Friday, August 18, 2006

A Succulent & Luxurious Summer Pleasure for Pennies

Lovely summer salsa

Here we are on the waning arc of August and some stray leaves are beginning to turn and flutter down into the garden. One of the greatest pleasures of summer is enjoying this harvest time, traditionally associated with county and state fairs.

Along with my perennial herbs, the mainstay green herbs like rosemary, thyme, savory and oregano, I planted several pots of basil from seed. The basil is rich and aromatic and incomparable paired with fresh tomatoes.

I don't have a full-size garden, but plant in pots and a small raised bed intensively. This year I have several tomatoes, peppers, squashes and tomatilloes. One of the most succulent and luxurious things we've been doing late this summer is making our own salsa.

Salsa that's made from fresh ingredients, with time allowed for the flavors to marry, and then consumed immediately is the taste of summer itself. We adjust the combination of fresh vegetables based on what we have picked, but all is delicious. Following below is a general recipe for fresh homemade salsa. If you don't grow your own vegetables, pick up some at the Farmer's Market. You'll still save more, and savor it infinitely more, than the expensive jarred salsa from the grocery store.

Important tip: Do not refrigerate tomatoes unless they're cut. The flavor of a tomato improves at room temperature.

Basic Salsa

2 diced fresh tomatoes (at room temperature)
2-3 scallions (green onions) cleaned and diced
1 jalapeno pepper
1/3 cup rinsed/diced cilantro leaves
1 TBL diced garlic
1 TBL cumin (or to taste)
1 TBL lemon or lime juice

Place all above ingredients in non-metallic bowl and pound, or use mortar and pestle. Let stand at room temperature for at least 40 minutes. Add I cubed avocado, if desired, and salt and pepper to taste.

Variations are endless, for example:
  • Basil, parsley or Italian parsley instead of cilantro
  • Adding diced summer squash or zucchini

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

My Cash on Hand Emergency Fund

While most PF bloggers have an emergency fund, or are building one, I wonder how many have a stash of cash-on-hand? Other than the coin car and the pennies collecting on the shelf above the dryer, how many people maintain a reserve of cash on hand? I do.

I keep between $200-250 available tucked away at home. It's an emergency fund already in cash. I know it's there if ATMs are down in an actual emergency, if I need to pay for a taxi for a friend, or even if the pizza delivery driver suddenly won't take a check. I don't care a lot of cash with me, to avoid the temptation to spend.

A Tale of Tall Savings

Here's a little trick that you can use to cage some savings. My teen-age son is 6'5", broad in the shoulders, plays #8 position on his rugby team. He's also tough on t-shirts and clothes generally. I've found the best way to keep him clothed is to buy good quality shirts and trousers that can stand up to a lot of action. The problem is he wears tall sized clothing to cover his frame and that tall sizes of men's clothing always cost more.

What I've found is that some online retailer sales or outlets will markdown tall sizes for the same price as regular sizes. For example:

A regular sized t-shirt normally sells for $15
A tall sized t-shirt normally sells for $20

However, when the t-shirt goes on sale, both sizes are marked down to $10. The savings on the regular size is 33% while the savings on the tall size is 50%.

This savings is also widely compounded on more expensive items like coats or outerwear. Try the sale pages at LLBean, Eddie Bauer Outlet, or Land's End if someone in your family wears talls.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Keep your Lap Cool and your Laptop Humming

In my last post about beating the heat and savings tips, I mentioned #2 that I use a handy little device to cool my laptop (and me.) I've received a few inquiries for more information about the LapCool2. Here are a few more details:

It cost about $24 and protects my seriously higher investment in my hardware. Think about it this way: I invested 60 times that amount in my computing hardware and this is a very inexpensive way to protect it and keep myself cool at the same time. Don't just take my word for it, read what Hi-Tech reviews has to say about the Vantec LapCool2:

From Hi-Tech Reviews :

"I think a sadist designed the way a laptop computer dissipated heat. He must have had a great The lapcool2 is coolbig laugh when he came up with the idea of having the entire heat of the computers processor being adsorbed into the persons legs as they sit and use it. That was until Vantec came along and stole all his thunder with their new LapCool2 Notebook Cooler. Now you don't need to feel like you're having some one ironing your pants with you in them.

The Vantec LapCool2 does exactly what it says it will do and does nice and quietly. The fans on high are slightly audible but not enough to be that noticeable and they do create a generous amount of airflow across the base of what is normally one very warm computer base. The LapCool2 is stylish and sleek and with its high-speed 4-port USB port this product should be on everyone wish list if they own or plan to own a laptop computer. The first time you use the LapCool2 and get up from your chair and don't have to rub your legs to put the fire out from the heat build- up, you will be glad you have this little jewel. "

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Hot Ideas to Save in the Heat

It's hot in the Pacific Northwest this weekend and a look at the weather map for the entire country looks like the rest of the country is sweltering too. Several other posts have shared ideas and/or links about keeping costs down while surviving the sun's scorching move into Leo today.

I've got a few hot ideas of my own to cope with these 100+ degree days, motivated, I must admit, more by the fact that we don't have central air conditioning, or even a single window air conditioning unit. (We rely on the Pacific marine air to move in and keep the heat down. That isn't happening as a ridge of serious high pressure is stalled out over most of the greater Northwest.)

1. Don't use appliances during the heat of the day. Run the dishwasher (turn off the heat dry option) and washer at night. Forget about the dryer. Hang those shirts on the line. Mine were dry in about 30 minutes and smell delicious.

2. Laptop hot? I've got an ingenious LapCool2 device that fits under the laptop, uses one USB port for power and has two fans to keep my machine cool. Keeps me cool too on my lap right now. Great investment and will help extend the life of my machine.

3. Water, of course. Take a lukewarm bath (not cold, as your body will want to generate heat to keep your body temperature stable.) Pat dry. Wet a clean cotton bandana and drape it over the back of your neck.

4. Freeze a few washcloths. Take one out and spritz with rosewater or aromatic oil (use almond or vanilla extract, lacking the foregoing.) Drape the frosty fragrant thing over your face and relax in the shade.

5. Stay in the shade. Only mad dogs and Oregonians go out in the midday sun.

6. Tired of flat ice water? Add lemon, or better yet add a snippet of freshly cut and crushed mint. Just drink lots of it.

7. Wet hair and wet feet. Keep your hair damp and dip those dogs in the kiddy pool every so often. I twist my bushy mane into knots while it's wet and secure with a couple chopsticks. Then I tie a wet cotton scarf from nape and forehead.

8. Water yourself while you water the plants. Run through the sprinkler, hose down the decks and benefit from evaporation.

9. Cook up a few salad bowls full of pasta salad in the morning while it's still (relatively) cool. Lots of fresh veggies, some cheese, and an olive oil-lemon juice vinaigrette will taste great at suppertime.

10. Keep the shades, windows and doors closed in the heat of the day. We are fortunate that our downstairs is built into the hill and stays fairly mild. The upstairs benefits from the cool evening breezes. We open the windows as the temperature drops and close them in the morning.

11. Don't necessarily run off to find respite in air-conditioned malls, movie theaters or restaurants. You'll spend a boatload of money and you will have short-circuited your body's ability to modulate and adjust to the heat. Go to the public library if you really need a break, or your local art museum.

12. Settle down in the hammock with that novel you've been meaning to read. Keep that bandana damp and the ice water flowing.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Straying from Best Blog Intentions

I find I've strayed from my best blog intentions. I started this blog as a compendium of notes and articles to help my seventeen (now eighteen)-year old son launch his own mission to be independent and self-reliant.

Some posts, as I review them, have furthered that original purpose; others have meandered off onto other tangential paths.

Bo is eighteen now. He's in summer school and, despite summer school being a total of 20 days long, in trouble with biology. He didn't graduate this spring, lacking credits. He still doesn't have a job. The sweet used 95 Camry has been sold. He's biking it.

I'm looking back at my original list of topics in the back of my pocket calendar. It lists the following, in brainstorm order:

Topics - Move Out Boot Camp

  • Taxes
  • Deposits & Downpayments
  • Staples - Pantry
  • Cooking 101
  • Cleaning 101
  • Laundry - Remedial
  • What's a Budget?
  • Banking
  • Insurance & Taxes
  • Credit
  • Utilities & Computers
  • Savings & Investments
  • Roommates
  • Transportation & Travel
  • Shopping
  • Working, Career, Education
  • Pets
  • Health & Safety

I think it's time to go back to this blog's roots and not stray too far from my best blog intentions.

Friday, July 07, 2006

$127 Flexible Spending Account Check Received

I submitted my documentation for health care reimbursement ten days ago and last night the check for $127 was in the mailbox. I turned around and paid the two bills this morning---so it's a wash. Only it's not: by contributing to my employer's flexible spending account savings plan, I'm able to pay non-covered costs and deductible with pre-tax dollars.

During this year's enrollment I elected to contribute the amount of our family deductible and save 25% off the costs of health care. (This account even covers the cost of cough drops!) My contributions are taken directly out of each paycheck, so it's a very painless way to save for covering health care costs that are uninsured or prior to meeting the deductible. Only warning: these accounts are use-it-or-lose-it annually. Usually there is a 90-day grace period stretching into the next year. If your employer offers this option, look into it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Blog Debris Howling at the Moon

Where do old abandoned blogs go?

Take a look at any blog directory like Blogwise, do a search of "personal finance" as a keyword. You'll find blogs like lost wallets on the sidewalk. Photos and postings and comments, left out on the blog-street. Some blogs have been suspended, some have moved, and some are out waiting in the park after we drove off and left them.

