Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brewing a New Life in an Old Yellow Teapot

My yellow enamel teapot will not rest in peace. Nor will it face a rusty death in a bottom of a landfill. With Earth Day approaching on April 22, my goal is to contribute fewer things to waste and landfills. And that includes a teapot whose inside is pocked by rust spots.

By recycling the teapot and other cast-off items, I can spend less money and save a small corner of the environment. Finding new uses for old items is a conservation strategy recommended by the nonprofit Air & Waste Management Association, which recommends reusing jars and containers, purchasing durable merchandise and passing up disposable alternatives.

Here are a few ideas for my teapot's second life.



Plant potter: Our porch is decorated with a mixture of new containers and unusual plant holders from yard sales and garden stores. Washed and shined, the teapot would look great in the garden with a sprig of basil or bunch of pansies.



Pen holder: A mere mug cannot contain the pens, markers and pencils on my desk. I need a teapot to store my writing utensils and the kids' crayons.

Napkin centerpiece: My multitasking teapot will serve as a centerpiece, linen storage and a napkin holder during meals and dinner parties. I envision elegantly folded cloth napkins arranged in a teapot in the center of the table.

Cord camouflage: Small electronic cords and cables dangle from hooks and nails like small snakes in a reptile house. Coiled, wrapped and tidied, those cables -- for cellphones, digital cameras, MP3 players -- would fit nicely into the mouth and body of the teapot.

Beauty storage: Barrettes, cotton balls, nail polish and other beauty accessories can be neatly tucked into the round belly of the teapot.

That's just a start. Looking around my house, I have spotted pitchers that can be recycled into funky vases and baskets that can be used to hold socks, sewing kits and other trinkets.


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Monday, March 30, 2009

Fatal Tragedy During the Morning Commute: Suicide or Accident?

A man fell or jumped onto the train tracks this morning, during my morning commute to work. The tragedy occured at the station near my office. Police, fireman, news helicopters and other emergency response teams were all on the scene. Here's the Miami Herald story about the fatality: Metrorail train hits, kills man in South Miami

Due to a series of minor morning mishaps -- ill-timed phone calls, a wardrobe malfunction and heavy traffic on the highway -- I caught a later train than usual. That train was halted several stations before my usual stop, and the passengers were directed to shuttle buses that took us near our destination. The experience produced the following insights:


  • Don't make assumptions. Online and in conversations, theories circulated about the jumper, who was a man. Early on, folks speculated that he had fallen; others assumed it was a suicide. A credible source told me that it was, indeed, a suicide, but I don't know for sure. Additionally, there were cruel speculations about the train conductor. People wanted to know: Was she texting? Was she on a cell phone? Why couldn't she stop the train before hitting him? I have no answers to those questions. But I what I do know that it's not fair or wise to make assumptions about life, death, finances or relationships.

  • Seek help when needed: While trying to find facts for this post, I chatted with an officer. He had a theory, but no hard facts about the fatality. However, he did tell me that he's heard of more people jumping from trains in the last year. And of course, there have been recent news reports of financially-strapped workers or executives, who have committed suicide and/or killed family members. Friends, suicide hotlines, clergy leaders and community centers are resources if you are troubled or if you think a co-worker is suffering from a mental health crisis.

  • Make a reality check: Before the facts were known, many commuters grumbled about the long delay, the crowded shuttle bus that provided alternate transportation and the general lack of information. We were all clueless about the delay. Waves of inpatience churned in my stomach. And then the shuttle bus dropped me off in front of the station. I saw the yellow crime tape, the tumult and the police. A fire truck ladder was extended to the above-ground track, where the rescue team was working on some manuever involving the train and the tracks. I looked away and walked to work. Those earlier waves of impatience were replaced with waves of gratitude as I felt lucky to be alive and in good health. And finally, I felt sad about the person who had fallen, slipped or jumped onto the tracks. May his soul rest in peace.


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Friday, March 27, 2009

Spring Clean Your Money -- A Guest Post & Personal Cleaning Tools

I like the idea of spring cleaning my finances. My number one tool is to sort through my paper piles and other clutter. I have found financial records by dusting, sorting and filing. My second tool is a pen-and-paper and a laptop, which I use to track my finances.

