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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Three recalls today: Coats & cribs

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

Gap Recalls Children’s Coats; Toggles Can Break and Detach Posing Choking Hazard - Click through for additional photos.


Jardine Announces Second Recall Expansion of Cribs Sold by Babies'R'Us; Cribs Pose Entrapment and Strangulation Hazards - Click through for more photos. This recall is huge, so be sure to check any crib that might be included. When the recall was first issued last year, I didn't think anything of it. But a few days later, I remembered that Tyler's crib was a Jardine and it turned out to be included in the recall. (We didn't bother with the voucher since Alex was ready for a real bed. We bought him a bed and re-converted his bed back into a crib for Tyler.)


Pumpkin Patch Recalls Hooded Girls’ Raincoats with Drawstrings Due to Strangulation Hazard


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

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One recall today: Dinosaur play set

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

Dinosaur Play Sets Recalled by DND Imports Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard - Click through for a close up of the offending monkey.


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

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Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories Giveaway Winner

Thank you to everyone who entered the Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories Gift Set giveaway. Congratulations to the lucky random winner:

Nichole D. (nandjdo*****@yahoo.com)

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

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Works for Me: Office chair mat as a high chair mat

A few years ago, I came across a reader's tip in Parents magazine to use a plastic office chair mat as a high chair floor mat. It made a lot of sense to me, because we were already on our third high chair mat and they had all been hard to clean and keep in place. Marc immediately realized the benefits of an office chair mat too, so I promptly went out to Staples and bought the largest one they had – 46 x 60 inches and about $70. Not cheap, but not much more expensive than the three high chair mats we'd already gone through.

It turns out the money was well spent. Several years later, we're still using the same mat under our dining table where the boys now sit. It's easy to clean and in fact, I can vacuum right over it. Plus, because it's clear, it's not an eyesore. We'll probably leave it in place for the next three years or so, or until the boys are much better about not dropping food on the floor!

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

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Guest post at Bargaineering

Bargaineering is one of the oldest personal finance blogs around (it used to be known as Blueprint for Financial Prosperity). I've been reading Jim's blog for probably close to four years now, so I'm delighted to have a guest post over there today, on the right time to have kids. Check it out when you have a chance, and read the other great articles while you're there!

And if you're new to CFO from Bargaineering, 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, you might as well enter the latest giveaway for one of three Romano's Macaroni Grill Restaurant Favorites gift packs.

Review & Giveaway: Romano's Macaroni Grill Restaurant Favorites Gift Pack (3 winners)

You've probably heard of the restaurant Romano's Macaroni Grill, but did you know that you can create some of their best selling dishes right in your own home? Romano's Macaroni Grill has come out with a Restaurant Favorites line of dinner kits, including Creamy Basil, Parmesan Chicken & Pasta, Chicken Alfredo with Linguine, Garlic & Herb Chicken Penne, and Chicken Marsala with Linguine. Thanks to MyBlogSpark, I had the chance to try the Creamy Basil, Parmesan Chicken & Pasta, and it was incredibly easy to make. I thought it was overly salty, so I'd rather make my own, low-sodium version. However, if you like the convenience of a pre-packaged dinner kit, then give this line a try – all you need to add is some chicken, butter and milk. And you can get a $1 off printable coupon at the official web site.

Best of all, three lucky CFO readers will win a Romano's Macaroni Grill Restaurant Favorites Gift Pack, which includes a full-size dinner kit, colander, slotted spoon, and cheese grater. 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. You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your favorite feed aggregator or inbox, so you don't miss any weekly giveaways. (If you're already a subscriber, just fill out the form to let me know.)

For a third entry, spread the word about this contesttweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, 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 complete the form once per entry. 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 must respond within 48 hours, otherwise their prize will be forfeited and a new winner will be selected.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. PST on Tuesday, May 5.

Good luck!

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Monday, April 27, 2009

We are debt-free! (Except for the mortgage - here's how we did it)

I sort of slipped the big announcement into a previous post, but we are now debt-free!

Except for the mortgage.

The funny thing is, I've been looking forward to writing about being debt-free for a long time. When I made the final payment on our last non-mortgage debt (a student loan), I had big plans to write about how we accomplished it, and how good it feels to not have any debt. (I was just waiting for the official "congratulations, you've paid off your loan!" letter.)

But after paying off that last loan, I turned my attention to our mortgage. And that's sort of taken away from the accomplishment of paying off all of our other debt – because the simple fact is, we're still in debt.

A big part of why my sense of elation at paying off the last of our non-mortgage debt has been diminished is that I can see how much more freedom we will have when we no longer have the mortgage. So while I'm still excited that we've paid off our other debts, paying off the last non-mortgage debt doesn't feel that different from paying off the debts that we finished off before that.

I'll be really excited when we have paid off the mortgage. Because if all goes according to plan, we'll never need to borrow money again. (Unless we decide to move, in which case we may need another mortgage, or make a big investment, like buying rental property – neither of which is likely to happen, however.)