I have an orphaned blog or two, one that I started with a group of friends who never got the hang of posting or commenting. It never did stand up and breathe. The other one is still waiting for me to return, and I'll be back soon. Or that's what I keep telling myself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Extra $7200 to Equity Today

Today, as our mortgage payment processes, we've made an additional $7200 payment to our principal balance this year. Our fixed rate is 5.125%. Because interest earning rates have been below that, we've made extra 1/2 payments each month for a year, as a guaranteed return that's extremely safe (thousands of dollars in interest spared).

Now that savings and Money Market rates are paying nearly 5% (Vanguard's Money Market fund is currently paying 4.95%) it's time to reassess whether the extra principal payments or stashing the cash makes sense. Because we're already maxing out 401(k)s and IRAs, only taxable options remain. Thoughts?

20% Savings: Save $10 on a $50 Grocery Purchase

What Makes a Coupon Worthwhile:  Grocery Shopping Image
Every few months these coupons show up in the newspaper that offer $10 off a $50 grocery purchase. They never have a very long shelf life (like four days) so I always clip them and run. The trick is to use them for staples, other items already offered on sale, to target spending at exactly $50 to maximize the savings percentage, and purchase only food items. This coupon comes from Safeway and is valid if you also have a club card.

We used the coupon to stock up on dog and cat kibble (we like to keep at least one extra bag of each as part of our emergency supplies.) Threw in 2-for-1 18 count eggs on sale (hey, when teen-agers are running through at all hours of the day or night, lots of eggs are required), bread, pasta, milk, OJ, some fresh produce and such. We did exceed our $50 by about $6, paying $46 for the whole load.

These types of coupons make it worthwhile to clip and use them. While I see lots of postings about others clipping coupons and finding lots of deals in their Sunday newspapers, I honestly am usually disappointed with the offerings. All I ever seem to see are coupons for hair coloring products, expensive disposable razors, or Captain Crunch cereal. When I do see a coupon for a product we actually use, it's dismal: .30 cents off two jars of salsa or something. Not many coupons for avocados, cantaloupe or milk in our hometown Sunday paper.

Monday, July 03, 2006

July 4th Special: Add on a Room to Your House for Free

Given that work-a-day Monday, between the weekend and the Tuesday 4th of July holiday is something of a disconnected island, this post seems a perfect secret to share : add on a room to your house for free and enjoy it all summer, or longer.

Outdoor rooms provide private sanctuaries that let you enjoy the wonderful sights, sounds and scents of summer; an outdoor room will remove you from the chore reminders of the main house. To create an outdoor room, and actually expand the size of your living quarters, plan a room that can be functional both day and night. If you live in a warm climate, design your room to span several seasons. Don't buy a new patio set, lounge chairs or plastic rattan. Go down to the basement or up to the attic and you'll find the treasures to haul out and set up the space. You'll have more fun and love your outdoor room even more---More ideas about this later.

We have two outdoor rooms. One is the second floor deck that runs the western length of the house. A collapsible awning runs half the width of the deck. We haul out chairs, tables, bookcases and fill it with pots of flowers, vegetables and herbs. Candle lanterns hang from the rafters and iron lanterns dot the flooring. The view of the butte to the south is breath-taking. The trees provide shade, wonderful patterns of filtered light and the various birds that flitter down to the feeder or the bird bath.

Take a look at your space. Do you have a balcony, a front stoop, a private side yard? Any small space can be privatized. Fabrics are key: drape fabric (a clean sheet will do) over a bamboo or closet rod and create vertical space. Drag out an old rug and let it define the floor space. Bring out a few chairs, a table and some candles. Do you have a tabletop fountain? Add it to the room.

Several years ago, in another home, I bought two outdoor umbrella bases on sale. I looped colorful sari fabric over the horizontal rod, and placed two rods upright in each base. I then secured the horizontal rod by tying if off with twine. I used this outdoor "screen" and a tall pot of bamboo to block the neighbors view into my outdoor room. The wind rippling in the fabric was lush and satisfying. Bamboo is an excellent screening device as well.

Enjoy summer while it's here, and celebrate the 4th in your own outdoor room.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

500% Return Guaranteed

This time of year, especially with the DOW tanking, there's one investment that's guaranteed to return at least 500% over the initial investment in value and satisfaction: Summer is just around the corner and there's still time to get a few tomatoes and some fresh basil planted.

Most nurseries and garden centers are starting to heavily discount their bedding plants. (Last year I spent $1 for two tomato and two pepper plants--that's right .25 cents each, that produced fresh sweet cherry tomatoes and sizzling jalapenos.)

Check out the veggie starts at the grocery store too. All you need is a container, and it doesn't have to be a fancy glazed pot, some soil, light and water. Containers can be almost anything: a child's Easter bucket with a drainage hole pierced into it, for example. Place the pot next to the window if you don't have a yard, balcony or front stoop.

Basil is another fabulous investment; even at the farmer's market, bunches of basil for that fragrant garnish of summer over your fresh tomatoes, is thrillingly expensive. A pot of basil with good light will produce many batches of pesto well into September. Invest in summer and invest in the good life.

Catch-and-Release Strategy

There's something new to learn from everyone, particularly when it comes to hunting down the best deals in anything: stocks, funds, shoes, software or sweaters. My sister has a unique style that has saved her thousands over the years: catch-and-release shopping.

How does it work? Working the market is no different than working the mall: we're all looking for a deal. We're looking for greater value than price.

Sometimes in the glitz and glitter of all those fluorescent lights and mirrors, or catching a surge in volume in after-hours trading and thinking you've hooked a big one, you pull in a trout and not that monster Ahi. Only you don't realize it until you get home and find that that killer white T-shirt is the identical twin of the one in the closet. Or that your buy order just got you over-allocated in tech.

Time to release the little fella'. Save your receipts; take it back to the store (make sure you understand the return policy and time limits.) Set your price to sell and dump it. Just because you caught a minnow doesn't mean you need to keep it.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Win $100 with Your Money-Saving Idea

Reminder that Bankrate's Frugal U's tips runs a monthly contest for the best money-saving tip. The best tip wins $100. This month's contest ends on June 1st, so check out the entries so far and vote for a favorite, or wait to enter your best idea until June 2d.

May's winning entry for $100:

Winning tip: When you're finished pumping gas in your tank, turn the pump off and then squeeze the pump handle. You'll get the extra little shot of gas that was left in the hose. You've already paid for it so you might as well take it!

Enter here at Bankrate.

Consider Yourself Warned

While out of the country traveling in the Mediterranean, we watched the DOW climb and crash. Now home, I'm reviewing my portfolio, which contains a good share of foreign and emerging market funds. One of my favorites, and a great performer, has been T. Rowe Price's Emerging Eastern Europe and Mediterranean fund (TREMX).

This story at Smart Money caught my attention, as the NAV has fallen by $6 in a few weeks: "Emerging-Markets Run Ending?"

In part, the story narrates:

"Still, even with the impressive economic gains in developing nations, emerging-market investors must be prepared for the possibility of complete implosion (recall, for instance, the Russian debt crisis of 1998) that is mostly foreign to investors in established markets. And if interest rates continue to rise, emerging markets will likely be hit the hardest, as investors grow cautious and corporate spending dips.

Does that mean there's no place for an emerging-markets fund in your portfolio? For long-term investors, no. But it does mean now is not the time to be chasing returns and the age-old advice that one should only have limited exposure to this group should be closely followed. (Dollar-cost averaging is a tried and true way to avoid buying at the peak). And if you're sitting on substantial gains from your recent forays into Latin America and Eastern Europe, now might be a good time to think about paring back. "

The fund screen used in this story includes TREMX. Since I've harvested some gains during the past couple years and reinvested in other sectors, I'm still watching to see how emerging markets perform.

The Emerging Markets Fund Screen Recipe

Fund Classification = Emerging Market
Annualized 3-Year Return (%) = Top % in Fund Classification = 50.0
Rank in Classification (%) (3 year performance) = Display Only
Annualized 5-Year Return (%) = Top % in Fund Classification = 50.0
Rank in Classification (%) (5 year performance) = Display Only
Expense Ratio, Bottom % in Fund Classification = 50.0
Load Fund (type) = No Load
Minimum Initial Investment <= 5000 Open to New Investors = Yes Total Net Assets ($ millions) >= 50

Foreign Exchange Notes

Having just returned from Europe, we can confirm that the dollar keeps losing value against the Euro. During our travels in Greece during May, we found the exchange dropping dismally, if by pennies, each day.

Foreign currency often feels like "play money" therefore it's always wise to fix firmly in your mind what items or services cost in dollars. How much is that 33 euro pashmina scarf is USD$? Multiply by .25 and find the true cost is over $40.

Several ways to exchange currencies while in-country:

1. Cash exchange. Check both the exchange rate and the commission. Often hotels will change money for guests without charging commission.

2. ATMs. Money can be withdrawn through your ATM checking or credit card and automatically exchanged. Make sure you use your own network provider; fees and commissions are a shot-in-the-dark as they are not generally disclosed prior to the transaction. Save your receipts.

3. Credit cards. Cash can be withdrawn as a cash advance. However, most cards charge an exchange fee of approximately 3%. Contact your credit card company before you leave home to do two things:

a. Find out the exchange fee;
b. Advise your credit card company you're leaving the country. Many companies now automatically do not authorize purchases unless you've advised them you're leaving the country.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Field Guide to the Grocery Aisles

Some great tips for navigating the grocery aisles and maximizing time, money, and nutrition in the NYTimes Dining section. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, shares aisle-by-aisle advice in her book "What to Eat."

