Friday, June 30, 2006

Baked in Lessons: My son's cake

Do you ever wonder if lessons on saving and spending penetrate the Gameboy heads of your kids? I do. But last night, I spotted major progress.

My middle son (age 11) is the big spender in the family. He loves to spend cash. He babysits for families in our apt. building and then poof...the dollars disappear. But to celebrate the birthday of one of his little charges, my son baked a cake. A store cake would have cost about $15 in our neighborhood. But the box mix and the fancy icing cost only about 4 bucks.

And for the candles, my son wanted to a fancy number 7 candle ($4) and a set of sparkle candles ($4). He was a bit miffed at the high rates for candles. So he walked over to the ice cream aisle, where similar candles (a big, rainbox-colored 7 and a box of tall, sparklers)were on sale for only 79 cents each.

The cheaper set looked slightly different than the expensive set, but my son was sold. My husband has this to say about the cheaper candles relative to the expensive version:

"They looked different, but they didn't look worse," he said of the cheaper set.

What's more, after returning from the supermarket, my son proudly boasted about his savings. His smile was as bright as the candles.

Here's the math:

expensive option

store cake: $15
7 candle $ 4
sparkle candles $ 4

total $29

My son's cheaper option
baked cake $4
7 candle $0.79
sparkle candles $0.79

total $5.58

"Smart! Aren't I?!?" my son said, when I checked this entry with him.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Veronica Mars Star & Homebuying Tips for "Dummies"

Kristen Bell, star of the television hit show Veronica Mars, has a great quote about homebuying and money in the July 2006 issue of For Me magazine.

Here's the question from For Me:

"What did you splurge on with your first big pay check?"

"Nothing. I saved and bought a house!"
--Kristen Bell.

And for the rest of would-be homebuyers, here are tips from Eric Tyson, financial counselor/real estate guru/bestselling co-author of Home Buying For Dummies®, 3rd Edition (with Ray Brown; Wiley, 2006, ISBN: 0-4717-6847-2, $21.99), House Selling For Dummies®, 2nd Edition (with Ray Brown; Wiley, ISBN: 0-7645-5425-5, $21.99) and Real Estate Investing For Dummies®.


· First, be sure you really want to buy and aren't succumbing to peer pressure. If you're a relatively young renter, you may have the impression that home ownership is the "grown up" choice. Nonsense, says Tyson. Buying a home is a personal choice and it isn't necessarily the path to fun. In fact, as he and his co-author point out in Home Buying For Dummies, a study by Peter Rossi and Eleanor Weber of the University of Massachusetts found that:
- Homeowners are less social, on average, than renters--spending less time with friends, neighbors, and co-workers
- Homeowners spend more time on household chores
- Perhaps for the preceding reasons, renters have more sex and less marital discord, and cope better with parenting than homeowners do!
"None of this is meant to suggest that you shouldn't buy a home," Tyson points out. "But do consider the impact that the increased responsibility will have on your lifestyle."

· On the other hand, don't underestimate the financial benefits of homeownership. For most people, owning actually is less expensive than renting. Obviously, there are tax benefits. The IRS and most state governments allow you to deduct, within certain limits, mortgage interest and property taxes when you file your annual income tax return. And generally speaking, the value of a home appreciates as the years go by, turning your home into a "forced savings account" that you'll be glad for in the future.

Here's a guideline that may change the way you view your seemingly cheap monthly rent. To figure out the price of a home you could buy for approximately the same monthly cost of your current rent, simply do the following calculation:

$________ per month x 200 = $ ______________
Example: $1,000 x 200 = $200,000

See? If you are paying rent of $1,000 per month, you would pay approximately the same amount per month to own a $200,000 home (factoring in tax savings.)

· Don't let "lock out" fears rush you into buying. From time to time, particular local real estate markets experience rapidly escalating prices. During such times, some prospective buyers panic, often with encouragement from those with vested interests in converting prospective renters to buyers. Escalating housing prices make some renters feel left out of the party. But here's a word of sanity: never in the history of the real estate business have prices risen so high as to price vast numbers of people out of the market. In fact, patient buyers who can wait out a market that has increased sharply in value are often rewarded with steadying and, in some cases, declining prices.