Here are the steps we've taken to ensure we can pay off our mortgage quickly and hopefully never need another loan again:

We don't just live within our means - we live well beneath them. We are lucky that we can do this, of course, while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. But we worked hard in school and after graduation, and made wise choices, to get to this point in our lives.

We pay off our credit cards each month. This goes along with the first point, of course, in that we don't spend more than we can pay off. Some of my favorite bloggers, like No Credit Needed, don't believe in using credit cards at all. Personally, I'm okay with credit cards as long as I'm not spending frivolously and can pay off the balance each month. The convenience and rewards are worth it. (And remember that failed all-cash experiment last year?)

We save money each month. One of the first things we did as a married couple was build a nice emergency fund. It's grown over the years, as our family and obligations have expanded. We continue to add to the fund each month, and this helps to ensure that we won't need to borrow money in the event of a major financial need.

We set aside some money each month for the next car payment. After we paid off our last car loan, I started making monthly deposits for the sole purpose of buying a new car with cash in four to five years. We may need to draw some money out of our savings account to complete the purchase, but we definitely won't need to take out a loan to buy the car.

We use the debt snowball method. I love the debt snowball. Ours has grown a lot over the years, and will now be used to pay off the mortgage. A portion of every regular increase in income (i.e., salary raises) and decrease in expenses (e.g., lower insurance premiums) has gone toward the debt snowball. Our nearly decade-old snowball is now big enough that we will be able to pay off our mortgage in about six years. I can’t wait for that day!

Previously: How I'm paying off my student loans

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Friday, April 24, 2009

My week in review: More self-care

About ten years ago, I saw personal coach Cheryl Richardson on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I liked what she had to say, so I bought her book, Take Time for Your Life.The book really introduced me to the concept of what Richardson calls "extreme self-care" - in essence, taking care of and nurturing yourself before you do anything else. It has to be a priority, and if you're in a good place and happy with life, it's easier to get all the other stuff done - to be a good spouse, a good parent, a good person, etc.

Lately, I've felt like I haven't been taking very good care of myself, so this week was about changing that. It's not that easy, given all of my obligations. But I've cut back on my blogging time, and have been spending that time on the treadmill and doing other things that are regenerating. I'm not quite to my happy place yet but I'm closer to it than I was a week ago.

I'll have a roundup post on Sunday, but I wanted to point out Shannon's post about blogging over at Rocks In My Dryer because I really related to it. I do struggle with figuring out what's worth sharing and what's not. I'm definitely not going anywhere, but bear with me as I try to find more balance in my life!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kmart Super Doubles: I'm less than impressed but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go

I went to Kmart for their double coupon event for the first time ever and I doubt I'll ever go back. This is probably largely due to the fact that the Kmart I went to was, well, not particularly nice. Which is strange, because it's in a good area. But it's dark and not well-stocked. I couldn't find a lot of the items I went to buy.

That said, it's always a rush to get things for free - especially when it's things you really use, like wipes. I just wish they'd had the other things I'd planned to get for free too.

To figure out if your local store is doubling, you can check the weekly ad for your area at the Kmart web site. If one of the circulars has a red square that says "Super Double $2" in the bottom left corner, then your store is probably doubling. To be certain, you could call the store or Kmart's corporate offices. I just went in and, before I started shopping, asked the woman at the customer service desk if they were doubling.

You can find a list of the rules and coupon match-ups for free or cheap items at Common Sense with Money.

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Giveaway: Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories Gift Set

If you had infants in your household the last few years, chances are good you saw the boxes of Cheerios cereal that came with a paperback book. That's certainly how I learned about the Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program, which has given away more than 35 million children's books by distributing them free inside cereal boxes, and donated nearly $3 million to the non-profit organization First Book, which provides books to children from low-income families. I was buying Cheerios anyway, as finger food for the boys starting when they were eight months old, and figured I might as well get the free book. What's been wonderful about the books is the quality of the stories - they've really been enjoyable, and introduced us to new favorites like Olivia.

This year, Spoonfuls of Stories is running their third New Author Contest as a way to encourage previously unpublished, up-and-coming children's book authors and nurture a love of reading in children. Entries are being accepted through July 15, 2009 and will be judged on appropriate story and content for children ages 3-8, emotional connection, writing quality, uniqueness, and read-aloud potential. More details on the contest can be found at www.spoonfulsofstoriescontest.com.

Best of all, one lucky CFO reader will win a Spoonfuls of Stories gift set of four books, including the winner of the first New Author Contest, The Great Dog Wash.

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. (If you're already a subscriber, just fill out the form to let me know.) You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your favorite feed aggregator or inbox, so you don't miss any weekly giveaways.

For a third entry, spread the word about this contesttweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, 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 complete the form once per entry. 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 must respond within 48 hours, 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 28.