According to the article "The new book is for anyone who has read a food label; been annoyed at how often their children nag them for certain cereals; wondered about the difference between natural and organic; or questioned who is minding the store when it comes to nutrition and food safety."

Some tips and tidbits:
  • eat locally and, if possible, organically; keep it simple; concentrate on vegetables and fruits and make meat a condiment; and forget about processed foods.
  • No matter what their labels say, margarines are basically the same — mixtures of soybean oil and food additives. Everything else is theater and greasepaint."
  • She also advises parents who want their children to eat healthfully to stick to the periphery of the store. That's where the fresh, unprocessed foods are. "Don't set foot in the center aisles," she cautions. The chapters are divided by aisles: produce section, dairy section and so on. Safety and nutrition are addressed in detail.

$65 Paid on my Sharebuilder Account

Free Money
I made $65 on the Sharebuilder-Costco account promotion today when the promotion amount was credited to my Sharebuilder account. I signed up for the promotion as a Costco Business member and Sharebuilder promised to credit me with $65 once I executed my first trade.

I transferred $100 into my Sharebuilder account and purchased four shares of PBW, the alternative energy Powershares ETF that tracks the WilderHill Clean Energy Index. That trade cost me $15.95 and have since earned back the commission amount since the late March trade.

Sharebuilder was good to their promise, and promptly credited the amount in 4-6 weeks. Now I can either:

1. Let it ride
2. Use the free money to execute more trades; add more funds
3. Set up an ACH transfer @$4 per investment the first Tuesday of the month...

I'm considering the options.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Stock Forecasts: May 5, 2006 and Beyond

Trying to make sense of the market is like trying to predict the weather--although there are not necessary corresponding seasons. There are cycles and patterns and moving averages. I've been following with pleasure the Market Week forecasts of Raymond Merriman. He provides both short-term and long-term analysis, and is more frequently than not, right on the money.

“But our focus for stock indices is on...May 5th. If this corrective decline ends sometime this week, we could see another leg up as the indices resume their “blow-off” pattern.
Right now it is grandeur and a littler hysteria, and it is not “common sense.” We do not live in a time when “common sense” rules the day. And in my opinion, we may very likely experience the opposite end of this dynamic—panic—in 2011.

Outstanding investment opportunities for the long-term: These will result from the social discontent that is already starting, and will inspire young people to find alternative ways to construct their collective life style in the next two decades. As mentioned before, watch the young people. Watch what they do, and what they rebel against. Watch the Establishment too, for what they will try to suppress in regards to “youth movements” will likely fail, as the “New World” and new ideas emerge.

Credit Limit Increase - They Just Keep Coming

I received a letter from the company that carries one of bank cards today. They're raised my credit limit to $20K and practically begged me to use the card. It's ironic that by not using the card, my credit limit is steadily increased and the advantage offers, dividends and perks just keep increasing.

With two bank cards that I pay off each month, I almost feel sorry for them. Should I use it? I make a purchase or two each year to keep the card active and avoid any other fees that might be lurking in the fine print. Are banks getting more desperate for our finance fees?

Bare Skin Beauty - Big Savings

I'm always amazed that women will spend hundreds of dollars for expensive skin care creams. The truth is only water will add moisture to your skin and only oil of some type will seal the water in.

If you're spending money on expensive creams, lotions or moisturizers---stop now. Even if you're buying generic at the grocery store you can still save money and get absolutely wonderful skin care. Buy sweet almond oil in bulk---take in your own plastic bottle and fill it up. Price per pound is usually about $5.

Scent it with some vanilla or almond extract or essential oils. Use it in the shower, just before rinsing, to keep skin soft and supple. Add it to wet hair, wrap and read a magazine, and then shampoo out for your own hot oil treatment (if you need product!) Slather it on your heels and put some socks on for a pre-pedicure treat. You won't need Estee Lauder anymore!

We're Honeymooning in Europe with our Tax Refund

Priceless When we married last year (second marriages for both of us) I was too involved in launching a project to take more than a few days off. We never had a honeymoon and now we're going to take one---several weeks in the Mediterranean.

After buying a house together and joining households, we stayed with our current "S" withholding allowances. Although we could have changed our W-4's and greatly reduced our withholding, we didn't. We let the government save the money for us last year. Based on our experience with our tax returns for 2005 (we also bought points on our mortgage last year that were deductible) and the IRS worksheets, we adjusted our withholdings for 2006. Now the government isn't saving for us, but the thousands we got back this year are funding our belated honeymoon.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Pantry Meal #2 - Hearty Sunday Breakfast- $.88 cents per serving

Blueberries are high in antioxidants

What to do when a dozen eggs doesn't last until Sunday morning because Bo ate half-a-dozen in his omelet after coming home Saturday night? What's for breakfast when there's no bread, no eggs and low on milk? Go to the pantry and find a wholesome breakfast of hot cereal made delicious by adding a few other pantry touches. Vanilla and almond extracts are great items to have on hand to add aroma and flavor to much more than cookie dough. We also keep a supply of soy or almond milk on hand in the pantry; it's shelf-life is long and flavors are an interesting and healthy break from dairy.

This meal is high in fiber, iron, A, B & C vitamins, and antioxidants (blueberries!)

Whole Grains and Fruit Breakfast

1 cup 10-grain cereal (.33)
3 cups almond milk, or soy or evaporated milk diluted (.90)
1 cup dried mixed berries or other dried fruit diced into small pieces (.75)
2 cups applesauce (.60)
1 tsp. butter (.05)
1/2 tsp. vanilla or almond extract (.03)
1/4 tsp. salt (.001)
sprinkle of brown sugar, if desired

Bring almond milk, butter, salt, mixed dried berries and vanilla extract to boil. Add cereal, lower heat and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with brown sugar, if desired, and 1/2-3/4 cup of applesauce. Makes three servings.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Spring Time Saving$ - $250 Each Year

Retractable Clothes Line We have a nifty gadget that cost $19.99 and allows us to save $250 each year: ever seen one of these?

Our home is heated by electricity, as are all our appliances. One our biggest volt-suckers is the clothes dryer - coming in second after the electric oven.

Now that spring is here, clothes can be dried on an outdoor clothes line. Our yard didn't have an appropriate space for a conventional clothes line---either too shady, hard to access on a slope, or exposed to dust and chaff. So we bought and installed a retractable clothes line. These are very popular in Europe, but this one happens to be USA-made. The casing is attached to the support post of our upper deck; the other post has a hook. The clothes line spools out of the reel and is attached to the hook. The line is pulled taunt by a twist around the anchor at the lower left. In all, we have about 20 feet of line that can accommodate two loads of clothes.

When you do need to use the dryer, put a dry towel in the clothes dryer with each load of wet clothes. The dry towel adsorbs dampness and reduces drying time. Try to dry several loads of laundry in a row to take advantage of the heat that's built up in the dryer drum.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

102.62 Check Received as Pre-tax HSA Reimbursement

I just deposited a check for $102.62 for my health savings account benefits reimbursement. I submitted the claim form and supporting documentation a couple weeks ago. The check was in the mail last night.

A health Savings account is one of the benefits of my job
. I can pay for deductible expenses or non-covered expenses with pre-tax dollars and save 25%. If you have a plan and you're not taking advantage of it, take another look.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 5: Encrypt Your Files

At this point you've done everything you can to protect your computer and wireless network from unauthorized access. Everything is secure, we're feeling good.

But we're not quite done if you're running Windows XP Pro and chose the NTFS file system (hopefully you did because it's more secure and more flexible than the FAT32 file system).

What happens when you take your computer, desktop or laptop, down to the local computer repair store to have a new video card added, a new hard drive or modem, or if you take your laptop with you when you travel and it is lost or stolen, or if someone breaks into your house and makes off with your computer?

All of your personal information stored on the computer is vulnerable to prying eyes unless your files are encrypted. Any files which contain your personal financial data (Microsoft Money, Quicken, files which hold account numbers and passwords, tax returns, etc.) should be encrypted, along with any other files you wouldn't want posted on the internet for anyone to see.

I don't encrypt all of my files, but I do encrypt those which, if in the wrong hands, could make my life (and my credit report) miserable.

Encrypting files is incredibly easy with Windows XP Pro . You can encrypt individual files or entire directories (so any file in that directory would be encrypted as well). I recommend encrypting at the directory level so any file added to that directory will be encrypted as well.

To encrypt a file or directory:
  • Right click on the file or directory
  • Select Properties
  • Select Advanced from the General tab
  • Check the box which says "Encrypt contents to secure data".

If you are encrypting individual files (and you can select more than one file at a time in a directory to encrypt them all at once) you will be prompted whether to encrypt the file and it's parent directory, or just the file.

The main difference you will notice when a file is encrypted is it's name is green in Explorer. Otherwise you won't notice anything as you open/close/save files -- the encryption/decryption process is automatic.

There are two more very important steps to take -- backup your encryption key and create a recovery agent. If your operating system is ever reinstalled, or your username is deleted and then readded (even if the same name is used), your existing key will be useless to decrypt your files.

It would take too much space to show the details for these two steps, but an excellent 5-part guide to everything you need to do can be found at Windows XP Pro: Using File Encryption . Highly recommended reading (and doing).

