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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): February 2008

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Don't Forget About the Free USAA Wiping Out Debt Web Seminar

Just a reminder on this web seminar coming up at USAA. I don't know if they've had these in the past, but this is an online seminar led by a certified financial planner. You will get strategies to reduce debt and be able to ask some questions, so be sure to gather your thoughts and think of something that's really been bugging you or maybe something you don't totally understand. As an added bonus, they are offering ten chances to win a "sit down" with one of their financial planners, to get your own financial house in order. They say that's a $195 value. Be sure to register in advance, or you'll miss being able to participate. The seminar takes place, right here on 4 March at 7 PM Central Standard Time. You can arrive up to 15 minutes early. I just may see you all there!

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That Plantation in Ballyhoo and Being a Part of History

Ahh...I'm getting nostalgic again. About 10 years ago, after repeated stories from my grandmom about some plantation in Ballyhoo where my ancestors supposedly were treated like family and distant memories of African princesses and the dream that we were more than just slaves, I decided to try to go on some kind of fact-finding mission to find out for myself. I knew nothing about genealogy or how to go about finding my fact, I don't think I even knew what the word genealogy really meant back then. I think was just gaining a foothold on the internet at that time, as well as

One of the first things I did was go online to both sites and post a simple message about a plantation in that town, with the plantation owner's name, along with a few other specifics. Really, that's all we had. That was about the extent of my grandmother's information. After a few weeks, I noticed an email with a response from one of those sites. I dutifully clicked on the link and started reading....I will never forget the goosebumps I had that night...don't things like this always happen late at night....and realizing a perfect stranger's words mirrored some of the things my grandmother had so vehemently told me all these years. I was hooked.

This lady I ended up corresponding with and who I still am in contact with, happened to be a direct descendant of that plantation owner. She filled me on the plantation owner's life. She shared some photos and military records and some copies of old county records. It seemed with every new document or photo, there was yet another clue that explained something from my family's task...down to the very details of how we did certain things today!

But what really got me to fall out of my chair, was when she sent photos and grave rubbings from an old abandoned cemetery that took her over two years to find....after talking to numerous oldtimers and hacking her way through the dense underbrush of a Mississippi forest, she literally stumbled upon it when she tripped over a gravestone. She had found the old plantation family cemetery and found the slaves, my ancestors, buried right next to the plantation owner and his family. More validation that my grandmother's claims were correct and a very unusual thing to find in the South...slaveowners and slaves, side-by-side, resting in peace.

I spent the next few years dutifully researching records online and learning how to shake my family tree. I found census records online as well as records through the Mormom Church and their Family History Centers, open to anyone who has an interest in researching their Mormon membership required. I dutifully recorded and copied everything I could find. I was even able to find a slave narrative interview done during the WPA where this particular slave being interviewed was a brother of one of my distant grandfathers....he too validated almost everything we had already heard about the slaveowner and the slave patriarch of our family, Joe, who we found was born in Africa.

I also jumped in waist deep into my husband's family history. I followed schooner ships across the Atlantic, went to Ellis Island (their online database), scrolled through microfilmed records of two hundred year old records belonging to tiny churches when Germany wasn't even a country. I even read first-hand battlefield accounts of a soldier who fought alongside one of my husband's great grandfathers, as he fought his way and survived the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War! Wow, history takes on a whole new meaning when you find pieces of your own being embedded within it!

Why am I telling you all this? In hopes that it will get you motivated to trace your own roots. Most of what we are is a direct result of where we came from. We gain more insight into ourselves by looking back at our past...we might as well be looking into a mirror. We also have the added benefit of having a sense of belonging and being able to pass down something valuable to our children. What can make us richer than a rich past?!

If you've never researched anything about your family past, now is a good time to start. Many records can be found on the internet. Yes, there are many paid and subscription sites out there, but you'd be surprised at how many libraries give their patrons free access, either at home through a special account or at the library itself. Many have genealogy research rooms now too.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start talking to your elders now. When they are gone, the good stories and the clues to your past may be completely gone from this earth. Don't delay! Here are some ideas.
  • Check with your local library. Ask what they have available, either in book form, online or through inter-library loan. Find out if they have a genealogy club and plan to attend.
  • See what you've already got. Did you inherit any old photo albums or family Bibles? You can find clues there. Ask relatives if you can scan some of their old photos and documents. You can't copy everything, but you can take notes and you can copy here and there. I even found some writing on someone's old desk that was passed on down through the generations...cast a wide net, and you will find something.
  • Record where you got every bit of information. I made the mistake, when I first got started, of not writing down exactly where I got that latest tidbit of information. Great grandma Josephine married Great grandpa Karl on 15 March 1911...and then later, have no idea where you read that, saw it or heard it? One thing you learn in genealogical with nothing to back it up is just hearsay....always, always keep track of where you got it. It may also help you later on down the road when you try to make more connections.
  • Have a good record keeping system. Whether it's file folders or binders or just drawers, label everything and make it logical. I started out with a rubber tote myself...just threw everything in there. After 100+ documents, I had to finally get it organized into file folders.
  • Safeguard the valuables. I'm talking irreplaceable documents and photos. I keep old family albums in a fireproof safe. I've also scanned copies of photos and documents and made sure other family members have copies on CD, should my house burn down or be swept away in a flood! Take no chances on being disappointed.
  • Share your work. Not only will you bring joy to others in your extended family, it will keep a sense of order about all you have done so far. It does no good to hoard the information, or be disorganized about it. What if something happens to you? Then all your work and research may very likely be lost....who can make sense of all your stuff and what do they keep and what do they toss? I use a computer genealogy program, Legacy Family Tree, to keep all my information straight. It keeps everyone in line, tracks my sources, keeps photos and scanned documents in order and makes some great reports. I have also used the templates from Mended Memories to make some beautiful homemade books using just a word processing computer program such as Microsoft Word. It's amazing what you can do with the backgrounds, borders and graphics they have available. I've even substituted some of their drawings with some of my own and others I found on the internet to make each page more unique.
Do you have an interesting family story to share? Do you have old family albums and keepsakes? How do you preserve and protect them? Have you done any family history research?


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nutella Out the Ying Yang

I don't know what else to call it and not be x-rated...ying yang. As many of you know, we have a German exchange student this year...for the whole year...his relatives have sent us cases and then more cases of Nutella. You know, that hazelnut chocolate spread stuff in a jar that kids would eat all day if you let them. I guess the Germans don't know that we have that stuff here now...I think the stuff they sell in the States comes from Canada. I couldn't tell the difference in the taste (but our student swears he can). Anyway, you can buy the Canadian version of Nutella in almost any mainstream grocery store in the States. Now, our two boys are just thrilled that they get to eat Nutella on toast every morning, but ever the inventive mom...I wanted to try something different and needed to find a way to whittle down that stash before we move.

I'm not a big fan of Nutella and toast, but I do like after doing some brainstorming and digging through recipe books and online, I found three recipes that use LOTS of Nutella...the dishes look pretty....are easy to make (which is key, cause I am no Chef Boyardee)...and they taste great! I've written out the instructions to make it simple simon for ya. Try them out and let me know what you think.

This No-Knead Nutella and Roasted Hazelnut Challah is just divine. Even I had to keep saying "mmmmm" as we ate it and licked our fingers. It also uses the new...or should I say...newly discovered no-knead bread. You just mix the bread dough in a large bowl, and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The longer you let it fart around..literally, the better it'll taste. This recipe came out of the book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. Here is their recipe, adapted to my liking!