Good luck!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Winner of the $100 Amazon.com Gift Certificate courtesy of Mr. Rebates

Mr. RebatesThank you to everyone who entered the $100 Amazon.com gift certificate giveaway courtesy of Mr. Rebates. Congratulations to the lucky random winner:

Julie (jub1***@gmail.com)

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

And stay tuned! I've got another giveaway coming tomorrow.

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I'm loving the Safeway/Vons/Pavilions Living Well promotion + 2 scenarios

The Safeway family of stores includes Vons and Pavilions out here in Southern California, and they currently have a promotion for buy $30 of qualifying products and get a $10 off your next order coupon. What makes this promotion fabulous is that there are thousands of qualifying products, many of which match up with coupons, plus you can roll the $10 coupon into the same deal. That means that each time I buy $30 worth of qualifying products, I can use the $10 coupon I got from my last transaction, and still receive another $10 coupon to use on my next transaction. And, the $30 minimum is before coupons. Like I said, it's a fabulous deal.

Of course, like with any sale, you still have to figure out the final per unit cost to determine whether a deal is one worth buying. For example, a 45-count box of Hefty Cinch Sak garbage bags is on sale for $5.99. To figure out the per unit cost, I multiply the sale price by .67 (or 2/3, to account for the Living Well promotion), which comes out to $4.01. Then I subtract the value of any coupon I would use, in this case $1. That makes the box $3.01. To get the cost per bag, I divide $3.01 by 45, and get a per-unit cost of 6.7 cents per bag. According to my price book, my target price for trash bags is 6.6 cents - so I'll be buying these trash bags for sure.

There's been some discussion in the various forums I read about whether deals can be done back to back or only once per day. Some cashiers and managers have no problem with multiple transactions. But the $10 coupon itself seems to indicate only once per day, so I haven't been pushing my luck since I'm still not that familiar with the Pavilions near me. (I only started shopping there a few months ago, after Gina at Moneywise Moms kept highlighting Safeway deals.)

In fact, a good place to go for more information on the Living Well promotion is Moneywise Moms' original promo post. Gina has a link to a list of qualifying products, as well as a Mr. Linky with scenario ideas. Here are a couple of my scenarios, based on my needs and available coupons – just make adjustments based on your own needs and coupons.

Scenario #1:
2 Electrasol gel tabs @ $3.99 each – use 2 $2.50 coupons from 4/19 SS
1 Bright Green napkins @ $1.99 – use $1 coupon from Living Well circular at front of store
1 Cheerios @ $2.99 – use coupon from weekend circular for $1.99/box, exp 4/21
3 Ziploc bags @ $2.50 each – use 1 $1/2 & 1 40-cents/1 coupons from 3/15 SS
1 Reynolds recycled foil @ $2.29 – use 55-cents coupon from 4/19 SS (will double to $1)
1 Huggies wipes refill @ $5.99 – use 75-cents coupon from 4/19 SS (it says do not double)
1 Fiber One Toaster Pastry @ $2 – use 50-cents coupon from 4/19 SS (will double)

Total before coupons: $30.74
Total after coupons & $10 coupon from last transaction: $9.19 + tax
And I'll receive another $10 coupon to use on my next transaction.

Scenario #2:
1 Brita replacement filter 3-pack @$14.99 – use $1 printable coupon
1 Fiber One Toaster Pastry @ $2 – use 50-cents coupon from 4/19 SS (will double)
1 Maruchan yakisoba @ $1.25 – use 35-cents coupon from 3/8 SS (will double)
1 Kashi frozen entree @ $4.49 – use coupon for free item (no longer available)
1 Bright Green napkins @ $1.99 – use $1 coupon from Living Well circular at front of store
1 Lysol toilet bowl cleaner @ $1.50 – use 50-cents coupon from 3/15 SS (will double)
2 Capri Sun Sunrise @ $1.99 each – use 2 $1 coupons from 4/19 SS & 1 50-cents coupon from Living Well circular

Total before coupons: $30.20
Total after coupons & $10 coupon from last transaction: $8.51 + tax
And I'll receive another $10 coupon to use on my next transaction.

A few more notes: I grab a copy (or two) of the Living Well circular from the customer service desk every time I go in, since I've been using the $1 Bright Green coupon every trip. (The napkins work out to 33-cents for a pack of 200 - can't beat that!)

The promo includes a lot of convenience foods that I don't like to feed my family, but you can definitely find amazing deals on pasta sauces, frozen foods, and more. The promotion also includes lots of pricier products that I'm glad to be able to stock up on at an awesome price, like organic chicken breasts ($5.35 per pound after the promotion).