These following tips about spring cleaning your money are from a subsidiary affiliated with a major bank. I'm neutral on the institution, but I like their information. Here are their tips:

1. Gather your financial records. Pull together your financial statements (e.g., bank, credit card, brokerage), your insurance and legal documents (e.g., life insurance, will, healthcare proxy), and your personal records (e.g., birth certificate, marriage/divorce certificate, property deed). Create a filing system and put a copy of your important papers either in a fireproof box at home, a bank safe deposit box, and/or with a trusted lawyer, relative, or friend.

2. Get the big picture. Use your financial statements to calculate your net worth, which will tell you the difference between what you own (assets) and what you owe (liabilities). Once you have a picture of your overall net worth, determine your cash flow, which will help you identify areas where you could be saving and/or investing more.

3. Set financial goals. Short-term goals are those you’d like to accomplish within one year (e.g., pay off credit cards); mid-term goals, within 5 years (e.g., make down payment on a new home); and long-term goals, 5 years or more (e.g., save for retirement). Write these down to help you clarify and prioritize your financial goals.

4. Allocate your money. Once you know your financial goals, allocate your money accordingly. This will help you determine how realistic your financial goals are, how long it may take to meet them, and what adjustments you may need to make now to achieve your goals in your desired time frame. Review expenses monthly and evaluate your progress regularly.

5. Check your financial reputation. Your credit score is a picture of your financial health in the eyes of lenders. Check your credit reports as they could have errors or discrepancies that could limit your access to credit. Resolve any errors and if you have any over-due payments, work towards paying them down as soon as you can. The three organizations that issue the most commonly referred to credit reports are: Equifax (www.equifax.com), TransUnion (www.transunion.com) and Experian (www.experian.com).

6. Protect yourself. If you don’t have a will, living will, or health care proxy, speak to an attorney to help ensure that your assets are handled according to your wishes. Dealing with these issues today can help you and your loved ones breathe easier in the future.

7. Stay informed and engaged. Periodically review your goals and objectives at least once a year, as they will likely shift over time as life circumstances change." --source: Lisa Caputo and Linda Descano of Women & Co.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Stashing a Can of Coke in the Company Frig Saves $140

A friend of mine skips past the vending machine where a can or bottle of Diet Coke is $1.25 per container. Instead, from home she brings a can of soda to work every day for a lot less. She purchases a case of soda from the grocery store for a fraction of the unit price charged by the vending machine. Every morning, she chills the can in the office frig until mid-afternoon when she needs a shot of caffeine.

Consider the numbers: Office Depot sells a case of Diet Coke for $12.99. For that price, you get 24 cans of 12-ounce soda for $12.99 or 54 cents a can. In five days, she saves: $3.55. For a one-month period, she saves: $14.20, which equals: $170.40 over a 12-month period.

Here are other Diet Coke prices:

Of course, instead of soda, juice or sports drinks, we could all drink free filtered water from the fountain or kitchen sink. Water is a healthier, no-calorie drink without preservatives, artificial flavors, sugar or sugar-substitutes.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Found The Name of The Ugly Tree: Dead Man's Finger

Last Tuesday, I wrote Financial Lessons from an Ugly Tree. This week, I've learned about the financial power of research and gut feelings. How ugly is the tree? "Dead Man's Finger" is one of the common nicknames for an ugly tree that has stunningly beautiful flowers. Here's my latest list of lessons:

Trust your gut: When I looked at its branches, I thought the tree looked like a cluster of misshapen fingers. I felt validated when I found this description: "It can look awful without its leaves," according to this source. For that reason, the tree is called "Dead Man's Finger" in Australia. From this exercise, I've learned about the validity of my gut instincts. Financially and personally, we often get flashes of insights that prove to be correct. I'm not talking about wishful thinking, but those true-to-the-bone feelings that later haunt us when we ignore our inner verdicts. My worst mistakes have occurred when I have ignored a gut reaction to business opportunities or other scenarios.


  • Don't settle: While trying to put together this post, I was tempted to settle for answers that were almost true. It was tempting to chose easier options, and no one but me would know exactly what tree caught my attention last week. But I continued to search for the right tree. I wanted to be honest with myself and with you. In money and other areas of life, it's often tempting to settle for almost-but-not quite or for less than our best efforts. This exercise taught me to demand more of myself.


