Wednesday, April 30, 2008

36 Shortcuts for Conquering Annoying Financial Tasks

Managing the nuts & bolts of home finance feels like a full-time job. Here's a link to 36 shortcuts for tackling "pesky—but essential—financial tasks for home, college savings, taxes, and life management."

The list of 36 financial shortcuts --"an easy-to-use Essential Financial Tool Kit" -- appears in the May issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. The list of "36 common, sticky financial tasks" includes: "Learn how to lock in a cheap mortgage rate, get a bigger paycheck, obtain a [reliable!] credit score, and more—in five steps or less:"

Here's a sample of three items from the list:

"How to Boost Your Paycheck: Use Kiplinger’s easy withholding calculator to find out how many exemptions you are entitled to claim. That will determine how much tax is withheld from your paycheck. 2. File a new Form W-4 with your employer to increase the number of exemptions. 3. Revise your W-4 anytime you experience a major life change that can affect the amount of taxes you pay—marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or a home purchase.

How to Lock in a Cheap Mortgage Rate
Compare apples to apples. Choose the size of the loan you want; the type, either fixed-rate or adjustable (with an initial fixed-rate period of one, three, five or seven years); and the term. 2. Go to to find the day's best "par" rate (similar to a carmaker's dealer price) for the loan you want. 3. Call lenders, beginning with the company that originated your current loan. Start just after 11 a.m. EST, when lenders typically issue their daily rate sheets. 4. Know your costs. The annual percentage rate can sometimes be confusing, so ask each lender to break out the interest rate, the number of points you’ll have to pay, plus any lender or broker fees. 5. Lock in your rate. Get it confirmed in writing via e-mail or fax ASAP.

How to Get Your Credit Score
Plenty of places will give you your credit score, but not all of them are reliable. Of the three credit bureaus, only Equifax sells the ubiquitous FICO score that 95% of lenders use. 1. Log on to Under "Products," select FICO Credit Complete ($47.85 for scores and reports from each of the three credit bureaus). 2. Create an account by entering your personal information, including your Social Security number and birth date. 3. To verify your identity, answer a few questions relating to information in your credit file that only you would know. 4. Print out your scores and reports and save them for your records.

See other shortcuts for money tasks by visiting:


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cheap Ways to Fight Ants

When the heat and rain come, ants and other insects seem to multiply. Keeping them in check doesn't have to wreck your budget.
J.D. Roth, author of the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly said he and his wife Kris were at war with the ants in their old home. The exterminator charged $100 per visit and did not solve the ant problem.

In his new home, he has banished ants with Terro, a borax-based ant control. Sold at discount and hardware store chains, Terro costs about $5 for six traps filled with a mixture of borax and a liquid carbohydrate.

''Borax is one of the safest chemicals,'' said Stewart Clark, director of research and development at Senoret Chemical Co., which makes Terro.

Lured into the trap by the liquid food, the ants carry the mixture back to the colony, which is wiped out by the substance. Clark says he uses five to six traps per season.

Here are some additional suggestions from Frugal for Life about fighting ants with low-tech/low-cost methods. The list includes:

White vinegar: Fill a squirt bottle and spray on surfaces that attract ants. Also recommended: a 50-50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water.

Cinnamon or black pepper: Shake either spice onto areas ants like.

Windex and Ivory Soap: Mix equal doses of window cleaner and soap on squirt on problem areas.

But when should you call in the experts? Damage-causing termites and disease-carrying cockroaches often require professional exterminators, Clark said.

Termites, which can seriously damage a home and furniture, can remain destructive if a single area is missed during the extermination. Professional exterminators typically offer insurance and guarantees against failure.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.



Thursday, April 24, 2008

Should We House Hunt? Nah! Plus: Tips for Preparing for Home Ownership

The reality gap in real estate prices continues. Although I would love to have a backyard for my kids, dog and garden, I'll wait a while to start house shopping. Sticker shock is still a real issue in my area.

For sure, the drop in prices is huge in my neighborhood. From my affordable rental apartment, I've seen prices drop from the $1 million-range to $600,000-- and still there are very few buyers or offers. Hmmm. I remember when some of those homes were selling for only $200,000 to $300,000 and my memory is not that long.
Oh well. Based on the inventory that I see in my local market, I'm willing to sit on the sidelines for the next two years or so. I'm looking for advice:

So, please drop me a note (email) or a comment with your estimate about the length of the housing slump. When do you think the market will hit bottom?

In the meantime, I will continue to get my fiscal house in order. Due to a few new opportunities, I will be saving more money. These tips from CCCS make sense to me, especially the recommendation about considering the total costs of home ownership.

"CCCS suggests that all consumers consider the following before buying a home:
  • Know why you want to buy. There are many advantages to owning your own home, including the building of equity and the potential tax savings. Current housing prices and mortgage rates may also make it more appealing. It is important to understand why you want to buy a home and why now is the right time for you.