Bottled Water - Some Reasons to Buy

In a post I wrote about tips for buying at big-box stores, I mentioned the unit price of bottled water makes it a good buy. I got a comment questioning the merits of bottled water. While we drink mostly tap water, we do keep a case of bottled water on hand (spring water). Depending upon your water source and the treatment it requires to bring it up to standards, a filter is another option over bottled water.

There are some instances when quality bottled water is more than a convenience (make sure the water is good quality). For example:

1. Pregnant or nursing women and young children: When I lived in SW Oklahoma and was pregnant with my son, my doctor advised me to drink only distilled water rather than the highly chlorinated water that came from the reservoir. Standards for tap water are set for healthy adults, not small children.

2. Cancer patients or anyone with a compromised immune system: Again, tap water standards are set for healthy adults, not for anyone with a compromised immune system.

3. Emergency Supplies. In case of an earthquake (we live on the Pacific Rim), the tap probably won't be working. We have several gallon jugs filled with tap water and a case of bottled water as part of our emergency supplies.

4. Traveling. When traveling, I prefer to take my own bottle of water at .23 cents, rather than pay $1.50+ at airport or hotel shops. Depending upon the quality of water at my destination, I may opt for bottled water rather than the local tap water.

Know your bottled water and what you're really buying, if you have the need. Here are some definitions from

What are the different types of bottled water?

FDA has established a bottled water Standard of Identity to define the several different types of bottled water based on specific characteristics of the product. Bottled water products meeting the Standard of Identity may be labeled as bottled water or drinking water, or one or more of the following terms:

Spring Water - Bottled water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. Spring water collected with the use of an external force must be from the same underground stratum as the spring and must have all the physical properties before treatment, and be of the same composition and quality as the water that flows naturally to the surface of the earth.

Purified Water - Water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other suitable processes while meeting the definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopoeia may be labeled as purified bottled water. Other suitable product names for bottled water treated by one of the above processes may include "distilled water" if it is produced by distillation, deionized water" if it is produced by deionization or "reverse osmosis water" if the process used is reverse osmosis. Alternatively, "___ drinking water" can be used with the blank being filled in with one of the terms defined in this paragraph (e.g., "purified drinking water" or "distilled drinking water").

Mineral Water - Bottled water containing not less than 250 parts per million total dissolved solids may be labeled as mineral water. Mineral water is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of mineral and trace elements at the point of emergence from the source. No minerals can be added to this product.

Sparkling Bottled Water - Water that after treatment, and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had as it emerged from the source. Sparkling bottled waters may be labeled as "sparkling drinking water," "sparkling mineral water," "sparkling spring water," etc.

Artesian Water/Artesian Well Water - Bottled water from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand) in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer.

Well Water - Bottled water from a hole bored, drilled or otherwise constructed in the ground, which taps the water aquifer.

$846 Earned to Date on my 2006 Roth IRA

This year I jumped on it and made my 2006 Roth IRA contribution on the first possible date: January 3, 2006. Fortunately, I had the money available to transfer from my money market account into my brokerage account. I'd done the research and had my buys scoped and staked. I set the limit orders and bought into two ETFs and one stock. The buys executed a few days later. Checking my brokerage account this week I found that the earnings on my 2006 Roth contribution to date are $846.85.

My timing for contributions in previous years ranged from March to May. If I'd waited until now to make my contribution, I wouldn't be seeing a tidy 20+% already. While the market is a fickle thing, I believe these picks will perform steadily. Bottom line: if you can afford it, contribute sooner rather than later.

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 4: Secure Your Wireless Network

If you have a wireless network at home do you want everyone in the neighborhood (or someone parked outside) to be able to access it and potentially your computer and it's data? Probably not.

Have you taken the necessary steps to prevent unauthorized access to the wireless network? Again, for too many of us, probably not.

Basic steps you should take to secure your network include configuring the router to:

  • Rename the administrator username and the administrator password (hackers know the default names and passwords for all the popular wireless routers).
  • Enable wireless security -- in order of most secure is WPA2, WPA, or WEF. When entering the network key make sure, just like passwords, it is a strong key (use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as !@# -- and longer is better).

More advanced steps, but certainly worthwhile, are configuring the router to:

  • Use a different base IP address than the default (which is usually
  • Limit the number of subnet addresses to only handle the number of computers you actually have connected to the network.
  • Hide the wireless network -- often a checkbox which tells the router not to send out beacon packets to the wireless network.
  • Enable MAC Access Control where you tell the router which computers, via their MAC address, are allowed to access the router.

By performing these steps your wireless network will be significantly more secure. For more information on this topic, an excellent article is How to Secure Your Wireless Home Network with Windows XP.

Securing your wireless network is very important. If you can't do it yourself, hire a professional to do it for you.

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 3: Don't Logon As An Administrator

Unfortunately, in Windows XP, when you create a new user that user has administrative privileges by default. As mentioned previously, users with administrative privileges have full control of the computer.

For most of us, there are few instances when you actually need administrative privileges. These include installing some software, adding/modifying user accounts, and other "administrative" types of maintenance.

The rest of the time we can operate just fine with the limited privileges granted to the Users Group.

Why should we care about this? If your computer is compromised by unauthorized access (perhaps by the computer being left unattended, someone hacks into it via a wireless network, or more commonly by inadvertent downloads of viruses or other malware) that person gaining unauthorized access can easily have whatever priviliges the person currently logged-on has -- and that would be bad. An excellent discussion of the dangers can be found in the white paper Applying the Principle of Least Privilege to User Accounts on Windows XP. Read the introduction if nothing else.

Since you already have a good administrator account (from Step 1), change the other accounts to regular users either from the User Accounts module (Start -> User Accounts) or from Users and Groups in Computer Management where you can easily remove users from the Administrators group and add them to the Users group.

And there are ways to gain administrator privileges without having to log off and log back on as an administrator -- inconvenient especially when you're working with other applications. In a future post we'll show how easy it is (using a simple batch file) to get the privileges you need whenever you need them without logging off.

Carnival of Profligate Personal Spending #1 is Up

O No: I have run through a veritable carnival of personal spending this week. Maybe the blogsphere needs another carnival---The Carnival of Profligate Personal Spending. This would be a motivating site sharing where and how I blew the money and let others comment on the flagrancy, vagrancy and reckless wanton spending.

This week I spent a pile of money on spring-summer clothing and shoes for Bo and then some.

Let's see where the money went:

LLBean Online Sale: (Bo is built like a bison and wears Tall-XXL, so LLBean & Eddie Bauer outlets are great places to find sales on non-average sizes.)
3 T-shirts
1 canvas button-down shirt
1 pair Chinos
Total $77.00 (with shipping charges)

Old Navy: (Looking for baggy cargo shorts)
Three pair shorts
1 sleeveless T-shirt
2 T-shirts (for me $10.50 ea.)*
2 T-shirts (for me $2.97 ea.)*
Total $74.00* not counting my t-shirts

Birkenstock Store
1 pair size 49 Arizonas
Total $100.00
(Again, it's tough to find any deals on shoes. Bo wears a 15-16, so it's impossible to find flip-flops or much on sale. There's nothing in his size usually, except online at Footlocker.)
Total Spent $251.00 on Bo

And the profligate confession part: I bought three pair of shoes and sandals for myself--an added expense of $135. Ah spring.

Watching Over the Money - Vigilant Online Banking

Do you remember life before debit cards? I was working at US Bank headquarters in the late 80's when debit cards were introduced and employees were the first pilot group to begin using them. Now I rarely write a check and use my debit card instead. Financial innovation never stops---especially when it comes to products and services to keep us spending our money.

Fast forward a few years and now I use online banking to transfer funds, monitor my accounts, and reconcile balances. One thing that has helped me feel more secure with my online accounts is setting up email alerts. Most online institutions have an option to set email alerts to you when certain events happen. For example, I set up my checking account to send an alert when an amount $100 or over is deducted from my account. The email provides pertinent details of the transaction--enough to confirm the transaction while not compromising security:

Transaction Date: 04/18/2006
The following transaction completed: Withdrawal greater than $100.00
Transaction Amount: $147.00

Similarly, I've set alerts on my credit card accounts to monitor my balances. Because the alerts are set to trigger within a credit limit range, I can know through email if a credit account has been compromised immediately, well before a statement arrives or I log in to the account. Using online banking alerts gives me an added measure of oversight and security that only takes a few moments to set up.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Oil Prices Up: Think Savings Beyond the Pump

With oil prices up, and fully expected to reach $80 per barrel soon, there's understandable concern about saving money at the pump. However, with oil prices skyrocketing, whether through speculation or actual production issues, there are other ways to save some money beyond the fill-up at the pump.

Simply put: all goods with a substantial transportation cost will go up in price.

For me, this means a few areas to save money besides combining trips and driving less. For example:

1. Stock up on coffee, if you're a fan, and put store it in the freezer. Unless you live in Sumatra or Central America, the price for a cup-o-Joe is only going up.

2. Find your local Farmer's Market and shop it for produce.

3. Grow your own "salad bowl" if you don't have a local Farmer's Market. Get a pack of mixed lettuce seeds and grow in a container. All lettuce needs is a light (not heat), water and drainage. Harvest individual leaves, not whole heads, and plant in succession.

4. Carefully consider the costs of shipping. Even if you're offered free shipping, compare prices for the product. Most companies will be building the cost of shipping increase into the product price.

5. Any good or service that relies on transportation will see prices go up: think about items you use in your daily life (Stoli's Vodka? It's Russian. It will cost more.) and whether there is a locally available substitute.

