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Tuesday, 13 November 2007

How to Be Both Cheap & Trendy for the Holidays

Everyone wants to look their best and in our attempts to do so, most of us spend a whole lot more than we realise. With the holiday season just around the corner we'll be thrown together with people we only see once or twice a year, or only once or twice a year outside of the office, so we really want to look our best this season. I'm sure you're already worrying about your holiday spending - the presents, the decorations, the travel, the food - but have you thought about your wardrobe? Thanksgiving dinner, the office Christmas party, that New Year's bash - what are you going to wear?

If you're like me, this is something you never think of until the last minute. Or maybe you're a shopaholic who loves clothes? Either way, I bet you spend more on your holiday wear than you realise. For one thing, once you start spending, it gets easier and easier to keep spending and during the holidays we spend a lot. We start swiping that plastic and when it's all nice and warm, we see that amazing dress or that spectacular belt and we think, "Oh, what the hell. I've already spent so much, what difference does it make?" Well, a lot, actually, because that thought will keep crossing your mind and your plastic will stay warm in your pocket and come January your New Year's resolution will be to pay off the credit card before next year.

No one wants the hangover of last month's festivities following them into the new year, but we all want to put our best foot forward at the holidays. So what to do?

Start by taking an objective look at your current wardrobe. Separate it into two piles: the clothes you do wear and the clothes you don't. Now examine what is in the piles. I'm willing to bet that the clothes you do wear are the basics - basic pants, skirts, and simple shirts in neutral colors or classic, understated prints. The clothes you don't wear are probably in last year's (or one of the previous 10 years') bold colors, cuts and prints. So what does this tell you? When buying clothes, stick to basic, timeless styles and colors. If you buy things that are too trendy, you'll want to throw them out next season.

You can still be trendy, just keep the trends in the accessories. The thing about accessories is that they are usually must cheaper, and you can keep them until they come back in style again because they don't take up a lot of space in your closet and you don't ever have to worry about "growing" out of them. If you really can't live without this winter's hot color, buy a $5 necklace in that must-have hue. If you've got to wear that special print, get a cheap scarf to wear with your basics, or a funky hat.

If there is a particular style all the hip crowd is wearing and keeping the fads to your accessories is just too limiting for you, make sure you shop at cheap stores specializing in trends and only buy one or two articles. Also, make sure these new items go with what you already have in your wardrobe of everyday basics. H&M has a large collection of cheap clothes and accessories in the latest trends. Target's collection by Isaac Mizrahi is also a good place to look. But be sure that the majority of your clothes are timeless and in neutral colors. Buy the basics at a higher quality, so that they last and the trendy things at the cheapest possible price as they will probably be obsolete in a few months' time anyway. Also, make sure that what you buy can be combined with lots of other items in your wardrobe, so that you can get many new outfits with just one addition to your clothing collection.

The trick is to get as much mileage out of each piece as possible. That's why accessorizing the clothes you already have is such a good idea. Switching your basics up and topping it off with a new accessory for each major holiday event will give you the extra sparkle you're looking for without breaking the bank.


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Monday, 12 November 2007

The Hidden Costs of Buying in Bulk

I'm starting a new, weekly series of posts called "Cheaper isn't always better" and it starts with this one. The goal is to point out money saving myths that can actually end up costing you more. The first myth I intend to bust is the one about buying in bulk.

In college, a few friends and I split the cost of a membership to BJ's so that we could buy our groceries in bulk. Instead of buying the campus meal plan, we did all of our own cooking to save money and eat healthier foods, so a bulk store membership seemed like a good idea. The idea was that we could stock up on basics like pasta and rice and get a lot more for the same amount of money. I have to admit I was a little reluctant to join (there was something about the $40+ membership fee that put me off), but the excitement of my fellow house-mates who'd had memberships in the past finally won me over.

I should have listened to my gut, though. While it is true that per pound, shopping at wholesale stores saves money, do you really need to buy your ground cinnamon by the pound? We ended up buying things we never would have bought just because they were such a good deal. My friends would come home with 3 pounds of Pop Tarts, a 5 pound block of cheese, and a pantry's worth of microwavable Easy Mac. By the end of the week, the Pop Tarts would be gone, the Easy Mac boxes were nearly empty and the block of cheese was basically untouched. In another week the cheese would be moldy and thrown out.

When I went shopping I tried to restrict myself to the basics and buy the smallest quantities available, like we had originally planned, and for the most part I was able to do it. But still, I ended up buying more than we needed and sometimes more than we could eat before the food went bad. As a result, we ended up eating more so that we wouldn't have to throw things away.

Buying in bulk has it's hidden costs. One is that when you have more, you use more. This goes for food, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Where you used to be always looking for ways to cut back, you get comfortable and stop paying attention. If you've got a big box of cereal, you'll pour a little more in your bowl in the morning or even have a second bowl. And when you go to brush your teeth, you'll find yourself squeezing a little extra toothpaste onto your brush because you've got another giant tube in the medicine cabinet.

This backfires in two ways. First, when you use more, you have to buy more. You'll end up buying another giant box of cereal before you know it. Secondly, when you have more food around to eat, you'll find yourself eating more. This can destroy your diet and your health. You might be eating more because you don't want food to go bad and be forced to throw it out. You might be eating more because you bought a giant box of junk food because it was on sale. Either way, when you've got a lot of food in the house, especially unhealthy foods, it's easy to fall into bad habits. And I noticed at BJ's that the foods they carried weren't very healthy. What I remember most is the frozen pizzas, potato chips, 2 gallon tubs of ice cream, hamburger patties, ├ęclairs from the bakery, and super-sized bags of M&Ms - and I've always been a healthy eater inclined to ignore such foods. Maybe Sam's Club is different, but I doubt it.

