Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Save With a Cheaper Cell Phone Plan

Nearly a year ago, I read an article on Bankrate (part of its yearlong "Savings Challenge," which I still need to go through the rest of at some point to see whether any of the articles after September are actually topics worth writing about) on how to save money on cell phone service. The author said she had personally cut her family's cell phone bill by switching from their two separate plans to a two-line plan with T-Mobile, but noted that she could have saved even more by switching to a discount carrier such as Ting or Republic Wireless. I noted, in turn, that our family saves even bigger bucks than that by using an ultra-cheap prepaid plan, since we actually use our phone less than once a month and don't need a lot of minutes.

All this inspired me to write a story for Money Crashers about the many ways there are to save on cell phone service. After going into how much you can expect to pay per month with the four major carriers (spoiler alert: it's a lot), I examine the various alternatives and their costs, including:
  • Prepaid plans from the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verison)
  • Budget sub-brands from the big carriers, such as Cricket (the low-cost arm of AT&T) and Boost (which runs on Sprint's network)
  • Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which buy up blocks of minutes and data from the major carriers and resell them to their customers, usually for much less than the big four would charge
  • Wi-fi plans, under which you use wi-fi for most of your calling and surfing, switching to a network only when you're out of wi-fi range
I give a brief rundown of the options in each category, then talk about how to decide which plan is right for your personal needs. You can read it here: How to Save With a Cheaper Cell Phone Plan – Types of Service, Major Carriers & Alternatives

One thing to note is that this article was written over ten months ago and was only published today, so it's already a little bit out of date. The first comment I received on the article pointed out that I hadn't mentioned Google's new Project Fi plan - which did exist at the time I wrote the article, but was still brand-new and hadn't received much coverage in sources that talk about phone plans. At some point I may get a chance to update this article and add that info, but for now, another poster has covered the basics on this option in the comments section.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Thrift Week finale (two months later)

Two months after my Thrift Week series on local thrift shops was cut short by the one big snowstorm of 2016, I finally got a chance to visit the last thrift shop on my list: Second Time Around in Pennington. This thrift shop is run by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, in whose church my Morris dance team holds its weekly practices, so I had been seeing a flier advertising the store and its wares on the church bulletin board every Thursday night for months, and it looked a lot more appealing than most of the thrift shops in our immediate area. Based on the pictures, the store appeared to be fairly small, but clean and well organized, and the clothes seemed to be nice but not too trendy. So I thought I would probably have a much better chance of finding something wearable in my size than I had so far at other area thrift stores, where the clothing selection was either (a) very limited, (b) old and in poor condition, or (c) very fashionable and pricey and too small to fit me.

The only downside of this store is, it's all the way out in Pennington—a town that's nearly an hour away from us and isn't very close to anywhere else we tend to go. It's not too far from my parents' house in Hopewell, but it's not exactly on the way, and we tend to visit my folks mostly in the evenings, after business hours are over. So in all the years we've lived in Highland Park, I haven't been able to visit the store more than once or twice.

However, about a week ago, Brian and I planned an extended shopping trip that would take us to our favorite Amish farmers' market, where we could stock up on free-range meats and assorted types of bread flour, and on from there to the Trader Joe's in the Princeton area for some other staples. So Brian suggested that, since this was within striking distance of Pennington (maybe 15 minutes away), we should make a regular excursion of it and go hit the Second Time Around as part of the same trip.

Unfortunately, even though I knew this thrift shop was on our itinerary for the day, I forgot to bring my camera, so I can't provide any photos for you. However, the photos you can see on the store's Facebook page give a fairly accurate overall impression of the store and its contents. Basically, the clothes are what people would call "nice"—fairly upscale, but not particularly fashion-conscious, and definitely aimed at a rather older crowd than the modern looks I tend to find at the consignment shops and even at Goodwill. The selection leans toward dressy clothes for both day and evening, and there's a whole rack specifically for clothes from Chico's, which specializes in casual looks for mature ladies. (I assume the reason these items are sequestered on their own rack is because Chico's uses its own particular sizing scheme, which bears no relation to the sizes found at any other store in the known universe—but the fact that the store has enough of them to fill an entire rack tells you a lot about its clientele.)