  • The big picture-what owning your own home really costs. It is easy to get so caught up in the excitement of buying a home that we don't take the time to investigate the real costs associated with purchasing and maintaining it. The down payment, closing costs, and insurance are all significant investments you will make before you even get to move in. Once you move in, there may be repairs that need to be made or necessities that need to be purchased, such as appliances or window treatments. Once you move in, there are other costs to consider. You may need to outfit your shed or garage with a lawnmower and other maintenance tools. If you live in a neighborhood with a clubhouse, a gated entrance, or other community amenities, you will likely have monthly or quarterly association fees. Utilities may be higher in your new home. You are now responsible for property taxes and homeowners' insurance. By taking a realistic view of the costs of home ownership, you will be better prepared to determine how much you are prepared to spend on your new home.

  • Shopping for a home. Identifying what you need in a new home is an important first step. If you aren't prepared to make repairs or changes to a house yourself, you might consider a newer home. While you might not easily add another bedroom, don't ignore the perfect house because it doesn't have a fenced yard or swimming pool-these can always be added later. If you have or are planning to have children, you might want to focus your search around a particular school or family-friendly community. A real estate professional can help you narrow your search to homes that fit your criteria. Before purchasing any home, plan for a thorough home inspection.

  • Shopping for a loan. There are many different ways to finance your home, including fixed and adjustable rate loans and varying terms. Familiarize yourself with mortgage options and consider pre-qualifying for a mortgage before you start shopping. While you may qualify for a higher mortgage amount than you thought, set a payment limit that you will be comfortable with. If you haven't checked your credit report recently, now is a great time. You can request a FREE copy of your report once every 12 months online at or by calling (877) 322-8228.

  • Getting started. CCCS offers free pre-purchase counseling and homebuyer education workshops for consumers on the path to homeownership. A private one-hour counseling session can help prospective homebuyers learn the basics of the process. A six-hour homebuyer education workshop will help consumers assess readiness for homeownership, take a realistic view of the costs involved in purchasing and maintaining a home, and evaluate their credit and financial situation to determine how much house they can really afford. Workshop participants will also learn about the various mortgage options and what to look for in a lender, and explore the tremendous benefits of home ownership, from stabilized housing costs and appreciation, to the many tax benefits. And for first time home buyers, the certificate you will earn may qualify you for down payment assistance or special mortgage products available through participating lending institutions.
To register for an upcoming workshop, call 1-866-616-3720.

"Whether you are buying your first home or moving to a new one, the time you spend preparing to become a homeowner is as important an investment as the home you purchase," said Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. "Realistic goals and careful planning are essential to making the best choices for you and your family."




Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Car Bargains in Soft Economy: Advice from Kiplinger's

"As good as the deals are on new cars, they’re even sweeter for used ones, as used-car dealers cut prices to compete." That's the word from the May issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, which provides these bargain-hunting tips:

· Getting a Deal. Check dealer inventory and preview private listings on Web sites such as and If you’re willing to search the entire U.S., you may pay thousands of dollars less Late model luxury cars, for example, are often cheaper in the Southwest than on either coast.

· Recipe for Success. Once you decide on a make and model, see what others are paying for it by visiting Kelly Blue Book and NADA Guide sites. Get details on at least five cars before heading to the dealer so you have more bargaining clout.

· Certified Pre-Owned. Choose from the crème de la crème of previously owned vehicles through a certified pre-owned program. Warranties and perks on these models can be generous—and, under a certified program, you may qualify for low-rate financing from the manufacturer. "

The article is available at:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Money-Saving Hair Wash & Other Earth Day Tips From Disney Survey

Shorter showers was one tip from a recent energy audit of my home. Honestly, I still take long showers. But I have dramatically changed the way I wash my hair in the shower.

I have long thick, afro hair that takes me at least 30 minutes to wash, a task that is completed one section at a time. (Anyone with thick curly or happy-nappy hair knows what I'm talking about!) Confession: I used to let the hot water run for 30 minutes or longer. But in the spirit of saving money and resources, I now use less water and less electricity. What's more, I no longer run out of hot water while washing my hair.

I call it my stop-and-go shower. While rinsing my waist-length hair, I let the shower run. But I cut off the water while applying shampoo and massaging conditioner into my hair. I've also reduced my shower time by de-tangling my hair before I start the process, which saves time, money and power.

It's a small step, but it's progress and if I accumulate enough small savings, I will have scored a major change in my approach to money, energy and time.

Here's a list of what other people are doing to save money, according to a survey conducted by Disney.

"The survey findings include:
· Nearly three of every four Americans recycles cans, paper and plastics at home
· Nearly two in three Americans turn out lights when leaving a room and say they are using high efficiency bulbs
· Nearly one in three Americans who drive a conventional car today plan to make their next vehicle a hybrid
· The top two reasons parents are concerned about the environment are looking out for the future of their children and because the health of their family is important to them, according to a recent online survey of attitudes about the environment on Disney (

Of the more than 8,000 parents that participated in the Disney online survey, 90 percent indicated that the environment is an important issue to them and their families. The top two reasons that the environment is an important issue for parents: “they are looking out for the future of their children” and “the health of their family.”