I also wanted to point out that in the second scenario above, I chose to finally use my free Kashi frozen entree coupon.* I've had it for a couple of months now, but since it has an expiration date in June, I've been saving it for a time when it would help me complete a deal. Here, I knew that my out of pocket costs would be on the high end because of the Brita filters (which are worth buying because they come out to $3 per filter, or $1 less than Costco's price). The Kashi coupon works beautifully in this transaction to keep my out of pocket cost down to about $10, which is my goal in these transactions (except when I'm stocking up on items that don't have coupons, like chicken).

I think that if the Living Well promotion had come around when I was new to maximizing coupons and calculating scenarios, I would have been overwhelmed. So if you're in that situation, I encourage you to take it slow, and not feel like you have to get all of the same deals as someone who's been doing this for a while now. Check out the scenarios at Moneywise Moms, as well as those at forums like A Full Cup and SlickDeals, and craft a deal that gets you things you need at a price that's lower than what you usually pay. Even if you only do the deal once once or twice, you'll be getting good deals and gaining valuable experience at the same time.

*A couple of months ago, Kashi was mailing out these coupons to folks who completed a form online. I told you about it over at CFO Reviews.

Previously: Back to Shopping Basics with a Price Book

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Scrambled Eggs Benedict Florentine

I've been trying many new recipes, and finally started going through my stash of recipes torn from magazines instead of just those saved in my Google Reader. One of the recipes I found was Eggs Benedict Florentine with Creamy Butter Sauce from the January 2007 issue of Cooking Light. The original sauce sounded more complicated than what I could handle with kids running underfoot, so I swapped it for the simple blender hollandaise from Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. I also tinkered with the amounts since I was only serving four people. It turns out that Marc hates hollandaise, but he enjoyed every other part of this dish. I liked it too, but I missed the oozing the egg yolk of traditional Eggs Benedict.

Scrambled Eggs Benedict Florentine (adapted from Cooking Light)
Serves 4

2 large egg whites (save the yolks for the hollandaise sauce)
3 large eggs
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
6 cups fresh spinach, trimmed (I used a bag of prewashed spinach from Trader Joe's)
4 English muffins, split and toasted
8 slices CrockPot Maple Ham or 4 slices Canadian bacon, halved
2 egg yolks
1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
pinch of dry mustard, salt & pepper
3 tablespoons butter
hot water, if necessary

1. Place the English muffin halves cut side up on four plates. Top each half muffin with a slice of ham. (I used leftover maple ham, which was delicious!).
2. Beat the egg whites, eggs, salt and pepper together. Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil and garlic in a skillet over medium heat. When the garlic is sizzling, add the eggs and cook until set, stirring to scramble. Divide the eggs over each muffin half.
3. While the eggs are cooking, heat the remaining one teaspoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the spinach and sauté for five minutes, or until just wilted. (I actually like to over-cook my spinach and let the liquid that seeps out evaporate.) Divide the spinach over each muffin half.
4. While the spinach is cooking, combine the egg yolks, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a blender. Melt the butter in the microwave (it should be hot). Blend the egg yolk mixture and pour in the hot butter. Thin with hot water until desired consistency is reached. Divide the sauce over each topped English muffin and serve immediately.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The lesson everyone should learn from Bernie Madoff: Diversify

The one thing I haven't been able to understand about all the losses caused by Bernie Madoff is why so many people had everything invested with him. A few months ago, I read an LA Times article about Nancy Silverton, a well-known pastry chef, in which Silverton admitted that she knew she ought to diversify, but the returns with Madoff were so good that she kept putting it off. Maybe that's all it was – greed.

The need for diversification came back when I read that a mortgage broker in Hawaii ran a Ponzi scheme that lost $30 million, and his victims appeared in court to say they'd lost everything. Again, it sounds like the investors were simply lured by the prospect of easy money.

For me, between the Ponzi schemes and the current recession, I've learned that I don't want to trust one entity with all of my money. I already felt that way anyway, but the feeling has been reinforced. Our cash holdings are spread between three banks, and our retirement funds are with three separate institutions. It's not that I think anything will happen to any of these financial entities, but I've always been cautious and now I'm extra cautious when it comes to trusting anyone with my money.

Certainly, for all of the Ponzi scheme investors, losing even half of their life savings would have been devastating. But at least there'd be something left if they'd diversified.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

One recall today: Toy maracas

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

Toy Maracas Recalled by Tupperware U.S. Due to Choking and Suffocation Hazards


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

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Works for Me: How I keep track of charitable donations

I've been known to drop a car load of bags and boxes at Goodwill or Salvation Army without having itemized a single item for tax purposes - getting everything out of the house simply becomes more important that the deduction at some point. But I've started something new in the last couple of weeks, as I prepare to make a large donation to the boys' preschool for their annual garage sale.

As I find things we will donate, I put them in a corner of my bedroom. Then, when I have a moment, I take out a few items, snap a quick photo, and write down a general description of the item on a piece of paper. When we download the photos to our computer, I'll put them in the taxes folder, along with a typed list of the items we donated.

