Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Money Crashers: Financial Benefits of Marriage vs. Being Single

Back in 2011, I made two posts here exploring the idea of how marriage affects your finances. In the first, I questioned the idea that it's easier for young, single people to save than it is for couples with kids. Drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I showed that while most people under 25 (who tend to be childless) have lower expenditures, they also have lower incomes, and consequently lower savings, than householders with kids.

In the second post, I discussed a study I'd seen that found couples in lasting marriages tend to accumulate wealth faster than single people. I then explored the reasons why it might be easier for couples to save, many of which have to do with the fact that they typically share one household rather than maintaining two, and speculated that two single people sharing a home might have the best of both worlds

This two articles together became the inspiration for my latest Money Crashers post, which explores the financial pros and cons of being married as opposed to being single. First, I take a detailed look at the costs and benefits of marriage—from wedding expenses to taxes and benefits to the risk of divorce. Then, I consider how having children changes the picture for both single and married people, and how the benefits of sharing a home apply to both. I wrap the whole thing up with some savings tips for both groups, including the importance of communicating with your partner about money for married couples and some frugal dating tips for singles. Here's the full article: Financial Benefits of Marriage vs. Being Single – What’s Better?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Money Crashers: 4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget

Four years back, I did a post about holiday entertaining. It was inspired by this New York Times article, in which the author challenged an elite party planner accustomed to five- and six-figure budgets to plan a "transcendent" holiday dinner party for eight people in the author's West Village apartment on a "recessionary" budget. His definition of "recessionary" was as $30 a head.

When this story showed up in my Tip Hero newsletter, the comment section on the website erupted with derision. The most common response was along the lines of "$30 a head is cheap?" They found it highly amusing that on a budget that they considered lavish, the best the hotshot party planner could do was a potato-based dinner and paper snowflake decorations At least one poster scoffed that for that price, she could serve her guests champagne and filet mignon. So I responded with a post about how I would go about throwing a similarly "transcendent" party in my home. I ended up coming up with nature-based decorations, a fancy vegetarian dinner, a homemade pie, and some cheap wine from Trader Joe's, all for about $55—less than a quarter of the budget the original article provided.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I've expanded on that idea. Instead of just one party idea, I've come up with multiple ideas about how to put together the elements of a great holiday party—decorations, food, drinks, and entertainment—on the cheap. First I explore each element in turn, and then I discuss several ways to put them all together to create themed parties on a budget of $40 to $65. Read all about it here: 4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Soup of the Month: Roasted Root Vegetable

November's Soup of the Month is another one that came about more or less through the "Stone Soup" process: throw in whatever you've got and see how it comes out.

The "stone," in this case, was a couple of turnips that we received as part of a CSA box three weeks ago, when Brian's coworker offered it to us because she was going to be out of town. We only knew one recipe that called for turnip, and after making that one, we still had one big turnip left, which wasn't getting any younger. I'd found a recipe somewhere for a roasted vegetable soup that used turnips, but we didn't have the other ingredients needed, so Brian decided to try whipping up his own.

Since we had some carrots and sweet potatoes left over from the CSA box as well, he diced up one of each along with the turnip, plus a few plain white potatoes for ballast. He coated them all with olive oil and salt and roasted them at 450°F for 40 minutes. Then he decided that as long as he was roasting, he'd make some roasted garlic to raise the flavor of the soup. However, he knew that if he roasted the whole head wrapped in foil, in the traditional way, he'd have to wait for it to cool before he could pull apart the cloves and extract their insides—so in another moment of improvisation, he decided to separate and peel all the cloves first, then wrap them all together in the foil and put them on the roasting sheet with the veggies. And lo and behold, this worked beautifully. When the bundle came out of the oven, all he had to do was unwrap the foil and dump the contents straight into the blender with half a cup of water, puree it all together, and dump it into the pot.

The pot itself, meanwhile, was bubbling away on the stove with 3 1/2 quarts of water in it. After dumping in the garlic mixture and the roasted veggies, he started adding seasonings willy-nilly, throwing in whatever seemed like it would taste good: a teaspoon and a half of salt, a bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard, 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger.

