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.