  • Be open-minded: I was so thrilled with the vivid description. Dead Man's Finger! That said it all and that nickname fit so well with my plans for this post. But, honestly, there were other vivid nicknames for the tree, including: Jasmine de Cayenne (Brazil), Pagoda Tree or Temple Tree (India), Egg Flower (southern China) , Amapola (Venezuela), according to this source. And by the way, the scientific name is Plumeria . Although, common sense is valuable, it's also important to keep an open mind when evaluating investments, financial planning, frugal choices and personal relationships. One term or plant can have different meanings depending on the observer, setting and language.


  • Expect the Unexpected: Who would think that such an ugly tree would produce such beautiful flowers? "Its flowers are the ones used to form the colorful, tropical flower necklaces (lei) every tourist to our 50th state [Hawaii] wears during at least one beach party," according to this source. Plumeria Frangipani --also known as Dead Man's Finger or Egg Flower -- has taught me to keep my eyes open.




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Monday, March 23, 2009

Listen to Me on WLRN & Follow Up on Twitter

Please tune into WLRN, an NPR station, on Tuesday, March 24, at 1 p.m. I'll be a guest on Topical Currents, an hour-long show hosted by Joseph Cooper, pictured left. We're going to be talking about money-saving tips and other frugal living topics.

Listen online, by going to the WLRN home page and hitting the Listen Online button at the top of the page. Of course, if you're in the South Florida area, just tune into 91.3 on the FM band.




And I'm also twittering. I write random stuff that varies from self-promotional blather to insightful, almost haiku word blasts about spring cleaning. Catch me in an over-sharing mood at twitter.com/FrugalDuchess



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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lessons From Spring Cleaning: Finding Myself in Clutter

Spring cleaning has created a head-on collision between my need for financial order and my pack rat tendencies. My paper collection includes cards and letters from 1987, old photographs and a 1980s-era cassette with lyrics from one of my favorite singers. Spring cleaning has taught me a lot about past accounts. Here's what I've learned:

  • Read the fine print and the large print: As I've reviewed older documents -- bank statements, letters and old cards -- I see how many significant details I've misunderstood, overlooked or dismissed in the past. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But as I sort through the pages of emotional and fiscal accounts, I carry forward lessons about the importance of carefully reading, digesting and acting on contracts, financial agreements and personal engagements. I've learned to carefully analyze contracts and contacts before taking action.

  • Follow through: In a recent post about an ugly tree, I promised readers that I would do some homework and discover the name of the tree. A reader has even left a comment asking me to make good on my word. Today I cringed when I realized that I had forgotten about that promise. In fact, as I sort through my photos, I have been confronted with a vast collection of broken promises. For example, I see scrapbooks that I meant to assemble, savings targets that I have missed and letters that I have never answered. With that 20/20 hindsight, I have better insights for the present and the future. Insights have led to a practical action plan. I've created a master list of projects -- financial, personal, creative -- and I plan to check in on that list nightly and to make more time to follow through on goals and promises.


  • Slow down: So many financial goals and personal promises floundered because I have lived life at high speed. I've moved from one so-called emergency to another, and in that speed I have created deeper problems and gaps in my assorted accounts. I now take more time to think, breathe and meditate. My goal is to move further ahead by moving slower.



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Friday, March 20, 2009

How I Sabotaged My Emergency Fund: 5 Mistakes & Cures

Common wisdom tells us to have an Emergency Fund with at least three to six months of living expenses. I'm on my way to that savings target, but my efforts have been hit by setbacks. Here's where I have made mistakes, and here's how I plan to fix those errors:



1) Easy Access: For the sake of electronic ease, the account containing the Emergency Fund was linked to my primary checking account. Bad move! For sure, that link made it easier to transfer money into the Emergency Fund. But that same e-link made it easier to transfer money out of the Emergency Fund.

Solution: The April 2009 issue of Money Magazine offers this advice: "Your emergency fund -- cash you'll need if you lose a job -- must be in a bank account that's 100 percent safe but needn't be so convenient; if you get a good yield, don't worry if it takes a day or two to transfer the money."



2) Multi-tasking funds: I've erred by establishing a one-size-fits all savings account. It's too easy to use emergency funds for other savings goals or spending binges.

Solution: Vacation account savings, funds for long-term purchases and emergency money should not be housed together. General household funds also need their own home. "Grocery money goes in checking," according to a great piece featured in Money called: "5 Things to Know About Stashing Your Cash," by Sarah Max. See also: The 7 new rules of financial security


3) Unreasonable goals: Unrealistic targets are formulas for failures. When I set the savings bar too high, I feel defeated and slide back into bad savings habits.