Then, tasting the mixture, he decided it needed a bit more body. His first thought was nuts, so he roasted a quarter cup of chopped walnuts, but when he smelled them and the soup together, he thought it wasn't quite right. So he got out a jar of peanuts and smelled those alongside the soup, and that combination seemed much better. However, rather than chop up the peanuts and stir them in, he decided to add a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter—the "natural" kind, with nothing in it but peanuts and salt—so that it would blend more completely with the rest of the soup. He went ahead and threw the walnuts in anyway, since he had them. After simmering this hodge-podge together for 20 to 30 minutes, during which time it thickened to an almost porridge-like consistency, he deemed it ready to eat.

And it was...interesting. Certainly not like any other soup I'd ever had before. The hint of peanut butter was vaguely reminiscent of the tahini in Brian's favorite chick pea-spinach soup, but the other ingredients were so completely different that it didn't have at all the same vibe. The roasted veggies made a a nice, smooth base, and the toasted walnuts added an interesting bit of crunch. On the whole, everything seemed to go together reasonably well, but there was one discordant note: the turnip. Roasting vegetables usually softens bitter flavors and brings out their sweetness, but in this soup, it was still definitely present. Every time I got a mouthful of turnip, there was this jarring bitter flavor, almost like ear wax, that didn't go at all with the milder and sweeter flavors of the carrot and sweet potato.

So if we ever make this recipe again, we'll probably skip the turnip—effectively making the stone soup without the stone. And if we ever again find ourselves unexpectedly in possession of a turnip or two, we'll find some other way to dispose of it than putting it in a soup. Real Simple has a couple of recipes, including Roasted Turnips with Ginger and Mashed Turnips with Bacon, that look more promising.

So that's eleven months of Soups and Salads of the Month down, and only one more to go. Almost there!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Money Crashers: Two SNApy pieces

A little over a year ago, I took the Reverse SNAP Challenge. This was an inverted form of the regular SNAP (Food Stamp) Challenge that I designed because I thought the original version - just give yourself a $30 budget to buy all the food you eat for a week - had too many unreasonable and unrealistic constraints. I complained in my original post about the SNAP Challenge that most of the strategies we use to keep our food budget low—buying in bulk, shopping sales, gardening—would actually be impossible to use on a one-week basis. Even if we succeeded in staying within the SNAP budget for the week, I argued, we'd inevitably be paying more to eat during that week than we would by sticking to our usual shopping habits.

To get around these problems, I came up with the idea of taking the challenge in reverse. Instead of setting aside all the food in our pantry and eating only what I could buy with $30 per person, I'd eat from our pantry, and then take money out of the budget for what we'd actually spent on the ingredients when we bought them. As I noted in my wrap-up for the challenge, taking the challenge this way made bookkeeping a bigger hassle, but we didn't struggle at all to staying within our budget, and we didn't feel the least bit deprived—unlike most of the politicians, bloggers, and other notables who wrote about their experiences on the standard SNAP Challenge.

This contrast between my experience and the usual one inspired me to write a post for Money Crashers about the SNAP Challenge. In it, I go into the rules of the challenge and the experiences different public figures, from Corey Booker to Gwyneth Paltrow, had when they tried it. After that, I outline some of the problems I (and others) identified with the structure of the challenge and the steps I took to correct them in my Reverse SNAP Challenge. You can read the whole story here: The SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge – Could You Eat on $4.15 a Day?

As a companion to this piece, I also wrote an article about the SNAP itself. I discuss how the first Food Stamp program came to be and how it evolved into its present form, and I provide some details about who participates in the program today and how benefits are calculated. Lastly, I go into details about how to apply for and use the program, and I offer some tips about getting the most from SNAP benefits—with a nod to the Good and Cheap cookbook I've written about here before. To learn all you ever wanted to know about Food Stamps but were afraid to ask, read the full article: How to Get EBT Food Stamps – SNAP Program Eligibility & Application.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Modest Proposal to Fight Spam

