrithione shampoo- I don't know if Head & Shoulders even makes this anymore since I can't find it on their web site (link goes to Amazon for the picture; they're out of stock). I don't like this shampoo as much as the Herbal Essences version, so as long as that's available, I won't be buying more of this even if I can find it.

Trader Joe's Chocolate Decadence cereal - This is basically a chocolate granola, and it's divine with milk or yogurt. It used to be $3.29 per box, but now it's $1.99 per box - still expensive for cereal, considering I've been buying some for less than 20 cents per box, but worth it.

Quaker Simple Harvest Chewy Multigrain Granola Bars - These are on the dry side, and not very tasty. For free, they're a fine snack, but I wouldn't pay for them.

Keebler Sandies Shortbread Cookies
- When I find these on steep sale, I pick up a few packages to take to the boys' preschool. The teachers love them.

Always Infinity pads - As pads go, these are super thin with great absorption. I won't pay for them, since I can get pads for free through The Drugstore Game, but these are worth making extra trips for when they're available for free. (Click through to sign up for a free sample.)

Harry Potter: Books 6 and 7 - Having finally let go of the Twilight books, I've been rereading the sixth and seventh books in the Harry Potter series. They are even better than I remembered.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Costco vs Trader Joe's vs Ralphs

We've been having connectivity issues this week, so I'll be back sometime this weekend with regular posts (I hope!).

In the meantime, I've been revisiting the issue of how prices at warehouse stores compare to other stores. (Mercedes of Common Sense with Money wrote a great post showing how buying in bulk is not cheaper last summer.) The specific stores I've been thinking about are Costco, Trader Joe's and Ralphs.

I shop at Trader Joe's and Ralphs weekly. And even after reading Mercedes's post, I've maintained my Costco membership, after calculating that the membership is worth it for the savings on gas and birthday cakes alone. That's right, I said birthday cakes. A half sheet cake at Costco is $16.99 - $2 more than a year ago, by the way. A half sheet cake at Ralphs is about $30, depending on the design. And gas is an average of 10 to 20 cents per gallon cheaper, which works out to a savings of $1 to $2 per week.

I go to Costco very infrequently, but I went recently and confirmed that sale prices at Ralphs and Pavilions are better than Costco's every day prices. And Trader Joe's low every day price is often better than Costco's, but not for everything. Bananas are cheaper at Costco by about 10 cents per pound, organic ground beef is cheaper by 66 cents per pound, and organic low fat milk is cheaper by 6 cents per half gallon. It's not much of a difference on a weekly basis, but I can freeze the meat and the milk is ultra pasteurized, so the expiration date is pretty far off. So I might make a run to Costco every two to three months to stock up on those items.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two recalls today: Fishing game & hoodies

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

Pure Fishing Recalls Children’s Fishing Games Due to Violation of Ban on Lead in Paint


Seattle Cotton Works Hooded Sweatshirts with Drawstrings Recalled Due to Strangulation Hazard - Click through for photos of additional styles.


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

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Swimming lessons for toddlers

Out here in Southern California, almost everyone has a pool or easy access to one. And with that access and the arrival of children comes the inevitable question: What is the ideal age for starting swim lessons?

I had intended for Alex to take lessons early on, but the articles stating that the lessons don't really stick until after age 4 sounded right. Alex was always reluctant to participate in directed activities at birthday parties or school, so that didn't seem likely to change in swim class.

Besides, there was an ongoing debate: Do swim lessons for toddlers really help keep them safe? Or does it endanger them by making them unafraid of the water?

This LA Times story reports that lessons for children ages one to four helps keep them safe. But the study doesn't seem very comprehensive, and the conclusion that "children who drowned were less skilled swimmers" is pretty much useless.