This looked fairly promising for me, since I am now approaching the point of being "a lady of a certain age" (though no one seems to be quite certain what that certain age is) and the teen-centered styles found at a lot of area thrift shops definitely don't suit me. There were a couple of things in particular I was hoping to find at the store:
  1. A decent pair of walking shoes. With the weather warming up, the heavy Timberland boots I've been wearing all winter (one of the better finds I've had at our local Goodwill store) are no longer particularly suitable, and the pair of Skechers I wore through last summer and fall are now so worn down that I can feel the sidewalk through them. I wasn't too optimistic about my chances on this front, since as I've noted before, I have a great deal of trouble finding shoes that fit me well and are a reasonable value. I'd already checked all the other thrift stores I visited during Thrift Week without success, and an initially promising pair I found at Payless turned out, after a short trial, to be too tight to wear for more than a few minutes at a time. (Fortunately, the store was willing to take them back even though they'd been worn; unfortunately, when I tried on the same style in a larger size, it wouldn't stay on my foot.) But I figured it was at least worth looking.
  2. A dressy outfit for winter. Back in 2014, we were invited to a December wedding reception for a couple of friends, and it wasn't quite clear what sort of clothes would be appropriate. I have a couple of different cocktail dresses that I knew would pass muster, but neither one of them provides much coverage, and I didn't care to freeze my tush off. I also have one floor-length velvet dress that only gets worn once a year for the Princeton Winter Cotillion, but I was afraid that dress, though warm enough, would be too dressy for the event. So I ended up wearing a casual skirt with a turtleneck and tights and being woefully underdressed. (I saw guys in suits at that party whom I'd never in my life seen wearing anything but blue jeans.) So ever since then, I've been looking for some sort of outfit that's moderately dressy but still warm—perhaps a dress with long sleeves and a mid-length skirt that I could pair with fleece-lined tights, or maybe a nice pair of pants and a silk or velvet top. But even though I've checked every store and website I could think of, I haven't been able to find a single outfit that meets this extremely basic description. So I thought perhaps the problem was that garments of this type just aren't in fashion right now—in which case, a store full of slightly dated-looking clothes might actually be the best place to look for them.
Unfortunately, I struck out on the dressy clothes. The store didn't have a very big selection of pants and blouses, and the dresses were mostly on the highly formal side. I did try on one sort of grey wrap dress with mid-length sleeves, but it wasn't particularly flattering, so it wasn't much of a bargain at $25.

However, I had an unexpected hit at the shoe rack. Although the selection of shoes was fairly small, it was all sturdy, high-quality brands, and unlike the selection at most thrift shops, a significant percentage of them were sensible walking shoes rather than high-fashion, high-heeled, highly impractical styles. And, since they were secondhand, I was willing to waive my objections to wearing leather. This one pair caught my eye: a modest, practical pair of leather oxfords originally from J. Crew in a size seven. This isn't my exact size, at least not usually, but I ventured to try them on anyway and found that, at least with the socks I was wearing, they were reasonably comfortable. Of course, the pair I bought at Payless had seemed comfortable at first, too, and if this pair proved to cause some sore spots upon further wearing, I wouldn't be able to return it. And the color, a light brown, wasn't one I'd usually wear.

But given that spring was nearly upon us and I hadn't succeeded in finding a pair of spring shoes anywhere else, it seemed worth risking $12 on these. And actually, it turned out that the store was in the middle of a sale that weekend, with everything reduced by 50%—so at $6, the shoes were definitely a reasonable buy. I spent an extra $2.50 on a new pair of laces to replace the original rawhide thongs, which I found very difficult to adjust. (Those found a new use as part of the belt pouch that goes with Brian's Renn Faire costume, giving it a much more authentic look than the  modern shoelaces I originally used to tie it.)

My new spring shoes aren't exactly perfect. Though sturdier than my old Skechers, they're not as versatile, since they're a style that really doesn't work with skirts. The color isn't ideal for me, and the leather lining only extends as far as the ball of the foot—so the place where it cuts off creates an awkward ridge in the footbed that feels uncomfortable when I'm wearing these with thinner socks. (I tried adding an insole to alleviate this problem, as we did with the pair of yard-sale sneakers we bought for Brian, but that made the shoes too tight overall.) But still, they're reasonably comfortable for walking in, and they look incredibly durable. Unlike most modern shoes, these can probably even be resoled when they start to wear out, so I should be able to get far more use out of this $6 thrift-shop find than I can out of a brand-new $50 pair of Skechers, which seem to show visible wear after less than a week.