Ever since I started writing for Money Crashers, I've been receiving messages several times a week notifying me about new comments on my posts. Unfortunately, very few of them are actually comments on my posts. Actual comments would support or dispute the information in my posts, or add new information that I didn't cover, or in some way address the subject matter covered in the post. But the majority of the comments I get do none of those things. Instead, they look something like this:
I left` my desk` `job` and now` I `get` paid` $85` every` h. ...Wonder` how? I` freelance` `online!` My` old` job` was` making` me `unhappy` ,so I chose to take my chance on something` new… 2 years` after`...I say it was the smartest` decision i ever` made!` Let` me show you what` i` do...go and check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`
or this:
May` I Tell you `Something` `really` Interesting` and which is`Worth` paying` `Attention`. An `effective` and `excellent` online` `opportunity` for those people` who want to `utilise` their free time so that they can `Earn some `extra `Money` using their `computers`... I have been `working` on this for last two and half years and I am earning` 60-90 `dollar`/ hour` … In the `Past` `Week` I` Have `Earned` 13,70 `DoLLars` For `Almost `20` hours` `Sitting` ….
`Any` Special``kind` of `Skills, `Degree` or Specific qualification is not `required` for this, just `typing` and a `good` `working` and `reliable` `internet` `connection` ….
`Any` `Time` `Boundations` to `Start work` is not `Required` … You may do this `work` at any `time` when you `Willing` to do it ….
I have Been Working on this and Getting Results.....….Hope over to``website`` `page` `LINK` which is on Prrof!le of mine
In other words, they're spam.

Now, Disqus, which handles the comments system on Money Crashers, does offer some tools to combat spam. Any time I get a comment that is clearly spam, I can flag it, and the moderators will eventually spot it and remove it. I can also flag the user as a spammer, with a link to the spam message in question, in hopes that the moderators will block that user from posting any more comments.

The problem with this approach is that it puts the burden on me, the victim, to spend my time responding individually to each spam comment and each spam poster. It only takes a few seconds to flag a comment, and perhaps 30 seconds to flag a user, but that adds up when there are a lot of comments at once. In many cases, a single user will put the same piece of spam on several of my posts at once, and I have to spend five minutes flagging all of them. So it would be a lot more useful to have a way of blocking out these spam comments before they're posted.

Disqus provides some ways, within limits, to limit the comments you get. For instance, in its document on "Dealing With Spam," it explains how you can blacklist specific users who are known spammers—but here, once again, the burden is on you to identify and block those individual users, and that takes time. And these spam sites are a bit like the hydra: every time you cut off one individual source, two more pop up in its place. It's quite easy for a spammer to create a new fake online identity, carpet-bomb the Internet with comments, and then disappear into the ether. Trying to catch the individual users is pointless, because by the time you catch one identity, they've already moved on to the next.

Another feature Disqus offers is the ability to block any comments containing links, so that they must be approved before they're published. But this doesn't get around the problem, because I still have to look at every one of these comments myself before rejecting it. Moreover, most spammers have figured out that comments containing links may be rejected, so they've come up with a sneaky little workaround: instead of putting the link in the comment itself, they put it in their "user profile" and tell readers to "check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`." (The random misspellings and haphazard punctuation are apparently yet another way to try and foil spam filters.)

Now, one thing I've noticed about these users who have links in their profiles is that the profiles themselves are invariably set to "Private." That is, when you click on the profile, you get a picture of a little smiley-face that isn't smiling, wearing sunglasses, with a message saying "Deal with it: This user's activity is private." This, presumably, is to keep interested users who click on the profile from noticing that every single one of the user's posted comments is exactly the same and suddenly realizing, "Hey, wait a minute! This is just spam! It's probably not a real unbelievable businesses opportunity at all!" instead of clicking blithely through. (Frankly, I don't see how any user who fails to realize that a comment like the ones posted above is spam could be tipped off by seeing the same message posted in 200 other places, but apparently it happens.)

So it seems to me that what would really be useful for authors who are sick of dealing with spam comments on a piecemeal basis is a way to block comments from ANY user who has a a private profile that contains a URL. Users who want to put their legitimate website in your profiles would be allowed to post, as long as they make their activity public. Users who want to keep their activity private for some reason would also be allowed to post, as long as they aren't linking to a website. But any user who has both a private profile and a link in that profile would be blocked, because in my experience, every single post that comes from this kind of user is spam.

I tried to submit this suggestion to Disqus, but they don't make it easy. There's no link anywhere that says "contact us," and when you click on the link for "get help," it just directs you to their existing "knowledge base" of published articles—none of which tells me how to do the thing I want to do. The only way I've found to get a message through at all is to click on a link marked "Feedback?" at the bottom of a user profile page. That sends you to a Survey Monkey poll where you can submit ideas, and I sent my modest proposal to them that way. However, since I'm only one person, I have no idea whether my comment will make any impact.