As always, this seems to be one of those, "consult your doctor and do what you think is best" situations. For us, I'm looking into getting Alex some lessons, and I'm thinking that I might as well get Tyler started too – they're so close in age that it's hard to keep Tyler from doing something that Alex is doing.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Two recalls today: Infantino toys & ice skates

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

Infantino Recalls Infant Toys Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a list of the recalled toys and photos of the others.


Ice Skates Recalled by Pronto Sports 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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The Return of the Marriage Penalty?

Over at Wisebread, Xin Lu brought up the topic of the dreaded marriage penalty. Okay, so maybe it’s not dreaded in every household, but it is in mine. Marc and I both make pretty good money, which makes us the type of couple that the marriage penalty tends to hurt the most.

I’d heard about the marriage penalty for years, of course, and learned how it works when I took a course on income tax in law school. As you already know, there are different categories of tax filers, the most common being single and married filing jointly.

Logically, you’d think that two people who get married and have a combined income of $50,000 would pay the same amount of taxes as one person who earns $50,000. But the marriage penalty doesn’t work that way. We got hit hard by the marriage penalty when we were first married and ended up owing $2,000 in taxes because of it – keep in mind that if we had remained single, we would have received refunds! This was because the standard deduction for married couples, which we were taking at the time, was not double the standard deduction for singles. Our joint income also probably pushed us into a higher tax bracket than we would have been in if we were single, but I can’t remember for sure.

President Bush’s tax cuts saved us thousands of dollars by closing the gap between the tax brackets for single people versus married couples. In other words, a single person making $50,000 and a married couple with joint income of $50,000 would be in the same tax bracket, whereas in the past, the married couple might have been in a higher tax bracket.

The Wisebread article has me more than a little concerned, since Xin Lu reports that President Obama likely favors the return of the marriage penalty. It’s not exactly a shocker, since he seems really big on the re-distribution of wealth. His plan may be limited to the very wealthy (which does not include us), but these proposals are always subject to change and I am wary. I just hope enough senators and representatives are opposed to taxing married people differently from single people and able extend at least this portion of President Bush’s tax cuts – otherwise my plans for our financial future may take a big hit.

The debate about progressive taxes is one thing – should people who make more money have to pay more in taxes? I’m not sure.

But I am sure that married people shouldn’t have to pay more taxes just because they’re married. It’s an antiquated tax from back when America was more homogenous, with almost all families consisting of a spouse who took care of the home all day and a spouse who worked outside and brought in the family’s income.

These days, of course, most families seem to have two spouses who work, and why should families where the husband and wife make the same amount of money have to pay more taxes than families where the husband and wife make disparate amounts? Or why should a couple who isn’t married but lives together pay less taxes than a couple who gets married?

What do you think of the marriage penalty?

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No need to give up on the "American Dream"

I read an article today discussing whether or not the "American Dream" is dead. I think not.

The article doesn’t actually define the "American Dream," acknowledging that there isn’t one set definition. But it asserts that a key component is the idea that your children will have a better life than you do.

And I think that’s where a lot of us went wrong.

Our parents worked hard, and if yours were like mine, they gave you a pretty comfortable life.

I have to admit that when I graduated from college and had to take care of myself for the first time, I had a hard time downgrading my lifestyle. No one had actually told me it would happen, so it didn’t seem obvious at first that I could no longer have what I wanted, when I wanted it. It’s not that I thought I should be able to afford a fancy apartment or car right off the bat, but I did want money to go out with my friends all the time.

It wasn’t until after I’d graduated from law school that I learned that my situation was normal: Our standard of living is supposed to go down when we leave home.

Fortunately, I’d been taught fairly well. Except for student loans and a car loan, I didn’t have any debt. Specifically, I didn’t have any credit card debt. I was level-headed enough not to borrow money to go on vacation with my friends and to not spend crazy amounts of money at night clubs. And my car loan was manageable.

Looking back, I wish I’d known then what I know now. I could have graduated with just two-thirds of my student loan debt if I’d actually lived frugally instead of just barely within my means.