In the past, I've written fairly detailed descriptions of each item we donated. For example, I wrote: Boy's t-shirt w/ dinosaur theme, blue, like new, size 24 months. This time, my list simply says, 20 boys' t-shirts. It's much more manageable, and I'm okay with it because I have the photo if I need more details.

Once I've jotted down the items in the photo, I put them into a bag. When the bag is full, I set it aside with all of the other bags and boxes that we're donating. I've set Monday as my big donation day, when I'll bring a car load of stuff to the school.

Do you have a shortcut or easy method of tracking your non-cash charitable donations?

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

Previously: Calculating my non-cash charitable contributions

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Giveaway: $100 Amazon.com gift certificate from Mr. Rebates

Mr. RebatesIf you're a regular reader, then you already know that I'm a big believer in getting some kind of discount when you shop online - whether it's using a coupon or getting a rebate, you should never have to pay full price and shipping. So when Mr. Rebates asked me to check their site out and offered to give one lucky reader a $100 Amazon.comgift certificate, I couldn't refuse!

Mr. Rebates is a cash back site, much like Ebates. You simply do your shopping online through their portal, by entering a store's site through Mr. Rebates. Each time you make a purchase, you'll get a percentage of the amount you paid back from Mr. Rebates. The percentage depends on the store, and at least some of their cash back rates are higher than at Ebates or Cashbaq. This is why it's good to join multiple shopping portals - they don't all have the same stores, and they don't all have the same rewards. (Note: Out of Debt Again recommends ev'reward.com to easily find out which site offers the most cash back for the store you're shopping at.)

I've signed up for Mr. Rebates and look forward to using them when shopping online. The Family CEO wrote a positive review of Mr. Rebates back in 2006, so they've been around for a while. They've also been accredited by the Chicago Better Business Bureau since May 2008.

You can request a payout when your available rebates reaches $10. Rebates are held for 90 days in the "pending rebates" section to allow for returns and such, and then moved into the "available rebates" section. Once your account reaches the $10 minimum, you can request a payment and you'll receive it at the beginning of the next month. (It looks like it would be best to wait until the end of the month before requesting your payment to make sure you get paid for as many rebates as possible.)

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: the $100 Amazon.com gift certificate giveaway from Mr. Rebates!

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. (If you're already a subscriber, just fill out the form to let me know.) You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your favorite feed aggregator or inbox, so you don't miss any weekly giveaways.

For a third entry, sign up for Mr. Rebates using my referral link and fill out the form again to let me know you've done so. You'll receive a $5 sign up bonus, and add another shopping portal to your arsenal. (I'll receive 20% of every purchase you make rebate you earn, at no additional cost to you - so thank you!)

And for a fourth entry, spread the word about this contest – tweet about the giveaway, Stumble this post, 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 four times (one for each type), and you must submit separate entries for each entry. 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 must respond within 48 hours, 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 21.

Good luck!

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Lending Club Part One: Getting started

I first mentioned my interest in peer-to-peer lending back in November 2007, when I branched out of my comfort zone and bought an individual stock. (A tiny portion of a Berkshire Hathaway B stock share.) Back then, I was thinking about continuing to expand beyond my comfort zone of investing by venturing into P2P lending, and have mentioned it periodically since, but it's always been on the backburner.

Until now. I received a special bonus for joining, and I'm not one to turn down a chance to learn for free, so I signed up. Others have written extensively about Lending Club, Prosper, and P2P lending in general. (Try The Dough Roller, Mapgirl's Fiscal Challenge, Lazy Man and Money, and Moolanomy, just for starters.) So I won't write about the basics of P2P lending because I just don't have the inclination or time, and I probably wouldn't do it as well as DR or Pinyo. Instead, I'll just share my personal experiences and impressions along the way.

I was a little apprehensive about signing up, just because I am always cautious about disclosing my personal information. However, I knew I'd have to disclose some information and didn't feel Lending Club was overly intrusive. I didn't want to link a bank account, and I didn't have to - apparently linking a PayPal account is enough, although I didn't even have to do that since I wasn't adding any funds to my account.

Once I'd signed up, picking loans to invest in was fairly straightforward. Mapgirl's frank posts about loans that aren't performing well convinced me that I didn't want to take a lot of risk. Even the lowest risk loans at Lending Club earn close to 8% interest, so it's still a fairly decent return. I had the option of letting Lending Club automatically choose my loans for me based on the risk I was willing to take, but instead I chose four $25 loans manually.

I selected borrowers who all had a solid credit history and credit score, seemed to have a good reason for wanting to borrow money, and a low debt to income ratio. I also chose one loan that seemed like it might not fund to see what that's like. And if that loan does fund, I'll still consider it my greatest risk, because despite the good credit history, credit score, debt to income ratio and decent income, I'm a little disturbed by the revolving credit balance of nearly $42,000 and projected monthly payment of over $500 (the borrower's gross income is over $5000 per month, but one spouse is currently unemployed). If I wasn't willing to take a little extra risk because this is a learning experience, I wouldn't have selected this loan.