No-Knead Nutella and Roasted Hazelnut Challah


7/8 cups lukewarm water
3/4 tbl instant yeast or bread yeast
3/4 tbl kosher salt
2 lg eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup honey
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
4 to 9 tbl Nutella
small handful of hazelnuts
1 egg + 1 tbl water, whisked to make egg wash (or use the powdered egg mix with water)


In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, water, honey, melted butter, yeast and salt. Stir til it is really mixed up well. Add in the flour and keep stirring til it has the consistency of dough and you have no more flour left. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it, overnight or more. The longer the better tasting bread you will have!

Flour your hands, then divide the dough in half. I make one challah to keep and one to give away. Shape each blob of dough into a ball by stretching the top and tucking it under. Do that all the way around of each ball. Lay on the counter, covered with a kitchen towel to rest while you roast the hazelnuts.

Roast the hazelnuts in a pan over medium heat (no oil needed). Keep moving the pan so the nuts don't burn. Roast until the nuts are golden brown and smell yummy! Roughly chop up the nuts on a cutting board.

Take each dough ball and roll into a long, even log. Cut each log into three equal pieces. You are going to braid each of these three pieces into two braids after we add the Nutella..remember, I said we are making two loaves here. Don't get confused! Don't try to stretch or pull the dough, as it can easily break. I roll and squeeze out from the center to get my ropes.

Now you get to add the Nutella. No finger licking! It's unsanitary! Take each rope and press an indention all along the middle. Use a butterknife and spread the Nutella in this indentation. Once you have all the Nutella inside each rope, pinch the ends up to seal. It's going to be messy, but that's okay.

Now you're going to braid. Pinch each of the three ropes together and tuck under at one end. Braid to the other side, then pinch and tuck under. Repeat for the other braid.

Cover with towel and let rest for 1-1/2 hours. Twenty minutes prior to baking, preheat your oven to 350F. When dough is ready, brush top with egg wash and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts. Bake for 25-30 minutes.

I also like the chef who does the Everyday Italian series. Isn't she pretty? Anyway, she makes easy-to-follow recipes too. This is where I found a few more Nutella recipes that got the thumbs up from my two boys, in her book, giada's family dinners by Giada de Laurentiis. At this rate, we'll be able to get through all the Nutella and have happy faces and tummies all around, along with probably a gain of 15 lbs for mom! What we do for our kids!

Nutella Ravioli (see the video with Giada)

Chocolate Pizza with Nutella

When I made the chocolate pizza over the weekend, I used what toppings I had on hand. So I also added Butterscotch chips. You can even add marshmallows or whatever chocolate and candy bar bits you have on hand. Be creative!

Have you ever tried Nutella? Do you have a recipe with extra-ordinary ingredients to share? What kinds of chocolate foods do you and your kids like that may be a little bit out of the ordinary?


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Skinny Songs for Skinny-Wanna-Be Butts?

I recently got a CD in the mail for review. It's called Skinny Songs, and the lady who put this CD together, is a weight loss survivor herself. She says that there isn't a lot of motivational music out there, huh? And that is why she came up with this music CD. My impressions?

Well, it looks professionally enough put together. I think it's a bit strange that none of the artists are listed for any of the ten songs on the CD, as they are truly very talented and have great singing voices. I think the founder and lyricist of Skinny Songs, Heidi Roizen wrote all the songs and then had other people do the singing and producing.

Now I must say, the songs are very upbeat and do lend themselves to those songs you like to sing to. I can imagine doing a workout or even cleaning the house, keeping up with the beat. The songs range from country to hip-hop, and there is probably a music genre for everyone in here. What kind of rubbed me the wrong way though, was the annoying lyrics. Some sound just plain silly. You can read some of the lyrics here. Also, if you are sensitive in nature, this is not for you, cause Heidi doesn't beat around the bush of what makes you fat and keeps you there. I had to rewind a few times, thinking I heard something off-kilter...yep, sure did.

Be sure to listen to some music samples and you can also read about Heidi Roizen and her journey. I do like her t-shirts that say "objects in mirror will get thinner than they now appear". The full CD is a bit pricey at $14.99. I can find A-lister artists at much lower prices, and their stuff won Grammy Awards. I don't think she should be charging so much, especially if she doesn't even care to put the artists' names on the label. But, this Heidi must have friends in high places, as she did show up on Martha Stewart at one time. Not everyone gets there I suppose. So, if you need some inspiration and want to check out a little something different, be sure to have a listen.


Fool Yourself Into Eating Less

You can totally fool your brain into thinking you are eating less than you are. It's funny how what we eat and how much we weigh and how much we look are all directly related to how our brain processes things. Remember those fun optical illusions? Yet another fun way to fool your brain into something else. Did you ever wonder if this could be done with food and if so, how can we go about stuffing our faces less?

Keep these tips in mind to fool your old noggin':

  • Drink a full glass of water before you eat any meal. You'll feel fuller faster..hence, less calories get stuffed into your midsection.
  • Eat multiple small meals rather than the big three. It's when you get those hunger pangs where you tend to overeat. If you are hungry, you are almost too late to stop yourself! Nip it before it hits you.
  • Eat from a blue plate. Scientific mumbo jumbo says that blue is calming and because it's rare to find a piece of blue food, your mind doesn't connect the color blue with food. Try it out. Blue is an appetite suppressant. Along those lines, if you like powder blue, paint your kitchen with it too!
  • Sneak in 10" rather than standard 12" plates. Your eyes will think you have more on your plate, and your brain will think you are getting the same amount as you did before.
  • Limit your sidedishes to just one. The more choices there are, the more you are inclined to "just try this one and that one..." and pretty soon, your plate is at potlucks and parties. Less choices, less food-loading.
  • Use dessert spoons instead of regular spoons. Fooled yet again! Not just dainty but smart too.
  • Don't put serving dishes on the table and if you must have them there, keep the lids on. This'll trick your brain into "out of sight, out of mind". The more your mind sees food sitting around, the more the tendency is for you to "clean up" and "just one more shovelful".
  • Don't be the family garbage can. My dad used to play this role. Whoever didn't finish their food, he cleaned their plate. It was almost comical...until his gut started to grow exponentially! Dish out smaller servings next time, and allow the kids to have seconds. Stay away from the "clean your plate mentality"...that went out with the Dark Ages. If you absolutely hate wasted food (me too), then use small servings and give any extra to the doggie (but not too much...too much human food is not good for them either).
  • It's okay to have leftovers. I have a friend who refuses to serve leftovers. Whatever. That is why everyone is so big in that family. There is no law saying you can't serve least once. I know it's many of the husbands that are resistant. If you have to, dress it up a different way or serve a new side dish or vegetable with it. They'll get over it, and they'll eat it.
What do you do to fool yourself?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"America Saves" Week - Get Inspired Today for Tomorrow

This week is officially "America Saves" Week. I guess there is now a week for everything. But, I think America saving is a very good excuse for its own week. Don't you think? I was actually was very inspired by many of the stories. Good tips too! Go to America Saves to get enlightened and don't forget Choose to Save and Military Saves, a good place for military families to get started. Start the new trend and start living for tomorrow! You'll be a happier and healthy person (and family) for it!