In the end, we stopped going to BJ's all together. The store was in an inconvenient location and the money we were spending driving back and forth and the kinds of foods we ended up buying when we were there finally persuaded us to see past the allure of bulk purchasing. Actually, most of the time we had been buying our groceries at the local grocery store, which was within walking distance, anyway because it was more convenient and allowed us to get something we needed right away (we weren't very good meal planners back then). When all was said and done we probably did save enough money on our wholesale purchases to pay for the membership fee, but I'm certain that we actually ended up spending more than we would have otherwise. And I'm positive that we would have been eating much healthier and we would have saved ourselves the hours at the gym we spent working off the mistake.

To me, this is a myth busted. Maybe for the very diligent shopper with a gigantic freezer and lots of mouths to feed wholesale clubs are a blessing, but for most of us, rarely does buying in bulk pay off. We either end up throwing food away or simply eating more.

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Saturday, 10 November 2007

Shampoo Every-Other-Day for Healthier Hair and Healthier Wallets

The first time I heard that washing your hair every-other-day was actually healthier for it and could reduce grease build-up I didn't believe it. For as long as I could remember I had been shampooing my hair twice during my daily morning shower to get it really clean. I would switch from one cleansing shampoo to the next in a never ending rotation and I went through bottles of shampoo like it was my job. Finally, it got to be too much and frugality made me give every-other-day shampooing a try.

I'm really glad I did. My hair is healthier than ever and I've cut my shampoo use and costs in half. My locks are shiny, not greasy like before. It turns out that all those super cleansing shampoos and double washes had back-fired over the years and created a mess of my scalp. Washing your hair every day can dry out the scalp, causing it produce more oil and make your hair look greasy very quickly.

To stop the cycle, switch to an every-other-day washing routine. Shampoo one day and simply rinse your hair the next. You may have tried this before and had disappointing results, but try again because you probably didn't give your body enough time to adjust. It will take a week or so for your scalp to notice your new routine and slow down the oil production. In the meantime, you'll have very greasy hair. There's no way around it; you've just got to live through it with confidence that things will be better on the other side. Trust me, it's worth it. A good trick is to try this when you've got a week's vacation and/or when you're travelling. This way you won't have to go into the office and you'll be unlikely to meet anyone you know so you won't be tempted to go back to your old over-washing habits.

Some things to note: On the days that you don't shampoo your hair you still need to rinse it. Water won't strip as much oil from your hair as shampooing, but it does remove some and it's just enough to keep your hair from looking greasy. If you skip showering all together, your hair will always be oily. Also, I always use conditioner, even on the days when I haven't used shampoo because my hair is very fine and brittle and tangles easily. However, I don't have to use as much on the days I've "skipped" because my hair isn't so dry.

It's hard to ignore all the smart advertising out there telling us to buy "daily cleansing shampoo" and "repeat, if necessary, " but those of us who manage to break the habit never look back.

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Friday, 9 November 2007

Thanksgiving on a Budget

Hosting a Thanksgiving dinner can be a stressful and expensive activity, but with a little foresight and planning it can also be one of the most rewarding and budget-friendly holidays of the year. Yesterday, I wrote about the most efficient way to invite guests to your Thanksgiving dinner and how you can leverage their generosity by creating a Thanksgiving day wish-list of items you would like to borrow or foods they can bring. Today, I'm tackling the daunting tasks of grocery shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up after it all. Whew! I'm getting tired just thinking about it.

Shopping

This is where you can really kill your budget. The trick is to buy the proper amount of food for the number of people coming. It's easy to go overboard for a holiday that's historically all about tables laden with food, but is it really necessary? Are you really feeding an army? Then why try to look like it? When buying a whole turkey calculate 1 pound of uncooked turkey for each person and you should have plenty. If you are a small group or if you and your guests only like particular parts of the turkey, the breast for example, then just buy that part instead of an entire turkey. If you only like breast meat, it's quite silly to buy the entire turkey and throw half of it away. But what about that picture of the beautiful turkey on the table? Forget about it. Actually, even if you do plan to buy a whole turkey you should still forget that image, but I'll get to that later. However, sometimes it's actually cheaper to buy an entire turkey because grocery stores run big discounts on turkeys this time of year and these discounts don't always carry over to turkey cuts.

Which brings me to my second point on grocery shopping: start looking for discounts in your local papers now, if you haven't already. Most grocery stores will take major losses on their turkey sales in order to get you into their stores. The idea is that once you are there you will do all your Thanksgiving Day shopping in their store. They make their money on the other items they expect you will buy. With a little planning and patience you can make the most of these sales by getting your turkey early and buying the remaining items you need wherever they are cheapest. If you wait until the last minute, you will probably end up buying all your Thanksgiving Day items in the same store and paying more than you would if you had been better prepared. Also, buying your turkey early means that you will have the pick of the litter; waiting until the last moment means you have to buy whatever size turkey is still available and usually these are the bigger, most expensive turkeys that take up more space in your refrigerator and freezer and take much longer to defrost and cook. That reminds me, before you go shopping for your turkey make sure that you've got room in your freezer or refrigerator for the bird. They take up a lot of space!

The other area where you can really trim back the costs is in cooking supplies. Like I said yesterday, ask around and see if you can borrow things before you go out and buy something you'll only use once a year. Some things you may need are: a large roasting pan for the turkey, a baster, a meat thermometer (though you really should get one of these for everyday use), a large serving platter for the turkey, and additional serving dishes, plates or silverware.