So that's where I stand now. All of the loans I selected have yet to be fully funded and processed, but I should have an update in about a month!

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review: Scrubbing Bubbles Automatic Shower Cleaner

Last fall, there was a great deal on the Scrubbing Bubbles Automatic Shower Cleaner at Walgreens, but I didn't get one because I was concerned that the spray would shoot into the gap between the ceiling and our shower door. However, when BzzAgent offered me the chance to receive a cleaner and "bzz" about it, I accepted.

And then I let the cleaner sit on my floor until there were only five days left in the campaign.

My delay means I can't tell you whether it really works to keep my shower clean. But I can tell you that it was incredibly easy to set up, and that because we have a curved pipe that dips down, the cleaner sits low enough that my fear of spraying the entire bathroom and not just the shower was unrealized. It's super easy to use, since all you do is press a button. You're actually supposed to not squeegee, because the cleaner needs the water on the walls to work properly.

The manufacturer says that with daily use, my shower will look noticeably cleaner in two weeks. Since we've only used it for three days, I can't see a difference yet. But I'll refer you back to Lazy Man and Money's review of the cleaner, which was quite positive. CFO readers had mixed feelings about the cleaner last year, and I'm looking forward to seeing the long term results for myself!

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

My week in review

I don't know if I'll make this a regular feature, but there are some random things that I thought were worth sharing but not really worthy of their own post.

The highlight of the week was definitely initiating the payoff for my student loan. Once that goes through, we'll be debt-free except for our mortgage!

I don't know what my problem is, but I've screwed up what's supposed to be an incredibly easy bread recipe twice now. It's the focaccia recipe I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Camille from Growing Up Gabel made it and said it was great so I was really looking forward to it, but I obviously lack her breadmaking skills. The problem is probably that I'm not using all white flour - it's just so hard for me to not substitute half white whole wheat flour, but of course it's much denser. I'm guessing that if I want to do this, I need to add some gluten, even though the dough seems to rise beautifully in the bowl and pan. I'm going to try it soon with just white flour and that will at least help me determine if it's me or just the ingredients.

Just because I've done something well in the past doesn't mean I can do it well again - at least, not on the first try. I made calamari for dinner this week for the first time in at least six months. It had been so long that I kind of forgot how to deep fry the things. It took a few batches before I was able to keep the oil at a consistent temperature, and I even overcrowded the pot once. But the pieces that came out well were amazingly delicious, as always. I don't really have a recipe, but here's my technique: Marinate the squid in buttermilk for a few hours. When ready to cook, heat the oil and dredge the squid in cornmeal. Fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Our federal tax refund seemed to come especially fast this year. I think it was within two weeks of our accountant e-filing our returns. We had to pay the state, so I don't know how quickly state refunds are being issued, though apparently they are being issued now (for a while during the budget crisis, refunds had been withheld). This year was the closest we have ever come to getting our federal and state taxes exactly right (i.e., not owing any money nor getting a refund). Of course, I try to get as close as I can every year so I think it was just luck.

Thanks to all of your suggestions, I think I put together a pretty good non-food Easter basket. Of course, I'll know for sure after their reaction tomorrow. But thank you again for your help!

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Slow Cooker Chili

Stephanie at A Year of CrockPotting highly recommends her Original Taco Soup, so I had high expectations. I was a little disappointed, but only because I was expecting "soup," not chili. It tasted great and made a lot. Here's the recipe, with my modifications.

Slowcooker Taco "Soup", aka Chili (adapted from A Year of CrockPotting)
Serves 8-10 (maybe 12, it makes a lot!)

2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded*
3 tablespoons homemade taco seasoning (or 1 packet taco seasoning)
1 tablespoon dried parsley**
1 teaspoon dried dill**
2 teaspoons onion powder**
1 teaspoon kosher salt**
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder**
1/4 teaspoon black pepper**
2 15-oz. cans of kidney beans
2 15-oz. cans of pinto beans
12 oz. frozen corn
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes (free after coupon a couple of months ago)
2 8-oz. tomato sauce (free after coupon and rebate last month)

*The original recipe calls for one pound of browned ground turkey or beef. I happened to have some previously cooked and shredded chicken breasts that I'd used for chicken nachos in the freezer that worked beautifully in this dish. You can also omit the meat and make this vegetarian.

**In place of these ingredients, you can use one packet of ranch dressing mix. I adapted Frugal Upstate's homemade ranch dressing recipe when I saw that the ranch dressing packets contain MSG.