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One of the More Bizzare Books at My Library

Let me first say that I LOVE my local library....I really do! They have such a nice selection of both new and old. Their website allows you to put books, DVDs and other media on hold and you get these nice email notifications when your stuff is ready to be picked up. You can even request things from other branches or inter-library loan, all on-line. Now, there is this one book. I don't even remember where I first heard about it, because I had it on hold and just picked it up yesterday. In fact, it was a bit more saucy and risque to a point of being something I probably wouldn't let little kids leaf through. It's a BIG picture book with photos on every page. Now, I'm not against having nude picture books or tasteful artwork, but this book was a bit different than I thought it was going to be.

Now, I had never heard of the fact, I think she is a photographer, but the gist of the book is celebrity look-alikes in paparazzi-style photos in some enlightening poses and situations that most of the time, happen behind closed doors or we think happens behind closed doors. I must say, I was floored by some of the uncanny resemblances to actual celebrities. Some that I couldn't tell the difference included Ozzy Osbourne, the Queen of England, Princess Diana's boys, Madonna, the singer m&m....I had to smile at the Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise look-alikes. They weren't exactly on target. Some of the more fun photos included:

  • Angelina Jolie and Madonna changing diapers
  • Paris Hilton lying in her bunk while her jail bunkmate took a dump on the open toilet
  • Madonna ironing
  • Nicole Kidman flossing her teeth
  • Prince William with his girlfriend in bed and her writing "King" across his chest in lipstick
  • President Bush and Tony Blair literally horsing around
  • J Lo sitting on the toilet with a pregnancy test strip
  • Tom Cruise standing on a box to be as tall as Katie
  • Michael Douglas vacuuming while Catherine lounged on the couch with a magazine
  • Britney getting liposuction
Okay, so those were some of the light-hearted ones, not too risque...voyeuristic of the reader, but fun. So after turning a few more pages, I was surprised to see some of these renditions, which had me wondering a bit what the guidelines were for books to be available to all ages in a library:

  • Prince William peeing on the side of a wall and you can plainly see him holding his Peter
  • Jack Nicholson cavorting with a dozen topless and nude beauties, in one shot, going down the slide with one, grabbing her crotch
  • Nicole Kidman nude in the shower
  • George Bush and Tony Blair wearing bathrobes and touching each other (this was disturbing in a different kind of way, as well as some of the Michael Jackson and children shots)
  • A crotch and nude shot of Marilyn Monroe
  • Elton John getting his butt waxed (or at least that's what it looked like)
  • Some guy giving Elton John head in a car, while Elton is wearing a fluffy wedding dress
Do libraries have limits on what they can have on their shelves? That also made me wonder about movies. I've seen some VERY risque, mostly foreign movies that weren't rated from my library. Are kids allowed to check those out? What about R-rated movies? Hey, I am not a prude...I'm all for nudity, I grew up in Europe, my kids have seen their share of naked people as well as movies like Private Ryan and Band of Brothers too, so those aren't the issues....I was just wondering. Oh, almost forgot, the name of the book is Alison Jackson Confidential.

What interesting books have you seen and read at your local library? What are your thoughts on what should and should not be available at your local library? Should Rated R material be separate? Are there rules at your library who can check what out? Just wondering...


Monday, February 25, 2008

Investing My Muffin and a Cup of Coffee With Their Help

I was lucky in that I learned the basics of investing and checkbook management at an early age. But what if you aren't so lucky? What if you don't have a clue? What if you didn't realize your morning muffin and coffee ALONE can turn you into a millionaire at retirement? What if I don't have the knowledge, time or inclination to do this all by myself? How am I supposed to find someone who can help me? Keep these thoughts in mind before you trust someone else with YOUR hard earned money.

We have been with our financial planner for about 15 years. We used to do it all by our lonesome selves. We read some of the financial magazines and picked from the top recommendations in mutual funds. But, as I mentioned once before, past performance does not mean the fund will continue along in that direction. In fact, most times, they go the opposite direction and probably already hit their high point right when you jumped in! Some people even pick the losers, saying the only way to go now is back up! Before long, you find you are wasting your time or have no real sense of direction. Plus, I know we kept second guessing ourselves. Inevitably, you sell the losers and buy the winners...when in fact you should be doing the OPPOSITE! I admit, we've done that!

So, there we were....not doing a very good job of it and getting more discouraged in the the point of just throwing our hands up and saying...whatever. We were really at a loss of what to do next! We just knew we needed some help. How do you find the right person? An honest person who will look out for your best interests. Back then, there weren't that many resources on the there are now. We ended up going with a planner who had been doing the financial planning for my husband's family, for many, many years. We already knew him, his family and his personality. He had many years of experience as a planner. He had the memory of an elephant, was licensed, had no disciplinary action against him and took the time to find out more about our financial situation and our goals before he even started talking investing. He told us right away that we need to be focused for the long haul. Don't watch the market as it goes up and down...because it will...but look at how it reacts in the long term. He reminded us to look back at the market 10 years ago, 20 years the value now higher than it was back then? Has it beat inflation? Yes! Well, that's where you want to be...nothing less and nothing more needed to make your millions and a comfortable retirement.

You are probably asking...well, how do I find someone? Other than talking to people you know in your community and your circle of friends and making appointments with random financial planners in your area, you can check a few resources online. But there are so many directories and databases out there too!

Many of you know I listen to Dave Ramsey...lots of good sound financial advice from that man. He does have financial planners he does endorse, and you can find them on his website. Dave just doesn't endorse anyone, so I would think he does at least a little background checking before he allows someone to be on his list. Use this as your starting-off point in researching planners. Narrow down your list to three to five certified and registered financial planners. Be sure to ask them these questions.