Cooking

Once you've done all the shopping, what you want to save is time. If you spend the whole day in the kitchen, Thanksgiving won't be a lot of fun. It also won't be a lot of fun if you manage to burn or under cook the food, or make the turkey fly. The trick is to get as much done as you possible can before Thursday morning. This means less work for you while everyone else is enjoying their holiday, and fewer surprises regarding forgotten ingredients and supplies. Plus, if you make a mistake, you've got a little more time to fix it.

Perhaps your earliest task will be defrosting the turkey. Ideally, this should be done in the refrigerator and will require around 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of uncooked turkey meat. If you forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer you can speed up the defrosting process by placing the turkey in a bath of cold water, with the plastic wrap still on. Calculate 30 minutes in cold water for every 1 pound of turkey, so if you have a 12 pound turkey this will take approximately 6 hours. However, you will have to change the water every 30 minutes so that method requires your constant attention. Also, make sure that the turkey is completely covered in water. Do not thaw the turkey at room temperature on the counter. The outer parts of the turkey will be warm enough for bacteria to grow for hours before the center of the turkey has thawed, putting you at risk for food poisoning. No one wants to be sick on Thanksgiving.

On Wednesday, do as much chopping, peeling, slicing and dicing as you can. Put everything in the refrigerator and cook it up the next day. You can make the stuffing the night before to save time but do not stuff the turkey until you are ready to put the bird in the oven. You cannot leave stuffing in the turkey for any length of time at all without the risk of bacteria growth. You should cook the bird immediately after stuffing it. Also, a little tip my mother taught me was to use dental floss to tie up the bird. It's strong, clean and you probably already have it on hand. Certainly cheaper than buying special cooking twine! If you're making homemade cranberry sauce, it is often better on the second day so it makes sense to cook this on Wednesday as well. In addition, you may want to make your pumpkin and apple pies the night before so that the oven is free the next day. Plus, it's simply less stressful to do your baking the night before and you'll have more fun doing it.

When it's time to cook the turkey, the trick is to get it to just the right temperature and then stop cooking so that you don't dry it out. To do this, use a meat thermometer. You can buy thermometers that can be left in the turkey while it is cooking (a pager beeps you when the correct temperature is reached) or you can use a regular thermometer and start checking the turkey about half an hour before you expect it to be ready. Calculate around 15 minutes of cooking time for each pound of uncooked meat. The turkey is done when the thermometer reads 175 degrees Fahrenheit when inserted into the thickest part of the breast. Make sure that the thermometer isn't touching any bone to get an accurate reading. Stuffing should be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before it is eaten. If the turkey is finished before the stuffing, take the stuffing out of the bird and put the stuffing back in the oven in a separate dish until it is the correct temperature. Wait about 30 minutes for the turkey to cool before carving it.

Serving

To maximize the amount of meat you get off the turkey, carve it before you serve it. I know, I know, it goes against every image of Thanksgiving you've ever seen, but it's much easier and more economical this way. Think about it. How much meat is usually left on that carcass when you throw it in the bin? Probably a lot, but you're right in the middle of a tryptophan crash when you've finally decided you can't put off cleaning up any longer. If you carve the turkey when it's just cooked and still slightly warm, it's much easier to get the meat off the bone and you can really pull up your sleeves and get your hands dirty when you're carving in the privacy of your kitchen. This means that you can get more meat off the bone and cut more even and appealing slices because you don't have an audience so you don't need to worry about being graceful. And it's just as elegant to serve your turkey pre-sliced on a platter - even Martha Stewart says so. As you carve, put the nice big slices on the platter for the table and have a Tupperware container ready for the small pieces you'll use later in soups and casseroles.

Clean-Up

The last thing you want to do when you've got a belly full of turkey is clean up. A painless way to deal with this is to prioritize what really needs to be done - you need to get all the leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer. Do this before you hit the couch, other wise you'll get up five hours later and wonder if you still can. The rule is 2 hours on the table and then you're pushing your luck, so just get it in the refrigerator the first time. Also, if you don't think you'll use something within 3 days then put it straight in the freezer. Besides, after 3 days of eating turkey will you even want to see it? It's better to put it in the freezer and forget about it for a couple of weeks. Turkey soup really does taste better when you haven't just eaten a roast from the oven.

That leaves the dishes. The easiest thing to do is to have a large bucket or sink basin ready for soaking them. Throw out any bones and scraps left on the plates and then just put them in the soapy water. If you wash by hand this will make it easier later. If you put them in the dishwater you will use less water this way than you would rinsing each dish. Just leave them in the suds and go relax with your guests. This is the best part of Thanksgiving; you don't want to miss it doing dishes! Plus, there's nothing more annoying than listening to your host clank dishes around the kitchen or the hum of their dishwasher running. If your guests let you borrow any dishes, wash these immediately so that they can take them home, but leave everything else.

Good luck with your Thanksgiving Day celebrations and remember it's always better to start early!

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Thursday, 8 November 2007

Two Weeks to T-Day: Planning Thanksgiving on a Budget

A quick glance at my calender tells me it's exactly two weeks to Thanksgiving, one of my all-time favorite holidays - a day to rejoice with family and friends and be thankful for everything we have and all the good things that have happened in the last year. But for too many of us, the financial burden of hosting Thanksgiving dinner turns our attention to all that we don't have rather than all that we do. In an effort to have a little more left on Thanksgiving to be thankful for, I've put together a two part check-list of things to make Thanksgiving Day preparations cheaper and easier. The first part is about arranging invitations and getting your guests to bring the things you really need. Tomorrow I'll post the second half which will cover everything to do with shopping for and cooking the food.