Note: I used a 4-quart slow cooker - Amazon doesn't carry my beloved West Bend anymore so I'm thinking it's no longer available :(

1. Spray the crock with nonstick cooking spray. Add the meat to the crock.
2. Sprinkle the taco seasoning, parsley, dill, onion powder, salt, garlic powder and pepper on top of the meat.
3. Drain and rinse the beans and add them to the crock.
4. Add the corn, tomatoes and tomato sauce to the crock.
5. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours. (I concur with Stephanie that the longer you cook this, the better it will taste.)
6. Serve the way you would any chili. In our house, that means a layer of tortilla chips, then a layer of chili, topped with a handful of shredded Mexican blend cheese (cheddar would work fine), a handful of shredded lettuce, and sour cream. Sometimes I also serve it with diced tomatoes and avocado.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

One recall today: CARS shoes

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

"CARS" Children's Shoes Sold Exclusively at Wal-Mart Recalled by Pagoda International Footwear Ltd. Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a photo of the big kids' version.


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

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Some good coupons at Coupons.com

Coupons.com still has some great printable coupons, including one for 75-cents off Huggies baby wipes.

The 50-cents off Challenge butter coupon is also still there, and the sticks are on sale for 2 for $6 at Safeway stores this week. I've become a big fan of Challenge butter since it's RBST-free and cheaper on sale and with a coupon than it is at Trader Joe's. Update 4/9/09: See the first comment for an even better deal at Albertson's. Thanks, Tia!

There's also a $1 off 2 Kellogg's cereal coupon and there's a cereal + milk deal at Albertson's (find the details at Fabulessly Frugal). Update 4/9/09: Thanks to Tia again for letting me know that this deal is only in the northwest!

Colgate Total toothpaste is frequently free after coupons and/or store rewards, and there's a $1 off coupon for the "premium" varieties.

Finally, it might be a good idea to stock up on coupons in general - MoneywiseMoms reports that there's going to be a huge deal at the Safeway family of stores next week!

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

New idea for getting kids to take their meds

Let me say up front that this isn't something I've done, so I don't know if it will actually work. But since I have one kid who hates drinking medicine, this idea in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine caught my eye:


It's a candy-rimmed dosing cup from KidKupz.com, which retails for $6.99 for a box of 6 cups.

Of course, it immediately occurred to me that you could probably rim a dosing cup the same way you'd rim a margarita glass: Pour some water or simple syrup onto a small shallow plate. Pour some sugar onto another small plate. Turn the dosing cup over and dip the rim into the water or syrup, then into the sugar. If you anticipate needing more than one dose, you could prepare several cups at once. (And if you don't already keep the cups from old bottles, you should! It'll spare you from emergency dish washing.)

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

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Two recalls today: Pacifiers & play yards

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

Pacifiers Recalled by Healthtex Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a photo of the packaging.


Simplicity Play Yards Recalled by Various Retailers Due to Fall and Entrapment Hazards - Click through for a list of the recalled models.


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

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Review & Giveaway: Weight Watchers products (3 winners)

I have to admit that I've fallen completely off the Weight Watchers bandwagon – I think that I just have too much on my plate still. But when I was asked to try some of their food products, I happily agreed.

First up, the 2-point brownies. Remarkably, they taste pretty much like any prepackaged brownie. I would never say that these brownies are good - I mean, it can't compare to a freshly baked brownie. But I think it's incredible that technology has come so far that I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between this brownie and a "regular" prepackaged brownie in a blind taste test.

The same goes for Weight Watchers cream cheese. It tastes just like cream cheese to me. I opted for the individual 1-point packages, which make for super easy portion control. They're more expensive, though.

The only thing that tasted low fat were the vanilla sundae cones. Which isn't to say they tasted bad – on the contrary, they were delicious. But I could tell that the "ice cream" was low fat. It didn't bother me at all, but if full fat ice cream is important to you, I would recommend you get something else. If you're okay with low fat ice cream or frozen yogurt, you'll love this.

Best of all, I get to share the love. Three lucky CFO readers will win a free Weight Watchers product coupon - the winners will be able to pick their favorite brownie, cookie, muffin or cake.

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 14.

Good luck!

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Monday, April 06, 2009

The keys to paying off debt: persistence, consistency & growing your debt snowball

Kelly at The ¢entsible Life explained how she's paying off her debt, and asked her readers how they've paid or are paying their debts off. It occurred to me that the single most important thing we've done to get so close to being debt-free is being persistent and consistent. We've made every payment on time. We've always paid extra, even if it wasn't much, especially at the beginning.

And the other thing we've done that's been key is grow our debt snowball. The "debt snowball" is simply the payment you make each month toward your debt - it's a "snowball" because when you pay off one debt, you apply the payment you'd been making toward the next debt, and you keep doing it until all of your debts are paid off. (No Credit Needed has a more detailed explanation about debt snowballs.)

We've consistently added to our debt snowball over the years. Salary increases in particular have helped grow our debt snowball. Also, any long term decreases in our expenses - such as a reduction in our insurance premiums - have been applied to our debt snowball.