But because I didn’t have credit card debt and because I had a good job after law school, it didn’t take me that long to build up to a comfortable lifestyle – with Marc, of course, since we’ve been partners since then.

Part of the current economic crisis is the result of people my age, give or take ten years, who felt they were entitled to a certain lifestyle regardless of their income. They didn’t realize, or weren’t willing to accept, that their standard of living ought to be commensurate with the amount of money they brought in.

It’s hard to lay blame on any one group, but it’s easy to start with parents. It’s our job to make sure our children understand responsibility of all kinds. And it’s never too early to start teaching financial responsibility.

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Giveaway: Socks by Beverly Cleary

This week's giveaway is a paperback copy of Beverly Cleary's Socks.

If you're like me, you remember Beverly Cleary as the author of the Ramona Quimby books.But this story is about a contented cat who suddenly has to cope with the arrival of a new baby into his family. This book is recommended for ages 9 to 12.

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 CFO 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, tweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, write about it on your own blog, etc.. 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. Only one entry of each type per email address will be counted. 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. PST on Tuesday, March 17. Sorry, this giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada.

Good luck!

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara

We first discovered spaghetti carbonara years ago, before the kids were even born. My favorite was a recipe from the LA Times magazine (which hasn't been published for a while now). I've lost the recipe, and can't find it online, but it's a fairly simple dish. The best part is that I made it last week as the beginning of my renewed commitment to cook more and Alex loved it. It took some coaxing to get him to try it, but once he'd tasted it, he ate everything on his plate except the bacon. ("I don't like the meat, Mommy.") Tyler wouldn't taste it, though he did push it around his plate for a few minutes.

A note about the eggs: As I mentioned when I posted the Chocolate Mousse recipe, I don't let the kids have raw eggs because of their age. But I was okay with them having this dish because not only were the eggs fresh, but they get "cooked" by the heat of the other ingredients.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Serves 4

1/2 pound dried whole wheat spaghetti
6 slices bacon, chopped (I love Trader Joe's applewood smoked bacon, but use your favorite here)
salt & pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, optional

1. Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Drain the pasta, reserving 2/3 cup of the cooking water. (Try to remember to do this - I usually forget - but the starch in the water really does help the sauce thicken.) Set the pasta aside and keep warm.

2. Heat a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook for five to ten minutes until browned, stirring frequently. Remove the bacon from the pan to a plate covered with a paper towel. Drain off all but one tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat.

3. Add the pasta, and reserved cooking liquid to the bacon fat, stir and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in the eggs. Stir in the pasta, bacon and parsley, if using. Serve immediately.

Notes:
  • I have a nonstick stockpot, so I leave the pasta in the colander in the sink, cover with the stockpot lid, and use the stockpot for the rest of my cooking – that way I only have to clean one pot.
  • The parsley is optional, but makes the dish look really pretty. When I made this last week, I didn't have any fresh parsley and in retrospect that was probably a good thing – I think Alex would have objected to the "green stuff."
  • While I left out the parsley, I did add about a half pound of asparagus when I made this last week. I cut the spears into 1-inch pieces, and added them to the pasta during the last two minutes of cooking. You can do the same with frozen peas, although you might want to add them a minute or two earlier.
  • When I served the pasta to the boys, I decided to take things slow and avoided the asparagus. I also cut the spaghetti into smaller pieces, although Alex still asked me why they were so big.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Giveaway winner: A Chair for My Mother

Thank you to everyone who entered the A Chair for My Mother giveaway. Congratulations to the lucky random winner:

Shaylyn (shaylyne****@gmail.com)

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

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

What I'm up to - is it anything like what you're up to?

