Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Best Financial Decisions

Here is the third and final article in my series about the Claris survey on financial regrets. The last one focused on what people, in hindsight, consider to be their worst financial decisions; this one is about the flip side of that, the decisions that people were happiest about.

Like the last article, this one has some advice that's mainly useful for younger folks. For instance, the #1 decision people were satisfied with was going to college, and while it's certainly possible to go back and earn your degree in middle age, the vast majority of people make this choice in their teens. So info about the pros and cons of getting a college degree, and how to get the best value for your education dollar, are probably a bit less useful for adult readers. (On the other hand, I guess for some people it could be useful for figuring out how much they should be willing to finance their kids' education, either now or down the road.)

Other decisions in the article, however, can be made at pretty much any age. These include:
  • Buying a home. If you're already a homeowner, it's too late to decide not to buy, but if you're still weighing the decision, the article has a lot to say about the pluses and minuses.
  • Living below your means. Even if you haven't done this in the past, it's never too late to start.
  • Dealing sensibly with debt. If you have no debts now, this article has some sound advice on which kinds of debt are most likely to help you, and which are most likely to hurt. And if you already owe money, it offers some suggestions about how to pay it off quickly.
  • Investing. If you've never invested before, this article can help you get started; if you're investing already, it can help you squeeze a little more value out of your investment dollar.
  • Having a traditional career. If you're thinking of starting your own business, this article covers the risks of doing it, as well as the possible benefits. It outlines how to decide if this move is for you, and how to minimize the risks if you choose to take the plunge.
  • Travel. I'm not a big fan of travel myself, but many survey respondents said "taking that trip of a lifetime" was the best decision they'd ever made, and who am I to contradict them? So if this is a goal for you as well, the article offers some tips on how to enjoy that once-in-a-lifetime trip without sacrificing your financial future.
Get all the details here: 7 Best Financial Decisions Young People Can Make to Get Ahead

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Household Hacks: Even easier DIY cat toy

So, remember how a couple of weeks ago I said I had come up with the world's easiest DIY cat toy?

Well, I spoke too soon. Brian has come up with another toy that is also made of reused materials and is even simpler than the my paper twists. Plus, the cats are even more enthusiastic about it. The only catch is, to get the materials for it, you have to consume five heads of garlic.

At our house, this is no problem. Garlic is a staple for us, and so we routinely buy several heads at a time. They come bundled up together in a little mesh bag, like this. Brian thought these little bags looked like they might be useful for something, so he took to saving them. He'd just roll them up into little balls like this, rather resembling a jellyfish, and toss them in a larger mesh bag (the kind onions come in) for storage.

At some point, it occurred to him that these little balls were the sort of thing our cats might like to play with. They were lightweight and slightly irregular in shape, so when you tossed them, they'd bounce and roll in unpredictable ways—which seems to be the best way to hold the cats' interest. But he hesitated to give them one, because he thought they were so small the cats might somehow manage to swallow them.

Recently, however, we picked up a bag of garlic that was much larger than the stuff we usually buy. It wasn't quite as jumbo-sized as the stuff they call elephant garlic, but it was definitely bigger than average. And consequently, it came in a bigger bag. So Brian decided this bag made a large enough ball that we could safely give it to the cats and see how they reacted.

The answer, as it turns out, was "with great enthusiasm." If you toss this mesh ball for them, they will chase after it even more eagerly than they do the paper toys. They especially love when it goes rolling in a vaguely off-kilter path down the hall, so they can go bounding after it. The best part is that when they catch up to it and snatch at it, the mesh often catches on their claws, causing them to snake them until it comes free—which, of course, sends it flying off again, so they can chase it all over. So all we have to do is toss this toy once, and they will amuse themselves with it for—well, not for hours on end, but at least for several minutes.

I tried to get a few pictures of the cats playing with this toy, but unfortunately, our cats just love the camera. As soon as it comes out, they become far more interested in that than they were in whatever they were doing, and so all you can get is pictures of them staring into the camera and trying to bite it. So you'll just have to take my word for it: they love this thing.

Better still, after observing how our cats play with this extra-large garlic-bag ball, Brian has concluded that probably there would be no harm in letting them play with the smaller ones, as well. So once they manage to lose this toy or chew it to pieces (they've already pulled a couple of small strings loose), we have several more to replace it.