Disney recently launched a new “green living” page to provide parents with access to information on their environmental impact, resources for reducing their environmental impact, and a forum to share “green” tips with other families (

In addition to survey findings, the ”green living” page features tips and ideas aimed at helping families go green, including:

· A “How Green Am I?” quiz and carbon footprint calculator based on calculations from Environmental Defense Fund
· Hundreds of easy, “going green” tips and ideas
· Tips on the best green products
· 50 actions families can take to be eco-friendly
· Earth-friendly craft ideas"

Monday, April 21, 2008

Frugal Cleanup Tips from a Kitchen Pro

Even with the best intentions, many consumers waste time and money by failing to follow directions that are packaged with cleaning products. Most of us quickly wipe down our countertops with liquids and sprays. But most cleaning and sanitizing products need time to operate. Soaking time ranges from 10 seconds to 5 minutes. Read the package for detailed instructions

That's the word from Chris Wagner, director of operations at Johnson & Wales University in Miami.

''Most food-borne illnesses actually happen in the home kitchen and not in the professional kitchen,'' Wagner said.

Wagner says you don't need to buy expensive cleaners. Many commercial kitchens rely on vinegar and salt solutions for heavy-duty cleanups. He recommends a two-step cleanup process for wooden butcher blocks or cutting boards.

At Johnson & Wales, wooden cutting boards are soaked in vinegar for five minutes before washing. After using, the students coat the cutting blocks with kosher salt to draw out moisture, which prevents mold and bacteria, Wagner said.

Lemon juice also deters the growth of bacteria and mold on wood and kitchen equipment.
A mixture of lemon juice and kosher salt is effective in cleaning copper pans and pots, Wagner said.

Improper methods for storing and preparing food contribute to illnesses.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends these safe food handling procedures:
• Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after food preparation. Clean all surfaces.
• Avoid cross-contamination. Juices from raw meat, fish and poultry should be kept away from other food. Cutting boards, utensils and surfaces should be washed with hot soapy water when raw meat is prepared.
• Defrost meat in the refrigerator. Do not let defrosting meat drip on other food in the refrigerator.
A ''Safe Food Handling'' fact sheet is available at


Friday, April 18, 2008

Recession Gender Gap? Men in Denial, Study Says

Is there a gender gap about the recession? According to this new survey from Finicity, more men are in denial about the recession.

"Men are more likely than women to do nothing to adjust for an economic recession, according to a survey from the money management experts at Finicity.

The results, from a survey of more than 300 users of the popular money management program Mvelopes, highlight a stark contrast in the way men and women feel about a potential US economic recession:

· 21 percent of men say an economic recession would have no impact on their lifestyle, compared to only 5 percent of women.
· Men are twice as likely as women to be “not at all worried” about the current US economy.
· Nearly 60 percent of women feel the US economy will be worse in six months – compared to only 45 percent of men who feel the same way.
· Women are twice as likely as men to decrease gasoline consumption during an economic recession.

“I think it’s important to understand better how both sides view financial matters – whether on the economy, spending or how we feel about gas prices,” said Steve Smith, president and CEO of Finicity. “It’s just another component of trying to understand our lack of communication over money, and how to start making improvements.”

Other findings from the survey include:

· The top three things people would be least likely to give up in an economic recession:

1. Consuming gasoline at their current rate
2. Contributing to savings
3. Eating out

· The top three fears concerning an economic recession:

1. Inflation
2. Job security
3. Increased debt

And, on a lighter note:

· The top three “other” things people would be least likely to give up:

1. “Eating organic foods”
2. “Music lessons”
3. “Feeding my dogs”

Source: Finicity


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Disaster Signs, Emotional Security Checks & Other Picks from Carnival of Personal Finance

What's the link between financial security and emotional security? That's one of several thoughtful posts featured at the 148th Edition of the Carnival of Personal Finance, which is up at Gather Little by Little.

Thanks to the host for putting together an engaging carnival. Thanks for including my post in the mix. Check out the photo tour of North Carolina, home state for our host.
Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye:

From Consumerism Commentary: If Monthly Budgets Don’t Excite You, Try This. I enjoyed this post about re-thinking the budget process. Flexo also includes a helpful link.

From American Consumer News: 10 Warning Signs of Debt Disaster . Review this check list. It's a reality check.

From The Digerati Life: How Money Challenges Prevent You From Building The Life You Love. I appreciated this thoughtful article about the link between our money management skills and our general well-being, including personal relationships.

Thanks again to the host for taking the time to read and organize the carnival. Excellent job!



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

4 Mindful & Savvy Uses for Rebate Checks: Avoid the Mall

"Getting a Rebate? Focus not on more, but on more of what matters." Bottom line: Don't overspend. That's the word from the folks at Center for a New American Dream, a consumer organization that targets meaningful living and spending plans.
Here's a guest post from New American Dream about frugal and mindful uses of rebate checks:

"In a few weeks, Americans will receive their rebate checks—part of a $168 billion effort to bolster the economy through increased consumer spending. Author and sociologist Dalton Conley, however, notes in a New York Times op-ed piece that “Consumer overspending got us into this mess. More spending won’t get us out.”