So I think, thanks to this one fortuitous find, I can belatedly declare my Thrift Week thrift-shop experiment a limited success. Sure, I visited eight stores (only seven of which were open) and only found any useful secondhand goods at three of them. But on the plus side, I came away with one rare (if possibly slightly overpriced) book, two usable pairs of pants, and one usable pair of shoes, which are really hard for me to find...all for just $21.50. And, on top of that, I now know of at least one area thrift shop that is actually worth the trip. It's not terribly convenient to get to, but it's no more inconvenient than the Unique Thrift Store in South Plainfield, and the overall selection and prices are better at Second Time Around. Plus, I'd rather support the Unitarians than a for-profit business.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: First Sowing

According to the calendar and today's Google Doodle, today is officially the first day of spring. But apparently, the people in charge of the weather didn't get the memo. Ever since mid-February, the weather has been unseasonably warm—occasionally even verging on hot—and all the trees and flowers have been budding much earlier than usual. As of two weeks ago, the crocuses were up, the trees had their first hints of green, and the magnolia blossoms were starting to appear a full month early—but now that it's officially springtime, the local weather report is calling for "a coating to an inch of snow, mixed with rain at times, late this afternoon through late tonight." It's not quite as much snow as we got on the first day of spring last year, but I'm still starting to sense a pattern here.

But no matter—if my garden schedule says it's time to plant the peas, then by golly, I plant them. (Hey, that's why they call them "snow peas," right?) We haven't had time to fully prepare the bed yet with a fresh load of compost, but Brian cleared out all the detritus from last year's crops, along with the biggest weeds, and I dug a narrow channel with my trowel and dropped the peas in. The seed packet says to put the seeds two inches apart, but Brian suggested planting a few extras this year, since last year we lost a lot of the seeds to birds and ended up with fewer plants than we'd hoped for. So I opted to err on the side of planting them a little bit closer together, and with luck, that should mean that we end up with an average of four plants per foot that actually come up.

While Brian was cleaning out the bed, he also took the opportunity to extract a bucketful of our nice, rich garden soil for seed starting. Our new method of starting seeds, with a layer of sterile potting mix atop a thicker layer of sterilized garden soil in the seedling tubes, gave us excellent results last year, so we'd planned to carry on with it this year...but unfortunately, Brian realized a week or so ago that he the batch of soil he had wasn't going to be enough to handle all the seeds we had to start. Luckily, we had an alternative method to hand: for my birthday, a couple of friends gave me this handy seed-starting tray, complete with ready-made plugs of starter mix, so all you have to do is poke holes in and pop a seed in each slot. The only catch is that the little slots in the tray aren't nearly large enough to grow the seedlings to full garden-ready size, so they'll still need to be transplanted to bigger tubes at some point. But Brian is hoping that he can simply fill the tubes partway with the sterilized soil and then remove the entire plugs from the seed tray—seedlings, starter, and all—and just pop them in on top. So he gave that batch of dirt a couple of hours in the oven, with the exhaust fan going full blast to fight the smell, and moved it downstairs to cool, ready to receive these small seedlings and the few other seeds we still have to start next week.

In addition to clearing out the bed ready for the peas, Brian did a little bit of work on the beds where we keep our perennial crops—asparagus, rhubarb, and walking onions. After clearing away the leaves and other debris, he discovered that early as it is, both the rhubarb and the onions have already started to come up. So no matter how the rest of the garden does, that's two crops we're guaranteed to get a harvest of this spring. And, on top of that, we actually have a bit of last year's crop left over: in the front right garden bed, amid a clump of weeds, there's a small patch of scallions that somehow survived the entire winter. At some point, we'll have to pull out the lot to make room for new crops—but in the meantime, we can continue to enjoy produce out of last year's garden even while this year's is in progress.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Giving TaxAct the axe

It's been a pretty busy weekend for us. We did a couple of loads of laundry, ran a few errands, and played RPGs (that's role-playing games, for those less nerdy than ourselves) on Saturday night—getting home around 1am, at which point we had to reset all the clocks to 2am. Brian finished staining the new closet doors and started applying the finish to them, and he also got a coat of primer and a coat of fresh, white paint onto the new casings. Oh yes, and I did our taxes.