· Make sure selling is right for you holistically, not just monetarily. Don't let a "hot housing market" cloud your judgment. If you were lucky enough to buy a nice house in a thriving market ten years ago, the temptation to sell and clear a tidy profit can be huge. But because you can sell doesn't mean you should. Do you really want to uproot your kids from school? Are you ready to break ties with the neighbors you've come to know and like? Are you likely to fall into the trap of choosing a trade up that's too "up" for your budget and bank account? Consider all angles before you make your decision.

"Nothing's wrong with spending money to trade in one house for another, but before you set those wheels in motion, think about the impact of that kind of spending on other aspects of your life," Tyson and his co-author Ray Brown write in House Selling For Dummies. "The more you spend on housing, the less you'll have for other goals that you may have defined for yourself, such as saving for retirement, taking annual vacations, and spending less time working and more time with your family and friends."

· If you do decide to sell, don't get greedy and grossly overprice your house. You may be tempted to do so in hopes that an uneducated buyer may pay you more than the property is really worth. The danger in this strategy is that you won't find a fool who will part with all that money for your overpriced property, and no one else will bid on it. Then, as you lower the price closer to what the house is really worth, prospective buyers may be wary of buying your property because of the extended length of time it's been on the market. In the end, you may have a hard time getting 100 percent of what your home is really worth. Price to sell and you won't regret it.

· Finally, don't you become the aforementioned fool who buys an overpriced trade-up. "Some housing markets are over-inflated at the moment," says Tyson. "And many people who successfully sell an overpriced house assume that they can trade up in the same or an equally hot market and repeat their success in a few years. It ain't necessarily so. Suppose prices fall and you can't recoup your investment? You might be stuck with a house you can't afford to sell. Add a job loss or a new baby to the mix and you might end up with some serious buyer's regret."

The bottom line, of course, is to be sure that any house you buy--be it your first or your fifth--is priced at what it's really worth. Assemble an all-star real estate team and get a good Comparable Market Analysis (CMA) on any house you're considering buying so you'll know the fair market value. And oh, yes: don't just take your agent's word for it. Read up on the "value" subject yourself. (Tyson's books are a great resource.)

"An educated home buyer is a happy home buyer," concludes Tyson. "Do your own due diligence. I always say there are two areas you should never enter into uninformed: medical procedures and real estate. The former represents your health, the latter represents, in many ways, your wealth and your happiness. Do your homework, no pun intended. Bubble or no bubble, you'll be glad you did."

# # #

"About Eric Tyson:

Eric Tyson is one of the nation's best-selling personal finance book authors and has penned five national best sellers (he is also the only author to have four of his books simultaneously on Business Week's business book best-seller list). His Personal Finance for Dummies (Wiley) won the Benjamin Franklin Award for the Best Business Book of the Year. He is also the author of Investing for Dummies and co-author of Home Buying for Dummies and Real Estate Investing for Dummies, among other titles.

His new book, Mind over Money (CDS/Perseus), examines the problematic financial habits people engage in and provides proven strategies for overcoming them.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Free Summer Theater Movies for Families

Movie theaters are a source of cool and frugal entertainment during the summer. That's because major national chains are offering free showings of hit family movies either weekly or twice a week.

Regal Cinema is hosting the 2006 Free Family Film Festival on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings through the first week of August at various theaters throughout the country. On June 21, AMC kicked off its free Summer MovieCamp with blockbuster G- and PG-rated Hollywood movies at 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday at select AMC theaters in many markets.

The first movie on the AMC schedule was Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story on Wednesday, followed by Shark Tale, an animated movie featuring the voices of Will Smith and Angelina Jolie, on June 28. The AMC Summer MovieCamp also includes The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Madagascar and March of the Penguins. The AMC program concludes on Aug. 9. For more information, go to

Regal Cinema's Free Family Film Festival began June 6 and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at many theatres in different regions of the U.S.

Movies include Madagascar, Wallace & Gromit and Robots, although each theater features a different lineup of kid-friendly hit movies. It's best to call your local Regal/Crown Cinema for times and titles or check the company website at:

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Scruffy: Our Life & Money Coach

A new lifestyle guru has moved into my home with lessons on money management, organization and recycling. Our home-school lessons begin every morning at 6:45 when our teacher -- a puppy named Scruffy -- barks his first commands. Life with Scruffy has been a life-altering experience.