Solution: I'm downsizing my dreams and targets. I'll save more if I demand less.


4) Lack of Priorities: When I pay myself last, I often fail to pay myself at all.

Solution: The Emergency Fund should rank above other savings goals, including vacation accounts, holiday gift funds and other savings targets.


5) Emotional loopholes: As a creative writer, I can be very creative with my rationalizations about saving, spending and living. A wide list of so-called emergencies can rain on the Emergency Fund umbrella.

Solution: Effective April 1, I will track my expenses for a two-month period. This daily accounting should provide an honest picture of where my money is going. Also, I will create and adhere to strict definitions about the emergency cash. It might help to have a lowercase emergency fund for household expenses and an uppercase Emergency Fund with cash sufficient for three to six months of living expenses.











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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Downsized Newspaper Editor Launches Family of Frugal Blogs

Teresa Mears -- a friend and an excellent journalist -- is among the many newspaper people who have lost their jobs. She has turned her creative efforts into a series of frugal blogs. Here's the release:

In the current coupon-clipping climate, everyone is asking “how can we save money and still enjoy our lives?” Now, a collection of new local blogs is providing some answers to that question every day.

Miami FL on the Cheap , Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap (http://fortlauderdaleonthecheap.com), Palm Beach on the Cheap (http://palmbeachonthecheap.com) and Florida Keys on the Cheap (http://floridakeysonthecheap.com) help South Florida residents and tourists find daily deals on things like dining, events and activities. Florida on the Cheap (http://floridaonthecheap.com) provides tips and deals for travelers to and within Florida.

The new blogs are edited and published by Teresa Mears, a veteran South Florida journalist – downsized from her newspaper job last year – who has lived in Florida for nearly three decades.

“Everyone — including me—is looking for deals right now,” says Mears, who left The Miami Herald in July after 30 years of writing and editing for newspapers. “And they’re out there. I’m just trying to make it easy for people to find them. Plus, South Florida has so many wonderful free activities – but they’re not always easy to find.”

Over the past several weeks, thrifty readers of South Florida’s “On the Cheap” blogs have learned about deals as diverse as discounted tickets to the Miami International Film Festival, free kids’ meals on Friday nights in Hollywood, free previews of Palm Beach Opera performances and “date night” deals to the Waterfront Playhouse in Key West, plus national food discounts and freebies. That’s in addition to dozens of opportunities to experience music, art, kids’ activities and attractions for free.

The South Florida “On the Cheap” blogs are part of a rapidly growing network of independently owned and operated “Cities on the Cheap” http://www.citiesonthecheap.com websites in the United States and Canada.

Owned mostly by women, the network of blogs grew out of a series of conversation in an online writers’ network. Each editor owns his or her own blog, and the entrepreneurial journalists are working in collaboration. Most, like Mears, had never created a web site before, but nearly all the writers built their own sites. The sites are supported by advertising.

The Cities on the Cheap network is celebrating its official launch Tuesday, March 10, with contests and giveaways on some sites. The South Florida sites will be asking their readers for tips on South Florida deals and will be giving away books that mention money by South Florida writers as diverse as Dave Barry, Frugal Duchess Sharon Harvey Rosenberg and Suze Orman, plus a few Webkinz.

In Florida, On the Cheap blogs are operating in Gainesville, Sarasota and Tampa Bay, with launches expected soon in Orlando and the Florida Panhandle. In addition, Disney on the Cheap focuses on deals to the Disney theme parks.

About Teresa Mears

Teresa Mears is a veteran South Florida journalist. In addition to working as an assistant features editor for The Miami Herald, she has worked for The Los Angeles Times, The St. Petersburg Times, The Gleaner in Henderson, Ky., and The Portland (Tenn.) Leader. As a freelance writer, she contributed to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Miami Metro, WorldCity Business, Travel & Leisure and other publications. She now runs her own project management, editing and consulting business. She doesn’t clip coupons, but she does buy her clothes in thrift stores and is a devotee of the Publix “buy one, get one free” promotions.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Financial Lessons from an Ugly Tree

Today's half-mile walk from the bus stop yielded some insights plucked from an ugly tree. Actually, the tree is no longer ugly; it has started to bloom. Here's what I have learned about money and life from that tree.