T-Day Part One: Invitations

If you're hosting a small dinner just for immediate family or a few friends, consider yourself lucky! There's less food to buy, less food to prepare, and less to clean up when it's all over. Last year I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for 28 people - never again! (Or at least not too soon. I need a few years to forget.) You can probably manage inviting everyone by phone or in person. Chances are, it's probably already clear who is eating where.

But if you're hosting a dinner for a large number of people you probably want to send formal invitations with RSVP requests. Send them now! You'll want to set an RSVP date by next Thursday (at least one week in advance) so that you have enough time to buy the necessary amount of food. I suggest sending your invitations online. It's cheaper, faster, and your guests can RSVP immediately. You can either send out a regular email or be a little more fancy and set up a free account at sendaninvite.com where you can make a custom invitation with maps, "what to bring" lists and use of their online RSVP management system.

About that "what to bring" list, I've always felt it was a bit tacky to ask people to bring something to a Thanksgiving dinner, but at the same time, I've always felt it was even tackier to attend such an event empty handed. As the host, you don't want to be rude, but you also don't want to be stuck with a big hole in your budget and 10 bottles of red wine when you really only drink white. So what is the frugal host to do? Is there a polite way to leverage your guests generosity without being pushy?

Last year, when I did dinner for 28 people, I was lucky enough to be in Denmark where it is customary for guests to share the costs of a dinner party by giving their host a set amount of cash, determined in advance. It's a strange custom and it took some getting used to, but come Thanksgiving, I was happy to take part in it. Obviously, I'm not suggesting you ask your guests to fund your grocery shopping, but you can take people up on their offers to bring things. Undoubtedly, your closest friends and family members will ask you if they can bring anything; it's just polite. But instead of saying, "Oh no... maybe just something to drink" like you usually do, have a wish list ready and pick something off of it. Maybe they can bring salad, a pie, or they can lend you a roasting pan so that you don't have to buy one. Or maybe you could use some extra serving dishes?

A lot of the costs of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner go into buying kitchen items you don't normally use, like a roasting pan, meat thermometer, or 5 extra serving bowls. Borrowing these things from friends and family can cut your total costs and keep your kitchen clutter free after T-Day. So sit down, make a wish list, and this year take your guests up on those polite offers. It might surprise them a little at first, but if they've bothered to offer it's because they're going to bring something anyway, and, believe it or not, your guests would rather lend you their pan and feel truly useful than buy you a bottle of wine.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Make your Own Movie Projector

How great would it be to watch movies on the big screen (aka. your living room wall) without spending $500-$1000+ on a projector first? If you're like me, the idea of having a home movie projector is a luxury hardly worth contemplating... until you hear this:

Thanks to the geeks at Inventgeek.com even frugal people can plunge into the home theater craze. All you need is a little creativity, a DIY attitude and this tutorial and you can build your own projector.

Contributor Jared Bouck lays it all out for us and does it in a budget-conscious way. He discusses different methods for building the project and compares the price of each method to the quality of the finished product it produces, helping us pick out some of the cheapest component materials possible and still put together a quality picture. The option he determines best balances cost and quality is to combine an used overhead projector, an LCD projection panel from ebay and a commercial home movie screen. Bouck estimates the total cost of all the materials to be somewhere around $175, but the price really depends on the deals you find on the overhead projector and the LCD panel. You can also skip the commercial movie screen and knock $110 off your total project costs. According to Bouck, the whole project can be put together in less than 5 hours.

The Pros and Cons of the Inventgeek model:

Pros:

  • You get a cool movie projector at a fraction of the cost, and your total price depends on your bargain finding ability.
  • Replacement bulbs are much cheaper (as much as 10 times!) and may last longer than the special bulbs commercial projectors require.
  • You'll have fun making (or trying to make) it.
  • You can consider yourself a geek!

Cons:

  • It could end up costing more than you expect.
  • As Bouck warns, the overhead projector may be noisy.
  • The unit will be larger than a commercial projector and probably not very beautiful.
  • It does require a little technical knowledge and you may not be comfortable with the directions.
  • Most LCD projection panels on ebay are sold "as is." I think that pretty much says it right there.
  • You won't be as geeky as the guys who came up with the idea, but you'll be close.
If you slept through woodshop and/or you don't consider yourself all that tech savvy, you may be interested in Lumenlab's DIY builder guide and ready-made parts store. It all seems a little more polished, though also more expensive. But I kind of prefer the trail-blazing excitement, not to mention the additional cost control, in the Inventgeek project.

I'm dying to try this project, but, alas, I've pretty much come to the conclusion that shipping an old, used overhead projector to Africa probably wouldn't be too thrifty, even if I found it on ebay or a friend got it at a garage sale. For that matter, just shipping the LCD projection panel would cost me a pretty penny. So I'm going to have to wait, for now.

But in the meantime, I'd love to hear about stories and suggestions from anyone who has tried this. And to all others who might give it a try, good luck and keep me updated! Just remember, even if you can get it down to around $70, this is still an expensive project, so make sure it really fits into your budget before you try it.

Related Posts to make movie night more frugal:
Free Movies! : Money Saving Tip #6
How to Make Perfect Stove-top Popcorn: Money Saving Tip #7

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Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Say Goodbye to Grease Stains on Clothes

Have you ever had to retire a nice shirt because of a grease stain? Well don't buy another! Dig it out of the "painting day" pile and try this.

Dish soap is formulated to cut grease and works on clothing too. Saturate the stain with liquid dish soap and let it soak in. Once it has soaked through the stained area, wash the item as you normally would. You can throw it in the washer immediately or days later, whatever you would normally do. It doesn't seem to make a difference. Once you've washed the item, check the area that was stained. The stain should be gone or greatly reduced. If some grease remains repeat the process. Each time you repeat the process the stain should lessen.