So I'm turning to my own personal blog as a way to get my idea out there in the world, where maybe it can have some sort of impact. I'd like to encourage anyone else who agrees with it to submit the same idea to Disqus, via the same feedback survey or any other means you can find. Perhaps if they hear from enough of us, they might actually decide to make this change, and we will be able to make a pre-emptive strike against spam instead of just striking back against it. If we can succeed in making spam an ineffective means of reaching potential customers, then perhaps these businesses will have to turn to legitimate methods of marketing, or else go out of business. Frankly, I don't care which.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Money Crashers: 5 Black Friday Shopping Alternatives

Ever since I was a kid, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It wasn't the turkey and cranberries that appealed to me most; it was the family gathering. We always spent the whole four-day weekend hanging out at my folks' house with my dad's whole side of the family, eating leftovers, going for walks in the autumn chill, and playing Scrabble and Charades. That one weekend was more fun than any other in the year.

Needless to say, I never felt the slightest inclination to hit the mall on Black Friday. Even once I got old enough to care (a lot) about bargains, I couldn't see how any "holiday deals" could be worth missing out on the holiday that was still going on right then. I wanted to spend my Thanksgiving weekend with my family, not shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of complete strangers at the mall.

Apparently, though, my distaste for the Black Friday madness wasn't widely shared. The sales have only grown bigger over the years, and they're starting earlier and earlier, now often cutting into Thanksgiving Day itself. (My efforts to protest this phenomenon and keep the focus on Thanksgiving have so far had no effect that I can see, but I keep on trying.)

The thing is, I can sort of see why so many people are willing to sacrifice Thanksgiving for the sake of a good sale, because I also love a good bargain. But are the Black Friday sales really the best place to find one? What if you could get equally good deals on all your holiday shopping without going anywhere near the mall?

That's the subject I'm exploring in my latest Money Crashers post. It outlines the reasons to avoid the Black Friday mayhem and explores several alternatives that can help you save money and your sanity at the same time. Read about it here:

5 Black Friday Shopping Alternatives – Reasons to Stay Home & Still Save

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Back to the 70s

A recent post on the Dollar Stretcher forums invited readers to flash back to the 1970s (presumably in a hot tub time machine) and compare their lifestyle and budget today with what they had back then. It shared an article by financial writer Liz Pulliam Weston in which she compared the homes, cars, and other trappings of 1970s life with what we have today. Weston points out that back then, people used to live "rich, fulfilling lives" without many of the things many modern Americans consider necessities, including microwave ovens, home computers, cell phones, cable TV, and in many cases, air conditioning. They also lived in smaller houses, drove smaller cars, and spent less on dining out, vacations, and entertainment. By dialing back to a 1970s lifestyle, she suggests, we could save lots of money and still enjoy the same quality of life we had back then.