You may recall that, two years ago, I decided to switch from the old pencil-and-paper method I'd always used for our taxes (and my own before that) to an online tax prep service called TaxAct. So I figured that, once I finally got the last piece of paperwork I'd been waiting for to get started on our tax return for 2015, all I'd have to do is log into TaxAct and click through maybe half an hour's worth of questions to get this puppy filed.

That turned out to be wrong in a couple of different ways. First, once I logged into TaxAct, it took me longer than I expected just to enter all the information from Brian's W-2 and from our investment accounts (which are a little more complicated this year because we now have some foreign stocks in the mix). But the real problem was that once I got to the question, "Did you have business income for 2015?" and clicked on "Yes," the site told me that in that case, I wouldn't be able to use the free version of the program; I'd have to upgrade to the third-tier "Plus" version, which costs $20. It didn't mention that this was for the federal return only, but it only took me a few clicks to figure out that if I went through with this upgrade, I'd have to pay an extra $20 to file my state return. So instead of paying just $15 for both federal and state returns like I did last year, I'd now be out a total of $40.

Well, that really got my knickers in a twist. It wasn't so much the change in the pricing structure I minded, since I could always just go back to doing things the old, free, slightly slower way; it was the fact that TaxAct didn't bother to tell me about it until I'd already wasted an hour going through their system, which I now wasn't going to be able to use. The free version had always covered my freelance income before, so having that suddenly yanked away with no warning felt like a bait-and-switch to me.

So, in a huff, I logged out of TaxAct and clicked over to the IRS site, where my trusty old Free Fillable forms were still waiting for me. And as it turned out, filling out the federal return with these forms wasn't hard at all; in fact, it was probably a bit less time-consuming than the same process on TaxAct, because I wasn't being interrupted every five minutes by an ad urging me to upgrade to a pricier version of the software. So I managed to get through that process in an hour or so and sent the forms winging across the Web toward Washington.

Then I moved on to the state return. When I visited the NJ Division of Taxation, I actually got a pleasant surprise to start with: it turns out that the state of New Jersey has finally entered the 21st century and started offering a free e-filing option, "NJ Fill'nFile." So this year, I wouldn't have to go through all the rigmarole of filling out the forms on screen, printing them out, and taking them to the post office to send via snail mail.

However, this system is still fairly new, and it appears there are still a few bugs in it. Not major ones, just little annoying things, like:
  • You can't start a new return without providing a cell phone number. If you don't have a cell phone, apparently, you aren't allowed to file your taxes online. (I just gave them our landline phone number, since that's the phone we actually use, and I figured it was unlikely they'd actually check and reject our tax return on the grounds that it wasn't a real cell number.)
  • The form can only accept a limited number of characters in each field. For instance, on the line where you enter your name, it said to provide a first name and middle initial for each filer, and enter both last names only if they're different—but when I tried to do that, I discovered that I didn't have enough space to enter "Livingston, Amy R and Hudson, Brian P." I had to replace the "and" with an ampersand to squeeze both our full names in. And on the section where I had to copy in the information from Brian's W-2 form, there wasn't enough room to enter the full "state ID number" as Rutgers had provided it. I had to leave off the three zeroes on the end of the number they gave us and hope that they weren't important.
  • When you go to file the return, the website reminds you to attach any additional forms that are required before submitting the 1040—but it doesn't tell you how to do this. You have to examine the 1040 form itself and find a button squirreled away at the top that says "add attachments" and use this to stick on your Schedule A or whatever else you need. In my case, I ended up needing to attach my entire federal return, because I had to provide copies of Schedule B and Schedule C, and I couldn't figure out a way to pull those individual pages out of the federal return and attach them separately.
Still, despite these minor glitches, I did manage to get both the federal and the state returns submitted by lunchtime on Sunday, and the federal one has already been accepted. All in all, it took maybe three or four hours of work (not counting the wasted hour I spent on the TaxAct site), and as a bonus, we will actually be able to have our refunds directly deposited into the bank without having to pay the $19 fee that TaxAct charges (per return) for this privilege.

