Monday, May 2, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Check Your Credit Score for Free

If you're a financially savvy kind of individual (and you must be if you're here, right?), you no doubt already know the importance of checking your credit report every year. Getting a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) allows you to spot and correct errors that could affect your credit rating or, more dangerously still, be a sign of identity theft. So the sooner you can find these and nip them in the bud, the better. That's why the federal government now requires the credit bureaus to provide you with a copy of your credit report once a year at no charge. The easiest way to get them is through the site AnnualCredit.Report.com. (Accept no substitutes; sites with similar URLs, like FreeCreditReport.com, are fakes that either phish for your personal information or try to get you on the hook for a paid service.)

However, while the credit bureaus now have to give you free access to your credit report, they're still allowed to charge you to view your actual credit score. I've always found that rather annoying, since it's your credit score that really affects your life the most. It determines the interest you pay on your credit cards, your chances of qualifying for a mortgage, your auto insurance rates, and even, in some cases, your ability to get a job. It seems like something you should be able to check on without having to shell out twenty bucks for it.

So in my latest piece for Money Crashers, I've compiled a list of tricks for getting a look at your credit score—or at least an estimate of it—without having to pay. Actually, I say it's my latest piece, but it's only the latest one to be published; it's actually the very first article I wrote when I started working for Money Crashers about a year ago. I'm not sure why they chose to sit on it for a year, or  why the final version ended up with a bunch of editing changes that I never saw when they originally reviewed it—but the information is all there, and I guess that's what matters.

How to Check Your Credit Score – Subscription Services & Free Monitoring

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: The Age of Asparagus

I'm celebrating the Age of Asparagus a day early this year, since last year I was so busy with other May Day festivities that I completely forgot to do a blog post.

Unfortunately, this spring our asparagus patch isn't giving us much to celebrate. We've harvested only a handful of spears so far, and right now there aren't more than three or four incipient ones out there. Most of the shoots we've had so far were so skinny, we let them go straight to fern without bothering to pick them.

And the new asparagus plants we added in the back yard two years back, which should theoretically be mature enough to eat this year, are helping any. In fact, of the ten plants we put in, only five appear to have come up at all, and they look even scrawnier and more pathetic than the asparagus in the side yard.

Fortunately, as you can see at the far end of the bed, we do have one spring vegetable in the yard that isn't letting us down: our trusty rhubarb plants. After an early and warm spring, they're already looking quite large, bushy, and healthy. Brian has already had to go out several times to remove the flower spikes so the plants will put more of their energy into producing healthy, edible stalks.

We've already tried one new rhubarb recipe this year, using some (but by no means the last) of the rhubarb we had frozen from last year's bountiful crop. Savory, the freebie magazine they give out at Stop & Shop, had several interesting recipes in its spring issue, and one of them was a simple rhubarb and strawberry compote that looked like an ideal dessert for the Passover Seder. We made a double recipe of it, which turned out to be way more than we needed for the family, so we had a whole jar left over to enjoy during the eight days of Passover. It turns out to make a good topping for matzo brei (which presumably would be equally good on waffles or pancakes), and it's also good with the potato-based porridge I eat as an alternative Passover breakfast. And, of course, it's also quite nice with vanilla ice cream.

For tonight, though, we're going with an old standby: Skillet Chicken and Rhubarb. Brian was thinking of making it with quinoa as an alternative to the usual polenta, since we picked some up at the Whole Earth Center and we need to use it somehow. But since we've never done it that way before, we decided to stick with the tried-and-true polenta rather than risk messing up one of our favorite dishes. We'll think of something else to do with the quinoa, possibly in a veggie dish that can serve as our Recipe of the Month for May.

So tonight, it's rhubarb for dinner, and possibly rhubarb for dessert as well, since we still have a tiny bit of the compote left. And then tomorrow, it's up long before the day-o to welcome in the May-o.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Become a Freelancer

As my regular readers know, I've been a freelancer for about 12 years now. As I wrote back in 2012,  my decision to quit my job and start working as a freelancer was much easier because Brian and I were about to get married that year. His job would provide us with one steady income and a source of health insurance, which are two of the biggest things a freelance job lacks.

Also, in my case, becoming a freelancer wouldn't require any equipment or training I didn't already have. I already had writing skills, experience in publishing, and a home computer, and that was pretty much all I needed to get started. And since the development house where I worked hired freelancers on a regular basis, and I also had contacts in the publishing world, I had several potential clients already lined up. So under the circumstances, quitting was a pretty easy decision for me.

I can also honestly say it's a decision I've never really regretted. Sure, freelancing has its drawbacks: the income is uncertain and the work flow is uneven, with too much work at some times and not enough at others. Also, I have to pay my own taxes every quarter, including the dreaded self-employment tax. But for me, the upsides—no commute, no dress code, complete control over my work schedule—far outweigh the downsides.