I've found this trick to be surprisingly successful and it works on all stains that are greasy or oily. Even if you have washed the item before, you can still have success with this method, so give it a try. It certainly beats spending money on new clothes or fancy stain remover!

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Monday, 5 November 2007

The Absurd Wastefulness of Meat Recalls

Why does it seem like every time I read the news, Americans are throwing another million pounds of meat away? I know we don't want people dying from E. coli infections, but something seems terribly wrong when in a world where 854 million people are hungry, we're throwing away a year's worth of meat production. It doesn't seem ethical, and it certainly doesn't seem frugal either.

A herd of cows walking the West African coast with their herder. Something tells me the people here wouldn't throw the meat from these cows away just because it hasn't been tested for E. coli bacteria. (Sorry about the photo quality, I took this from the back of a bike.)
In fact, it makes me really angry, and not just because I'm in Africa where I see hunger everyday. It's because there's hunger at home too, and someone's got to pay for all that wasted meat. Maybe we didn't buy the ground beef in question, maybe we filled out the necessary forms and got our reimbursements, but we're all still paying for the waste.

We pay for it in two ways. First, we pay for it with our reputation. How can we be surprised that we're considered the most wasteful country in the world when we throw millions of pounds of food away because there is the possibility that it might contain bacteria that could make people sick if it isn't cooked properly? Secondly, we pay for it when production facilities are forced to shut down and people lose their jobs and when meat prices rise because of shifts in supply and demand and increased costs of doing business in the industry.

Two things need to happen. Proper meat production procedures need to be firmed up and followed. Companies need to protect themselves from mass losses by preforming frequent, scheduled contamination tests and keeping proper records of them so they can at least identify bad meat later if it comes to that. The grocery supply chain shouldn't be a guessing game. This isn't the Price Is Right. Imagine... Spin the wheel and land on Clean Meat, E. coli, or Possible Contamination... Good luck!

The second thing is that people need to learn to be responsible for themselves. Cooking meat properly kills E. coli bacteria. Now think what it would mean if everyone cooked their meat properly. Or if the people who didn't took the blame instead of pointing fingers everywhere else. It would be a very different world. It makes me sick to think of how much food we've thrown away because we can't trust people to take responsibility for their health and follow safe cooking practices. And we need to remember that for most people, E. coli isn't that dangerous.

So what can we, as individuals, do to help fix this problem? First, we can make an effort to help ourselves by buying a meat thermometer and making sure our ground beef reaches at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we eat it. Here are a few good choices available from Amazon, all with free shipping for orders over $25: The RediFork Pro LCD Matrix, Rapid Read Tip has a grill-fork tip great for burgers on the BBQ. The Remote-check ET-7 Wireless Thermometer with 2 probes can be left in the meat (even in the oven!) and a wireless pager will beep you when your meat reaches the right temperature. If you're looking for a more basic thermometer the Taylor High-Temperature Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer is a great choice because it offers digital accuracy.

Next, we should focus on lobbying for better meat testing procedures rather than crying about how long it takes the USDA to pull meat off the shelves. Remember, the goal is to keep meat on the shelves, not to pull it off. There is a good reason why the USDA is reluctant to throw away millions of pounds of beef at the first sign of a scare. It's expensive and it's wasteful. People need to realize that there is a high price for their laziness in the kitchen, and sometimes that price is lives (though very, very rarely - only approximately 60 people die from E. coli in the U.S. per year and that's nothing compared to heart disease, lung cancer and traffic accidents. Really, walking down the street is probably more dangerous). They're the ones paying it, because they're the ones buying when they don't take the necessary steps to safe cooking.

Yes, I'm doing it. I'm making the very, very controversial suggestion that maybe all this beef doesn't need to be thrown away. Some of it certainly does, but maybe the hype and worry has gotten a little out of control and forced more meat into the trash than really needs to be there. I'm not an expert so I'm only questioning. This is just a suspicion; that's why I say maybe. If you know better, tell us so and comment!

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Ever wondered how many cows it took to produce all this meat? Listen to what this guy has to say about cow weight/cow meat ratios.

Just in case you've been under a rock, here are some collected news articles on the most prominent ground beef recalls over the past half year or so:


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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Learn a New Language for Free

If you've ever wanted to learn a new language, but didn't want to spend the money on lessons or a teach-yourself program, listen up.

This summer, I moved to a little French-speaking country in West Africa. It's a long story and some day I'll probably get around to posting it, but right now the part that is relevant is that when I arrived, I didn't speak a word of French. I couldn't even count to ten. I've still got a long way to go, but I'm at the point where at the very least people can't talk about me anymore without me noticing.

Because I'm cheap I started looking for free teach-yourself French courses before my big journey. I came across a lot of online courses and programs, some free and others on a subscription basis, but the very best totally free course I found was from FSI. FSI, or the Foreign Service Institute, developed a comprehensive set of language learning courses aimed to prepare American foreign officials for postings abroad. The idea was to create a course that taught students everything they needed to know to have good, conversational level speech and comprehension as fast as possible. The old lessons have been made public now and there's a great website that tracks them down, digitizes them and makes them available to download for free.

Visit FSI Language Courses for free FSI courses in the following languages:

Amharic
Arabic
Bulgarian
Cambodian
Cantonese
Chinese
Chinyanja
Finnish
French
German
Greek
Hindi
Hebrew
Hungarian
Korean
Lao
Portuguese
Romanian
Russian
Spanish
Swahili
Swedish
Thai
Turkish
Twi
Vietnamese
Yoruba*

The site is always updating its library, so if the language you're hoping for isn't there yet, keep checking back.