Before Americans use their checks to prop up sagging sales of unsustainable products, New American Dream and the Conscious Consumer Marketplace would like to offer four things everyone can do that will be smarter for and kinder to our pocketbooks, the planet, and the economy:

1. Pay off your credit card. Author and personal financial journalist John Wasik writes for There's no personal economic benefit to carrying a balance on a credit card. It's an albatross. So pay them off and shed the seabird. Then download a free New Dream Wallet Buddy credit card sleeve to remind you to consider carefully before you charge:

2. Invest it. Recently, the national savings rate dipped below zero, the first time since the Great Depression we were spending more than we saved. Conley suggests citizens should invest the money, not run to the malls. Why not do some social goodwill while saving for your future? Learn more on Marketplace’s Socially Responsible Investing page:

3. Buy wisely. If you buy something, make it count—for you and for the environment. Writing for, personal finance journalist Laura Coffey (after cautioning first to get debts under control) says consumers should “consider buying an energy-efficient appliance, especially if you’re now relying on older, less-efficient appliances.” For more on energy efficient appliances and other ways to support the Green Economy, visit the Conscious Consumer Marketplace at

4. Give it away. No, don’t send it back to the government with a “Thanks, but no thanks” note. But if you are out of debt, investing responsibly, and satisfied with the state of your stuff, then maybe it’s time to help build a sustainable society by supporting causes you believe in.

Remember, when the check comes, you are not just a consumer. You are a citizen. Think of the rebate as an opportunity to keep afloat and support your values."



Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Save the Wedding Glitter for Retirement & Other Tips from Festival of Frugality

Cut wedding costs, seek free entertainment and chew on frugal philosophy. Those are some of topics posted at the 121st edition of the Festival of Frugality -- (organized by Rather be Shopping.) Thanks to the host for assembling a great carnival. Excellent job! Thanks for including one of my posts in the lineup.

Here are a few of the articles that caught my eye:

From FMF: How to Have Half a Million Dollars at Retirement by Controlling Wedding Costs posted at Free Money Finance.

From Saving Advice: Free (Or Nearly Free) Entertainment For Every Week of the Year posted at Blog

From Living Almost Large: Downgrading your lifestyle? posted at LivingAlmostLarge.

Once again: Thanks to Rather Be Shopping for organizing a thoughtful and thought-provoking carnival.



Monday, April 14, 2008

Live Green - Save Green: "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" (and Money Too!!)

Twenty-years ago, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth became a New York Times bestseller. This month -- just in time for Earth Day April 22 -- an updated version of that classic text on green living is being released (Hyperion, $12.95).

Written by John Javna with his teenage children Sophie and Jessie, the revised version suggests ways to preserve the environment, including many money-saving tips.

Here are tips for conserving water and gas:

Create a rain barrel. Water from your roof can be collected and then used to water the lawn or garden. Javna suggests that renters ask their landlords first. Building instructions and details can be found at

Garden with a green thumb. Select drought-tolerant plants for your garden. When you do water, use soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems. Spread mulch to help roots retain moisture.

Stop leaks. A single leaky faucet -- with one drop of water per seconds -- translates into 192 wasted gallons per month. Whenever we run the faucet while shaving or brushing our teeth, we waste about five gallons of water.

Safeguard water pipes. Popular drain cleaners can damage household pipes, leading to expensive plumbing bills. Here's a recipe for a gentle alternative: Mix one cup of baking soda and one cup of vinegar into a pot of boiling water. Pour this mixture down the drain to dissolve most clots. Replace chlorine cleansers, which are not bio-degradable, with eco-friendly alternatives such as oxygen or hydrogen peroxide-based bleaches.

Demand gas-efficient rental cars. Save money and the environment while you're on vacation by asking the rental car company to provide a fuel-efficient vehicle. Your selection will have a long-term impact on the auto industry, which studies rental trends when developing new cars.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.



Sunday, April 13, 2008

Frugal Musings, Used Cars & Time Sheets: My Weekly Roundup

From time management to money management, there's plenty to read in the world of personal finance. Here's my weekly roundup of posts that caught my eye:

From SingleGuyMoney: Most Reliable Used Cars



Friday, April 11, 2008

Kiplinger’s 25 Best Mutual Funds: Low Fees & No Fees

Why pay extra fees for a mutual fund? Kiplinger’s Personal Finance has put together a list of top mutual funds that do not hit you up with upfront or back-end sales charges. Details about the list --featured below-- are available in the May issue and online.