Since adopting Scruffy from a private animal rescue program, my home life has jumped to the next level in terms of planning, spending and saving. The choice was simple: We could either be overrun by our dog, or we could pick up our pace.

Here is a quick overview of the lessons I've learned about adopting a pet and dealing with a puppy.

• Ask questions; get specific answers. We adopted Scruffy from a wonderful organization that was passionately devoted to Scruffy and his five siblings. Naively, my family assumed that the adoption was a free or minimal-fee service. However, on the day that we picked up our dog, we faced a surprise bill of $200 for the adoption, medical shots and other valuable services. The fee was reasonable considering what the vet bills might have been. But if we had asked more questions from the outset, writing the check would have been easier.

(Cat lovers, who go through the Humane Society of Broward County, for example, pay $70 in adoption fees for a cat and $40 for adopting a second cat or kitten at the same time. The fee includes spaying/neutering, pet behavior consultation, vaccinations, de-worming and other medical procedures.)

• Recycle. Forget the expensive pooper scoopers and other gadgets. Plastic bags are great for protecting your hands while cleaning up after a pet. It's a great use for discarded bags. Old tennis balls and puppy-friendly stuffed animals can be rejuvenated as great chew toys for dogs.

• Guard your valuables. Shoes, eyeglasses and books are expensive chew toys. Through costly missteps, my family -- especially the kids -- has learned painful lessons about disorganization. A few weeks ago, my daughter brought a chewed-up homework assignment to show her second-grade teacher. ''The dog really did eat my homework,'' my daughter said.

• Consider dollar stores. My husband has found some wonderful pet items at a dollar store. While some upscale pet boutiques sell doggie shampoos/conditioners for $20 and up a bottle, my husband found effective -- and sweet smelling -- dog grooming products for $1 each. The dollar store is also a frugal option for collars, leashes and bowls. We've even found a red-dot laser tag game for my dog for one buck, down from $7-$10 at a local pet boutique.

• Know Your Limits. We purchased clippers for our puppy's long dark nails. But after one nail-trimming attempt, we decided to pay the dog groomer for that service. (We found a $5 puppy pedicure deal). No harm was done to the puppy. But clipping his nails was too painful for us.

Finally, the biggest lesson involves organization. Scruffy is at his best when we provide a well-structured day, with clearly defined times for meals, walk and play. Our puppy is a great teacher.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bartering for Goods and Services

When the dot-com bubble popped several years ago, Jessica Hardwick's life changed dramatically. Her Internet consulting business dried up and Hardwick had trouble paying household bills.

When her cat became sick, Hardwick could not afford the costly vet bills. Then she noticed that the vet was baffled by his new computer and offered her skills in exchange for medical care for her pet.

That experience ultimately led Hardwick to develop, a California-based swap market that enables consumers to swap products and services through the Internet or through regional groups. Established in January 2005, Hardwick's online barter is a distant cousin of online garage sales such as eBay, Craigslist and FreeCycles.

''Our customers range from 18-year-olds swapping video games to 70-year-olds swapping crochet patterns. We serve a wide range of people who want to save money, exchange something they are no longer using for something they need, or trade collectibles,'' Hardwick said.

With 48,000 users in the United States and abroad, SwapThing enables users to operate locally or globally. You can search for merchandise and services with a prescribed radius of your zip code. Some users even use the system for travel and entertainment by swapping for sports tickets or vacation time shares.

SwapThing works like this: Registration is free. But upon completing a transaction, both buyer/seller pay a $1 fee, regardless of the size of the transaction. The fee jumps to $10 for service swaps. Deals can work out using different forms of currency, including a) non-cash barters, 2) cash-plus-merchandise trades, or 3) a negotiated cash payment. The site also features eBay-style auctions, with a pre-set ''Instant Purchase'' price, which operates like the ''Buy-it-Now'' button on eBay.

Florida has emerged as one of the most active regions in the SwapThing market. Several regional groups, called ''SwapCircles,'' meet in Florida. Public meeting sites are recommended by the founder. For instance, a few mothers meet regularly at Starbucks in Miami and Fort Lauderdale to swap bags of children's clothes while sipping coffee.