I'm a believer in "snowflaking" too - a term coined by PaidTwice for random savings that can be applied to pay off debt. It's been my experience, though, that snowflaking is most effective when you can't grow your debt snowball. Growing the debt snowball is more effective than snowflaking because it's a regular thing - there's that much more money going toward the debt each month. But of course, adding snowflaking to your growing debt snowball will pay off your loans fastest of all.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Lots of giveaway winners

I finally got around to randomly selecting the following giveaway winners. (I love Random.org - what a service!) Congratulations to the following winners:

The winner of the Socks giveaway is:
Dina (dkel****@gmail.com)

The winner of the Happy Graduation! giveaway is:

Norma (norfl****@sbcglobal.net)

The two winners of the $5 Amazon gift certificates in the SwagBucks giveaway are:

Tami G. (tami.goer****@comcast.net)
Lynn R. (mom2m****@live.com)

Winners, I've emailed all of you and you have 48 hours to respond!

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Three recalls today: High chairs & crib

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

Evenflo Expands Recall of Majestic™ High Chairs Due to Fall and Choking Hazards - Click through for an additional photo.


Evenflo Recalls Envision™ High Chairs Due to Fall and Choking Hazards - Click through for an additional photo.


SunKids Convertible Cribs Recalled by Suntech Enterprises Due to Entrapment and Suffocation Hazards


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

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How to make the most of the latest tax cut

Have you benefited from the tax cut in President Obama's stimulus package? My most recent paycheck reflected it. Marc's did too, and together we're looking at a little over $100 more in take home pay each month.

I think reducing payroll deductions is a much better way for the government to implement a tax cut – far more efficient than sending out a letter and/or check to each taxpayer, as with last year's stimulus payment.

On the other hand, though, there was something far more satisfying about getting that $1200 check in one fell swoop. Last year, that stimulus payment helped us buy a new car. This year, the same payment would have helped us pay off my student loan that much faster.

Unless you're tracking every dime – and admittedly, more people than ever are – it's easy to lose track of an extra $50 or $100 per month in income, especially spread out over multiple paychecks. So how do you make sure you don't just spend it away on frivolous things? Here are some ways to make the most of the latest tax cut:

Increase your retirement contribution. - If you contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k), it's easy enough to increase your retirement contribution by the same amount of your tax cut. I'm sure there's some calculator out there that can tell me how much I need add to my 401(k) contribution in order to zero out the increase in take home pay, but I just roughly estimate that I lose 40% of my gross pay to taxes. $100 in take home pay would equal $167 in gross pay, so that's the amount I would increase my contribution by.

Have the money automatically deducted into savings. - You should already have an automated savings plan set up, implementing the "pay yourself first" philosophy. So to make sure you save your tax cut, just increase the amount that's transferred automatically by the amount of your tax cut.

Set up an automatic investment. Similar to the last suggestion, this one sends the money to an investment account instead of a savings account. Many mutual funds have very low minimum automatic investment amounts, and you often don't have to meet the minimum opening deposit when setting up automatic monthly transfers.

Donate the money to charity each month. It's almost like getting a double tax cut, because if you itemize, you'll be able to deduct the donation on your 2009 return.

So what will I be doing? Alas, our accountant says we need to increase our withholding for 2009, so for us, it will be as if the tax cut never happened.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

One recall today: Soft toy box

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

Lakeshore Learning Materials Recalls Children’s Toy Boxes 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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TurboTax giveaway winners

Congratulations to the two TurboTax giveaway winners:

cheery04
and Sammi!

Sammi, I've already sent you an email with the code. Cheery, your Blogger profile doesn't include your email address, so I need to hear from you within 48 hours!

I know, I have a lot of giveaway winners to announce - I'll do it before the end of the weekend, I promise!

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Warning for new mortgage holders: Ignore that biweekly payment invitation

We refinanced our mortgage in January, and that meant we got a new lender. In today's mail was an invitation to enroll in the lender's biweekly payment plan which "does the work" to help me pay off my loan faster by automatically deducting half of my regular monthly payment every 14 days. The way the math works out, I would end up making 13 "full" mortgage payments each year, theoretically without feeling any pain. According to my lender's calculations, I would pay off my loan 4 1/2 years earlier and save over $34,000 in interest.

Um, no thanks. I can manage that "work" on my own perfectly fine. I've planned all along to pay extra principal each month, and now I plan on rolling my debt snowball into the mortgage once my student loan is paid off. That'll result in the mortgage being paid off 23 1/2 years early and over $100,000 saved in interest.

What really staggered me was the cost of the biweekly mortgage plan. The lender must make a fortune off of anyone who signs up. There's a $375 enrollment fee, plus a $1.50 transaction fee with each payment. With 26 payments, that's an extra $39 each year!

I hope no one pays these fees, because they're outrageous. In these economic times, you'd think lenders would actually just be grateful to have a customer who pays on time!

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