  • Ask the planner how they are compensated. Are they fee-based, meaning they charge a flat fee per month, per year or per value of your portfolio? Are they commission based, meaning they profit only when they sell you a financial product? Be sure you understand completely, how they make their money. If they are fee-based, you do have to keep an eye on them, to make sure they periodically re-balance your portfolio and that they sit down with you at least once a quarter to discuss where you're at. They also may not be as motivated as a commission-based planner because they get money whether they do something worthwhile for you or not. A commission based planner can be tricky too. Are they selling you an investment just to make themselves money? Do you find yourself buying and selling a lot of investments over time? Investing should be done for the LONG TERM. You should not be doing a lot of buying and selling and you should be taking fees into account when you calculate your rate of return! Ask them about ALL the fees of a fund, not just is it front-loaded, no-loaded or whatever else. Not all fees are listed in the company prospectus for each fund.
  • Ask about their professional background. No, this is not rude, it’s expected, and you're about to put your money in their care. Find out how long they have been at their company (or on their own) and what their schooling is. Be sure they are not just an insurance agent or a stockbroker. You will get hosed if they are, and they are just not working in your best interest here…just theirs. Anyone can hang out a shingle and say they are a financial planner. I also like to see a background in accounting, finance, business or law.
  • Ask if they are registered by the SEC? If not, wish them a good day and get on out of there. In fact, get this information even before you make an appointment. Any financial planner committed to what they are doing should be registered.
  • Ask for their CRD number. You can get a free report on the financial planner, as well as their employment background and any possible disciplinary action. Check out the Central Registration Depository. You can look up the broker as well as the company itself.
  • Don't go with a planner just because they are a friend. Friends and money just aren't a good mix..most of the time. We are talking about your life savings and not a small favor. You have to be more diligent than that! Don't let this be your only criteria.
  • Hire someone who has been in the business at least 10 years. You want someone who has gone through some market ups and downs. When it comes to your money, you really need someone with experience and someone who doesn't react to everything the market dishes out on a weekly or even yearly basis!
  • Ask what their investment philosophy is. You want to know what their strategy is and how they see investing your money. Make sure you understand what they are saying. You are not stupid. If they can’t explain in plain English, then they are not the planner for you, and THEY are the stupid ones for not making themselves understood.
  • How does the planner actually pick the investments? Does he go with new ones or tried and true ones from the past? Does he like to try a lot of new things? Does it follow along with something you’d be happy with? Does he sit and listen to your entire financial situation and then make a determination? Does he ask about your debt and mortgages and other areas of your life? Or does he talk immediately about some investments he would recommend?
  • Get references. I realize some will say they cannot do this because of some kind of client/planner confidential relationship. Tell the planner that you need this to get a warm and fuzzy feeling or you will have to move on. Most will comply, and frankly, they should already have a list of ready clients who have already agreed to do this beforehand. You are not going to call these people to ask how much money the planner made for them. Every financial situation, years invested and circumstances will be different for each person. Past performance is no indication of what the future holds. Ask for at least three clients who have been with him at least three years. Call and ask them if they are happy with their planner. Ask if he is what they expected. How often does he contact them and rebalance their portfolio? Is he pushy? Does he explain things? Does he give other ideas such as in life planning, taxes and other areas of your life that would affect you financially?
  • Does he have a personalized plan? Is he asking you things like your job situation? How old your kids are? How old you are? Your insurance status? Don’t settle for a generic blueprint.
  • How often will you meet and/or talk? He’d better say at least quarterly. Your portfolio might get too top heavy in one area and may need to be re-balanced. He should be watching this and reacting accordingly.
  • Do I feel comfortable with this person? Do you have a good feeling being around him? Does he seem to look down upon you? Is there something not quite right there but you can't put your finger on it? Does he make inappropriate comments or jokes? Then go ahead and pass on it. You want someone you can talk to and feel comfortable with. This person is someone you should be knowing a long time, so get started off on the right foot here.
With all that being said, ultimately, YOU are responsible for the care and management of YOUR money. Don't ever put it ALL in the hands of ANY financial planner without oversight. Be prepared to be involved. See what they are doing. Realize what the fees are. Understand your true rates of return and any tax implications. Have a financial plan and a sense of direction of where you want to go. Are you saving for a big purchase? Your retirement? Kids' college? What?! Your planner is who is going to help you do this..not take over and you wash your hands of the whole thing!

How do you go about your finances? Do you have a planner? Do you do everything on your own? How do you feel about that?

Please be sure to stop by the Carnival of Personal Finance #142 to read more informative personal finance articles!


Friday, February 22, 2008

Music to Your Ears....Free Music!

Thanks Tootie for sending this in!

If you're like me, anything free is always music to my ears. But, this is something that will be, quite literally, music to (and for) your ears!

The following website is offering a free CD to all military and their family members:

The website has all the details, including a variety of music artists that are giving to this cause. The site will actually direct you to to get your CD, where you can pick to download any or all of the songs they offer. The perk is you won't have to wait for a CD to arrive in the mail, and you can play the music on your computer or MP3 player.

Once on the AAFES website, just click on the "for the troops" banner. You'll have to use your AAFES login, or if you don't have a login, you can enter your ID card information to gain access to the site.

The music is really quite good. A variety of artist are participating, including Billy Joel (one of my favorites), Jewel, Brooks & Dunn, and the Five for Fighting.

So, go enjoy the music. If nothing else, hear that many are thanking you and your family for your service!

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A Complaint That Will Get Attention

How many times have you ever bought a product or service that severely disappointed you? Probably more times than you can count I bet! Don’t just sit back and take it. I’ve actually had some success writing complaint letters to companies…more often than you would think!

Here are some tips to get you going:

  • Address the letter by name and never “to whom it may concern”. Especially with the internet, you should be able to find the name of someone in charge at that company. Address it to the person in charge of that department or even the CEO of that company.
  • Don’t write a novel. Keep the details brief. State what happened, when, how and where. Give dates and places if needed. Explain the situation clearly and don’t put any emotion into it!
  • Don’t rant and rave. If you show you are angry and out of control, the company may just choose to ignore you just because of that. People hate to be pushed around.
  • State what you want to resolve the issue. Don’t leave it open ended. If you want the thing fixed, say it. What about a replacement? Your money back? Reimbursement for whatever? Always say what you want the company to do and what result you'd like to see.
  • Don’t threaten. It’s too early in the complaint process to do that. Give them the opportunity to respond to your initial request.
  • Send documentation. If you need to send photos or receipts, enclose a copy, not the original.
  • Make a copy of the stuff you are sending. I have a file in my cabinet just for complaints and company correspondence..and no, I write maybe one complaint letter every other year...I don't do this is a hobby or just for kicks. I just do this when I have a legitimate problem. Write the date you sent it along with any mail documentation.
  • Send it through trackable mail. This way, the company knows you are serious about it, and there is a way to follow up to find out if they even received your letter.
  • Follow up. Give it a week or two after receipt, and then call and just inquire about it. In 80% of the instances, I’ve had the company offer me something that made me happy. The other 20%, I had to decide if I wanted to pursue it or just drop it all together.

If you don’t get any results or help from the company, there is one other step you can try before pursuing small claims court. Small claims court can use up a lot of your time, effort and money.

Try filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. I let the company know I am going to do this. One time, it even spurred the company into action. There also are a few websites that give you a global voice such as Planet Feedback or try to shame them into responding at I am reminded about the person who complained about the first generation IPOD battery. It was only intended to last a certain length of time, and once it was spent, you were SOL. The battery couldn’t be replaced. The company told the guy, sorry, you’ll just have to buy a new IPOD. Well, that was the wrong answer for this guy. He ended up starting an internet campaign. Many others jumped on his bandwagon, and pretty soon, their voices were so loud that Apple had to come up with an answer and a solution…just like that. Keep that in mind the next time you deal with a company on an issue. The little guy CAN sometimes win!

If you do go the small claims court route, call your county clerk or look on the internet for your county and small claims court. File your claim. Be sure to find out how much money to bring along and if you can pay by cash or check. Take a copy of the letter and any documentation you already sent to the company and any response they may have already sent back to you. Ask the clerk for help in filing your suit. Many times, they are more than happy to give you some pointers. When you get your court date, be on time and be prepared to wait awhile. They are many times behind schedule. Be sure any witnesses you have are there too. Don’t wing it when you go in there. Have either an outline or what you are going to say. Have key dates and points written down in front of you. Look and be organized to make things run more smoothly and to keep you from getting flustered or off track. Don’t interrupt the judge or defendant and be sure to keep your cool!

Have you ever had to deal with a company you've been unhappy with? How did you go about it? Were you successful?


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Got Photos?

If you're anything like me and tend to put some things off, you probably have stacks of photos somewhere in your house. I was really motivated at one time to tackle them. I even took a Creative Memories class and bought some of their stuff to make a nice little album. Well, it took me THREE YEARS to do ONE ALBUM. I said enough is enough...there had to be a better way and there had to be a better way that looked just as creative and nice...just as nice as what they can do.

So after brainstorming a bit, I came up with collaging. Let me give an example. I have about fifty photos that were taken in one day, at a pool. I wanted to put them in an album. I couldn't imagine putting them in a regular photo after the other...all with the same, I'd run out of album space before long. But, I couldn't whittle them down to a few choice ones...look at the expression of my little boy in that one...and look at that other photo where the boys are laughing with glee...I can't choose one over the other!