6. Group your trips to maximize on the gas expended. Defer single-purpose trips until they can be grouped.

Oil Prices: Shock & Awe

Robert Kiyosaki's "The Rich Get Richer" column today is "The Coming Oil Crisis" and it's a scary read. Robert's writing (and probably investing) style is one I'd characterize as "shock & awe" since he's essentially a counterpoint to conventional personal finance planners and investing advice. (Kiyosaki never recommends Vanguard Index 500 funds, for example, not by a long shot.) This is a two-part examination of rising oil prices and the impact on global economy. Here's the scariest except:

"If energy costs continue to rise and our economy stops growing and starts shrinking, many stocks will crash, older Americans will not be able to retire, inflation may skyrocket, businesses will close or cut back, and jobs will be lost. Not only will we be facing global warming, we'll be facing civilized chaos."

We'll have to wait until his next column to see what strategies he recommends for surfing the energy gap, if that's possible:

"In my next article, I'll go into what I'm doing to prepare for the gap, as well as why I believe the gap can't be avoided. In other words, it will not be 1973-1974, or stagflation, all over again. I believe it will be the end of civilization as we know it -- and possibly the birth of a brave new world."

Protecting your Investments: Lock the Virtual Doors

Online banking, shopping, and investing can make conducting monetary transactions incredibly convenient: Log in to your checking account. Transfer funds to savings and transfer another sum to your brokerage account; Log on to the brokerage account and execute a limit buy. When you're out there doing your money business on the internet, have you taken every precaution to ensure your account information and access to your computer is locked down? When you leave your home, do you lock the doors?

DD is writing a series here to help you take the steps necessary to protect your online investments: 5 Easy Steps to Ensure Your Computer Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy.

Steps 1 & 2 are up and 3-5 are coming soon:

Step 1: Change the Administrator Password
Step 2: Disable the Guest Account
Step 3: Don't Log on as Administrator group
Step 4: Secure your wireless network, if you have one.
Step 5: Encrypt your files.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Commodities are on Fire - Opinion on Oil

Today's Yahoo Finance poll about the future of oil and gold as red-hot and smoking commodities: today's poll question - what's next Oil or Gold?

Current Results:

Commodities have been on fire. What will we see next?

Oil at $80 a barrel - 50%
Gold at $700 an ounce - 25%
Neither - 26%

30161 Votes to date

Speculating in Bling: Gold and Silver

Gold and silver prices are amazing. I speculated in a few pieces last spring: 18k white gold sapphire ring bought at auction for $38 (informally appraised at over $800), gold chains ranging in the gram weight from 5-16 when gold was half the going price. Most of the pieces have been given as gifts, but the ring and a 16-gram 14k chain I'm still holding. I started wondering if it was time to consider cashing in.

Daniel Gross over at Slate.Com provides an overview of the rising prices of gold:

In other words, the eternal and largely immobile store of value is soaring, thanks to some newfangled trends in investment. Gold used to be incredibly valuable because it couldn't easily be destroyed and it was difficult to move vast quantities of it. Today, it's incredibly valuable—at least in the short term—because some of the fastest-moving cash in the world has decided that gold is the place to be, at least for now. When that cash decides gold isn't the place to be, the price may plunge faster than it rose.

Daniel Engber weighs in on my wondering whether it was time to sell the family silver or the jewelry pieces:
Casual consumers expect to pay a certain amount for a piece of jewelry. If the gold market forced jewelry prices higher, they'd stop buying. gas station owners aren't selling a luxury product that customers expect to buy at a certain price.

I think I'll keep holding for now.

Three Tiers of Discipline: Deciding How to Purchase

There are basically three ways to pay for ordinary purchases:

1. Cash only
2. Debit card (like cash)
3. Credit card ONLY if it's paid monthly and pays rewards

Each strategy carries with it some significant pros and cons:

Cash Only

Carrying cash and paying only in cash can be a double-edged sword. Some people are more likely to spend, because they have the money on hand; others are less likely, since they see the actual bills pass out of the wallet.

Debit Card

Like cash, except the debit card takes the payment directly out of checking. Again, this can help curtail excess spending by deducting the purchase from cash in a checking account, or make it less "real" than spending cash.

Credit Card

Paying by credit card is a bad idea unless the balance is paid monthly and the card carries valuable rewards for its use. I think the downside is evident here: the chance of interest charges if you can't pay, or a late payment fee if you're two hours late. My friend Dash pays for everything with a credit card: groceries, gas, and weekly lunch out. He pays the balance every month and racks up mileage points that upgrade his biannual trips home to Hawaii to business class. For him this system works and pays a tidy dividend.

The Discipline Factor

Each of the three payment methods corresponds to a degree of personal responsibility. Making all purchases with a credit card, like Dash does, requires a high degree of personal discipline and organization. Paying by cash or debit card require a bit less discipline than Dash's method, but both still require a disciplined tracking of expenses. As for me---it's far easier for me to use my debit card than part with cash. I'll swipe the card before I'll break the $20 bill. So along the continuum of discipline, there's less chance of me to overspend if I have to pay with the cold hard currency.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Carnival of Personal Finance #44 is Up

Carnival of Personal Finance #44 is hosted this week by Five Cent Nickel. Indie Mission posting this week features the 5 Rules for Shopping at Big-Box Stores.

Big-box stores like Costco can be big-time budget busters. Walking into a warehouse of merchandise and wandering around with an oversize shopping cart can lead to spending hundreds of dollars more than I intended when I walk out again. I've developed my own 5 rules for maximizing savings when I shop "Big -Box."

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 2: Disable the Guest Account

From Windows Help and Support -- "A guest account provides access to the computer for any user who does not have a user account on the computer."

Why would you want that? I can't think of any reason, especially if I have important information stored on my computer. And though a guest account has limited access (also from Windows Help and Support -- "Users who log on to the computer using the guest account do not have access to password-protected files, folders, and settings. "), any access is too much for my comfort level.

To disable the Guest account is very easy on Windows XP Pro.
  1. Login using an administrative account
  2. Start -> Control Panel -> User Accounts
  3. Click on Guest
  4. Click "Turn off the guest account"

Alternatively, you can find the account named Guest in the Computer Management module, select properties, then check the box for "Account is disabled".

Your computer is no longer available to anyone without a user account -- congratulations!

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 1: Change the Administrator Password

Why would you want to change the Administrator password? If your computer were to be compromised -- if it was lost, stolen, or hacked into, for example -- people could log into your computer using Administrator as the user and have free reign to do what they wish. Not a good thing.

The default password for the Administrator account when Windows XP Pro is initially setup is null, i.e., no password. Easy for someone to guess the name to use (Administrator) and the password (no password needed).

So there are two things to do here to help make your computer more secure -- change the name of the administrator account to something other than Administrator, and give that account a strong password. You will need to be logged-in with Administrator privileges to change these.
  1. Open the Computer Management module (Start -> Control Panel -> Administrative Tools -> Computer Management). If you have trouble opening the Computer Management module just go to Start -> Help and Support and search for Computer Management which will explain what else it is used for and how to get to it.
  2. Expand System Tools and then expand Local Users and Groups.
  3. Select Users.
  4. Locate the Administrator account (notice the description says "Built-in account for administering the computer/domain")
  5. Right click on the Administrator account and choose Rename. Name the account to something other than Administrator that would be hard to guess, such as "xAdmin%".
  6. After the account has been renamed, right click again and choose Set Password. You will be warned that some data might be lost -- you can click Help to see more information about what types of information are affected. Hopefully you don't log on as the user Administrator, so you shouldn't be affected (and if you are logged on as Administrator, you can still change the password from User Accounts in Control Panel). Change the password to a "strong" password. A strong password should be at least 8 characters long and contain a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and other symbols such as !@# etc.

You've just made your Windows XP Pro computer more difficult to break into. Might as well take the time to change your own password to a strong password while you're at it!

5 Easy Steps to Ensure Your Computer Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy

Computers are a great friend to have. We travel the internet, can do online banking and shopping, keep our checking accounts in line, manage our investments, and so on.

But what if our computers turned on us and gave away, or lost, all of our important data? Obviously that would be bad, but most of us haven't taken the simple steps necessary to keep that from happening.

Here are five steps to help you make your computer (and data and account numbers ) more secure, even if it's lost or stolen.
  1. Set the administrator password (using a strong password), and change the name Administrator to something other than Administrator.
  2. Disable the Guest user account.
  3. Do not log on to your computer as a member of the Administrator group -- it's rarely necessary and opens you up to serious exploitation.
  4. Secure your wireless network if you have one.
  5. Encrypt your files.

I'll be covering each of these steps over the next few days on how to do these on a Windows XP Pro machine. Sorry, if you're on a Mac, running a different version of Windows, etc., I may not be of much help -- but some of the steps may still apply to you and it would be worth the effort to find out what similar steps might be taken.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Better than Champagne and Cheaper Too

My sister is hosting brunch tomorrow and we're tasked with providing fruit salad and champagne. Bo and I ran errands in the sideways rain today, including collecting the fresh fruit and stopping at the wine warehouse.

Rather than buying the expen$ive brut champagne, we bought several bottles of an Italian sparkling wine that is light, fruity and irresistible: Zardetto Prosecco. It's the perfect flavor and balance for brunch and will complement the fruit salad---bella! Plus we saved $7 per bottle over the moderately priced brut (any other being out of the question.)

Raining Sideways - So Why are Electric Rates Going Up?

It's April 15th and it's raining sideways in the Pac NW. Pounding slashing rain is typical for January, but tomorrow is Easter and I don't foresee an egg hunt amongst all the puddles.