So on the whole, I'd have to say that for people whose tax situation is similar to ours—complicated enough to require the full 1040 form, with maybe three or four supporting forms, but not a whole thick wad of them—the free fill-in forms are now the best way to do your taxes. They don't do all the math for you, but they do most of the calculations where you'd be at risk of making a mistake; there's no need to mess around with paper and stamps; and you can send the form off immediately and receive your tax refund, if you're getting one, in the shortest possible time. Plus, they're genuinely free, with no hidden fees or upselling involved.

For those who have a really simple tax return—simple enough to use the 1040E-Z, or possibly the 1040A with no business income—using the free version of TaxAct might still be simpler, especially since you can now get both federal and state returns for free. (On the other hand, if your taxes are that simple, filling out the forms yourself won't take that long either, and you won't have to deal with the repeated sales pitches.) And for those with a really complex return, it's probably worth shelling out for some real tax software, or even hiring a CPA. (If your taxes are that complicated, chances are you can afford it.) But for those of us stuck here in the middle, I think the free forms offer the best balance of convenience (moderate) and cost (none).

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Money Crashers: Buying a New Car vs. a Used Car

Last month, Money Talks News ran an article on "common money mistakes"—one of which, according to author Marilyn Lewis, is "buying a new car." She brought up the oft-cited statistic that a new car loses 20 percent of its value within the first year, so clearly, buying new is like throwing 20 percent of your money straight down the drain. By choosing a used car instead, she implies, you can save 20 percent off the price without losing anything in terms of reliability or overall lifespan, and save on insurance and registration fees at the same time.

This advice is widely repeated in financial publications of all sort, and for many years, I accepted it without question. Then, five years ago, Brian and I started shopping for our current car (after our old one perished in a collision at the ripe old age of 16), and I suddenly discovered that this standard advice might not actually hold true, at least not in all cases in all cases. The problem, for us, was that the type of car we wanted—small, efficient, reliable, safe, and equipped with a manual transmission—wasn't really available secondhand. After diligent searching, I finally managed to locate one two-year-old Honda Fit with a stick shift, but it was listed at $13,000, and a brand-new Fit would only set us back around $15,000. So, assuming that we would keep this car until it was at least 15 years old—which seemed a safe bet, based on the age of our previous one—both the new Fit and the used one would cost us $1,000 per year of useful life, and the new one came with a three-year warranty and a lot of nice features the older model didn't have.

So Brian and I ended up buying the new Fit, and I started making it a personal mission to fight back against the one-size-fits-all advice that used cars are always a better value than new ones. Every time I saw this old canard pop up in a personal finance article, I would respond by telling my story in the comments section. But eventually, I decided to stop playing defense and go on the offensive by publishing an article of my own.

Hence, my latest Money Crashers piece. It explores all the pros and cons of buying new cars as opposed to used ones, including purchase cost, insurance, maintenance, and reliability. I also discuss the option of buying a certified used car, which offers a compromise between the (usually) lower price of a used car and the (usually) better reliability of a new one. And finally, I offer some tips for getting the best possible deal, whether you buy new or used.

Of course, this is only one article standing against the dozens, if not hundreds, out there parroting that same old "never buy a new car" line. But at least it will tilt the scale a tiny bit towards a more balanced viewpoint.

Buying a New Car vs. a Used Car - How to Choose & Get the Best Deal

Money Crashers: 9 Gadgets Your Smartphone or Tablet Computer Can Replace

A few years ago, I started wondering whether it was time to jump on the smartphone bandwagon. It wasn't that I wanted to be connected to the Internet everywhere I go; it was the idea that this one device could do so many different jobs. An article I'd read in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that if you have a smartphone, you automatically have a GPS unit, a camera, an MP3 player, a camcorder, an alarm clock, and a handheld gaming unit—all right in your pocket.