So then in a selfish moment, I said why can't I use them all? These are OUR photos for OUR family, and I want to be able to look back and get a real sense of how much fun we had that day at the pool!

I'm sure it's been done before, and if my Creative Memories teacher covers this, it must be in a more advanced class, but what about cutting up the photos to make a collage? I know, I're not supposed to cut-up least that's what my mom taught me. That was a big no-no in our house. I had a hard enough time cutting off the ends and corners of photos in my class but quickly learned that if there is nothing distinctive in that part of the photo, it's okay to cut that part off. So I started cutting beyond what I was taught and was able to fit all the shots on two facing album pages...and I think it does look very nice and creative...AND, I can get a real sense of the joy and happiness we experienced as a family on that day!

Here are a few more nice examples of collaging. I am not that creative myself, but I hope to use some of these ideas in the future:

How do you deal with all your photos? Do you even print them out? Do they stay in your computer? How do you organize them there? How do you put your albums together? I would love to hear your thoughts!


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Have Any French Francs Lying Around?

With all our military travels, we tend to have money from each of our visited countries lying around the house. At first, we collected the stuff...saying it was for our kids to enjoy. Well, now they have a huge jar of money...bills with Saddaam Hussein's mug to animals and scenery and other folks we have no clue who they are. Enough is enough. So, I started wondering...I wonder if any of this old money is worth anything now. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

If you've still got French Francs, the Bank of France is still able to exchange those Francs for Euros til the year 2012. Since we are heading back to Germany soon, this was perfect timing. The exchange rate is something like four to one, so our 900 Franc will turn up some nice spending change.

Be sure to send your French Francs registered mail (so you can track it), to the address below. The best price to send something registered is through the USPS via Express Mail International. It'll cost you $25, so you have to be committed and have a large number of bills to make it worthwhile. In hindsight, we should've probably kept the darn things til we actually got over there! Anyway, they are only exchanging bills, so no coins. Be creative. If you have a lot of coins and have determined they have no collector value, turn them into jewelry, or even a key chain.

Here's the address:

Banque de France
Caisse Générale, Service 18
10 Boulevard Duclaux
63407 Chamalières Cedex - France

Good luck with it and let me know how it goes. Even if you don't plan to go over to Europe, your bank here in the US can exchange those Euros into US Dollars.

Update 3/28/08:

I got a registered letter in the mail today from the Bank of France. They typed up a nice little letter in French and English, showed me what the exchange rate was and stapled brand new crisp Euros to my letter. So, yes it does work, and yes, it was worth it!


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I Have To Write a Sympathy Card Today

At one time or another in your life, you’re going to have to console someone who has lost a loved one. I have to write another one today. I don't want to do it, but as a friend or relative, it is something that is expected of you...and writing a card will bring about goodness and healing in those who need it most.

I typically go shopping for a nice card that seems to stand out from the rest. I’m sure you know most of the sympathy cards are grouped together. I just read thru a few of them until one kind of “grabs me”. I think you’ll know what I mean. I like the cards that talk about remembering a person after they’re gone and cards that talk about comfort. No, you’re not done yet! You don’t want to just send a card with just your signature. To me, you might as well not even send a card…it is a bit heartless. When my mom died, we did get a huge stack of cards, and almost ten years later, I can think of some of the things that were written about my mom, but the cards that had just signatures….I don’t remember a thing about them or even who wrote them.

Here are some tips in filling out your card:

  • Write how you feel. Say something like “We were so shocked to hear” or “I cannot believe that he’s gone”, something that shows you are empathizing with them.
  • It’s okay to talk about the person who died. I like to share a story of my interaction with that person…something the person did that helped me or made an impression on me. I know when my mother died, I eagerly opened each card, hoping someone would talk about how they remembered my mother or something my mother said or did.
  • Be sure to show sympathy. Simply say something like, “we will be thinking of you in this difficult time” or “I am so sorry for your lose, and I will be praying for you and your family” would be good.
  • NEVER assume you know how they feel. Even if you lost someone you love, you should never say, “I know exactly how you feel”. Unless you are that person, you can’t really know how they feel. Plus, it just comes across as belittling and self-centered. Don’t ever say it was “for the best” or a “blessing” either. My mom died of cancer, and she suffered horribly her last few months...I didn't want to hear that crap, and it just made me feel worse than I already did. You are NOT helping if you say these things.
  • Don’t write a long drawn-out letter. Chances are, the person will be receiving a lot of mail and will have a lot to do. They just won’t have time to read it…and may skip over it completely and miss some of the more beautiful things you have to say. Go ahead and say a few thoughts about missing the deceased or how you feel about them being gone. If you didn’t know the person who died, but know the person you are writing, talk about how special that person must’ve been to them.
  • Never go into morbid details or the circumstances of the death. That’s just plain wrong! Put yourself in their this something you would want to hear?
  • Say what you mean and don’t make empty promises. Don’t say “call me at anytime” and not truly mean it. If you want to make a meal or do something for the family, if you write it, please stand behind it and take the initiative. Don't wait for the family to ask something of you. Say something like, "Is it okay if I bring over some food on such or such day?" or call them right before you go out and say "I am on my way out the door. I can swing by the store (or wherever) and pick up some things for you. What do you need?". Be very direct about it but not overbearing.
How do you respond when someone you know is going through a loss? What do you send? What do you say?


Monday, February 18, 2008

Comparing the Cost of a Land Vacation to a Cruise

Ahh, it's cruise season again. No, I'm not going this year, but January and February, along with hurricane season in the Fall are GREAT times to get a cruise bargain. Why do I like cruising so much? Because it's the ONLY vacation where mom really doesn't have to do anything. Think about it...typically, wherever the family goes, mom is still cooking, event planning, doing laundry and picking up after every one. A cruise is the only venue I've found where I don't do ANY of that...well, maybe a load of laundry or two...but that's it! But isn't a cruise expensive you say? Surprisingly, when you compare it to a land-based vacation...If you play your cards right, it can be cheaper AND less stressful.

For example, we took a 7 day cruise last year that cost our family of four just under $2,000. We also had a very nice balcony cabin, so in reality, it could've been at least $600 cheaper. So, let's go with $1,400. Compare that to a trip to Key West we took last year, with the van piled up to the gills. So, I thought I'd sit down and compare the two on paper.

The cruise included all of our food and entertainment. We paid about $200 extra on tours, drinks and souveniers and $50 for gas. That brings the total, let's say to $1,650 for a week of family fun. Now on the Key West trip, our lodging was pretty cheap. We stayed at the Navy Lodge down there. For a week's stay for four people, that was about $500 in season. We did have our own kitchenette where mom did all the cooking and we tried to cut down on expenses by eating sandwiches for lunch most days...more work for mom. Add $300 for our commissary and PX foraging. We did do some restaurant eating, went on a few tours, visited a few museums, rented a boat and of course, got a few obligatory souveniers. That added up to a total of just under $1600. Now don't forget the gas bill, which came to about $130 for a grand total of about $1800 . There were a few things that you can't put a pricetag on, one being sitting in a van for 6 hours (which equals wasted vacation time)...our cruise port was only two hours away...the wear and tear on our van driving down to Key West and the hassle of schlepping down all that gear and stuff, whereas the cruise, we each had two bags.