  • Make informed decisions: At first glance, this tree is straight-up ugly. For most of the year, the tree looks like ET's hands. The branches are short, gnarled appendages that appear distorted from pain and stunted growth. But I've discovered that at least once a year, these trees blossom with flowers of incredible beauty. The lesson: To an uninformed pedestrian or homeowner, these trees appear to be blights that should be chopped down. However, with knowledge and patience, I understand that those trees are garden treasures. I will apply that same principle to other areas of my life, including finance and long-term planning. Get educated, take the long-term view and be patient.

  • Learn new terms: This post would be better if I knew the name of that tree or if I knew more details about its blooming season and other botanical details. Likewise, other areas of my life would benefit from education. But too often, we invest in products, financial transactions, relationships and careers without conducting research. My new homework assignment: Find the name of that tree and research the history. Stop calling it: "That tree."

  • Document: I need to carry a camera. A visual image --documentation -- would also enhance the value of this post. I need better documentation in other areas of my life. The quality of my life will improve as I do a better job documenting records, receipts, investments and my children's growth spurts.


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How Many Tabs Can You Pick Up for an Out-of-Work Friend?-- Money Magazine

It certainly caught my eye. Last year, one of four friends (housemates) lost her job. And now, whenever the quartet goes out, the employed friends pay the entire bill. "Amy's not close to finding a new job, and this is getting expensive. When can we stop?" That's the question featured in "The Ethicists," a regular feature in Money Magazine.

The answer: "...times are tough, and now it's time for some tough love. Being unemployed doesn't make someone a charity." --Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz


The Ethicists argue that the friends should stop paying Amy's entertainment bills. " [T]he free lunch window closes," the columnists say, adding: "You might try softening the blow by making plans to do things together that Amy can afford right now. Netflix, anyone?"

Good advice, but I'm torn. I certainly believe in tough love, but I would recommend tough love for the all four friends. Maybe the entire quartet needs to take a time out from expensive entertainment, restaurant meals and other budget-guzzling outings.

The laid-off friend/housemate won't feel left out, and the rest of the group can put their cash into an emergency fund.

Suggested entertainment:
  • A gallery opening. (There might be free food!)
  • Picnic
  • Sports in the park
  • Covered-dish dinner party
  • Free event at a bookstore, museum or library
  • Board game night
  • House party (DIY club night)
  • Yard sale tour
  • Thrift store clothing excursion
  • Free classes at a craft store, hardware store or home supply chain
  • Bike riding
  • Sports clinic at an athletic store
  • Volunteer
  • DIY home spa
  • Clothing swap party
  • Cooking class or wine-tasting class at Whole Foods

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Free Databases, Manuals at Public Libraries

While attending a free library event, I checked out valuable information resources that could save time and money. Free car repair manuals, do-it-yourself roof repair guides and language lessons are all available with a few keystrokes, according to Ellen Book, branch manager of the Pinecrest Branch Library.

That free database is not unique. Across the country, public libraries offer vast collections of research and information.
''We try to find what's most useful,'' Book said.

You'll need a library card to tap into most systems. ''Sites like ours are hidden from search engines,'' Book said. "A library card is the gatekeeper.''

For my local system, the link to the database is on the home page and I must enter my card number before gaining access. If you are overwhelmed by the quantity of information, request an online tour from your librarian. Once you're familiar with it, you'll be able to access the database from home, an Internet café or any computer with an Internet connection.

Here's a guide to some of the bytes and bits of information available at most libraries:

• Auto repair center. Do you need information about a specific car model? Illustrated auto guides are available by model and year. There is also advice on specific types of repairs with do-it-yourself instructions.

• Homework help. Encyclopedias, newspaper articles, magazine features and academic journals are available online through the library. I also took an electronic tour of a biography resource center, a census database and an ''Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center,'' with links to a variety of political and social essays, which are ideal for school debates. For high school and adult students, there are guides to help you prepare for college and professional exams.

• Home repair center. Check out the illustrated home center guides, featuring topics from A to Z. For example, the roof installation section is popular and matches a demand that standard books can not fill, Book said. ''We can't keep enough roofing books on the shelf,'' she said.
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Spotlight on the Festival of Frugality, #168 & #167

The next Festival of Frugality will be hosted on Tuesday by Remodeling This Life.

Funny About Money hosted last week's Funny Festival of Frugality #168. Thanks to the host for doing a great job and for including my post--Saving Time and Money for Dinner--in the lineup. The "editor’s picks" included the following articles:

The 167th Festival of Frugality, was hosted by Green Panda Treehouse.