Sorry I haven't been around much - I've got a ton of things to do and not enough time to do them. Actually, that's always the case but it seems worse than usual this weekend. Things will get better after Alex's birthday party is over next weekend, but it doesn't help that it's tax season, that I've decided to cook more, and that I'm swamped at work. Here's what's on my to-do list:
  • Update my list of accounts and passwords for Marc. This list is critical because I handle the day to day finances and household matters for us, and Marc wouldn't know off the top of his head where all of our accounts are (he'd just know the the main ones), what they're for, and how to access them. Updating this list has been on my to-do list for a while now, and of course the longer I procrastinate, the more things change. For example, I now have to change the mortgage information on this list.
  • Assemble Alex's bike. THANK YOU to Joe, Lady Christie, Aaron, Dedicated, Christy, Carol M., Anna and three Anons, for your bicycle-teaching advice! I'd never even considered taking off the training wheels and pedals but think that sounds like a good way to teach Alex balance so we'll give that a try. Of course, we got the cheapest 12-inch bike we could find, so it was missing a crucial part. I contacted the company and hopefully it will arrive soon.
  • Compose a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. If you caught saw my tweet a few nights ago, you know that my frustration with Amazon has just grown since my last update. I'm no longer entirely sure what happened with my gift certificate balance, I just know that it's about $7 more than it should be. Since I have gotten ZERO response to my email inquiries, and incompetent responses to my telephone inquiries, I am going to write directly to Jeff Bezos. There doesn't seem to be an executive email (the one reported by The Consumerist no longer works) but I found this physical address. I am also considering contacting the Better Business Bureau in California and Washington. And I'm thinking that Amazon isn't worth the convenience and savings.
  • Plan my menu for next week. So far, things have gone pretty well with our plan for me to cook (almost) every night. But the key to our savings is me being prepared, and that means a menu plan.
  • Organize my coupons. I managed to cull out the expired ones, but I have to file quite a few. Plus, I still haven't completed my reorganization, although I am regretting not keeping that fourth coupon file.
  • I have to file a bunch of papers. I used to be so good about filing papers as they came in, but I've fallen farther and farther behind. A couple of months ago, I made a huge dent in my pile, but since then, things have piled up again.
  • I have to make sure I'm ready for Alex's birthday party. I've ordered the cake, I've set a reminder to order the balloons, and I've bought a lot of drinks. But I have to make sure I'm set on the paper goods, favors, activities, and oh yeah, I need to plan my menu for that to make sure there's enough food.
  • I have some thank you cards to write.
  • I want to clear my desk - again. It was clear yesterday morning, but it looks like bomb exploded on it some time after that.
  • I have to order the books from the Scholastic catalog. We are one of those families that orders books each month, but this month is a little more complicated than usual because I have coupons I ordered a couple of months ago that were $2 and have a $4 redemption value. I can't use them with online orders, though, which means I have to order through the program coordinator and that just gets a little more complicated, which means I've been putting it off.
  • I brought work home and haven't touched it yet!
So that's what's going on with me. What are you up to?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Random thoughts: Spaghetti carbonara, slow cookers and irresponsible finances

Feeding the kids: A success story!

I tweeted about this on Wednesday night, but wanted to mention it here as well. Dinner that night was spaghetti carbonara, which I made with whole wheat spaghetti, cheese and eggs. (I'll publish the recipe next week.) Alex actually ate it. And he didn't just eat it, he loved it. We did have to persuade him to try it in the first place, but Marc and I are jointly sticking with our plan to raise healthy eaters. So far, so good! (Although I must admit that I couldn't get Tyler to even take a bite of the pasta.)

Mainstream media is behind the curve again

The LA Times recently published an article about the resurgence of slow cookers. They even mentioned Stephanie from A Year of CrockPotting, but since there were no recipes accompanying the article, it was kind of lame. But maybe it was worth it, because I found an LAT blog post about a non-electric slow cooking method used in Zimbabwe involving pillows. I need to win the Le Creuset giveaway over at GoodyBlog before I can try it, though.

I'm sick and tired of people who are financially irresponsible!