So, which is the better deal? To me, without a doubt, the cruise is the better deal. Could we have survived on "beans and rice" to make the Key West trip cheaper....well, sure...but then it's not really a vacation, is it? Can you also imagine how much more expensive it would've been had we stayed in a hotel rather than the Navy Lodge? Compare the Key West scenario to a cruise where all your food is included...hey, I took many trips up to the buffets, including the dessert orgies on our last cruise. I tried all kinds of new dishes and goodies. Where else can you have free breakfast on your balcony every morning? There were so many shows, clubs, games, classes and events, we couldn't go to them all..not to mention a state of the art fitness center with every kind of aerobics class available.

But to me, the nicest thing about being on a cruise is the true ability to relax with my family. Moms don't get to do that too often. I didn't have to plan any activities or things to do. We could choose to do what we wanted to do. We could also choose to do nothing. My husband and I also had quite a bit of alone time. The kids' programs were full featured and fun and kept the kids very busy. They learned so much about all the places we visited. Where else can you also wake up to a different scene, culture and new places to discover every morning? That is the true highlight of cruising. You aren't stuck with just one vacation place. You get a taste of everything. Learn what you like and don't like and maybe sometime in the future, you can go back to the places you really enjoyed.

What vacation would you say has been the best deal for your family? Where have you really been able to relax and have fun?


Friday, February 15, 2008


I know that's not a word. I just wanted to grab your attention. Every once in awhile, I do have a "down day". I happen to be having one today. I bet you do too sometimes. How do you get out of that slump? What do you do to pull yourself out of it? How do you get yourself steered back in the right direction..which is back up again? I do this one simple exercise, once a day, to get myself back on track.

Take the time tonight to write down three things that truly made you happy today. Or write down something that left a positive impression on you, whether it was something your kids or husband said or did...something you read or saw...whatever it is, write it down.

You'll soon find you have a nice collection before long. Keep your treasured moments and experiences close like this...because, let's admit it...our brains may be vast depositories of information but if there is no card catalog...we can't always access everything that's in there. When you are feeling down, get out the notebook and read your blessings and things that have made you can actually count them and re-live them! Re-energize yourself and get back in the positive with this little trick.

What do you do to give yourself that little boost when your chips are down?


Thursday, February 14, 2008

FREE Download of Suze Orman's "Women and Money"

Suze Orman has some great financial advice. I may not agree with all of it, but her stuff is easy to read, understand and follow. Today's the last day to download her book Women and Money for FREE. Thanks Wisebread for the heads up!

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Some Obscure Tax Deductions You Might've Missed

Have you already done your taxes? I'm actually waiting a bit. I read somewhere that you want to file sometime in late February or early March....less chance of getting audited. The early filers and later filers have a bigger chance of being snagged. But hey, if you have all your ducks in line and are organized, you shouldn't worry about that, right?

So, I've got all my paperwork in a folder. I like to have all the W-2s, 1099s and that kind of paperwork on one side, and the paperwork backing up my deductions and credits on the other side. I list each company we should be getting a document from on the front of the folder on a sticky note, and check them off as they roll in. Don't forget that CD you might've closed early last year or any receipts you are planning on using as deductions. Get out your statement from your church, your Goodwill receipts and the like. That got me thinking, are there any new deductions this year? Are there some, as a military spouse, I should be looking at more carefully? I don't like to take the standard deduction, because I can always deduct more if I itemize. But don't go "deduction crazy" because deductions over the "normal averages" can trigger an audit. You can check here to see the latest averages available. I recently read through J.K. Lasser's 1001 Deductions and Tax Breaks for 2008 and came up with a few gems to share. Here are some deductions I might've missed.

  • Interest on US Savings Bonds. If you put this money in a 529 or Coverdell college savings plan, or use it to pay for college, you are not taxed on the interest, as long as your modified adjusted gross income is below a set amount. Now I finally have a good use for those miserable, waste-of-money savings bonds we've been gifted every Christmas since the kids were born. I'll just cash the mature ones and stick that money into the kids' 529s. The only catch, your name has to be on the bond and not your child's.
  • The purchase price of raffle tickets and charity-sponsored events in excess of the regular admission price or any other benefit you receive. This can add up if you go to a lot of charity events. If you pay $100 for a ticket to an evening sponsored by your favorite charity that includes dinner and a show, you can deduct what the actual entry price would be if the charity wasn't sponsoring the event.
  • You can deduct up to $50 a month for hosting an exchange student. This one we'll be taking advantage of, as we have a student from Germany this year. There are groups lobbying Congress to make this amount higher. I know by the time we add up food and transportation and other costs, it IS actually more.
  • Adoption and foster care costs. I think there may also be tax credits due you. This is worth to investigate if you adopted or provided foster care for children.
  • Subscriptions to investment newsletters and online services. Do you subscribe do or any other investment websites? What about those email or paper investment newsletters? Get your receipts together and be sure to deduct those.
  • Computer expenses. If you use your computer mostly for tracking and working with your investments, you can deduct that. You can depreciate the cost of the computer. This can be a bit complicated but hey, I have a neighbor who spends at least 85% of his time on the computer, day trading and tracking his stuff. He'll benefit from this one.
  • Fees for financial advice. If you have a fee based planner, you can deduct that. You cannot deduct if you have a commission based planner though.
  • Casualty and theft losses. You can deduct the amount over what your insurance covers. The event must also be a sudden event. You can't claim something just because it broke or wore out. Keep your receipts and proof that you reduced your loss by insurance too, a requirement.
  • Work clothes and uniforms. If you don't have a clothing allowance from your employer, you can deduct the cost of your required uniforms and clothing ONLY if you are not allowed to wear them off-duty. I don't think BDUs fall under that...but perhaps there is some other kind of uniform you can't wear wherever? You can also deduct the price of equipment you buy to keep you safe in your job, such as steel-toed boots, goggles and protective wear.
  • Subscriptions to professional journals and newsletters. This includes online subscriptions. The subscription must be deemed an ordinary and necessary expense for your job or profession.
  • State and local income taxes. All but seven states allow you to deduct this. This works especially great if you bought a big ticket item such as a car or boat. But even if you didn't, you can still save some money here. I know here in Florida, you can calculate a standard amount for those who don't want to go thru what they spent!
  • Tax prep fees. If you bought software or hired someone like H&R Block to do your taxes this year, you can deduct that. You can even deduct the price of books about taxes, like the one I mentioned above. When our financial life isn't too complicated, I like to use the free tax software and filing available at Military OneSource. Another free place to do and file your taxes is Tax Act.
  • Retirement tax credit. Okay, so this is not a deduction but it can be a GREAT way to save on your tax bill, as long as your adjusted gross income is $50,000 or less (for married filing jointly). You can read more about this tax credit here.

Another tidbit I did not know about, you can retro-actively contribute to your IRAs, going back to 2004, using your tax-free combat pay. So, if you forgot to contribute one year, you can still do it now. The legislation that allows this is called the Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities (HERO). I don't think we contributed our full amount per person back in 2004, which was $3,000, plus they allow you to add $500 as "catch up" money...something to go back and investigate.