Kiplinger’s 25 Best Mutual Funds:

Large-Company Stock Funds
§ Dodge & Cox Stock (DODGX)
§ Longleaf Partners (LLPFX)
§ Marsico 21st Century (MXXIX)
§ T. Rowe Price Equity Income (PRFDX)
§ T. Rowe Price Growth Stock (PRGFX)
§ Selected American Shares S (SLASX)
§ Vanguard Primecap Core (VPCCX)

Small- and Midsize-Company Stock Funds
§ Baron Small Cap (BSCFX)
§ FBR Focus (FBRVX)
§ Vanguard Selected Value (VASVX)

Overseas Funds
§ Dodge & Cox Intl Stock (DODFX)
§ Julius Baer Intl Equity II A (JETAX)
§ T. Rowe Price Emg Mkts Stock (PRMSX)

Global Fund
§ Marsico Global (MGLBX)

Go-Anywhere Funds
§ Bridgeway Aggr Investors 2 (BRAIX)
§ CGM Focus (CGMFX)
§ Fairholme Fund (FAIRX)
§ Kinetics Paradigm (WWNPX)
§ Legg Mason Opportunity (LMOPX)

Commodity Fund
§ Pimco CommodityRealRet Strat D (PCRDX)

Bond Funds
§ Dodge & Cox Income (DODIX)
§ Fidelity Intermed Municipal Inc (FLTMX)
§ Harbor Bond Institutional (HABDX)
§ Loomis Sayles Bond (LSBRX)
§ Vanguard Infl-Protected Secs (VIPSX)
Here's how the magazine puts together its annual list of top mutual funds:

"In addition to raw returns, Kiplinger’s evaluates how funds perform against their peers, annual fees, their managers’ records and whether their results justify the risks they take. More details on the selection criteria are available at:"


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Welcome to CBS4 Viewers

Welcome to viewers and coupon clippers from CBS4 in Miami. Last night, I appeared on CBS4, a local television affiliate and a news partner of the Miami Herald. If you're new to this blog, feel free to read some of my other posts, which include an assortment of money-saving advice and links to other personal finance blogs.

Here's the link to the print version of the CBS4 story: The Websites That Can Help Save Cash, which contains a link to the video. (The news report follows a 15-second commercial.)

Special thanks to: 1) on-air news personality: Al Sunshine, 2) Mary Killeen, a talented field producer and 3) the great photojournalist who shot the video. (I will plug in his name ASAP). Thanks!



Wednesday, April 09, 2008

5 Tips for Improving Credit Scores

From lower loan rates to higher employment opportunities, a good credit score can translate into greater savings and more career opportunities. One of my top goals is to improve my credit score. Even insurance companies are using credit scores to determine rates. Therefore, I'm collecting data and insights about how to improve credit scores.

CCCS offers these tips for raising credit score:

"1. Pay your bills on time, at least five days before the due date. Being late one month and current the next won't help your credit score; you have to always pay by the due date. Be aware that paying off a collection account, or closing an account on which you previously missed a payment, will not remove it from your credit report.

2. Whenever possible, pay your balance due at the end of each month. If you do carry a balance, try to keep the difference between your credit limit and your balance below 50%. For example, if you have a credit limit of $1000, keep your balance at $500 or below.

3. Pay the most that you can on your debt instead of transferring balances from one credit card to another. You may have heard "do not close credit cards" or "close the credit cards that you are not using." Both actions could raise or lower a credit score depending on your personal situation.

4. Check your credit report regularly to ensure that there are no items that are not yours. You can also spot if there are errors or if someone is trying to use your information to get credit, which may be an indicator that you are the victim of ID theft. You are entitled to one FREE copy of your credit report each year from each of the three bureaus. Visit for details.

5. Apply for and use credit only as you need it. Don't apply for cards you don't need as a way to increase your score. If you have only been managing credit for a short period of time, do not open too many accounts quickly.

"Raising your score by just a few points can save you hundreds, or even thousands of dollars over the life of a loan. said Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast."

source: CCCS


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How to Haggle & Freeload: My Favorite Picks from 120th Festival of Frugality

Festival of Frugality #120 is up at A Penny Saved. Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye:

From Save and Conquer: How To Haggle and Pay a Lower Price. Read, print and take this list with you on shopping trips.

From Free Geekery: The Freeloader’s Toolbelt: 50 Tools to Help You Get Anything Free Online. This is a great resource list, featuring free stuff.

From Money Crashers: 31 Ways to Be Frugal And Save Money. This excellent list includes these suggestions: save money by replacing the windows on your home, washing your own car, and cutting your partner's hair, plus 28 other tips.

From Squawkfox: Top Five Frugalicious Lunches. Great pictures, wonderful menu. This blogger should consider catering or writing a cookbook.

Thanks to the host for arranging the festival.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Skip the Eco-Fakers: Purge Green Imposters from Our Homes

Earth Day is this month and many consumers hope to do their spring cleaning with ''green'' or nontoxic products. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the environmentally friendly goods from the eco-pretenders.

Terms such as ''all natural'' and ''organic'' are often misused on labels for household cleansers, shampoos, conditioners and other personal care products.

Consumer watchdogs actively scrutinize labels and test products for accuracy and safety.