Almost every day, JLP at All Financial Matters posts about how financially responsible citizens are going to be stuck subsidizing our financially irresponsible brethren (like this post on Wednesday), and I have to agree that it's infuriating. I just heard about a friend of a friend who works for a large law firm and has a $6,000 monthly mortgage payment. My jaw dropped. I didn't realize that it's even possible to have a mortgage that big.

I'm guessing that the mortgage must be in the million-dollar range, and the rough description and location I was given match that price. I would guess that this attorney's income is about $250,000 per year. To the best of my knowledge, the attorney is single and lives alone, so there's no one else helping to pay the bills, nor is there another source of income or other assets (e.g., a family trust). If the attorney were fired – and it's not exactly improbable given all of the layoffs happening at firms lately – the house would most likely go into foreclosure.

I just don't understand how anyone could think – even in overpriced LA – that a $6,000 per month mortgage is a good idea. A good-sized condo in a nice area can be rented for $2,000 per month or purchased for $500,000. Even a small house could be purchased for $500,000. Granted, life at a large firm is so miserable, spending money is often the only way to make it tolerable – but in that case, I would say get a $3,000 mortgage, blow $1,000, and bank the other $2,000 for the day you can't take the large firm lifestyle any longer. People are just crazy.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Meet my blogroll: Common Sense with Money

Most of you probably know Mercedes already. She's the founder of Common Sense with Money – it's one of my favorite "deals" blogs and I've mentioned it many times.

I think the big thing that sets Mercedes apart from other deals sites, though, is that she occasionally posts very helpful articles. For instance, I love when she explains how her family has been able to get ahead financially after she quit working outside of the home. And her explanations on Walgreens' register logic have been incredibly helpful to me.

When I first started playing The Drugstore Game, I understood CVS pretty well, but the Register Rewards system at Walgreens really puzzled me. And yet Mercedes would post about the great deals she was getting there, and I came to think of her as the Walgreens deals queen. I still think that way, and her posts helped me figure out how to get my own bargains at Walgreens. Her site is still my favorite one for finding Walgreens deals.

So be sure to stop by Common Sense with Money and check out this week's Walgreens deals. And while you're there, check out the FAQ – it's got some helpful tips if you're just getting started on saving.

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How do you teach a child to ride a bike?

Alex wants to learn how to ride a bicycle. It makes sense, since he's had a blast motoring around on his tricycle. Marc never learned how to ride a bike, but I rode one for much of my childhood. We both agree that if Alex wants to ride a bike, he should be able to.

We bought a 12-inch bicycle with training wheels.

And then Marc tells me that since I'm the only one who knows how to ride a bike, it's my job to teach Alex.

Say what?!

The actual teaching part isn't so daunting. The boy's got training wheels, after all. And he's reasonably coordinated, with a decent sense of balance.

But how do I keep up with him???

It's not as if I am going to get a bike of my own. I haven't ridden one in over 20 years and even though you're not supposed to forget how to ride a bike . . . I'm pretty sure I've forgotten. Thoroughly.

Any suggestions?

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A wake-up call: Time to go back to menu planning and cooking at home

As I cursorily reviewed our finances earlier this week, I realized that we are over-spending. Not in a way that causes any alarm – we have no problem paying our bills, no problem with the extra payments on our debts, no problem with the automated savings. But there should still be money left over, and I'm frustrated that there's not.

One area where we've been spending more money than necessary is food. I haven't been cooking much, we've been buying more take-out and fast food, and we've also been wasting food due to poor planning on my part.