If I talk about deductions, I'm also going to mention a few that aren't. These are things that either I might've thought about deducting or are oh-so-not-deduction-worthy, I had to include them:

  • blood donations
  • bribes
  • burial fees
  • club dues
  • country club membership
  • credit card interest
  • debts belonging to another person that you pay (even if you pay their mortgage)
  • gift tax
  • lunches with co-workers
  • over-the-counter medications
  • life insurance premiums
  • telephone line
  • toiletries
One more quick tip and then I'll leave you alone! I used to have such a problem finding all my Goodwill donation receipts and going through old credit card receipts and such, looking for deductible expenses. Now, I have one file folder in my file cabinet labeled, "Tax Deductions". Any kind of receipt or paperwork or proof that I collect throughout the year, gets thrown in there. When tax time rolls around, it's just a matter of taking that stack of stuff out, going through it and making the final determination if you can use it. Once I fill out our tax return and print it out as a backup hard copy, I staple this stuff to it, along with our W-2, 1099s and any other supporting documents we have. This packet then gets put in our fireproof safe. It'll stay in there for seven years. Since I am a paper hound, the older tax returns go back in our regular filing cabinet under "Tax Returns - Old" instead of getting thrown out. Some proof of deductions you may have to keep indefinitely, so when in doubt, don't throw it out.

Hopefully, after reading all this, you'll get fired up to get your taxes done. One less thing to worry about, right? If you travel a lot for your business or are self-employed, I highly recommend Lasser's book. I purposely didn't mention some of the more well-known tax deductions, such as interest payments on your mortgage. Most tax prep software or tax filing sites mention the more popular ones.

If you'd like to share how you organize your taxes, file your taxes or any other interesting deductions I might've missed, please do share them.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Lowdown on the Roomba

It's been well over a year and a half relationship with our robot vacuum cleaning Roomba. Remember when these things first came out? They were such a novelty back then...did they even pick anything up when they first came out? Anyway, let me tell you about my Roomba. A Roomba is actually a floor sweeper and not a true vacuum cleaner, so let's get that straight from the get go.

The thing runs around your house, sweeping up crumbs, dust and debris. It doesn't know where it's been, but it has an embedded microchip, a computer really, that goes through some complex algorithm, going back and forth, along the wall, spinning and a variety of other behaviors. The company that manufactures the Roomba says that in a room of a certain size, using this algorithm, the Roomba will eventually hit every piece of floor. I'd say it's not perfect or even close, but the thing does have an uncanny ability to reach most areas, especially under your couch, where I rarely go. So, how does it do in the cleaning department and more importantly, how has it held up over the past year?

Let me rewind by saying we have two VERY hairy pets...a German Shepherd and a long haired cat. We can easily stuff two pillows from the hair that migrates from their coats to our floors and every other surface in our house. And that brings me to my first point. The Roomba truly does an excellent job of sweeping up the dirt and dust...yes, even dust! In addition to that stuff, the bin is also ALWAYS chock full of hair. This means, if you have pets, you will be emptying the bin AFTER EVERY USE. So it's not a "set it and forget it" device. I run mine every weekday and have to make myself a note to empty that bin every day.

The second thing...all those long hairs get wrapped around the front wheel, even the sidewheels and worst of all, the inner sweeper mechanisms. This means, not only do you have to empty the dustbin after every use, but you also have to take out the beater bars and unwind the hair or just rip it out. The front wheel is trickier, as the hair gets deep down in there, and the only way to get that out is to take a razorblade and cut it out! I do the razorblade trick at least once or twice a week. The two heavy-duty side wheels are almost impossible to access at their axles.

Performance after one year? Well, the Roomba still has a full dustbin after it does its little trek, BUT it has slowed WAY DOWN. When it hits the carpet, it slows almost to a crawl. I'm not sure if this is an issue with the motor or if it's a normal progression of things or if there is some wound-up hair in the sidewheels I cannot see. As I said, these are hard to access, and it is almost impossible to see down there. After I had the Roomba about two months, each of the clips holding up the brushguard broke off, a necessary item if you don't want to leave the brushes behind as it runs! This was quickly remedied with duct tape, but still, the clips were so brittle, it makes me think the brushguard had a manufacturing flaw.

In hindsight, was it a good purchase? I would say yes, only because I got it refurbished from Amazon for $100. This particular model, brand new, is still being sold today for just under $400, even though the company just came out with a newer model about six months ago. My Roomba did come with a remote, a quick charger and virtual walls to keep it out of certain areas. I've found these accessories work very well. The remote allows you to set your little sweeper to work on a schedule, and the virtual walls keep it out of the bathroom with the litterbox. I don't like the idea of a Roomba cleaning up litter and then running around the rest of the house...yuck. My suggestion to IRobot, the company that makes the Roomba...please think about making it more pet friendly and even more rugged. There is a supposed pet brush set that has wide ends (you can now buy it separately) to encourage hair to stay out of the wheels and inner mechanisms, but from what I've heard from others who have this set, it doesn't really keep the pethair completely out of the axles. You still have to cut that stuff out. Otherwise, it can be a useful product! I've enjoyed using it...even after vacuuming with a regular vacuum, the Roomba can still pick up dust and such...that's something, isn't it? Since we've had it, I can honestly say there are at least less dust bunnies around the house, and the dog gets a kick out of following it around.

What have you bought in the past that has been a real lifesaver? Or dud? Please share your ideas of what has helped you around the house.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Budgeting is a Bad Word

I finally finished the online Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University and Total Money Makeover. Although the only debt we have is our slew of mortgages, and financially, we are doing fine, I couldn't pass up the free offer on the normally $100 course. Honestly, Dave has a lot of good tools and, he's funny. I've even downloaded the MP3 files of the course to my Zune in case I need a refresher or "pick me up" somewhere down the road. Dave covers the gamut of financial topics from buying things, selling things, paying off debt, saving, housing and even giving...great advice. Taking the course forced me to sit down and actually do a budget among other things. A budget should not be a set-in-stone strict "all or nothing" approach. It is a GUIDELINE that will give you limits on your spending...for your own financial situation. So what if you don't want to spend money on the course but still want to see how you're doing financially?

Take the time to download this Excel spreadsheet. One of the people taking the course, a self-proclaimed Excel freak, put it up on the internet for everyone to use. The spreadsheet will do all your monthly calculations for you..and on two sheets of paper. You can easily customize it to add categories that fit your particular financial situation. I also like how it portions out your pieces of the financial pie, meaning, you should only be spending a portion of your income on each slice of your pie. As an example, you should only be spending about 35% of your net income on housing. Here is the recommended breakdown in round figures.

  • Housing - 30 to 35%
  • Food (Groceries and Dining Out) - 12%
  • Transportation (car payments, gas and maintenance) - 12%
  • Savings & Retirement - 10 to 15%
  • Insurance - 5%
  • Recreation/Entertainment - 5%
  • Clothing - 5%
  • Medical/Dental - 5%
  • Charity - 5 to 10%
  • Misc - the rest
Here's a little calculator where you can figure out your target percentages, according to your income, for each slice of the pie. Granted, this is a faith-based website, so it takes tithing into account, but even if you are not a Christian, you should be striving to give something back to society. It's amazing how much one can get out of feel good when you give...look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffet among others. They may or may not be Christian, but to them, it makes them feel even more powerful when they give. You can too on a smaller scale.

Here is another calculator below, where you actually put in your detailed amounts of spending. If you have no idea, take a month to write everything down in a little notebook. Assign everything a category (food, housing, recreation, etc) and then total it up at the end of the month. The hardest is keeping track of cash expenditures and what you do with money you get out of the ATM! If the total added up is below what you earn, then you are living well within your means and can start thinking of setting some aside. If not, you need to really take a look at your situation and look at more options than just sticking your finger in the dike.