And that also means that if you want to try this toy on your cats, you don't necessarily have to seek out an unusually large bag of garlic to make it. Just buy a regular bag of whatever size your supermarket carries, eat all the garlic, and roll up the bag like this: start by turning up one end, then roll it over a second time, and just keep rolling until you've got the little jellyfish shape shown above. Then send it skittering down the hall, and watch your kitties pounce.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes

This is the second of my articles based on the Claris Finance survey about financial decisions. It's based on two sections of the survey: one that asked people about their worst financial decisions, and one that asked them what advice they'd give to a younger version of themselves.

In real life, of course, it's not possible to go back in time and steer yourself away from future mistakes—but it is possible to guide others so they don't make the same mistakes. So this article is aimed more at younger folks just starting out on their financial journey. First, I warn them about the decisions they're most likely to regret later in life, such as overspending, racking up debt, and avoiding investment. Then I point them toward strategies that can help them avoid these mistakes, such as making a budget, eating out less, and taking advantage of automatic deposits.

For those who are older and may already have made some mistakes of their own, this advice can still be helpful. For instance, it may be too late to avoid getting into debt, but it's not too late to get out—and the suggestions in this article can help you do it faster. Get the details here: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes Young People Regret & How to Avoid Them

And lest you think I'm being too much of a negative Nelly, don't worry: there's a third article in this series coming out soon, which is all about the best financial decisions to make—particularly for young folks, but for the rest of us, better late than never.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies

As I've noted before, occasionally companies looking for free publicity send me press releases about their work in the hopes that I'll write about it for Money Crashers. They can be pretty persistent, too; if I just delete the messages with no response, they usually follow up a few days later to ask, "Did you get my e-mail? I would be happy to discuss it with you!" I've actually had to resort to sending a form reply, politely thanking them for the message and explaining that I can't respond to it personally "due to the large volume of such requests I receive," but I'll certainly consider the information and use it if I can. Then, most of the time, I dump the message straight into the trash.

Once in a while, however, I get an e-mail on a topic that I think I actually can get an interesting article out of. And recently, I got one that was an absolute bonanza. It was a link to the results of a survey by Claris Finance, which asked people about the best and worst financial decisions they'd made in their lives. Looking them over, I realized they could probably provide meat for not one but several articles on how to save money, make sound decisions, and avoid financial regrets.

For instance, one section of the survey asked people about what strategies they'd tried to save money, and which ones actually worked for them. This stuck me as solid, practical information that pretty much anyone could benefit from. So in this article, I explore the five strategies that people found most useful, how well each one worked, and how to make them work for you. For instance, I outline the steps in making a budget (the #1 saving strategy people found useful), offer tips on how to eat out less (the #2 strategy), and go into detail about how to avoid different types of consumer debt (the #4 strategy).

Learn all about the five money-saving tips that actually work, and how to follow them, in the full article: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies Proven to Work for Anyone. And keep an eye out for my other Money Crashers articles based on the same financial survey, coming soon.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gardeners' holidays 2017: Garden Planning Day

Well, this is apparently what the first day of spring looks like now:

At least the snow is melting instead of still coming down, but there's still enough out there to make our regular annual celebration of First Sowing a little impractical.

But perhaps it's just as well, since it really wouldn't be practical to start putting seeds in the ground just yet this year anyway. As I mentioned last spring, our garden bed frames have been falling apart for some time now, and we've concluded that this is the year we're going to have to take them apart and replace them completely. (We've decided to go with the pressure-treated wood, and Brian has already acquired the materials—40 2-by-4s and five pounds of stainless-steel screws—with the help of a pickup-driving coworker.) So if we put any seeds into the beds now, we'd just disrupt them when we tore down the frames.

So, instead, our plan is to tear down and replace at least one of the beds next weekend, and then plunk the peas down in the newly assembled bed. And in order to make that happen, I need to get busy and figure out just how we're going to lay out the garden this year, so I'll know which bed we need to replace first.

In order to make that process a little simpler, I've decided to try simplifying my crop-rotation scheme. Garden books always advise you to make sure you don't plant any crop in the same spot where it's been for any of the past three or four years, which is kind of hard to do when you've only got 96 square feet to work with. In a frantic attempt to make it work, I used to juggle all the squares in the beds individually, moving plants not only from bed to bed but also from one end of the bed to another, trying to find new blocks of 9 squares each for the zucchini plants and 4 squares each for the peppers, all while trying to maintain the optimal companion plantings of tomatoes with basil and leeks far away from peas. But in the end, I always ran up against the same old problem: there are only so many squares for our plants, and only so many ways to fill them. No matter what I do, I'm going to end up breaking at least one of the rules.