Today's high is mid-40's and snow is forecast in the Cascades.

This year our snow pack is 136% of normal. That promises plenty of hydropower flowing through the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)---those turbines must be cranking out megawatts. So why is it that our electric rates are going up 8% on the first of May?

Change Jars: His and Hers

His Change Jar
Our change jars aren't jars, they're bowls. They serve as general catch-alls for other small objects: single earrings, broken chains, small sea shells and fill up with pennies mostly. Quarters go into a genuine jar.

When the bowls fill up the coins get sorted out into separate jars based on denominations.

I gave DD a coin I found in a thrift shop to use for picking stocks: one side is imprinted with "Sell Sell Sell" and the other side is "Buy Buy Buy."

I put change in DD's bowl more often than mine because it's in our shared closet. Her Change Jar

Cost per Serving .72 Cents - Pantry Supper #1 - Zesty Vermicelli

I didn't stop at the grocery store yesterday because it's always a menagerie on Friday nights. I went out with a friend after work for a cocktail and then headed home.

Seventeen-year old boys have mighty appetites and Bo was looking for something for supper. He wanted to go out with friends and I wanted him to have something substantial if he was staying out late.

In a previous post, I claimed that 47 different meals can be made from a well-stocked pantry. Here I present Pantry Supper #1: Zesty Vermicelli (serves one voracious teen in 20 minutes--or two adults).

Zesty Vermicelli - Total Cost $1.45

4 oz Vermicelli (.25)
1 cup broccoli, chopped (.22)
1/2 cup chicken stock (.21)
2 tablespoons capers (.7)
2 tablespoons lemon juice (.3)
2 tablespoons olive oil (.11)
3-4 slices of pancetta or dry salami, slivered (.40)
Salt, pepper, oregano, red chili flakes (.05)
1 oz cream cheese (.11)

Boil vermicelli in salted water 5 minutes. Add chopped broccoli and continue cooking for 1-2 minutes. Drain well and return to pot.

While water is heating for the pasta, combine the remaining ingredients, except the cream cheese, in small sauce pan (I use the omelet pan) and warm on medium low heat until sauce simmers and flavors blend; stir occasionally. When adding broccoli to the pasta water, add the reserved cream cheese to the sauce and stir well until blended.

Add sauce to drained pasta and toss.

Bo enjoyed his zesty vermicelli and went out for the evening with friends.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Take Another Look at Bonds and Treasuries

Even though the market is closed for the day, interesting story over on The Street by Marc Lichtenfeld and two points stand out to me:

1. According to the 2006 Stock Trader's Almanac, $10,000 invested in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Nov. 1 and sold on April 30 of every year going back to 1950 would net the lucky investor nearly $490,000 for an average 7.9% return. Meanwhile, $10,000 invested and sold during the opposite time frame (May 1 to Oct. 31) would have lost the investor $502. So much for the idea that stocks always go up over the long term.

2. Regardless of the calendar, interest rates appear to be headed higher. John Roque, a technical analyst with Natexis Bleichroeder, expects the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to hit 6%. On Thursday, the benchmark note's yield rose above 5% for the first time since mid-2002, settling at 5.05%.

Maybe it's time to take another look at bonds and Treasuries....

Online Shopping: Preventing Temptation

Most online retailers already signed you up to receive their free email newsletters by default when you checkout. There's usually a little box on the checkout page that asks if you'd like to receive news of special offers and mailings. Unless you notice and uncheck the box, you're on the mailing list.

I'm on a few of them: Amazon, Eddie Bauer, REI. While it's interesting to get notice of a new hardcover release, these emails are temptation marketing. Sure, I click on the link and go browse. But unless the offer is something astounding (free shipping, take an additional 30% off, etc.) and I'm already in the market for these items, it's a distracting temptation.

This morning I had two retailer emails and I went out browsing both. I even had added two items to my shopping cart. Then I realized I was buying on impulse and no markdown would compensate for spending money on something I didn't even need and bailed out. Close window. Delete the email.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Five Principles of Kitchen Management

My mother was a fabulous cook; my grandparents ran a popular restaurant for many years and they passed along some secrets of creating great meals at the best price per serving. Unfortunately, Mom was such a great cook that I never learned much growing up except how to do the menial meal preparation: washing and chopping vegetables or stirring constantly. Once out on my own I started to realize how managing a kitchen is an art unto itself and learned all I could from my Mother.

Here are Mom's Five Principles of Kitchen Management:

1. Get real.

Only you know what you and the family like and want to eat. While it's good to try new things, be realistic about the meals you prepare. Are you really going to cook & eat that bag of rutabagas? Your basic food items should be things you know you enjoy and feel comfortable preparing. When you want to experiment, start small. If you've never cooked an artichoke, start with one and not a dozen.

2. Buy in Bulk or Sale.

Buy your basic food items in bulk or on sale. Marked down meat can go into the freezer. Pasta on sale keeps nearly indefinitely. One of the best bulk buys you can make is on spices and seasonings. For example, a small jar of oregano costs over $2.00. I bought the same amount for .37 cents. Loose tea made with an infuser rather than individual tea bags is also very economical. Wash and save glass jars to label and refill. This is also a good environmental practice.

3. Watch the Bulk Per-Pound Price.

Bulk buys are not always the better buy. Compare per-pound prices. True story: I was shopping for orzo pasta. I found the bulk bin and checked the price: $1.19 per pound. However, on the shelf nearby was the packaged orzo and it was selling for .99 cents per pound.

4. Stock the Pantry with Basics.

Stock the pantry with basic food items. This is not only economical, but good practice to be prepared in case of emergency. I could probably make about 47 meals with the basics in the cupboard and freezers. I'll put up a separate post about what I use as "basics." Essentially: grains, pasta, rice, oil, tomato paste, garlic, frozen spinach and peas, cheese, tuna, evaporated milk, etc. Buy perishable items like fruit and vegetables once per week.

5. Daily inventory to Prevent Waste.

Take a peak in the refrigerator, fruit bowl and cupboard once a day, usually in the morning. This takes only 30 seconds. Check what needs to be used soon and what can wait. Plan meals around the foods that need to be used. Even if the celery is wilted and the carrots are sighing, they can be made into vegetable stock. Take the leftovers for lunch. Grate that last drying chip of cheddar onto the meatloaf. Wasting the food you bought is the single most expensive thing you can do in the kitchen. According to the Food Waste Municipal Solid Waste site, 183.9 pounds of food per person are wasted each year:

"The USDA estimates that higher percentages of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and grain products are thrown away, while lower percentages of meat, dried beans, nuts and processed foods are disposed of."

5 Rules for Buying at the Big-Box Stores

Big-box stores like Costco can be big-time budget busters. Walking into a warehouse of merchandise and wandering around with an oversize shopping cart can lead to spending hundreds of dollars more than I intended when I walk out again. I've developed my own 5 rules for maximizing savings when I shop "Big -Box."

1. Have a plan and a list.

I've already checked the pantry and know what's running low and what we need. Stay with the list. The list is the lifeboat.

2. Maximize the trip.

Because I travel across town to shop Big-Box, I also fill-up the car at the Big-Box gas station which typically charges 10-20 cents per gallon less than my local gas station. I also plan to visit any other specialty stores (the Battery Store, the Dollar store, etc.) in the area on the same trip.

3. Make a mental map of my route through the store and do not deviate from it.

This rule is to avoid the wandering that leads to buying things I didn't even know I needed: DVDs, fleece vests, small household appliances (or big household items), seasonal specials (these are usually at the front---run, do not walk, past them) or two-gallon barrels of cheese-flavored popcorn.

4. Buy in bulk when the unit price is less and stockpile.

This is the big rule for getting actual savings on items rather than just a bigger box: larger sizes do not always mean lower prices.

Some items I generally find worthwhile to buy based on unit price:

Toilet paper
Paper towels
Bottled water
Chicken stock
Cat Litter
Cat Food
Soy milk
Soy Sauce

Generally not worthwhile compared to weekly sales:

Meat--check the weekly sales flyer for the grocery stores instead
Shampoo and personal care products
Convenience foods (see Rule #5 below)

5. Do not buy convenience foods. Not in a Big-Box or anywhere else, unless you're traveling.

Convenience foods are much more expensive than making the same thing yourself. (OK, I buy tortilla chips and Wheat Thins. I don't want to make them myself.) You don't need a case of small box mixes of seasoned rice for a side dishes. You don't. Buy the 25-lb sack of rice and cook it with chicken stock and seasonings. You don't need a case of cookies, buy the flour, butter and chips instead and make a big batch of cookie dough. Freeze it. When you buy Noodle-Helper, you are trading money for time and a colorful package. Slice it, season it, mix it, and cook it yourself.

There's lots of info on the web about clipping coupons, shopping sales and frugal shopping and meal preparation. These are my own guidelines for getting myself in and out of the Big-Box without blowing the budget. Bankrate has a supermarket shopping quiz if you're interested in testing yourself.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Your Soup-in-a-Bread-Bowl Instruction Manual

Your Soup-in-a-Bread-Bowl Instruction Manual
This is not just soup.
This is fun-food because you get to make a bread bowl like carving a pumpkin.
Although don't cut all the way through if you decide to make eyes, nose and mouth: the soup will leak out. Duh.
1. Heat up the soup if it's cold. I don't know if it will be, but I bet you have a microwave.
2. Fire up the oven to 350-degrees.
3. Get out a baking sheet.
4. Buy one small round loaf for each person. Take the bread out of the plastic bag. (Am I getting a bit detailed here? It's probably from a career in tech where if we don't document every step then someone calls the Help Desk and says "It didn't say to take the bread out of the plastic bag." I'll try to catch the big steps from here on out.)
5. Cut the top off the bread loaves angling the knife into the center of the loaf. Yeah, like a pumpkin. You want to end up with the tops being sort of cones.
6. Butter the tops, if desired or sprinkle some olive oil on them and oregano. Or just leave them plain. Whatever.
7. Put the bowls and the tops on the baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes.
8. When the bowls come out of the oven, sort of scrunch down the bread in the bottom of the bowl (to make more room for soup.)
9. Fill with soup.
10. Eat and refill, as desired. The tops are tasty too.