In mid-March the Organic Consumers Association and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps jointly issued cease-and-desist letters to a number of companies using ''organic'' labels on merchandise made with nonorganic or petrochemical ingredients linked to cancer.

'We've grown increasingly frustrated with the companies in our industry who seem to feed off each others' misleading practices and show no inclination to clean up their formulations and live up to their organic branding claims,'' wrote David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's.
Dr. Bronner's, a personal care company, is certified through the USDA's National Organic Program. To be certified, the product cannot contain petro-chemicals and at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic.

If a personal care or household product company is not certified under that optional program, a consumer should be wary of organic claims, says Adam Eidinger of the Organic Consumers Association.

Here are some tips:

  • Avoid products with chemicals that end with the suffix: ''eth,'' such as laureth or myreth sulfate. Also avoid labels that mention PEG, a harmful chemical compound, said David Steinman, author of The Safe Shopper's Bible.

  • Phrases like ''made from organic products'' and ''all-natural'' should be backed up by independent tests.

  • The Organic Consumers Association posts information about products with harmful ingredients at

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.



Sunday, April 06, 2008

Online Groceries & Privacy: My Weekly Reading List

From online groceries to online privacy, there was plenty to read this week. Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye.

From Single Ma's Fabulous Financials: What are you saving for?

From FSBO Jane: Are You Living Risky? (insights about the riskiest real estate markets)



Friday, April 04, 2008

Spring Clean Your Money: 10 Laundering Tips

CCCS provided these tips for spring cleaning our finances, clearing out clutter and getting organized. Tips #7 through #10 -- about record keeping, identity theft protection and credit reports -- are especially helpful.

"Organizing your finances can reduce stress and save you time and money," said Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

CCCS offers some simple steps to help jumpstart your financial spring cleaning:

1. Start by evaluating your current financial health- Log on to CCCS or and take the financial health test. It will help you assess your financial risk and get a realistic picture of your current spending habits.

2. Create a system, and stick to it- You can organize your records in a filing cabinet, in hanging folders, or some other system, but choose one that works for you so that you will use it.

3. Develop a spending plan- Outline how you will spend, and save, your money. In addition to regular monthly expenses, such as housing, utilities, groceries, and insurance, you should also plan your spending for things like entertainment, lunches out, haircuts, and an occasional luxury. As rising gas prices continue to account for more of your monthly expenses, reduce spending where you can, such as eating at restaurants and your daily purchase of premium coffee. Don't forget to plan your savings too. If you have a spending plan, you are more likely to stick to it.

4. Track your income and your expenses -Use a calendar to note when you will receive income and also record when bills are due. Avoid late charges and unnecessary finance charges by paying bills on time. If you are mailing your payments, allow at least a week for them to arrive. If you pay on-line, be sure to adhere to deadlines by your bank or creditor to ensure payments arrive on time.

5. Record all spending, not just bills -That daily trip to the coffee shop, the few dollars you spend on lottery tickets, your highway tolls, and other "forgotten" expenses can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars each month and can stand between you and financial freedom.

6. Tax Organization-Start a tax folder for 2008 and start gathering information that will help reduce your stress at tax time. Include receipts for charitable gifts and out-of pocket medical expenses, documentation of work-related expenses like travel/mileage if not reimbursed, educational or child care costs, etc.

7. Out with the Old - Do you really need to keep that water bill from 1998? How about your tax returns? Keeping good financial records is a critical part of managing your household finances, and spring cleaning is a great time to review them, purging what you no longer need. These records can help you ensure timely payment of bills and avoid late fees, dispute errors on credit card statements, apply for retirement or disability benefits, file insurance claims, and more.

Bankrate ( has an excellent table that summarizes how long to keep financial records. Here is a summary:
*Keep any tax-related records for seven years.
*Keep records of IRA contributions permanently.
*Keep quarterly retirement/savings plan statements until you receive an annual statement. If the numbers match, shred the quarterlies and keep the annual summaries permanently.
*Shred unimportant bank records after one year; keep the rest permanently.
*Keep brokerage statements until you sell the securities.
*Most of the time you can shred bills once you get a cancelled check. Keep bills for big items permanently.
*Keep credit card receipts to reconcile with your statements; then keep the statements for seven years.
*Paycheck stubs should be kept until you receive your end-of-year tax statements.
*Keep house records permanently.

8. Don't just throw away statements and other records you no longer need to keep. Discarded financial records are a prime target for identity thieves, who look for account numbers and personal information to use. Purchase an inexpensive cross-cut type shredder and make sure it is conveniently located so that you will use it-like right next to your garbage can. Shred all documents that contain personal or financial information, including credit card offers and receipts.

9. Review your insurance coverage - Review your life insurance policy to ensure it provides adequate coverage for your family. You can also save money by raising your deductibles on auto and homeowners, or renters, insurance. Every several years, shop rates, comparing policies point for point.