The editor's top picks included:

Kudos to the host for assembling such a great lineup. Thanks for including my post, Scanning for Checkout Errors: Grocery Alert.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Links I Liked: Weekly Roundup

From Jim Cramer to personal rewards, here are a few links that caught my eye this week:

From Jim Letourneau's Big Picture Speculator: Jon Stewart Grills Cramer

From Blogging Away Debt: Keeping Track of Receipts

From Budgeting Babe Budgeting Babe on Twitter (and Many Other PF Bloggers, too!)

From Harvesting Dollars: How Do You Reward Yourself?

From Mighty Bargain Hunter Whaddaya mean no rentals allowed?

From Dedicated to Financial Freedom: Spending big money again



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Friday, March 13, 2009

From the Vault: Camp Scholarships

Spring break and summer vacations are coming around soon. I wrote this piece last year, about camp money for kids.

Many camps --Spring Break mini camps, after-school camps and Summer Camps-- offer a wide variety of program discounts. But in some cases, there's a big catch: You have to ask.

I've had directors at expensive, private day camps, inform me that registration fees and tuition costs can be waived for families that need help. But that information is sometimes whispered or delivered in very hushed tones.

(A private camp may not want to be swamped with scholarship requests or may lack the staff to review inquiries.) But there are full scholarships, partial fees, sibling discounts, early-registration fee cuts and other discounts. There are also resident, neighborhood or membership-only tuition breaks.

Some camps award financial packages based on standardized forms and "needs test." Other camps only ask for letters requesting scholarships or discounts. "There's no child left behind,"said one camp director. But he acknowledged that although fee-discounts are available, the burden is on each family to request assistance. --This piece originally ran in March of 2008.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beware of $12,000 Stimulus Check & Other Scams, Says Kiplinger's

This item from the folks at Kiplinger's caught my attention:

"Will the Treasury Department really issue stimulus checks of $12,000? No—but some con artists would like you to believe so. Crooks miss no opportunity to take your money—and began plotting stimulus-related schemes as soon as the law was passed in February. In “Watch Out for Stimulus Scams,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance contributing editor Kim Lankford uncovers the most common cons and offers tips to avoid them:

· $12,000 Government Grant. This ad says you can order a CD or access a special Web site that will show you how to get a $12,000 government grant—if you make a small credit-card payment. But the fine print shows that you’re also signing up for recurring credit-card charges that can be tough to get out of. The Better Business Bureau found that people who signed up for this advice were charged as much as $69.95 every month on their credit or debit cards.

· Warning of Stimulus Forfeit. The crook sends an e-mail claiming to be from the IRS, warning that if you don’t respond promptly (often with your bank-account information), you’ll forfeit your stimulus money. The IRS does not contact taxpayers by e-mail and never asks for PINs, passwords, or secret access information for credit cards or bank accounts. If you click on a link in the message, you could be directed to a phishing Web site, which the crook created to collect personal information.

So, how can you protect yourself?
1) File a Complaint. If you’ve received a fraudulent email, file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Federal Trade Commission.
2) Do A Company Background Check. Check out companies and learn about recent scams at the Better Business Bureau's Web site.
3) Visit the FBI. Read warnings about e-mail hoaxes and phishing scams on the FBI’s Cyber Investigations Web site." --source Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Here's a link to full article about stimulus scams.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What I Learned From an 8th-Grade Basketball Game

As the shot clock ran down, there were a few tense moments at a middle-school basketball game involving my son's team. The game was a slam dunk for financial lessons. Here's what I learned from the sidelines.


  • Momentum shifts quickly : The score was tied with 60 seconds left in the final quarter. We had the ball and momentum was in our favor. Then we turned the ball over, and the other team went on a 9-0 run. The final score 52 to 59.

My final lesson: I can save money all week, but a $90 shopping run in just 60 minutes can create a deficit.


  • Can't control everything: We were sunk by more than a bad turnover during the final minute. When we got the ball back, a clueless ref ignored a flagrant foul that happened right in front of my courtside seat. I would have jumped up and down -- screaming in protest -- if it weren't for a withering please-don't-embarrass-me look from my tweenage daughter. So I just sat down and faced reality. It was painful because in a few heartbeats, the opposing team expanded their lead from two points to five points after the bad call led to a basket and a foul shot (an "and-one," three-point play.)