The art of bartering, however, does involve certain tax considerations. Hardwick is reluctant to provide tax advice, but her site includes a link to the IRS, with downloadable forms.

''We don't encourage people to avoid taxes,'' Hardwick says. ``There are rules.''

Friday, June 09, 2006

Spending Money to Save Money

Sometimes to save money, you have to spend it. It’s a paradox I learned the hard way. Indeed, through trial and lots of error, I’ve learned that some thrifty do-it-yourself projects carry hidden (and expensive!) price tags.

Our course, if you have the time and talent, do-it-yourself projects such as home repairs, seamstress work and elaborate cake designs are a valuable way to save money. But if your reach dramatically exceeds your grasp of mechanical realities, it pays to have a professional perform the necessary tasks.

I call it “thrift overload,” a condition that can happen when dollars and common sense are in short on supply. That concept hit home this past summer while my family –vacationing in Orlando — watched a Cosby show rerun in a hotel room.

On the small screen, family patriarch Cliff Huxtable tried to fix the family dishwasher. His reasoning: Why pay a repairman when you can do it yourself? But hiring a repairman, Huxtable ultimately discovered, would have been cheaper than buying a new big-ticket appliance after a botched do-it-yourself repair.

I laughed at the sit-com, because I’ve been to that same cliff of self-delusion. Consider the evidence: I routinely destroy family cookware with my well-intentioned, but distracted efforts to cook. But even with my smoke alarm record, I vainly attempted (with my husband’s creative assistance) to bake an elaborate Pokemon birthday cake from scratch.

On the eve of the party, our creation kept us in the kitchen until 4 am as we melted butter and created several custom shades of food coloring for our cartoon-inspired cake. Hours later when the party finally started, we were too tired and clueless to take pictures of the cake or even the birthday boy. The party is a blur, but I clearly remember that cake.

Likewise, my short-lived web site designing career cost me a bundle. Armed with a do-it-yourself program, I built myself a pretty little website for free as opposed to the price quotes --$200 to $1,200 –I received from professional website designers.

Unfortunately, I am a former luddite who used to fall into a blue funk at the sight of a new computer system in the workplace. Given my skills and limitations, the so-called Click ‘n Build website program should have been renamed Click ‘n Cry.

After thirty hours of wondering aimlessly through menus and menus of graphics, fonts and photographs, I stopped watching the clock as the days passed me by. My little “free” website actually cost me about $3,000 (conservatively) in lost time and opportunity costs. (I could have written and sold several short stories during that time frame.) After that reality check, I belatedly realized that I should have just written a check to a web site designer.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Miami Heat, Shaq and Wade's World

Okay, I'm a basketball nut and especially a Miami Heat fan. Check out my other posts throughout the year about Shaq, Wade, Coach Riley and the rest of the Heat.

I'm taking the frugal approach to the NBA Finals.

I can't afford to fly to Dallas, but I can afford to go to the Road Rally at American Airlines Arena in Downtown Miami. The Road Rally event was free for the last round, but the charge is now $5 a head, which is still an affordable price to watch the game in the stadium, with give-aways, perks, cheerleaders, the gymnastic team and the team mascot: Bernie. It's a blast. It's like a big block party.

We don't have cable in my house or even standard TV. My kids watch videos and DVDs, but not regular tv. (They read more and watch fewer ads pushing commerical products.)

But our no-TV ban is a bummer during the NBA playoff season. I would even spring for cable, just to watch the games. But here are our solutions:

1) Go to Road Rallies for away games.
2) Watch games with friends, who have TVs in their homes (instant parties). Bring refreshments to help defray the costs for the host.
3) Watch TV at the local sports bar (beware of the weirdos. eeewww. One weird guy kept winking and singing to me every time I cheered for the Heat. I learned to keep my mouth shut and I have not returned to the sports bar.)
4) Try to get cheap tickets for home playoff games. For the first round, we were able to get $12 standing room tickets. I haven't been so successful during subsequent rounds.

oh well. There's always, 790 the Ticket (sports radio) and 610-AM (more radio) and of course, the sports section of the Miami Herald and other newspapers, which I read on line.