Healthy, Quick & Cheap Supper Dish: Farmer's Market Fare

Our local farmer's market is twice a week: Tuesdays and Saturdays. It's only a few blocks from my office, so I pick up seasonal produce on Tuesdays for the week at lunch time and stash it in the shared kitchen area until I leave. Supper last night was a simple one-pan dish that was healthy and tasty while still being easy and inexpensive to prepare---see the recipe below.

Coincidentally, over at Personal Financial Advice today's tip is about shopping the local farmer's market with some good points to get the most value from the market. I would add that it pays to be knowledgeable about seasonal "peak" produce to get the best buys. Some produce is grown in greenhouses (like basil) and still expensive because it's not at peak season. In our market now, red new potatoes, broccoli, onions, asparagus, spinach, lettuce and other greens are hitting stride and are good buys.

One-Pan Farmer's Market Supper

1 lb. red new potatoes, scrubbed, trimmed and halved
1 large broccoli crown, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 lb. asparagus, spears snapped into 2-inch lengths
1 red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
1 bunch Swiss chard, with stems removed cut into strips
Optional: 1/2 lb. Linguica, chorizo, or other spicy sausage cut into rounds
Olive Oil
Salt, Pepper, Oregano
Balsamic Vinegar

Combine veggies and sausage (optional) in roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and oregano. Stir to mix. Bake at 350-degree oven for one hour, stirring every twenty minutes. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and continue roasting for ten minutes to finish. Remove and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sex & Money - It's in the Stars

My friend, Caitlin, is an astrologer. Showing her this blog, led her to remark: "Do you know that sex and money, and death actually, are all contained in the eighth house?"

I didn't know.

Caitlin went on to explain that the eighth house of a horoscope is that aspect of life/personality/fate/psyche/what-have-you that rules sexual relations, money that is shared (as in inheritance, interest and loans, windfalls---as opposed to money that is earned) and death. The stock market is irrational, obviously. Maybe this theory of the stars explains something that logic doesn't. There's a web site that features a weekly star-stock market forecast called Market Week on StarIQ.

I questioned why the three would be grouped together. The best answer I can summarize is this:

Each of these three experiences represent a deep-seated resource related with survival (or experience of passing from survival.) I don't quite understand it, but Caitlin has promised to start an "Eighth House Blog" that might give more insight.

Fidelity Currently Pays 4.4% Sweep Fund

The sweep (or core) account in a Fidelity IRA is a money market mutual fund called the Fidelity Cash Reserves Fund. The current 7-day average yield on that fund is 4.40%.

E*Trade Sweep Account Rates

E*Trade apparently offers sweep account options on regular accounts and IRA accounts, but they're not paying much on either:

APY .5% on a balance of $5,000 - $49,999
APY .8% on a balance of $50,000 - $99,999

Sweep Account Rates---Find out What Ameritrade Pays!

Check the Sweep Account Rate
Consolidating my last errant Roth IRA account and writing the last post about brokerage sweep accounts got me thinking about investigating just what Ameritrade was paying these days. (A sweep account is a brokerage account whose cash balance is automatically transferred into an interest-bearing investment, such as a money market fund. )

It didn't matter much until now, because I only had .89 cents in as cash. After redeeming the MetLife CD and adding it to my brokerage Roth, I'll have more cash waiting to be swept while I research my next investments.

I crawled all over Ameritrade's site, but they're not revealing their rate easily. I had to resort to online chat. Here's the transcript (I'm Tessa):

Please wait for a site operator to respond.
You are now chatting with 'Becky'
Becky: Hello. How may I assist you?
Tessa: Hi Becky - I'm thinking about opening my Roth with Ameritrade. Can you tell me your sweep account rates?
Becky: The current Primary Class Money Market rate is 3.72%.
Tessa: Is that the default option? Are there other options?
Becky: Our money markets are offered to our clients through the Reserve and if you would like to check on the additional money markets they offer you may go to
Tessa: So all the ones at are options for a sweep account?
Becky: That is correct.
Tessa: Ok, thank you so much for the assistance!
Becky: There are about 17 different money markets that the Reserve offers to our clients.
Becky: Thank you for choosing Ameritrade. Have a great day

Not too bad, but don't want to leave the cash too long. Next, I"ll investigate the options at The Reserve.

Ameritrade seems to only offer sweep accounts on their IRAs:

IRA clients can choose to automatically transfer money between an Ameritrade brokerage account and a dividend-earning money market fund, also called a "sweep account." Money market accounts are held by The Reserve Funds and are separate from an Ameritrade account.
Each day, after trades are settled, cash is automatically moved into the money market fund you choose during the enrollment process. Cash is also automatically transferred back into your Ameritrade account to cover brokerage transactions
Cash balances can be swept into Money Market Funds
Also took a look at some other information about sweep accounts:
From Bankrate: What to look for in a sweep account

Yields and fees are important criteria in selecting a sweep account.
Robert McLeod, a finance professor at the University of Alabama, says if the prospectus makes your eyes glaze over, shop for the money market fund on a fee basis. Ask what the net yield is because it encompasses fees. Money market funds are mutual funds and are not backed by the FDIC. Nevertheless, they're usually very safe.

"The yield isn't guaranteed, it's definitely a floating rate. But you can look at it from a point of time comparison. Look at the options available today and the current quoted rate. Or, you can look at the average return over the last year. It can give you a feel for how they're doing."
Yields among money market funds can vary widely -- from as low as 3 percent to about 6.5 percent. Lee says the rate will be determined by a couple of things: fees and how aggressively the fund is managed.

Consolidating Roth IRA - One Last Move

I've got one lone Roth IRA account to lasso and round-up into the Ameritrade corral and I'll be fully consolidated. This account is in a 12-month CD at MetLife Bank earning a bit better than 4.00%. A couple logistics to be aware of when redeeming a CD and transferring into a brokerage account:

1. CD Timing: there is a grace period on redemption, usually 10-30 days before the CD is reinvested for a similar term at the going rate.

2. Transfer Timing: there is a minimum period of time the brokerage needs to make the external transfer. In my case, Ameritrade needs 21 days.

3. Narrow the timing to eliminate lost interest: target the redemption date with the transfer window.

4. Ameritrade's Money Market sweep account should close the gap if my timing is close on the APY of the CD. That will give me a little more time to decide how I'll invest the cash from the redeemed CD.

In my case, the CD matures on May 6th. I've got the paperwork completed and need to enclose a copy of my latest CD statement. I'll read it over one more time to make sure I've crossed all my T's. I don't want it sent back to start over and miss the CD redemption window.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Spendy $ocial Events (aka How to Make your own Hummus Dip)

Bo goes out to coffee several times a day with his friends and most of his spending money goes the way of a double latte with a shot of hazelnut. He's spending about $5.00 a day, if he has it, meeting friends and drinking coffee. Would it be cheaper to switch to regular coffee? Americano?

This got me thinking about the balance between enjoyable social events and not blowing the budget. I suspect the trick here is good planning and being able to stick to the plan.
We hosted two events this past weekend: a dinner for DD's brother who came into town Friday and stayed with us a couple nights and a cocktail/tapas party for friends and family to meet his brother on Saturday night.

We didn't plan dinner on Friday, and didn't prepare anything. At the spur of the moment we switched from the brew pub venue to the nouveau Northwest cuisine eatery, and picked up the tab for six----whoa. There went the monthly grocery budget: over $300. I was kicking myself for not planning ahead. I could have just bought a few Dungeness crabs, some great bread and salad fixings and eating at our house would have saved us a bundle.

On Saturday I did a little more planning: roasted spring veggies, assorted cheeses, breads, olives and homemade hummus. Everyone grazed and munched and the whole menu (with drinks) was under $42.00---this for eleven people. I packed up leftovers for us and our guests.
Because folks were arriving while I was still diddling in the kitchen making hummus, several guests came to learn how it's done. This is one dip that you should never spend $2.50/cup when you can make it so easily and cheaply.

Homemade Hummus Dip
Two Cans Garbanzo Beans (Chickpeas) Drained
1/4 cup Tahini (sesame seed paste or use olive oil)
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Garlic
Salt & Pepper to taste
Paprika as garnish
Combine all the ingredients and pulse in a blender or food processor. Check and adjust seasonings. Scrape into a bowl and garnish with paprika.

Easter Eggs using Natural Dyes from the Kitchen

Easter is reckoned as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox? Passover coincides with the full moon after the spring equinox. Both holidays are calculated from the full moon. (Orthodox Easter is calculated a bit differently.)
The first full moon after the equinox marks a spring festival occasion with new growth and life for many cultures and traditions. Chocolate bunnies, baby chicks ("peeps") and colored eggs are symbols of the season---and Bo still likes coloring eggs.