At the time, I concluded that I was better off sticking with the low-technology versions of these tools I was already using, since I already owned them and didn't have to pay a monthly fee to maintain them. Since then, I still haven't found it worth my while to invest in a phone with a monthly plan, but I do now have a tablet, and I have to admit, it comes in handy for a variety of uses. It only connects to the Internet when it's on my home network, but I can always download stuff to it—such as e-books—to use later.

So in my latest Money Crashers post, I explore in more detail the ways that one gadget—a smartphone or a tablet—can do the work of nine others:
  1. GPS unit
  2. Digital camera
  3. Digital picture frame
  4. Camcorder
  5. Music player
  6. E-reader
  7. Handheld gaming console
  8. Alarm clock
  9. Home weather station 
For each one, I compare how well a phone plus app compares to the original device in terms of performance, as well as how it stacks up in terms of cost. In some cases, the phone can do the job just as well or better; in others, it's not as good, but it's significantly cheaper and more convenient. Of course, that's if you don't count the cost of the phone itself and the monthly data plan—but I also note that, if all you want is the apps, you can buy the device without the plan and just download what you need, as I do with my tablet.

Get the details here: 9 Gadgets Your Smartphone or Tablet Computer Can Replace

Monday, March 7, 2016

Money Crashers: Products Made in the USA

One of the topics I talk about most here is shopping. In many of these posts, I'm telling you how to shop based on specific criteria that most people don't consider—like organic or local or Fair Trade—while sticking to a budget. And I've also addressed these same shopping topics in my Money Crashers posts, doing my best to provide a complete, yet concise primer on how to get your money's worth with this kind of shopping.

One topic I've never addressed here before, though, is how to buy American. A lot of people—including some people I know—have a strong preference for buying goods made in the USA. According to Consumer Reports, four out of five  of American shoppers say they prefer to buy US-made products, and more than three out of five would be willing to pay 10 percent more for them.

So for all those folks, my latest Money Crashers article delves into this tricky topic. I outline the benefits of buying American, explain how to understand the labels, and offer tips on finding US-made goods in six major categories: cars, appliances, computers and electronics, furniture, clothing, and shoes.

Working on this article even inspired me to do a little online shopping at American Apparel. Their regular prices were way too high for me, but I found a pair of pants in their clearance section that looked like a reasonably good deal at $40 (especially since I had that amount saved up in survey credits). Unfortunately, though I carefully checked the measurements ahead of time, they just didn't fit very well, and items purchased on clearance are non-returnable—so my $40 bargain turned out to be a $40 complete waste. But perhaps you can do better.

Products Made in the USA – Reasons to Buy American-Made Goods

Sunday, March 6, 2016

TWO Recipes of the Month: Barley and Mushroom Pilaf and Lentil Soup with Coconut

We're not even a full week into March yet, but we've already tried not one, but two new vegetable recipes. On Tuesday, we had the Barley and Mushroom Pilaf out of Nava Atlas's Vegetariana, and on Wednesday, we made the Lentil Soup with Coconut from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

Trying the first one was kind of an impromptu decision. We had found a good deal on mushrooms at Aldi the previous week, and after making a batch of our favorite Mushroom Barley Soup (see the comment on this post for the recipe), we still had some mushrooms left that needed to be used up before they got too bedraggled. We have several mushroom-based recipes in our regular repertoire, including the Giant Mushroom Popover from Molly Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, pasta tossed with sauteed mushrooms and cheese, and mushroom omelet. But it seemed like we'd been leaning pretty heavily on all of these recipes recently, and I thought maybe it was time to expand our collection.

So I started browsing through the cookbook shelf, looking up "mushrooms" in the indexes, and found a recipe for Barley and Mushroom Pilaf that I'd never taken note of before. Most of the ingredients it called for—barley, olive oil, onion, celery, garlic, mushrooms, canned white beans, soy sauce, honey, and black pepper—were ready to hand. The others, fresh parsley and fresh dill, weren't available this early in the gardening year, but we figured we could safely leave out the parsley and substitute some dried dill. And thanks to our impulse-purchased pressure cooker, we could have the barley cooked and ready to go in just 10 minutes, and the entire recipe in about 15 minutes after that.