With the Excel budget worksheet, I realized we were spending a tad too much on food. We do have three growing boys in the house (one being our teenage exchange student), but I refuse to accept that as an, I will look and see how I can cut corners there. I also see that we are a bit too generous in our gift-giving every year. I think I give every relative, friend and neighbor, something on their birthday, Christmas and whatever other fun holiday falls in between. That has to least on our income right now! Time to break out the cookie recipes and some other more creative ideas, and gift those instead. I think I can be a little more frugal here!

What do YOU do to track your spending and to keep it in check? Do you follow a budget? Do you set aside money for savings, retirement and kids' college?


Monday, February 11, 2008

How Do You Do Your Do?

I am just not feeling well at the fact, I am sick. I just spent $240 on my hair. I haven't had my hair "done" in the last eight months. Up until today, I was a Supercuts kind of gal...dutifully using the newspaper coupons to get my hair done at the chain haircut place where no appointments are needed. I finally decided to try something different. I figured, if I've gone that long without a haircut, then I deserve something really nice, right?

Well, I spent about three hours at this ritzy place with master and apprentice stylists. I should've known it was pricey when I didn't see the typical price list posted on the wall. There were also no gossip magazines but nice and stylish Vogues and some other fashion magazines I had never heard of. Sigh....So now I have rich brown hair, almost black with a red tinge and some totally fake-looking bleached out highlights to show for it. That's all I have to show for those three hours. My husband is going to kill me if he finds out.

My question is...I see a lot of ladies walking around...I'm talking general public here...with beautiful haircolor and highlights...some with long hair, but most with medium or short hair. I can get away, or at least I convince myself of getting away with longer periods of time between my haircuts 'cause I do have fairly long hair. How do these ladies afford this? They come from all walks of life, and they always seem to have nice hair? Are they spending $200 a pop on their hair? Do they go once a month or God, that's thousands of dollars a year for haircare I just realized. Or am I totally missing something here and there is some secret squirrel kind of speakeasy where you can get your hair professionally done at a lower price? I don't think this is Clairol in a bottle stuff I typically see? Or is it?

Please, enlighten me and any other dunderheads who may be wondering the same thing!


Friday, February 8, 2008

The Ugly Payday Loan

Why is it that these payday loan places are littered outside every front gate? I just have to vent a little today. I just had an internet payday loan company want to advertise on my blog. I politely declined, but I wanted to say "Are you out of your mind?!!!" I am wondering if people realize, when they go to a place like this, they are paying over 500% interest on a short term loan!!! You can get a better rate from your neighborhood loan shark for God's sakes. With that being said, there are some things you can do NOW to keep yourself from ever walking into such a place again. I promise.

Before you even get started, looking at your bank and credit card statements, you need to sit down and reflect on yourself...and your spouse if you have one. Women are intuitive, and if you listen to yourself, you will know what your true situation is. We usually know before any guy would...that we have backed ourselves into a corner. Ask yourself:

  • Are you living beyond your means? Do you have more going out than coming in?
  • Did you have a big setback or a series of setbacks that caused you to slip and literally, fall down?
  • How is your self-esteem? Do you feel good about yourself? Are you proud of yourself and your husband and what you have accomplished?
  • Do you envy your neighbors? Do you find yourself buying things because they have them? Back in the day, were you the one to have the first thing on the block?
  • Do you have someone you want to impress?
  • Do you feel like you just can't get a break and why me?
If you have one or more of these's time for you to come out swinging. The best way to get out of it, is to take responsibility for yourself. I know that sounds harsh. I admit Americans, and I do it too...we tend to want to blame someone else for everything that goes wrong in our lives. Many of us never learned how to go about with our finances. Why don't they teach us this stuff in high school? It's just not fair!

Do you know what I found out? It is nowhere written that life itself, is supposed to be fair. It just isn't. Ask anyone of faith, and they'll tell you that straight up. So now what? Well, after you've taken personal responsibility for the things you have done...I say YOU have done, because even if there were outside forces, such as an illness or broken refrigerator or a series of events causing us to spend so much money....if we had been would've only been a small blip on our radar screen of life.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Start tracking what money goes out every month. If you are not computer savvy, then get a little notebook. Carry it with you. Just take the time to write down EVERYTHING you spend. The hardest thing to keep track of is the cash. All those trips to the money machine. I do it too sometimes when I get lazy...I don't like to keep track where I hand it out! Put each expense into a category such as food, housing and transportation.
  • Compare that amount with what is coming in. Technically, we should be saving 10% (and some even say 15%) of our take home pay for retirement. We want to put that money in a tax-free environment...the best bet would be your 401k at work (some companies match what you put in up to 6%) or a Roth IRA or a Thrift Savings Plan (if you are a government employee). If you have kids, you should be setting some aside for college AFTER you get your retirement needs set aside every month. The rest, should all be divvied out into housing, food, utilities, clothing, entertainment, etc. After you add everything up, you should be able to see if you have more going out than what is coming in.
  • Along those lines, you're going to need a budget. Budget is such an ugly word, but before you stop reading, know that a budget is a guideline for you and is not set in stone. It just gives you an idea of about how much you should be spending in each area of your life. You will even have a category for "blow money for me". Find out how to set one up. If you don't like the word budget, you can always take your retirement money and your kids' college money off the top...and then blow the rest of your paycheck. I've tried that too...but I tend to save more with a budget...I LOVE games and it turns into a game of how much more I can shave off every month.
  • Start setting some money aside for an emergency or rainy day fund. Your eventual goal is 6-12 months of income, but $1000 to start off is great! Put $20 or $50 or whatever you can afford after your basic necessities to this goal each month. Never again be pushed into a corner when your car breaks down or you need to get your furnace fixed. Have the money ahead of time, and sometimes you can even negotiate a lower cash price. This will also allow you to raise the deductibles on your car insurance, saving you a few more hundred dollars per year. Keep this money in an easy to access account. We have ours in a bank money market account, earning about 5%. You can even write checks from such an account...perfect for emergencies.
  • Start tackling your debt. Part of your budget will be tackling your debt. Once you pay your basic food, roof over your head, transportation and basic clothing, the rest should go to paying off debt. This is even BEFORE you invest a dime. It makes no sense to invest at 12% if your credit card debt is costing you 17%. Pay it off first, then invest. Dave Ramsey says you can subsist on variations of "beans and rice" and "rice and beans" while you are doing this. Get it done so it is not hanging over your head the rest of your life. Use the snowball effect to decide how much and when to send money to creditors. You may want to tackle a bit of your smaller debt first, not the high interest credit like many experts recommend, just to get yourself motivated to go on. That's the hardest part. I highly recommend Dave Ramsey's money makeover plan.
  • Learn about compound interest. Every one of us, regardless of our income can EASILY become a millionaire by retirement, you included. We only have to set aside a small amount of money every month to do this and invest it.. Your muffin and coffee money alone could grow to over a million! The best way to do this is to sock it away tax-free and let it grow. Those choices include your 401k at work, Roth IRAs (max it every year) or your Thrift Savings Plan.
  • If you don't have the money for something you really want, stop and think first. Do you need it or want it? If it's just a want, set aside the money every month and once you have it, most times, the item is cheaper AND you can whip out your cash and negotiate a lower price to begin with. Cash allows you to be in charge! There is never one of just anything (unless you are into antiques and such, but even then, if you are patient, it'll come around again).
What do you do in your life to maintain control of your finances? How do you control spending and saving? I'd love to hear your ideas.