A word of warning: the lessons are old (I think they were created in the 1950's or something) so the sound quality isn't amazing, but when you consider what you've paid for them, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Also, while a lot of the material will be helpful, FSI courses were not designed to be pure teach-yourself courses. Rather, they were designed to have teachers helping the students start the lessons and run the drills. But I think you ought to be able to figure it out yourself. Also, a quick google search will pop up a lot of online "teach yourself a language" courses that are based on the old FSI method. Usually, you can sign up for a free trial and if you do that you might be able to familiarize yourself with the FSI method before the trial ends and then apply the study skills you learned to your use of the free FSI material you downloaded.

A side note about learning languages: While travelling and living abroad, I've heard the following joke, or sentiments quite like it, more than once:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A: American.

Like most jokes, this one has its humor because, on some level, it's a little bit true. Now, before you jump on me and start yelling about the growing Spanish speaking population in the United States, please note that I've taken this into consideration. Even still, I think that by and large, far fewer Americans speak a second language than most other nationalities in the world. Or at the very least this is the impression that we give to the rest of the world when we travel.

Not to be making excuses for us, but I think that the reason we don't speak a second or third language is that we've never really had the need. For the most part, we can travel and do business with our mother tongue because everyone else learns English for us. Other native English speaking nations like the UK and Australia are in a similar boat. But the world is changing. People and goods are crossing borders like never before, and companies are becoming multinational and opening up offices around the globe. While I suspect it's unlikely that we'll ever be forced to embrace foreign languages like other countries have embraced English, I think it's a smart move for individuals to try to do so.

Why is it a smart move? Two reasons: first, knowing a second language can help you earn more. Many companies look for language skills when hiring and knowing a second or third language can be that extra thing that pulls you apart from other candidates or makes you more qualified for that promotion. Maybe you could take that position abroad if you were familiar with the local language. It's amazing how much money you can make and save up in just a few years overseas. Or maybe you've got your own small business and gaining additional language skills would help you widen your market or provide better customer service?

Also, knowing a second language, even just a little, can open a whole new (and usually much cheaper) part of the world for travelling. There are truly amazing vacation destinations that aren't yet on the major tourism map because English isn't widely spoken there. For example, a little knowledge of German will open up most of Eastern Europe and these countries have a lot more to offer and at a price that is much cheaper than you'd expect; Poland has got to be one of the most underrated travel destinations I've ever visited. And it's clear that a little Spanish will take you much further through South America and on much less than a tour arranged by a travel agency. Of course you can visit these places with just English, but you'll be more comfortable and more likely to do so if you know a little bit of another language people are likely to speak there. Plus, it's fun to be able to speak another language while you travel. You can talk to the local people and learn more about their culture and the cool things to see and do in the area.

To sum up, learning a language doesn't have to cost you anything more than the time and effort it takes to learn and the pay off for making such an investment is only getting greater everyday.

Give it a try and good luck!

*Five points to anyone reading this post who knows where Yoruba is spoken without Googling it first!

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Friday, 2 November 2007

Remember What You Learned from Your Allowance (and Why Kids Still Need Allowance Today)

Can you remember what it was like to be a kid and really, really want something? To feel like all your future happiness hinged on your ability to get your hands on that one item, be it a pony, a bicycle or a comic book? To look forward to the next gift-giving holiday with hope and worry? To empty your piggy bank, count, recount and calculate how many more months allowance you still needed? Of course you can. And you can probably remember exactly what it was that you were saving up for. For me, it was a horse. And I'm certain that you can remember whether or not you ever managed to get it. Me? I didn't.

But no matter what the details of your memories, happy or sad, you learned something from them. In a nutshell, you learned about money - what it can and can't buy, how it doesn't grow on trees, and why you need to be careful about when and where you spend it. Simple lessons learned in a simple way, at a simple time in life.

Sometimes I wonder if the emotions people attach to their allowance-related memories aren't drowning out the lessons. So often what we remember most is the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, or the weeks, months or years we spent feeling like have-nots. These negative feelings tempt us to forget the valuable lessons connected to them, and it seems to me like too many people are giving in to their temptations, turning a blind eye to the lessons they once knew, and vowing that their children will never want for anything.

Not all life's lessons are pleasant to learn, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still better to live through them when you've still got time to learn from them. Not getting that horse as a kid has, in the long run, made me a lot happier than I would have been if my parents had spent way, way beyond their means to see my dream come true. For one thing, our already-tight family budget would have snapped and I'm sure my parents would have snapped too. I wouldn't have learned how to save because I wouldn't have had to pull $8 from my piggy bank- two weeks allowance - for each horseback riding lesson. Later, when I was big enough, I'd learn a little bit more about work by helping out at the horse farm in exchange for free lessons. And in the end, after years of working on the farm and riding, I realised that horses live longer than my dream was going to and that I'd been having the same experience, or maybe even a better one, than my horse-owning friends who were now stuck with a very expensive pet they couldn't take to college with them.

Two summer camp experiences stick out in my mind. The first was when I was about 10 years old, at a day camp for Girl Scouts. I remember explaining the agreement my parents and I had about my horseback riding lessons to an inquisitive camp counselor. Actually, I think it was the camp director. She was amazed that I was willing to forfeit all my allowance money (and all the candy, toys and whatever else kids spend their money on) for one half hour of horseback riding twice a month. I was amazed that she was so amazed, amazed enough that I still remember the conversation. I thought that was just the way things were; everyone had to prioritize their desires/needs and make sacrifices You couldn't have everything.