10. Request a credit report- Request a free copy of your credit report by logging on to or by calling (877) 322-8228. Carefully review your report and promptly address inaccuracies in writing. By regularly getting reports, you can keep tabs on your credit standing, address questions and protect yourself from credit fraud or identity theft."

source: CCCS


My Life in A Fish Bowl. The Caged & Leashed Secrets of Pet Ownership

Here's my list of what adoption agencies and pet shops don't tell you about your future pet. After we adopted our adorable dog, (that's Scruffy in the photo), purchased the hamster(s) and accepted the turtles, we discovered these hidden rules & costs of owning pets.

1. Don't rely on the kids. The adoption agency and the pet store will give you the 411 on kids & pets. With over-confidence, you will assume that you know the inside story about families and animals. Yeah, Yeah! After two weeks, the kids will get tired of the pet and you will be in charge of cleaning out the fish bowl, changing the newspaper in the hamster cage and walking the dog. Duh! You know that already.
And of course, as a responsible adult you will nod and mentally re-organize your agenda. Here's my warning: You bought it; it's really yours. Really think hard about what pet ownership will mean to the adults in your home.

It's like taking home a new baby. For the next 18 years, you will be responsible for potty duties, burping, early morning wake-up calls, training and other 24/7 duties. And like distant relatives, your kids will occasionally -- maybe often -- drop into to play with this baby, but most of the time, the pet is all yours.

2. A sick dog can be worse than a sick kid. A child with a cold or sore throat will tell you how much it hurts, how long it hurts and where it hurts. You'll have clues about when and if a trip to the doctor's office is really necessary. But a sick dog can't tell you much. There are no word clues to discover if the pet is deathly ill or just suffering from a minor ache.

Without a clue, you will feel compelled to visit the Vet often, which translates into huge medical bills.

3. Animals complicate vacation plans. Even short-trips can become a planning nightmare when you have a pet. I have traveled with a dog and hamster and it's often difficult to find accommodations for pets. If you're staying in a private home, your friends and family might welcome you, but have doubts about your pets. There are hotels and motels that accept animals, but you have to do a lot of homework to find a place that's open for pets. What's more, these establishments may also have house rules, restrictions or extra fees for pets.

Doggy daycare is expensive. If you leave the pet home, your vacation plans must include pet sitters, walkers, feeders and emergency numbers. What's more, you'll need a Plan B. For example, a friend of mine with an extensive, expensive fish tank had to rely on a back-up battery-operated lighting and feeding system when the electricity went down in our area. He was out of town when our neighborhood was dark and his rescue efforts involved phone calls to neighbors and friends.

4. Watch out for odors: Pet owners have to be especially aggressive about animal odors in the home. Our turtles, for example, did not have much of scent. But when the filter on the turtle tank broke, the odor became overpowering and we had to change the water daily until we could repair the filter and water pump. For a brief period, our home smelled like a water treatment plant on a bad day. Yuck!

Likewise, even slight odors from hamsters, cats, dogs and birds can cling to drapes, carpets and sofa cushions.

5. Be on the alert for allergies. My middle son is allergic to birds; my daughter is allergic to hamsters. We learned the hard way. For instance, during the two-plus years that we owned a series of hamsters, my daughter was constantly rubbing her nose and sneezing. We were in denial about the cause. But guess what? My daughter's allergies disappeared when our last hamster was put to rest.

6. Pets bite back. Dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils and hamsters can bite and scratch. Most pets are excellent around small children, but little kids often pull on pets (tugging on tails, ears, etc). As part of the family petting zoo, even a patient animal may occasionally bark or nip out of frustration.

7. Guard the home office: Warning: If you have a home office, be prepared to relocate to a bathroom or closet when your dog barks during a telephone interview or sensitive conversation. Most people will be amused or tolerant of the situation, but some will have doubts about talking with you while a dog barks in the background.

8. Education is a commitment. Even if you pay to have your pet professionally trained, you will have to invest time and energy to educate your dog, cat, bird or hamster about house rules. Puppies are very hard work, albeit worth the effort.

9.You will become a competitive pet owner. When I had my first child, I secretly compared my baby to others. I was very proud when my baby walked and talked before other babies. My children are tweens and teens and I have become a competitive pet owner. I compare my dog's manners, appearance and personality to other dogs on the street.

I'm trying to re-train my Type-A personality. But, honestly, I've had better luck training my dog.

10. You will love, love, love your animal. Yesterday, a woman in my building was on the verge of tears. She's a grandmother, with an 18-month-old grandson. "The little one died," she said. I almost passed out from grief and empathy. But then I realized that she was talking about her little dog. (She had two dogs). Upon learning that her grandson was well, living and healthy, (thank goodness), I felt such relief. But then I felt another wave of grief and empathy.

My neighbor really loved her dog.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend pet ownership. It's a great way to forget yourself and celebrate life. But caring for a pet is a huge responsibility.
By the way, this article from MSN Smart Spending has great tips about pets:



Thursday, April 03, 2008

5 Money Lessons From an Unpaid Babysitter: Toddlers Invade My Home

Three times a week I watch a toddler in my home for about an hour. I don't charge for my time, but as an unpaid babysitter, I've learned a lot about life, money and secret treasure while watching a three-year-old and (more recently, one of his friends also!)