However, I also realize that each person's situation is different. For me, the decision to work from home was an easy one, and the right one—but my experience isn't enough of a guide for other people whose circumstances may be completely different. So in my latest Money Crashers post, I've done my best to cover all you need to know about freelancing to decide whether it's a good choice for you. I talk about all the ways there are to make money working from home, the benefits and drawbacks of freelancing, and the most important skills and tools you need to succeed at the freelance life.

Check it out here: How to Become a Freelancer – Types of Work, Pros & Cons

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Money Crashers: 4 Common Health Myths You Can Ignore

Myths, especially in the age of the Internet, have a way of taking on a life of their own. The website Snopes.com exists for the sole purpose of debunking Internet misinformation, yet many stories continue to spread long after Snopes has shown them to be false; I've occasionally received slightly different versions of the same inaccurate story years apart.

Most myths are pretty much harmless. A fake story about Coca-Cola buying up and discontinuing Dr Pepper, or about Prince playing a role in the creation of Air Jordan sneakers, doesn't really hurt anyone, except by wasting their time as they pass it around and read it and pass it on to others. But there's one type of myth that can actually cause physical damage: health myths. If you read and (for some reason) believe an article telling you that a diet of nothing but bacon and 14 hours a day of television is the key to longevity, taking that advice to heart could be a quick ticket to a massive coronary.

So it really annoys me when I keep reading - particularly in sources that are supposed to be reputable - health "facts" that have no basis in fact. One of the most egregious is the old one about how you need to drink 8 glasses of water every day for optimal health. As this New York Times article explains in considerable detail, this claim has "no science behind it," yet health textbooks I worked on as recently as five years ago were still repeating it.

My latest Money Crashers article covers this and three other health myths, explaining where they come from, why they're wrong, and how they could be costing you time, money, or general hassle:
  • The myth that you need 8 hours of sleep a night. Actually, sleep needs vary considerably from person to person - and the average person's need appears to be closer to 7 hours rather than 8.
  • The myth that eggs (or at least egg yolks) are dangerous because of the cholesterol they contain. While the American Heart Association clings stubbornly to this view, most medical studies show that cutting back on eggs doesn't improve health outcomes and may even make them worse.
  • Newest of the lot, the myth that standing desks - like the one Brian build for himself to use at work - are better for your body than sitting in a chair. Although there is indeed evidence that sitting for long periods is bad for you, there's also ample evidence that standing for long periods is just as bad, if not worse. Experts say switching off between sitting and standing throughout the day is better than spending hours in either position (which is why Brian designed his desk to let him do both).
So next time someone throws one of these spurious health claims at you, be prepared to fight back with the facts. You can get them here: 4 Common Health Myths You Can Ignore – Know the Facts

Sunday, April 24, 2016

My floral Valentine

For years, I've been growing increasingly frustrated with the rosebush in our back yard. For one thing, it wasn't really not so much a bush as a vine, so every summer its branches got insanely long and flopped over under the weight of the blossoms, exposing bare spots underneath and getting in the way every time you tried to open the patio door. No matter how rigorously I pruned it back in the winter, I just couldn't get it to grow evenly and compactly.

Then, by the time fall came, these branches would be not only long and straggly, but also nearly bald, having lost all their leaves to black spot. In 2014, I tried pre-emptively spraying it all season long with a baking-soda solution I'd seen recommended on numerous gardening sites. That didn't work, so I switched to a commercial fungicide. That still didn't work, so in 2015, I started spraying the bush with fungicide every week as soon as it developed its first leaves. And when that still didn't work, I decided I'd had it with this bush, and I was going to cut the whole thing down and replace it with a nice, compact, easy-care rosebush with a good reputation for black spot resistance.

So this year for Valentine's Day, Brian gave me a card that said, "Dear Valentine" on the front and had this drawing inside:


In other words, he literally promised me a rose garden. He couldn't very well give me the rosebush itself as a present in the middle of February, but he gave me his word that this year, for sure, the old rosebush would go and a new one would take its place. He even came up with a design for extending our patio to help the new bush blend into its surroundings. (And, if you look carefully at the picture, you can see that he included our two kitties peering out the glass door at the new addition to the yard.)

Now, as I've noted, Brian and I are normally a bit slow when it comes to getting projects done around the house and yard. But Brian promised that this particular project would get done this spring, and he was as good as his word. Earlier this month, we went out to a local garden center and bought a Knock Out rosebush—a variety that's compact, easy to care for, and very resistant to diseases, including black spot. And last weekend, when the weather was clear, we got it into the ground.


As you can see, Brian also stuck to his original design idea about extending the patio. He figured if he was going to do it at all, it would be a lot easier to do it before putting the rosebush in the ground than after, so he spend some time digging into the slope next to the patio and building a small dry-stone wall using some of the leftover pavers from our patio project.

The unusual thing about this job was that it was kind of done from the top down: he started by laying out the pavers directly on the ground around the planting area, and when he reached a spot where the ground was too low to support them, he dug out the dirt until there was room to add another layer of bricks underneath. He also didn't attempt to use any sort of mortar, so the only thing really holding the wall in place is the weight of the bricks and the dirt piled against them. And because the pavers aren't completely identical in size and shape—as we discovered when laying the patio itself—they didn't quite meet up evenly on all four sides. So the finished wall isn't exactly level, and there's one spot against the wall where Brian had to lay a brick in edgewise to fill in a gap. But you'd never notice it from a distance.