In retrospect, I still think that's the way things are - we do have to prioritize and make sacrifices - but I'm a lot less surprised that my camp director was so shocked that I, at the age of 10, seemed to know this. Ten years later, I would be the camp employee shocked by what kids do and don't know about money. I spent a few summers working at an academic summer program, a cross between a summer school and a summer camp. I was the "Supply Office" manager, responsible for the program's entire inventory and purchasing of classroom supplies. I know that doesn't sound like much, but the program was home to 700 kids for six straight weeks and the number of classes was somewhere around 300, each with its own budget, and many with titles like "Cooking with Chemistry" or "Fashion Design - Make Your Own Clothes" requiring a lot of supplies. If an instructor needed a box of paper clips or a lemon, they came to me so that I could check through their budget to see if they had enough money to make the purchase. If they did, I put their request on the shopping list for my staff to buy. There were a lot of boxes of paper clips and a lot of lemons... And rocket engines and pink lace and whiffle ball bats and clown noses and frozen turkeys.

And then there were the bogus requests. One of my favorites was a requisition for liquid nitrogen and no, that wasn't a joke; someone was really expecting me to get it for their class. But more frequently the bogus requests came from instructors (all college students) who obviously never had an allowance as a child and weren't paying for their tuition, meal plan, books or toothpaste. Once an architecture instructor asked me to get something like $75 worth of foam board for a one time activity when he only had a budget of $100 for the entire 6 weeks! I remember fighting with him, trying to convince him that even though using plain tag board wouldn't work quite as well for the activity it was still better than having no money or supplies left for the rest of the summer. Not long after, my staff and I adopted the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" as our official office theme song.

Too many of the kids attending the summer program were a kind of spoilt I could never have imagined. They would roll in on the first day with an entire set of authentic Louis Vuitton luggage and turn their noses up at the college dorm rooms they were expected to sleep in, leading me to wonder how they were going to get through the summer. The thing about kids is that they're very good at adapting. The first few days were always tough, but most of them made it through just fine without their Starbucks, cell phones or favorite evening meal. Yet I pale to think how quickly these same kids adapted right back to their old lifestyles upon returning home.

So the moral of the story is this: allowance is good, not bad! Remember the lessons you learned from it and if you have kids of your own, do them the same favor your parents did you and be tough about allowance. As soon as your children are mature enough to understand the cause and effect relationships of money (probably sometime between the ages of 8 and 10), set a weekly amount, clear requirements for "earning" the allowance, and boundaries about what kinds of things your children are expected to buy for themselves. And then, stick to those boundaries.

This is the hard part. For example, if your son is saving up for something he will probably have to give up other things he wants; you need to be willing to watch him go without. Don't "reward" him by giving him extra money or buying him the things he is giving up. To do so would be to completely undermine the lessons of allowance. He is supposed to realise that if he spends all his allowance on a pair of fancy sneakers, he won't have any money left to go to the movies that weekend and show off those snazzy new shoes. Instead, reward his good budgeting behavior by giving him additional privileges and freedoms regarding his money (maybe let him buy those concert tickets, etc.) By doing so you also give him additional opportunities to learn how to be responsible with his money.

It won't be easy, especially if your family's finances allow room for occasional splurges, but when you're tempted to stray from your own rules, just remember, you're probably in this position because you learned about money as a kid. And if you don't find yourself rolling in extra cash, then setting a budget for your kids (and for yourself regarding what you'll spend on luxury items for them) can help you balance your own household budget and adopt frugality as an entire family commitment.

I wasn't a genius at age 10 (some things never change) just because I knew that I needed to prioritize my wants and needs; I was just lucky - lucky that my parents had stood firm and taught me the lessons of allowance.

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How to Create a Personalised Blog on Blogger: Links that Won't Waste Your Time

As you may have noticed, Frugal Fanny had a little make-over in the last 24 hours. I hope you think that the changes are, for the most part, better, but I somehow feel the need to point out the obvious that I'm not a programmer and have almost no formal education in anything related to computers. So how did I manage? Well, Blogger makes things easy, and if you want to get fancy there are plenty of nice people in cyberspace posting articles to help you out.

Nevertheless, you can waste some serious time browsing through your Google hit-list finding these articles, especially if you have no clue what to look for. To help you out, and maybe save a little of your time, I've compiled a short list of the links I found most helpful. Please note, I'm publishing through Blogger so some of these links only apply to modifying a Blogger template.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you probably don't yet have a blog. But if you want to start one, you can set one up for free at Blogger. If you have a Google/gmail account you can sign in with that, otherwise you can set up a Google account with any email address. You get a URL for your site, free hosting and an extremely easy-to-use publishing interface. In short, it's easy to start and it costs you nothing.

Once you're all set up with a blog, you'll probably want to modify the look and make it more personal. These links will help you do that:

If you're totally new to CSS or HTML you might want to run through this tutorial site before you try to...


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Pop Your Kernels on the Stove - How to Make Perfect Stove-top Popcorn: Money Saving Tip #7

If you're like most people, you make your popcorn in the microwave. For the life of me, I can't figure out why people do this. Cooking popcorn on the stove is cheaper, healthier, and tastes better. You can flavor it any way you please and you can control what kind of oils you use. Cooking time is the same or faster on the stove and if you know what you're doing you won't be likely to burn your kernels. Spending approximately $1.00 on a bag of popcorn simply isn't very frugal, or very smart, when you can make better tasting, healthier popcorn on the stove for three times less, spending only around $0.30 a bowl*.