I'm optimistic that a few changes will make a huge difference:
  • I am going to plan our meals on a weekly basis. Unlike the past, when I looked forward to experimenting with new recipes and ingredients, my focus will be on speed and what the kids might like. I'll still make new dishes, but I'm going to plan more carefully now.
  • We are going to follow Ellyn Satter's recommendations on raising healthy eaters. Marc and I will handle the what, when and where of eating, and the kids will determine the how much and whether of eating. I am going to serve the entire meal at once, and the boys can eat as much or as little as they want. I will try to make things I think they'll like (especially the sides, like fruit salad), but I will no longer whip up a grilled cheese sandwich or heat up some frozen macaroni and cheese.
  • I'm already shopping differently. I now hit Ralphs or Pavilions before I go to Trader Joe's. That means I can buy loss leaders, and fill in the rest of my needs at TJ's. Last week, I spent $30 less on groceries, even though I stocked up on bottled water for Alex's birthday party.
These changes should be simple, though the second one might be somewhat difficult. I've already discussed it with Marc and we're on the same page, so hopefully it won't take the boys long to adjust. I'd kind of started implementing this change a few weeks ago, but had slacked on it because I hadn't discussed it with Marc and we weren't working as a team. Now that we are, things should be easier, but I'm a little anxious about how the boys will respond (though determined to stick with it).

I'm off to plan my menu!

P.S. I tweeted the other night about an interesting LA Times article on markets battling with manufacturers over the rising price of food. Apparently, markets want manufacturers to reduce the wholesale price of products since commodity prices (e.g., the price of things like milk and corn) have come down, but manufacturers say their costs are still rising.

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Car seat recall: Recaro Signo

Recaro is recalling over 5,000 Signo car seats that were manufactured between February 1 and September 30, 2008, because the central front adjuster strap may slip and prevent the harness from being properly tightened. Owners can contact Recaro at 1-888-473-2290 for a replacement.

There doesn't seem to be any information about this recall at the Recaro web site yet. But you can read the NHTSA announcement.

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

One recall today: Flip flops

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

Children’s Flip Flops Recalled by Alpargatas Due to Violation of Lead in Paint Standard - Click through for photos of additional styles.

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

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Works for Me: Use a toothbrush holder to keep razors sharp in the shower

Many years ago, I read a recommendation to dry a razor blade after use to prevent rust and extend the life of the blade. I never did that, but Marc discovered that I could hang my razor in the toothbrush holder that was attached to the shower wall with a suction cup. At the time, I used a men's razor (maybe a Mach Three - or is it Mach Five?), which had a slim handle that fit perfectly in the toothbrush holder.

At some point, though, we lost the toothbrush holder - maybe because we'd moved. And I had to leave my razor on the side of the bathtub. After a few months, I noticed that the blade was rusting a lot faster than it used to. We started looking for a new toothbrush holder and thankfully, we found one. It really did make a difference in extending the life of the razor blade.

In the intervening years, the manufacturers of women's razors started to include suction cup holders in the packaging. And now that I get women's razors for free thanks to the Drugstore Game, I've been using those. But if you have a slim-handled razor and want to extend its lifespan, keep it in a toothbrush holder with a suction cup. (Or, I suppose, you could dry it after each shower.)

Find more Works for Me Wednesday tips at We are THAT Family.

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Pan Bagnat, a.k.a., a really delicious sandwich

Note: There will be no giveaway this week, as I'm swamped in tax-related matters. But there will be one next week!

A sandwich isn't something you really need a recipe for, but there are quite a few sandwich recipes in Clotilde Dusolier's book, Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen.This one is my favorite, though I've made a few minor changes to suit our taste.

Pan Bagnat (adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini)
Serves 4 to 6

1 loaf French bread (larger and softer than a baguette)
extra virgin olive oil
3 medium tomatoes
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
red wine vinegar
4 soft-cooked eggs, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup sliced Kalamata olives
2 4 oz. cans tuna in olive oil
2 cups mixed greens

1. Slice the French bread in half, horizontally. With a pastry brush, generously coat the inside of each half of bread.

2. Core the tomatoes and slice them thinly. Arrange the slices on the bottom half of the loaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little vinegar.

3. On top of the tomatoes, layer the eggs, olives and tuna. Top with the greens and cover with the top of the loaf. Wrap tightly in plastic or foil and refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours. (I've eaten this 24 hours later and it was still delicious.)

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