The mother of the first child, a good friend, has repeatedly offered to pay for my services, but I have refused. It's not about the money, and besides she helps out in so many other ways, including driving me to a journalism class that I teach in the late afternoon. In a past post, I wrote about the lessons I have learned from this child. Here are five more financial insights that I have acquired:

1. Always ask questions: "What's this?" That's what the pre-schooler asked this week as he picked up a preserved scorpion that is set in Lucite. (It's a paperweight.) The Lesson: Don't be afraid to ask questions. Too often we sign off on warranties, purchase agreements or lease arrangements without asking enough questions.

2. Ask follow-up questions: "Does it have a name? Does it have a face? Does it move?" Those are the other questions, the pre-schooler asked about the scorpion. He didn't settle for my quick, automatic replies. He wanted in-depth answers and real conversation.

3. Get the right tools: I gave the kid an ice pop. To avoid a melt-down disaster, I put the ice pop in a bowl with a fork. The kid tried to eat the ice pop with the fork, but then looked at me with raised eyebrows. "I think I need a spoon," he said. The Lesson: We need the right stuff for specific tasks. From computer software to appliances, energy-efficient materials will yield better results and possibly improved savings.

4. Safeguard your treasures: "This is my treasure. Can you hold it for me?" the kid asked. Okay! Let's be serious: His treasure was a rubber, super-bouncy ball that is quite durable. It looked like a trinket from a bubble-gum machine or a dollar store. Yet, he wanted to protect that valuable treasure. The Lesson: Take better care of your stuff. Following his example, I should be more careful with my possessions, including DVDs, musical instruments, jewelry and clothing.

5. Safety in numbers: I love my little friend, but sometimes the babysitting gig demands more of my time and attention than I initially anticipated. The solution? Another three-year-old visitor and her mother! Let's call them "Toddler B" and "Mom B." For the about 30 to 45 minutes, "Mom B" watches my three-year-old friend and Toddler B in another apartment. (Both kids are in the same playgroup that ends at 1:30. )

With the new arrangement, my babysitting duties begin when Mom B has to go work at 2:15 pm. ) The new set-up requires less babysitting time for me and reduces my need to entertain since the two pre-schoolers play together. It's fun and I'm even beginning to wish I still had younger children, which is still an option. The Lesson: Find diverse sources of income, investments and assistance. There's really safety in numbers.

Bottom line: I make an effort to learn from the babysitting duties. As a responsible adult, I try to be hands-on with the young children in my home, which means I have plenty of time to watch, learn and take notes.

My hidden agenda: I actually wait and watch for the kids to do something that I can translate into a blog post or a story. Note to self: Always pay attention.



Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How Will Credit Crunch Hit Student Loans? A BusinessWeek Feature

Turmoil in the housing market is crunching down on the student loan market. That's the word from this BusinessWeek article, which offers an excellent overview of the topic and some helpful suggestions for the families of college-bound students.

Experts, for example, suggest that families move quickly to lock-in student loans, especially since some lenders are dropping out of that market. Consider this snippet:

"In the past few months, dozens of lenders have announced they are suspending some of their student loan programs or, in some instances, eliminating them entirely. The financial aid Web site, reports that 37 education lenders have exited or suspended their participation in all or part of the federally guaranteed Federal Family Education Loan Program. The outlook is grim for private lenders as well. Eleven lenders have suspended their private student loan programs, and seven nonprofit state loan agencies are also halting some programs."

Source: BusinessWeek

Here are other links from the piece:

Do Consultants Ease Financial Aid Angst?
Colleges Ease Access to Financial Aid
Tuition Assistance for the Middle Class
Q&A: Financial Aid Tips



Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Flexo to Quit Day Job & Other Items from 119th Festival of Frugality

The 119th edition of the Festival of Frugality is up at Consumerism Commentary. Flexo is an excellent host and launches the carnival with the news that he's giving up his day job in order to become a full-time blogger. Great news!

Thanks to Flexo for putting together an insightful festival. Thanks for including my post in the mix and mentioning it in the Editor's Choice section.

Here are a few of the posts that also caught my eye.

From Penny Nickel: 10 ways you can use less artificial light—lower emissions and your energy bill! posted at Money and Values. (I love this list about using natural light, twilight, night light and sweet light.)

From ~Dawn: Free Audio Resources posted at Frugal For Life. (Dawn has great tips about getting free music and programs on the Web.)

From Shana: How Much Money Do You Lose Through Laziness? at Smart Easy Money. (This post offers a push for those of us who waste money through inactivity and/or procrastination.)

From Pinyo: 5 Strategies to Survive An Economic Slowdown at Moolanomy. (Note to self: Bookmark this post!)

Thanks again to Flexo for taking the time to compile a great line-up with insightful comments.