The finished dish was certainly both hearty and healthful, and the taste wasn't bad, but to me, it seemed a little lacking. Maybe it was the absence of the fresh herbs the recipe called for, but it just didn't seem quite as flavorful as I would have hoped. I remembered that years ago, when I was single, I had improvised a somewhat similar dish based on what I happened to have available in the pantry at the time—half a box of Quaker quick-cooking barley, a packet of Lipton onion-mushroom soup mix, an onion, and a can of mushrooms—and it seemed to me that this hodgepodge mixture had come out more savory than the undoubtedly healthier version I was eating right now. I wasn't sure exactly what it needed, but I thought more garlic would have made a good start, as the recipe calls for only two cloves, which is pretty mild for my taste. Brian fished some powdered garlic out of the pantry, and sprinkling a bit of that over the bean-barley mess did seem to help the flavor somewhat. So I think if we were to make this again, I'd want to at least double the garlic content, and possibly experiment with some other flavors as well—perhaps cooking the barley with some of our favorite Penzey's vegetable soup base rather than plain water, for instance.

The second new dish we tried, by contrast, was a planned one. Brian had come across the recipe for Lentil Soup with Coconut some time ago and flagged it as one to try, and we'd actually gone and bought a can of coconut milk and some shredded unsweetened coconut specifically to use in the recipe. However, the recipe also calls for sliced fresh okra, which we didn't manage to find at any of the stores in our area, so Brian had to improvise a bit. He bought a pound of green beans and substituted those for both the okra and the zucchini in the original recipe, and since okra also serves as a thickening agent, he threw in a tablespoon of cornstarch as well to make up the difference. All the other ingredients we needed—vegetable oil, onion, garlic, fresh ginger, black pepper, turmeric, curry powder, diced tomatoes, lentils, and veggie stock—were ready to hand. The recipe also called for "fresh curry leaves, if available, or fresh basil leaves," and Brian was planning to use some of the salt-packed basil leaves we had in the pantry, but he actually ended up forgetting and leaving them out entirely.

Not that it really mattered, because this soup had plenty of flavor without them. The curry powder Brian used was not our usual homemade variety, but a McCormick blend someone gave him that contains rather a lot of fenugreek, a spice we seldom use—and one that turns out to be not much to my taste. Moreover, the recipe calls for you to put the curry powder into the dry pan and toast it a bit before you add the rest of the ingredients. Brian suspects it was this step that caused the smell of fenugreek to permeate our kitchen so thoroughly that even now, four days later, we're still catching a faint whiff of it every time we enter the house through the kitchen door. Between this and the other spices in the soup, it had a very powerful, pungent flavor, and although I normally like curries that aren't too fiery, I couldn't finish my bowl of this stuff. Fortunately, Brian liked it fine, so he was able to take care of the leftovers. But still, I don't think we'll be making it again—or at least, if we do, we'll make sure to use our regular curry powder and run the ventilation fan on high while cooking it.

So all in all, neither of our Recipes of the Month for March was a smashing success, and we wouldn't make either of them again without some modifications. But the barley-mushroom pilaf, at least, shows potential, and I think we might be able to turn it into an enjoyable dish—perhaps even a staple dish—with a bit of tweaking.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Money Crashers: Top 5 Things That Are the Biggest Waste of Money

The point of frugality, I've often noted, isn't to avoid spending money; it's to avoid wasting money. Some expenses, even if they're not strictly necessities, are still worth the money. I'm not at all embarrassed about indulging in the occasional Frappuccino, for instance - especially since I use survey credits to reload my Starbucks card. Nor will I apologize for indulging in hot showers and having a large—perhaps even mildly excessive—collection of books. These are luxuries that, for me, provide enough pleasure to justify their rather modest price tags.

The expenses that really bug me are the ones that eat up money and natural resources, and provide nothing of value in return. Expenses like bottled water, for instance, which in many cases is literally nothing but filtered tap water—which you could easily filter yourself at home for much less.

So my latest Money Crashers article is more or less a rant about five of these utterly unnecessary expenses and why people should stop wasting their money on them. In addition to bottled water, I cover K-Cups, microwave popcorn, dryer sheets, and cable TV —explaining why they're unnecessary, what the cheaper alternative is, and how much money you could save by switching.

Read about it at Top 5 Things That Are the Biggest Waste of Money, and feel free to join the ranting in the comments section.