The frugal fun continues. LET'S GO HEAT!!!!!!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pondering Renters Insurance

Oh, no. Summer means hurricanes, brush fires, tornadoes and other seasonal patterns in different parts of the country. (Every region has its issues.)

On my balcony, the view of the Atlantic Ocean comes with a price: I fret about the safety of my family and belongings during Hurricane Season.....

Of course, my landlord has property insurance. But I can't be lured into a false sense of security. The landlord’s policy provides coverage for the actually building, but such policies typically exclude coverage for the personal belongings of tenants. Bottom line: It's time to cover my assets! Surprisingly, rental insurance policies are affordable. ( I got a quote from Geico for less than $300 a year.)

Coverage and costs vary from company to company. I plan to contact local insurance agents to get policy information and prices. I can also tap into Internet resources by applying the term “renters insurance” to popular search engines.

Here's my own Q & A of key issues for those of us who live in apartments and want protection for our possessions.

What types of events are covered by renters insurance?

Lighting, fire, theft/vandalism, water-damage from home plumbing, riots, electrical surges, falling objects and other accidents

What about flood coverage?

Ah! That’s the $64,000 question. Depending on the company, residents may need to purchase an additional policy or “rider” for flood coverage. And for hurricane coverage, there are often separate policies/riders for wind storm coverage.

What other “issues” should you watch out for when purchasing rental insurance?

Read the fine print. Many policies offer coverage for either “actual cash value” (ACV) or “replacement cost value” (RCV). Take the second option whenever possible. That’s because ACV coverage offers a settlement to cover the only value of your property at the time of the fire, storm or theft.

For example, your computer system may have cost $1,200 two years ago, but it may only be worth $200 under ACV calculations. But RCV coverage enables you to collect the sum of money that it would cost (TODAY!!!) to replace your computer system due to damage, theft or loss from your home. You get a lot more coverage for your money under RCV policies.

Monday, June 05, 2006

My Dirty Laundry

Since my teen years, the clothes hamper has been my household nemesis. In high school, I was in charge of the clothes pile, a task that languished under my watch until my parents gave me some organizational tips and demanded improvement.

Now that I'm a parent, I have a new spin on laundry dramas. Consider the math: Multiply three children by seven towels a week. Add in 15 sets of school uniforms and several I-wore-it-for-a-minute shirts. With that mix, laundry becomes a major investment in terms of time and money.

These days, the sorting-washing-folding duties belong primarily to me. It's just like high school. But determined to finally score an ''A'' in home economics, I've done my homework. I've accumulated the following tips from detergent companies, appliance experts and other personal care sources:


Like many things in life, good organization is the key. The makers of Tide recommend a well-stocked, well-organized laundry room that is convenient to the rest of your home. Reduce your sorting time, by setting up different hampers for different colors (color, white and dark clothes) and fabric types.

In my home, I plan to eliminate the double-digit towel cycle, by assigning each member of the family two towels for the week. That should reduce weekly towel usage to 10 towels from its current high of about 30.

And speaking of towels, you can speed up drying time, by adding a large dry towel to a damp load. This step could cut your drying time (and costs) by 25 percent or more, according to The Laundry Alternative, a Vermont-based appliance company.


• Yellow armpit stains on linen and cotton shirts. Sprinkle stained areas with a teaspoon of meat tenderizer. Scrub the area with a clean toothbrush. Put the shirt aside for an hour and then wash it in hot water, according to the May 15 issue of First magazine.

• Collar stains. Rub a chalk stick around a collar ring; let it stand for 10 minutes, then wash. The chalk powder soaks up the oil that creates the collar ring. The oil, the ring and the chalk wash away, according to First magazine.

• Measure carefully. Many consumers waste money and resources by using more laundry detergent than necessary, according to The Laundry Alternative, which specializes in eco-friendly laundry and septic system products. South Florida has soft water and that means less detergent is needed to wash laundry. Corey K. Tournet, owner of The Laundry Alternative, said in an e-mail that the term ''hard water'' was coined because it is ''harder'' to wash clothes in it than soft water.''