So there it is: my new rose garden. Now all I have to do is wait for them to start blooming. The plant was big enough when we bought it that I'm hoping for blooms the first year, but we might have to wait until next year for Brian's sketch to be realized in full.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Eat Local

So far, in my work for Money Crashers, I've written several times about article to eat sustainably. I've already covered organic foods, vegetarian diets, and Fair Trade, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I tackled the same subject from yet another angle: eating local.

Like the other food-related topics I've covered, this is a type of eating I've dabbled in myself but never quite gone all the way with. Last June, for instance, I embarked on a local produce challenge, attempting to eat only Jersey-grown produce for one week. This wasn't all that strict a challenge, since (a) it was only a week and (b) only fruits and veggies had to be locally grown; we didn't even attempt to find local sources of, for example, wheat flour, sugar, or milk. And yet even with the bar set fairly low, we didn't exactly manage to stick to the letter of the challenge. We ate a lot of locally grown produce during a ten-day period, but there was no consecutive seven-day period during which we ate no produce from anywhere else.

Our experience illustrates both the benefits and the challenges of being a "locavore." On the one hand, during our local-produce week, we ate a lot of really good, healthy meals with tasty, seasonal veggies. We tried foods we might not have bought in the store, and we supported our local farmers at the same time. But on the other hand, we had to work harder to figure out recipes that would use nothing but the fruits and veggies available to us locally...and we still didn't succeed entirely, because our choices were limited.

My article on local eating goes into its benefits and challenges in more depth, exploring such questions as the relationship between eating local and eating organic, how supporting local farmers improves our nation's food security, whether it costs more or less money to eat a local diet, and the environmental trade-offs involved in eating an exclusively local diet. And to wrap it up on a practical note, I cover several different places to find locally grown food and ways to make the fruits of the harvest last longer.

Read about it here: How to Eat Local and Become a Locavore – Benefits & Challenges

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Stuffed Shrooms

Brian and I go through a lot of mushrooms. Since we don't eat a lot of meat, mushrooms make a pretty good way to add bulk and texture to our usual vegetarian fare, such as pasta and eggs. We buy most of our mushrooms from the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, where the organic white button mushrooms sell for just $2.29 a pound. That's quite a bit less than our local supermarkets usually charge for conventional mushrooms that come in plastic packages, and as a bonus, they don't leave us with a plastic package to dispose of. So pretty much every time we visit the Whole Earth Center, we make a point of grabbing a pound of mushrooms along with whatever other bulk items we need.

On our last visit to Whole Earth, Brian discovered that some of the mushrooms in the white button bin were unusually large. This inspired him to try an idea he'd been toying with for some time: stuffed mushrooms. We had this recipe for an appetizer called spinach balls, made by mixing Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix (it really has to be Pepperidge Farm, apparently) with chopped spinach and some eggs for a binder, and Brian thought a variant of this mixture might make a good stuffing for the shrooms. And as it happened, we already had half a package of the stuffing mix on hand, left over from a previous batch of the spinach balls, so this was a perfect time to try the experiment.

For the stuffing, Brian made some modifications to the basic spinach ball recipe, based on what we had available and what he thought would work best with the mushrooms. He ended up with this:

BRIAN'S SPINACH-STUFFED SHROOMS

Remove the stems from 10 large white mushrooms and chop them. Dice 1/2 red onion, mince 1 clove garlic, and sauté all the veggies in a pan until they start to soften. Add 4 oz. chopped frozen spinach and sauté until all the veggies are soft.
In a bowl, mix 4 oz. Pepperidge Farm Herbed Stuffing Mix, 1 jumbo egg, 1/4 vegetable stock, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Stir in the sautéed veggies.
Spoon this mixture into the mushroom caps and bake at 375°F for 30-40 minutes or until browned.

These proved to be reasonably tasty, but somewhat difficult to eat. These mushrooms were too big to treat as hors d'oeuvres, picking them up and munching them down in a single bite, so we had to eat them with a knife and fork—but unfortunately the cooked mushrooms were rather slippery, so when we sliced into them, the stuffing would slide off the base. So we ended up attempting to spear the slice of mushroom and the escaped stuffing on the fork together in order to eat them as a unit. Once I managed to get everything it into my mouth, the flavors worked together pretty well, but I kept wishing that the stuffing mixture had been stuffed into something else that would hold it more securely.

Given that this recipe is a bit time-consuming to make, and given that we know so many other good things to do with mushrooms that are just as tasty and a lot easier, I don't think we're likely to make this particular dish again. But we'll probably keeping the recipe for the stuffing mixture on hand, since it might work well in some other context. Perhaps we could stuff it into some other veggie, like peppers or squash, or perhaps we could just stuff it into a casserole dish and eat it plain. If we can figure out a matzo-based equivalent for the Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, we could even make a version of it for Passover next week.