So this year, I'm taking a more laid-back approach. Rather than trying to place each individual plant in the perfect spot, I'm going to rotate entire beds from year to year. That will ensure that the tomatoes, which are heavy feeders, always go in the spot just vacated by the peas, which add nourishing nitrogen to the soil, and the plants that need to be kept together in one bed (or kept apart in separate ones) always stay that way.

Then, to keep the zucchini and pepper plants from ending up in exactly the same spots as the previous year, I'll flip each individual bed horizontally, moving each plant to the mirror image of the spot it had last year. This will put the pepper plants on a two-year rotation, bouncing from one end of the bed to the other every year, while the two zucchini plants will progress around the eight ends of the four beds on a four-year schedule. It's not perfect, but it's probably the best we can do with this limited space, and it's a lot easier than trying to fit each plant into the perfect square like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

One additional wrinkle is that we have a lot more space in the garden this year than we had last year. We've decided to drop two crops entirely: the Brussels sprouts, which only yielded one very late and rather stunted crop in all the time we've had them, and the eggplants, which never gave us a single fruit bigger than a walnut. Their absence leaves us with ten whole extra squares in our garden, and since we haven't selected any new crops this year, we're not sure what to put in them. The winter lettuce, which seems to have successfully overwintered from last year, can occupy four of them; for the other six, the best plan we have at the moment is to expand our plantings of green beans and basil, which we can always use more of.

I suppose a Gardeners' Holiday devoted to laying out the garden, moving little squares around on a spreadsheet, isn't quite as thrilling as putting actual seeds into the actual ground (even if we'd have to move a layer of snow aside to do it). But for this year, at least, it's a lot more useful. By getting the garden beds mapped out now, we can be prepared to start replacing the frames this weekend, which will help keep our garden growing over (we hope) the next twenty years. So we're sacrificing the short-term satisfaction of planting seeds right now for the long-term gain of growing more and better crops in the long term. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how gardening is supposed to work.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Household Hacks: The world's easiest DIY cat toy

Our two cats are a bit picky about toys. We've tried all sorts of mice sold at the big pet superstores, and the only one they ever showed any partiality for was a little stuffed critter covered in black-and-white spotted fabric. Winnie loved that little mouse, but she kept batting him under doors and furniture where we'd have to retrieve him, and at some point he got completely lost. And, of course, the store no longer carried any like him, so we've never been able to find a good replacement.

The only other pet-store toy they really liked was these little spirals, which are just pipe cleaners encased in sheaths of colorful fabric. Both cats would bat enthusiastically at these, and run after them when they went skittering away across the floor; when they caught one, they'd lie down and clutch it in their paws and pull at it until it came uncoiled. It was very cute, and I appreciated the fact that it distracted them from gnawing on other long narrow objects that they might otherwise take a shine to, like my computer cables.

Unfortunately, they played with these toys so energetically that they quickly wore holes in the fabric covers, and the pipe cleaners came poking out. Once that happened, we no longer felt safe letting the cats play with them unsupervised for fear that they'd hurt themselves on the wire or even swallow part of it. (It may sound like we're just being paranoid, but several reputable pet sites, such as Catster, warn about this as a danger, and we have read horror stories about cats being rushed into surgery over a swallowed pipe cleaner.) I tried stitching the fabric back up, but they just tore it open again, and eventually we had to give up on the toys.

We tried to get more at the pet store, but they were no longer available, and we couldn't even find anything similar online. The closest we could find was this larger blue spiral, but the cats didn't seem to appreciate it like the fabric ones. It's made of a much stiffer material, and when dropped, it just lands on the ground and sits there; it doesn't bounce or roll in the same unpredictable way that made the pipe cleaners so appealing (like having real prey to chase.)

We made several attempts at making our own spiral cat toys, but they didn't work too well. Brian tried taking a piece of wire from a coat hanger, which he thought would be less hazardous, and sewing it up in a piece of scrap fabric—but like the blue coil, this toy was too stiff and stable to interest them much.

I thought a pipe cleaner might be okay if I could just wrap it up securely in one of those stretchy fabric bandages they use at the blood bank—but once I'd wound it several times around the pipe cleaner, it was too thick and ungainly to make a very good coil. Plus, Brian was still concerned that they'd manage to get the wire out from under the wrappings, so he didn't want to let them have it without supervision.

So one day, in a desperate attempt to come up with something to distract Winnie from the computer cables, I hit on the idea of trying something similar with a strip of newspaper. I just tore off a long strip from the edge, like this...

...and twisted it up into a long, thin string, like this.