Believe it or not, I actually enjoy ironing. I meditate while steaming out wrinkles. But if you hate ironing, the manufacturers of Tide detergent have a few suggestions. For instance, wash lightly soiled and bright color items in cold water to reduce wrinkles. (A cold water wash saves energy and money.)

• Shake out your clothes before transferring them to the dryer. This step prevents clothes from becoming wrinkled or balled up.

• Don't overstuff the dryer; clothes do not properly circulate in an overstuffed dryer.

• Fold or hang up garments immediately after the dryer stops spinning or else you'll have a tangled heap of wrinkled items.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

NBA Playoffs & Free Summer Fun

Last night at American Airlines Arena, I had my first taste of free summer fun. The Miami Heat opened up the arena for a free road rally for Miami Heat Fans and other basketball fanatics.

The road rally takes place when the team is playing a playoff game in another city. The arena then becomes the center of a huge sports party that is kid-friendly and free!!!

Here's the deal: Free parking, free admission to watch the Heat-Pistons playoff game inside the arena in the Dewars Club and in the actual arena seats on the big screen.

Great fun! The gymnastic team was there, the stadium announcer, the cheerleaders and the team mascot. They all handed out free team merchandise to Road Rally participants.

The freebies included cool playoff tee-shirts, D-Wade converse bracelets, Miami Heat magnets for the frig and lots of other cool stuff. And we had fun. You should have seen my boys doing smiling & dancing on the Big Screen TV. (The arena used its normal close circuit arena camera to scan the crowd during time-outs and half time.) Of course, we were sooo bummed that the Miami Heat lost. But we still have a 3 to 2 edge in the playoff series against Detroit.

So here's my point: Sporting arenas, bookstores, libraries and municipal parks have an assortment of low-cost or no-cost activities during the summer. Even malls have free activities for kids during the summer. Don't shop; just have fun. Do your homework and enjoy a great summer without spending a bundle.

Here's my round-up of free things in my neighborhood. And even if you're not from South Florida, my list can be an example of the types of activities that you can hunt down in your neighborhood.

Free and Cheap Camps

Day camps are free through the City of Miami offers at over 30 locations. Likewise, the City of Fort Lauderdale's eight-week day camps are only $37.50 per week.

If you can't afford lofty fees for sports lessons, don't worry. The Miami Beach Sports Specialty Camps program at Polo Park creates an even playing field. The selection includes: basketball camp: ages 7-13, $125/week; soccer: ages 5-13, $125/week; tennis camp: ages 7-13, $125/week; volleyball: ages 7-13, $100/week; baseball camp: ages 7-13, $125/week; flag football: ages 7-13, $125/week. Rates are higher for non-Miami Beach residents.

Polo Park and the Miami Beach Country Club are where young golfers, ages 7-13, can get putting and driving instruction from PGA members; $125 a week. Polo Park, 4301 N. Michigan Ave., Miami Beach. For camp registration, call 305-861-3616.

At the Outdoor Water Polo Camp on Miami Beach, campers ages 8-16 can learn the ropes of one of South Florida's trendiest sports; $125 a week. Scott Rakow Youth Center, 2700 Sheridan Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7767.

The City of Miami also offers a variety of indoor/outdoor activities and other cultural programs for children ages 7-13 through its ''Super Camp'' program as various parks. After a one-time $25 registration fee, it's $60 a week for city residents, $90 a week for non-residents. Call 305-416-1341 or call 311 and ask for info on summer camp programs.

From field trips to crafts, the City of Fort Lauderdale also has a diverse range of summer camps. Fort Lauderdale's Summer Community Camps program includes fitness, art and crafts, games, field trips and swimming at seven community centers and parks for ages 5-11. An eighth center, Camp New River, is for children 10-13. $300 for eight weeks; call 954-828-7275.

Fort Lauderdale also has camps dedicated to specific interests or sports such as the Sports and Fitness Camp for ages 6-11 at Holiday Park Gym & Social Center; $340 per four-week session: Holiday Park Gym & Social Center, 1150 G. Harold Martin Dr., Fort Lauderdale. For specialty camp information, call 954-828-5383.

In Miami Beach, six parks and playgrounds are the sites for Miami Beach Recreation Summer Camps for ages 5-17; $500 for eight weeks; call North Shore Park, 501 72nd St.; 305-861-3616.