The only explanation I can come up with is that people are afraid of making popcorn on the stove, which I'm basing on personal experience. Every time I host a movie night party my new guests are shocked and amazed when they hear popping coming from the kitchen without the hum of a microwave. Their faces reflect the horror running through their minds, thinking that they'll be forced to eat burnt popcorn out of politeness, or that the kitchen will go up in flames. They cautiously step into the kitchen and watch. But the end result is always the same: a stove-top popcorn making tutorial complete with tricks and tips, and a virtual agreement to ditch the microwave among my guests.

If you're tempted to make the switch, here are some illustrated instructions and a few tips to help you get the perfect pop.

Step 1: Pour some oil into the bottom of a pot. The size of the pot you use determines the amount of popcorn you will make. If you only want a little popcorn, use a small pot. For movie nights, use the largest pot you have; just make sure you also have a lid to fit it. You can use any kind of oil you like. I use olive oil because it's healthier, though it's certainly not the cheapest option.



Step 2: Tilt the pot from side to side so that the oil coats the bottom of the pan. This is very important, because if the pan isn't coated evenly, your popcorn will not heat evenly and this could cause some of the kernels to burn and/or not pop at all.





Step 3: Cover the bottom of the pan in kernels. It is very important that you only have a single layer of kernels covering the bottom of the pan. If you put too many kernels into the pot, the ones on top will not heat up in the oil properly, resulting in a bad batch of popcorn with many burned or unpopped kernels. I suspect that this is where most people go wrong in making popcorn on the stove. If you want more popcorn, then you will need to make additional batches. If you're in doubt as to whether you have too many kernels in the pot, look at the picture to the left again for reference. Also, I suggest throwing the kernels into the pot by hand rather than pouring them in from the bag, as you can easily pour in too many.

Step 4: Select the appropriately sized burner on the stove. Pick the burner that most closely matches the size of the bottom of your pot. If the burner is smaller than your pot bottom, the oil and kernels may not heat as evenly. If the burner is significantly larger, then you risk over-heating your pot and burning the popcorn. Also, it wastes energy. If you have a choice between a gas or electric stove, I suggest choosing the gas stove as it provides a more constant and even heat and may give you a better result; however, until very recently I've always made my popcorn on an electric stove and haven't had any trouble. Turn the burner to high heat and place the pot, with the oil and kernels inside and a lid on top, directly onto the burner. Don't forget the lid or you will have quite a mess on your hands! Also, it's best to use an appropriately sized lid for your pot (unlike you see in this picture - remember, I just moved to Africa and I'm cheap; I've only got one lid for all my pots and pans!).

Step 5: Leave the pot on the burner, untouched, with the heat level set to HIGH until you hear the first kernel pop. When the first kernel pops get ready to lift the pot off the burner; grab some pot-holders for the handles, if necessary. Once the kernels really begin popping, usually just a second or two after the first pop, lift the pot above the burner approximately 2 to 4 inches. How high you need to lift the pot depends on how hot your burner is. The hotter the burner, the higher the pot needs to go. If you leave the pot too close to the heat, it will burn, so be safe and start high. If the speed of the popping decreases rapidly, you've lifted the pot too high and should place it back on the burner again for just a moment to get the oil hot again, then re-lift it, this time a little closer to the burner. As you hold the pot above the burner, gently shake it from side to side to roll any unpopped kernels across the bottom of the pot. This will ensure that all the kernels are heated and given the chance to pop. DO NOT REDUCE the HEAT on the burner at any time, and KEEP SHAKING the pot and holding it ABOVE THE BURNER until all the kernels have popped.

Step 6: You know that all the kernels have popped when two things happen: 1. You can no longer hear any (or very few) unpopped kernels rolling around the bottom of the pot as you shake it; and 2. You can count approximately 5-6 seconds between pops. Use the tried and true "one Miss-is-sip-pi, two Miss-is-sip-pi..." if you have to. Remember it's better to have 1 or 2 dozen unpopped kernels in the bottom of the pot than a whole batch of burnt popcorn. If you're wondering whether or not you should take the pot off the burner, then you probably should.




Stove-top Popcorn Troubleshooting:

  • If you burned your popcorn: Next time hold the pot higher above the burner
    and make sure that you remember to gently shake the pot the entire time. Also,
    you can try using a different kind of oil if you have it. I've always had better
    luck with thicker oils.
  • If you had lots of unpopped kernels: Next time keep the pot closer to the
    burner as you shake it, shake less vigorously, and don't remove the pot from the
    heat so soon.

Additional Tips:

  • DO NOT, for any reason whatsoever, remove the lid from your pot while it's on or near the burner. You will get a flying, hot kernel in the eye. Very, very bad.
  • Season your popcorn by sprinkling some salt or other seasonings on it. Some people like to melt a little butter in the still-hot pot and then pour it over the top. Check out recipezaar and this party recipes site for seasoning suggestions.
  • Remember that practice makes perfect. Just because you didn't get it quite right the first time doesn't mean you should give up. There's an art to making stove-top popcorn and it takes a few tries to really master, but once you've got it, you've got it for life! So practice before your movie-night debut and be prepared to throw out a few batches on your first try.
Enjoy your popcorn!



*Prices based on a quick browse through products advertised on Netgrocer.com

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See More Green!

Sorry about not posting a new tip yesterday. I got a bit distracted playing around with the look of the site and boy did it need it! I love how blogger provides free, ready-to-use templates, but it's nice to have something a little more unique for your blog. So I rolled up my sleeves and got my hands dirty in code yesterday, or at least as dirty as you can get your hands when you publish on Blogger. Let me know what you think of the result.

Don't worry, I'm working on those movie snack tips I promised and they should be up in time for some weekend fun tonight. Also, I'll be posting links to the resources (all free!) I used to give Frugal Fanny her new look, in case anyone is interested.

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