A fun article about creating natural dyes using materials from the kitchen is up over at Dollar Stretcher

Here are the suggested materials for creating dyes; the article describes the dying method:

Pale Red: Fresh beets or cranberries, frozen raspberries
Orange: Yellow onion skins
Light yellow: Orange or lemon peels, carrot tops, celery seed or ground cumin
Yellow: Ground turmeric
Pale green: Spinach leaves
Green-gold: Yellow Delicious apple peels
Blue: Canned blueberries or red cabbage leaves
Beige to brown: Strong brewed coffee

Panhandler Post in this Week's Carnival of Personal Finance

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance is out promptly Monday morning at ; Indie Mission post considering when to give money to panhandlers is included.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Try Getting it for Free First: Freecycle Network

Looking for a twin mattress, fence posts, or a cider press? Before you run out and buy it new, take advantage of the Freecycle Network and find someone who's giving the item away. The network allows only gifts, barter or trade. If you're looking to get rid of the old kitchen sink, you can use the service to find someone who will take if off your hands.

Here are the details from the site:

The Freecycle Network™ is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's good people). Membership is free. To sign up, find your community by clicking on the region on the left. You may then go directly to your local group by clicking on "Go To" or you may immediately joining by clicking on "Join." It will generate an automatic e-mail which, when sent, will sign you up for the local group and send you a response with instructions on how it works. Can't find a group near you? You might want to consider starting one (click on "Start a Group" for instructions). Have fun!

The Freecycle Network was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson's downtown and help save desert landscape from being taken over by landfills. The Network provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to "recycle" unwanted items. One person's trash can truly be another's treasure!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Online Loan Auctions?

I was checking out the online loan auction site, Prosper, and noticed how many of the potential borrowers were seeking loans to "get out of debt." That struck me as quite the paradox. Oxymoron? Many of the postings were seeking loans to pay off high-interest credit card debt, but because of their credit rating, were still in the 20+% interest range.

Reading some of the loan requests is a true motivator for maintaining a healthy emergency fund, diligently saving, and spending carefully. Lenders bid on providing the loans. I don't know what I think about this whole thing yet but it's oddly mesmerizing.

On the site today were 711 listings found with credit grade at least HR (high risk) including borrowers with no credit including high debt/income (>20%). Some examples of borrower postings (no edits from me):

"1. Please help. I have 2 tax leins on my credit report thats driving down my scores. I need to take care of this. I am on a payment plan with IRS but the interest rate and penalty rate are horrible. Please help me get this burden off my back. Help me get my good credit back.

2. I'm very excited about the possibilities offered by this great website and the Borrowers allowing this idea work. In the last 8 months, I not only have gotten married but also started a real estate business that is just starting to move forward. These events were both a blessing but also caused me to accumulate a large amount of debt on credit cards that have unfavorable interest rates. I am very fortunate to have a steady day job which pays great, and is also helpful in relieving this uncomfortable situation. I take this plea for a loan very seriously while realizing that it is my credit life preserver. My goal is to pay off all my high interest credit cards with the loans provided by your services. Once my loan is approved, I look forward to aggressively paying back the loan while getting my credit score back on track.

3. Taylor, my 7 month old daughter, is asking you to Lend me some money to fix up my rental property. The tenant failed to pay rent for 6 months, stole the refridgerator, and trashed the place.I am married, live in Orange County, CA, and work in the real estate and mortgage industry. I am looking for some quick money to fix my property so I can put it on the market for sale.Here are repairs needed.-New Interior Paint-New Carpet and Tile for floors-Exterior LandscapingMy credit score is a 625. In the mortgage and real estate world, this 625 is sufficient to obtain 100% financing for the purchase of a new home. My score has dropped 50 points becuase I used a BankAmerica credit card, and recently purchased a new car and vaction home. I have NO late payments, and NO Bankruptcies or other defaults on any loans.My reason for Prosper is simple.I need money now.I dont want to use my own money to repair the property.I am trying out the system so I might refer friends, family, and colleagues in the future.The rate is not really an issue as the difference in payment between 10% and 25% is only 150 bucks a month."

From the Prosper site:
How it Works - Borrowing money through Prosper is fast and easy, and because you're borrowing from people, the rates may be lower than you'd expect!
1. Register with Prosper
Registration is quick and easy. And free!
2. Join a Group
Build lender trust by joining a trusted group.
3. Create a Loan Listing
Say how much you want to borrow, and what your maximum interest rate is.
4. Watch the Bidding
Lenders start bidding immediately - watch the funding go up and the interest rate come down!
5. You Win!
If your terms are met, your loan will be funded directly to your bank account.
6. Easy monthly payments
Your monthly loan payments are withdrawn automatically from your bank account.

Buying Points: Prepaid Interest is Tax Deductible

The points we paid on our mortgage loan last year cost $3200. Paying the same points now would cost $10,000!

When you buy a home, you might pay points (discount points) to the lender to lower the overall interest rate on the mortgage. Since these points are considered pre-payment of the interest on your mortgage, they are tax-deductible: since a home loan typically includes 1 to 3 points, this can add up to a sizeable tax deduction. It helped us a lot on our taxes this year.

However, when deciding whether or not to pay points a loan, you'll need to calculate the "break even" point during the life of the loan. As a general rule of thumb, the longer you own the property and the loan, the greater the benefit of paying points up-front.

We were also able to deduct some of our closing costs. Closing costs can add up to a chunk of change: title insurance, escrow, attorney fees, processing fees, every one seems to get a cut. They include all kinds of costs for processing your loan and transferring property ownership. Check the closing statement carefully and question any and all line items: for example why and what are the courier fees if the documents were transferred electronically?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

When do you Give $$$ to Panhandlers?

Working downtown, I get asked for money a lot--panhandled. I don't know a better word than "begging" although the connotations conjure someone in rags pleading for a few scraps of food. Some requests for money are assertive to point of aggression. Most well-traveled street corners have people stationed with hand-lettered cardboard signs that request money. When do you hand over the spare change, the dollar, the five, or more?

I have a few personal guidelines that I've never taken the time to formalize, but thought I'd share those and get others' thoughts.

When I don't give:

1. Remember the "regulars" and don't play: if they still haven't gotten that money together for a gallon of gas to get home, another buck isn't going to do it either.

2. Kids with really nice sport shoes (new Nikes or New Balance.) If they really needed money for the bus, they'd use that sweet little Samsung camera phone to call home. They're doing it as a hobby or a social event.

3. People with cardboard signs. They're frequently #1 regulars but there are exceptions.

When I consider it:

1. Hungry, dirty and tired. My town gets lots of kids coming through in the summer with big backpacks and not enough funds for the festival routes in the West. I've bought 10 tacos for a couple and sometimes give money.

2. It might just be an unexpected angel: there's just something that makes you want to help.

When I give:

1. Every payday money is deducted from my check to support my local community charities. Although I give regularly to other causes, this is my way of making sure that if I passed someone up in error, there is some sort of safety net.

2. I organize a food drive every fall at work. This year we finished up in early December in time for the holiday rush at the local food bank. This years' food and cash donations equaled about seven tons of food.

3. Street Performers: If someone wants to put out a hat and play the saxaphone, I'll drop a coin in.

Cashing in Dividends: Free $$$$

I'm a member of REI, an outdoor equipment store, that has brick-n-mortar stores as well as online shopping.

The benefits of being a member?

"While non-members are welcome to shop at REI, only members enjoy special benefits, including an annual member refund on eligible purchases. REI's business success allowed the co-op to return member refunds to its active members in 2005 totaling more than $50 million, and provide $2.5 million in donations in support of the outdoors and outdoor recreation. "

Every year you receive a dividend and I usually spend mine at their spring sale (20% off the price of one item) to buy my brother's birthday present. I was able to get him a great hemp shirt with bamboo buttons (sustainable but practical for an engineer who's outside a lot) as well as a gift card for some cycling items. Using my dividend was more free money!

Also, they're a great place to work (from what I hear). They've been one of the top 100 companies to work for each of the past nine years. So if you're looking for hourly retail check out REI.

Options in Health Care: An Expensive Horizon

Two news stories today take on the issue of paying for health care.

President Bush talked about Health Savings Accounts (HSA) today in Bridgeport, Connecticut, so you can expect to keep hearing more about this option:

"I urge the Congress to look at ways to strengthen health savings accounts," Bush said in a state with 400,000 residents who have no health insurance. "I'm looking forward to continuing to have a consumer-driven system to be the heart of American health care," he said.

HSA are useful by allowing pre-tax dollars to meet your deductible before your insurance coverage kicks in. Even cough drops and over-the-counter pain medications may qualify for reimbursement. However, I take some exception with the idea that a "consumer-driven system" of health care will somehow solve the problems of insuring more Americans and keeping costs down. Health care is not equivalent to buying a winter coat, shopping around until you find the best fit and cost.

Last week we were in urgent care three times for Bo's serious ankle infection. On the first visit, the doctor wanted an x-ray to determine whether there was a fracture. I confess: I didn't ask how much the x-ray would cost, if there was a discount coupon, or whether the emergency room across town might have a lower price. By price comparison, would we have driven around town on a Sunday looking for low-cost x-rays? I don't think so. Consumer-driven health care might work for more elective or optional treatment, not for the reasons that drive you to Urgent Care on weekends or evenings.

Contrast with today's story about the State of Massachusetts: Lawmakers have approved a sweeping health care reform package that dramatically expands coverage for the state's uninsured, a bill that backers hope will become a model for the rest of the nation. The plan would use a combination of financial incentives and penalties to expand access to health care over the next three years and extend coverage to the state's estimated 500,000 uninsured.