I wasn't able to make this into a coil shape like the original fabric spirals, because it wouldn't stay put, but I found just tying it into a little bow made a lightweight shape that the cats enjoyed batting around. It seems to move in the same random way as the pipe cleaners, so they like tossing it, catching it, grabbing it, and generally amusing themselves without supervision. They also like to pull on the ends and try to untie it, but if they succeed, that's no problem; I can just grab it and tie it back up in a minute.

Needless to say, these little paper toys don't hold up all that well. After being subjected to claws and teeth for a week or so, they get pretty limp and ragged-looking, and they're not as much fun to play with. But that's okay; when they wear out, they can just go straight into the recycling bin (or the compost, if they're really torn to shreds) and I can easily whip up a new one in a few minutes.

So this is pretty much the ultimate ecofrugal cat toy. It costs nothing, it's made entirely from scrap material, and it can go right back in the bin when it's worn out, creating no additional waste. And if the cats don't love it quite as much as the spirals, they will at least occupy themselves with it long enough to let me get some work done.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Money Crashers: Save Money on Car Insurance

My latest Money Crashers article is about auto insurance. This isn't the most exciting topic, perhaps, but it's certainly an important one: As I note early in the article, insurance is one of the biggest expenses of owning a car. In fact, drivers pay more each year for insurance than they do for maintenance, tires, or even gas.

How much you pay for a car insurance policy has a lot to do with factors beyond your control, such as your age or where you live. But there are also several things you can do to rein the number in. These fall into two broad categories:
  1. Changes to your policy. For instance, you can raise your deductible, drop collision and comprehensive insurance, negotiate with your carrier for a lower rate, or just switch to another carrier entirely.
  2. Changes to your behavior. Obviously, you get a lower rate if you avoid accidents. But you can also get discounts for improving your credit score, getting good grades (if you're young), taking a defensive driving course, or paying your bill online.
Not all these changes apply to every one, but even with just one or two of them, you could possibly lower your premiums by hundreds of dollars a year. So check out the full list here: 10 Ways to Save Money on Affordable Car Insurance

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup

On the first day of March, Brian was searching for something to make for dinner with the ingredients we had on hand, which included a pound of mushrooms, several pounds of potatoes, and some leeks. So he punched those ingredients into Google and came upon a couple of recipes for a dish called Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup. All the ingredients in it were things we liked, so it seemed like a safe bet—and a good chance to get our Recipe of the Month in early.

Brian made a couple of minor changes to the recipe as written. First, it was supposed to make 12 servings, which was way too much for the two of us, even with the soup being served as a main dish rather than a first course. So he cut all the ingredients down by 25 percent, which still made a very generous potful.

Second, it called for half-and-half, which we didn't have, so he whipped up a quick substitute using powdered milk. We already knew that a mixture of equal parts powdered milk and water could be used in place of cream, so he just took about a cup of the skim milk we already had and dumped in maybe half a cup of powder. If it made any difference in the taste of the soup, it wasn't noticeable to us.

The finished result, I have to say, didn't look anything like the picture on the AllRecipes website. Instead of a light, golden soup with big, distinct chunks of potato and carrot floating in it, it came out as more of a thick, brown liquid full of miscellaneous veggie bits. But it tasted better than it looked—rich and savory, with the meatiness of the mushrooms and the pungency of the leeks giving it plenty of body. And with the potatoes, shrooms, and carrots crowded together in every bowl, it was plenty satisfying enough for a main course.

The one flavor that struck a slightly discordant note for me was the dill. I'm used to thinking of this as a springtime herb, to be enjoyed in light dishes like salads or pasta. In a hot, hearty soup like this, it tasted out of place. It wasn't bad, exactly; it just didn't seem like quite the right complement for the other flavors. Brian thought maybe thyme would work better, while I was leaning toward rosemary.

However, Brian revised his opinion about the dill when eating the leftovers for lunch a few days later. To his taste buds, it seemed that the dill blended much more smoothly with the rest of the soup after it had been sitting for a while to let the flavors mingle. So maybe the ideal solution for this soup is to cook it the day before you serve it, so the dill can blend in properly. Or maybe it would be better to try it with thyme and see if it tastes better on day one.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure whether we'll want to go to the trouble of finding out. We already have a couple of good soup recipes that use mushrooms, and another good one made with potatoes and leeks, so we don't especially need one that puts all three of those ingredients in the same pot. If this soup were vastly superior to those others, it would deserve a spot in our repertoire, but since I didn't actually like it quite as much, I see no reason for it to displace either of them. So we'll probably only make it again if we happen to find ourselves with potatoes, leeks, and shrooms that all need to be used promptly—and for some reason we don't want to make a veggie pot pie.