My financial lesson: Losses happen. Stocks slide; houses depreciate and bounce checks may hit the rim due to forces beyond your call. I have to do my best to make the numbers work and then let go of the rest.


  • Stick to your game plan: After the turnover and the bad ref call, you could see the wind go out of my team. And as the game clock ran down, the lead expanded into a score that resembled a rout.

My financial lesson: Do your best to contain financial slides. Losses can have a domino effect. Stay focused in order to limit cash drains.

And finally, I learned a lot from my son. He plays with so much heart, he's an awesome defender. He's fierce and is just under 5-feet-tall. Given his small stature, he did not get much time in that game, which involved a team of much taller opponents.

But when he came in with the rest of the substitutes in the final 30 seconds of the game, my son played as if the game just started. I should save money with that kind of fierce focus.



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Monday, March 09, 2009

Saving Time and Money for Dinner

The bewitching hour -- that twilight period between late afternoon and mealtime -- was a challenge when my children were toddlers. Balancing a mix of late afternoon snacks, baths and dinner preparation stretched our limited time, money and patience.

Now that the kids are older, the betwitching hour has a different chime. Rush-hour commutes, homework assignments and dinner prep are recipes for tension and expensive takeout food.

Sarah Beth Davidoff, chef and owner of Fare to Remember Creative Catering, offers organizational tips to reduce the emotional and financial costs of evening dinner rituals. ''Taking time to think about meals can save money,'' Davidoff said.

Here are a few suggestions:
Hold cooking marathons: As the child of working parents, Davidoff has fond memories of her mother's weekly cooking marathons. On Sunday afternoons, her mother would cook for several hours, whipping up a variety of dishes to serve later in the week. With that headstart, her parents avoided the weeknight lure of fast food, pizza and expensive takeout meals. ''It's a great use of time,'' Davidoff said.

• Serve breakfast for dinner: Break out of culinary time zones. Consider omelets, pancakes, French toast and waffles for dinner. ''Those are healthy items and are much faster to make than roasting an entire chicken,'' Davidoff said, and breakfast is cheaper than a typical dinner.

• Shop carefully: Sketch out a week of menus and use them to create a shopping list before you hit the grocery store. Stick to the list and avoid marketing tricks at the store. For instance, expensive snacks and processed foods are placed at the eye level of most adults, while pricey cereals and other sugary treats are placed on lower shelves to attract the attention of children.
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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Quote of the Day: Nietzche in the Value of Stubborness

"Many are stubborn in the pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal."

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Are Going-Out-of-Business Sales Real Deals or Just a Money Grab?

The first time it happened, I thought I was crazy. While flipping through so-called sale merchandise at a going-out-of-business sale for a department store, I thought the prices looked insane or maybe -- I wondered -- there was something wrong with my inner calculator. Had someone doubled the original prices before marking everything down just a tad bit? Are the prices real; are the discounts genuine?

That was during the 1980s in Pittsburgh, when I had rushed to a final sale with hopes of scoring great deals. Instead, I left the store feeling as if I had narrowly avoided a scam.

More recently, I have carted around those same feelings of disbelief as I have sampled other going-out-business sales. Are some final sales just one more money-grab before a store or company closes its doors for good?

As a shopping skeptic, I am not alone. In the last several weeks, I've received validation from other shoppers and the media, who have expressed doubt about the true value of final sales.

So shoppers beware: We have to do our homework; know our prices before walking into a going-out-of-business sale. Here's a roundup of articles and posts related to going-out-of-business sales.


How to Shop a Going Out of Business Sale



Going Out of Business Sales



Researcher: Be wary of going-out-of-business sales
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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tip Tuesday: 50 Low-Cost Tasks To Do On Public Transportation

Buses and trains consume large chunks of my day, but I've learned to make commuting time pay by carrying out creative, practical and meditative tasks.