It's an interesting premise that makes for an amusing article, but I see several problems with it:
  1. First, happiness economics shows that quality of life isn't just about what you have; it also depends on you have relative to others in your peer group. So living without a home computer and an Internet connection back in the '70s, when no one else had these things either, is quite a different matter from living without them today, when all your friends and neighbors have them. It would be a bit living in the '70s without a home phone, and arguing that everyone got along just fine without them back before World War I.
  2. Second, Weston's '70s budget focuses on all the things that were cheaper back in the '70s while glossing over the things for which we used to pay a lot more and get a lot less. Sure, back in the Disco Era no one had to pay for cable TV, but if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the theater and shell out two bucks for it. Today, by contrast, for eight dollars a month - only $1.76 in 1975 dollars - you can subscribe to Netflix or Hulu and have hundreds of movies at your fingertips, plus the complete runs of entire TV series. No one back then had an MP3 player - but a good 8-track stereo system cost $500, or $2,262 in today's dollars. Plus, it was big and clunky and you had to switch out the tapes by hand.
  3. And finally, Weston doesn't mention the fact that a lot of the things we do spend more on today are things we can't simply scale back to '70s levels. Health care, for instance. In 1975, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American spent $170 out of pocket on health care ($601 in 2013 dollars). By 2013, that number had risen to $1,076. Even assuming that you would want to limit yourself to the type of health care available 40 years ago, you wouldn't be able to get it; that system no longer exists.
So I don't think it's fair to say that Americans in general live more extravagant lives than we did in the '70s; it's just that we spend our money on different things. As a reality check (and for the sake of nostalgia), here's a peek at the way we lived when I was growing up:
  • The house we lived in was technically a 3-bedroom, though it also had a den that we used as a guest room; it just didn't have a closet. I can't honestly remember whether it had central AC, but I know we didn't use it most of the time. Instead, we had a big whole-house fan that made this really powerful WHOOOOOSH when you turned it on. (My folks still have it, I think, but nowadays they just run the AC all summer.)
  • We had a washer and dryer; my mom experimented with a clothesline, but our back yard just wasn't well set up for it. I don't remember exactly how old I was when we got the dishwasher, but I remember it was a big deal. We pretty much had to reconfigure the whole kitchen to make room for it. I think we got our first microwave while I was in junior high or high school.
  • According to Weston, the majority of US households in the 1970s didn't have two cars, but we did. The town we lived in was (and still is) quite small and isolated, and you can't get much of anywhere on foot. When my parents first moved to New Jersey they had only one car, but they quickly realized my dad needed one to get to work and my mom needed one to get to anyplace else while he was at work. (I remember she told me later how ridiculously bourgeois that second car made her feel.) The cars they drove throughout my grade school years - an old Ford Fairmont and an even older Plymouth Valiant - didn't have air conditioning. When the Valiant died, my mom got a "new" Mazda that came with air conditioning, but my dad replaced the Ford with a stripped-down Geo Prizm that didn't. That was the car I got my driver's license on at age 17, and 20 years later he sold the same car to us - badly rusted, but still running strong - after our old Honda met with an untimely death.
  • I'm just old enough (my sister probably isn't) to remember when we had only one small black-and-white TV. When we got our first color TV, which was SO COOL, the smaller set moved downstairs, so for most of my childhood we had two. However, until my teen years (I think it was actually after I left for college), we didn't have cable. Instead, we used a rooftop antenna with an "antenna rotator" to reposition it. You turned the knob and it made this THUNK-thunk, THUNK-thunk sound as it reoriented itself to pick up either the New York stations or the Philly stations. And, of course, we also had a record player (which could play 33s, 45s, AND 78s) and a tape player, though we never owned an 8-track player.
So how does this compare to our lifestyle today? Well, our house is actually a product of the 1970s - as near as we can tell, it was built in 1971 - so it's much smaller than most modern homes, with just 936 feet above ground. However, since we've also finished most of the basement, it probably has about as much usable space as the house I grew up in. And with three bedrooms and two full baths for just the two of us, it certainly gives us more living space. We have a washer and dryer, but we generally don't use the dryer (except in the wintertime when clothes hung out on the line would freeze solid). We've never had a dishwasher, but we have a microwave that we use all the time - though we can also function with just our gas stove during a power outage.

Now that I work from home, Brian and I can easily get by with one car (which has AC, since that's standard these days). For us, a second car would be a luxury - but high-speed Internet connection is a necessity. But on the other hand, thanks to that high-speed connection, we no don't need cable (and I'm still a little embarrassed about having had it for two years, even if it was just to save money). We have just one TV set, a modest-sized flat-screen, but we have...let's see...four computers: my desktop, Brian's work laptop, the "media spud" that he built before Roku and Fire Stick became available, and a little Raspberry Pi that he fools around with, plus a tablet (with a nifty homemade case). We still don't own a smartphone, just one basic cell phone with a $3 a month prepaid plan, and one landline. We used to have a little SanDisk music player, but we gave it to my mom, and we haven't felt the need to replace it. Our car has a built-in music player that runs off a flash drive, and at home we listen to music on the computer. (Yeah, audiophiles can gripe about the sound quality, but I'm willing to sacrifice a little high- and low-end fidelity for the sake of being able to listen to any song in my collection, at any time, at the click of a mouse.)

So do we have more today than we had when I was growing up? Yes, definitely: we have the Internet, and that changes everything. (Without it, I wouldn't have seen this article in the first place...and I wouldn't have a blog to share my thoughts about it.) But is our lifestyle more expensive or more extravagant than it was then? Honestly, I'd have to say no. Sure, we spend more a lot more money on some specific things that we didn't have back then, like our broadband connection...but if you look at all the things it replaces, from movie tickets to newspaper subscriptions to books, I think you'll find it more than balances out.

So in short, I don't think the modern world is more decadent than the '70s; it's just different. And 40 years from now, assuming I'm still around then, I'll probably look back on the life we lived today and marvel just as much at how much more we have...and how much we no longer need.