It's possible to get more mileage out of the day, by using commuting time to the fullest. I've studied other public transportation riders, and here are some activities I've witnessed:

  1. Plan a daily or weekly agenda

  2. Read a book

  3. Read newspapers or magazines

  4. Recycle newspapers, magazines and books (i.e. leave reading material on the seat for another rider.)

  5. Sit and stare (My favorite form of meditation.)

  6. Listen to music

  7. Work on a laptop

  8. Watch a movie or television show on a laptop or portable DVD player

  9. Write in a journal

  10. Write a short poem or fiction

  11. Play music on a guitar or violin

  12. Chew gum

  13. Sleep

  14. Work on crossword puzzles, word games or number challenges

  15. Settle an argument, emote or cry (catharsis)

  16. Check e-mail

  17. Write an e-mail

  18. Send a text message

  19. Talk loudly on a cell phone

  20. Talk quietly on a cell phone

  21. Use sign language

  22. Eat

  23. Drink coffee

  24. Play video games

  25. Apply makeup

  26. Study for an exam

  27. Proofread work assignments

  28. Do homework

  29. Pray

  30. People watch

  31. Make new friends

  32. Sight see

  33. Provide travel advice for out-of-town visitors

  34. Sell socks, jewelry, candy and other small items

  35. Purchase socks, jewelry or candy

  36. Prepare for a meeting

  37. Check travel arrangements

  38. Study fellow passengers

  39. Exercise (One passenger used an overhead bar to do chin ups.)

  40. Practise deep-breathing exercises

  41. Take a guided-mental meditation trip

  42. Read advertisements, public service announcements and other posted material

  43. Study the real estate market

  44. Take children on a frugal tour of the city or region

  45. Learn a language

  46. Practise a speech or presentation

  47. Network with other professionals

  48. Campaign for a cause, charity or political issue

  49. Give charity

  50. Plan meals for the week
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Monday, March 02, 2009

Welcome Frugal Focus Readers!

The Frugal Focus – a frugal news aggregate service – makes its debut today. I am honored to join this group, which bring together frugal news and posts from bloggers and other sources.

Located at www.frugalfocus.com, the site features different categories such as Budgeting, Grocery Coupons, Beauty, Books and Music.

Participating bloggers include:
Bargain Babe
Bargain Briana
Finally Frugal
Frugal Green Girl
Frugal Plus
Not Made Of Money
The Frugal Duchess
The Frugal Girl

Snippets from different blogs are featured every day. For instance, here is a post about menu planning from The Frugal Girl:
Grocery Spending and Menu Plan-2.28
This is the last week of February, which means that the Grocery Challenge I’ve been participating in is up after this week. Last week, I was $1 over budget, so as long as I kept my grocery spending to $79 or less this week, I was all set to make my goal of spending $320 or less for the month of February.
I actually shopped at three stores this week, because a local grocery store was having a very good sale on chicken breasts. I got 7 pounds of chicken breasts for $1.35/pound, which is a delightful price." -- The Frugal Girl
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Monday Roundup: Links I Liked

From frugal fashion to small business management, here are a few posts that have recently caught my eye:





From Blogging Away Debt: Changes in Our Income


From Boston Gal's Open Wallet: Survival Jobs


From Dual Income No Kids: How Much Does Your Family Eat In A Week?



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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Scanning for Checkout Errors: Grocery Alert

In the current environment of massive fraud and monetary mayhem, the financial error I recently encountered was small. But I refused to accept a 25-percent loss at the checkout counter, where I was charged an extra $1 for a pint of organic grape tomatoes.

As a weekly special, the advertised price was $3.99 per container. But when I studied my receipt in the checkout lane, I saw that I had been charged $4.99.


Here's what that episode taught me:



Always check receipts. Checkout errors are common, according to one industry survey. In 2003, A.T. Kearney found ''data errors'' on 30 percent of retail items. My own shopping experiences mirror those findings, and after a spate of checkout errors at several stores, I've learned to quickly review receipts before leaving a store's parking lot.
Many errors are computer-driven. Occasionally, sale prices and special markdowns are advertised but not updated in the store's computer system. For example, the scanning code on my tomatoes did not reflect the hand-written sale price tacked to the produce display.


Check the error policy. Some stores will compensate shoppers for mispriced items. In my neighborhood, Publix will give you an item for free if "the scanned price of an item . . . exceeds the shelf price or advertised price.''
Examine large purchases. ''You have to really scrutinize receipts, especially for big-ticket items,'' said Jane Bennett Clark, senior associate editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance.
During a recent interview, Clark identified three types of pricing errors.
1. Customer errors occur when shoppers select an item that is not covered by a sales promotion.
2. Due to employee error or computer glitches, merchandise is mislabeled.
3. Shoppers are lured into a store with the promise of low-priced specials, but are directed toward comparable merchandise at higher prices.



The third scenario is against the law, and shoppers should contact local regulators if they suspect a bait-and-switch scheme, Clark said.
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