Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Finance Games: The Non-Food Diet, with Drink Recipe

The word "diet" is not my favorite, as I'm typing this a month and a half after having a third baby. But humor me.

The New York Times published an interesting article Sunday about what they termed the Recession Diet. The crux was that over the past year, more so over the past several months, the combination of economic uncertainty and high gas and food prices has significantly changed spending habits. More people are going for generics, eating in, and embarking on lower-priced home renovations.

This made me think about a recent non-food diet I'd put myself on: Books. Phil and I both work in publishing and love love love books. We give each other books for presents, buy books on the bargain table we're sure we're going to read some day, give ourselves a little pick-me-up by purchasing a new book on the Times bestseller list. When I started my maternity leave, I took a look at the books on our shelves and the number of my books I'd bought or been given or received at trade shows, and realized it would be a year or more before I read through the backlog. So I put myself on a diet.

I made a few guidelines. I don't consider myself cheating in the following situations:
  • A book is given to me.
  • The book is truly necessary. So I don't consider a recent purchase of What to Expect the First Year, which replaces the one I gave to Goodwill after we were "finished" having kids, to be cheating. Determining what is "necessary" rests solely on me.
  • The book is purchased with a gift certificate, so doesn't cost me anything.

Since I started my book diet, I'm on my fourth novel that I owned and had never read. Shameful. Note the new ticker on the side of the screen.

Meanwhile, Max, Tommy, and I all came down with strep this week. Three doctor visits, three rounds of antibiotics, feeling crummy. Last night after the boys got to bed, I was feeling poorly and fondly remembering my pre-kids, pre-nursing days when my good friend Kitty passed on a hot toddy recipe, passed to her by a priest. Kitty said it was the best thing for colds and other ailments -- knocked you right out, and when you woke in the morning, you would likely be feeling better. She was right. Like the sleep aid commercials warn, however, you have to be able to devote yourself to a chunk of sleep, which I haven't been able to do in the six years since I've started having babies. So let me pass it onto you, in case someone out there is a little sickly and better equipped to drink warm alcohol:

Hot Toddy

Go put on your jammies. My remembrance is that you'll have energy maybe to brush your teeth before hitting the hay; you might as well be dressed for bed. In a mug, pour a decent amount of honey (maybe a couple tablespoons), the juice of one lemon, and maybe 3/4 inch of bourbon. Fill the mug the rest of the way with hot water. Feel better.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Home Alternative to the $4 Latte

Back in the 1990s, money experts always started their money-saving tips by trotting out the same advice: to save big bucks, pay off your mortgage early. During a time of 8 to 10 percent interest rates (not so different from today's escalating ARMs, I suppose), eliminating or lowering that house debt as quickly as possible was one change that could rack up big savings.

Today, nearly every piece of financial advice starts with "Skip the daily $4 latte, and instead use that money to [invest/save for retirement/pay down debt]." And for a while, the advice fell on deaf and highly caffeinated ears. With the current economic situation, however, it seems that people are either choosing or being forced to give up their premium coffee. Recent projections from Starbucks show that the once unstoppable giant is continuing to see declining year-over-year sales in stores and is responding by closing stores, rethinking merchandising, and getting back to basics. Shareholders are now being told to expect 15 cents earnings per share, down from last year's 19 cents per share, and these projections might be rosier than what will actually play out.

The good news is that it's pretty easy to make good coffee drinks at home -- without a $1,000 cappuccino machine.
The stovetop espresso maker (or Moka) does just that: makes espresso on the stove. You add coffee and water, put the espresso maker on a burner, and the water is put under pressure and shot through the coffee. Purists will tell you that these espresso makers actually make really strong coffee, not true espresso (which is made by forcing steam through espresso grounds), but for my palette, the taste is close enough that I can't tell a difference.
You'll find $90 stovetop espresso machines at specialty stores, but I don't find that pricey ones are necessary. I'm still using one I bought for $6 at Save on Fifth, a grocery store in Brooklyn, probably long gone by now. The best online prices I've found for the espresso makers are here -- about $14 plus shipping for the single-serving size. You might be able to find one in a Mexican grocery for less, however.

The milk frother froths and, in some cases, heats milk for coffee drinks. I have a stainless steel milk frother that I received as a wedding gift. To use it, I just add milk, heat it on the stove, and then pump the rod in the lid up and down, like a butter churn, to froth the milk. These used to be fairly prevalent, but have become a little harder to find, and the price is now around $30. Considering how often I've used this in the 10+ years I've had it, $30 is reasonable, but you might want to go for something a little less pricey. There are lots of frothing options here.

Some specialty drink ideas:
  • Cafe au lait: No tools necessary. Heat milk in a pan until little bubbles form on the side, and then add one part milk, one part coffee to your mug. I'm lazy, so I heat the milk in my mug in the microwave, and then add hot coffee.

  • Steamer: Using the frothing pitcher, pour in milk and coffee syrup of your choice. I like Torani Hazelnut and French Vanilla, and get large bottles on sale for $5 at World Market. Heat and froth the milk. I've also made steamers with honey, but I add the honey to the mug and pour the hot milk over it, as honey seems like it might muck up the milk frother.

  • Latte: A latte is about 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, 1/3 foamy milk. To make one, I make a single-serving espresso. While it's going, I heat up milk in the frothing pitcher. When both are ready, I pour the hot milk into a mug, using a spoon to hold back the foam, so I'm only pouring hot milk in. Then I add the espresso into the mug, pouring it carefully down the back of a spoon so that it goes gently into the mug. Then I spoon on frothy milk, and sometimes sprinkle on some cinnamon. If you're careful in how you pour, and you're using a glass mug, the espresso, hot milk, and foamed milk settle into really pretty (and impressive) layers.
Now you can spend that saved $4 a day paying off your mortgage early.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cool Site of the Week: Morsbags.com

Don't you love the Internet? I stumbled across morsbags.com after mindlessly wandering through about 15 links. I'm not even sure what I started out looking for, but what a wonderful place to end.

Morsbags are a recyclable answer to the 1 million plastic bags that are consumed globally *every minute*. These seemingly benign bags end up in landfills and oceans, and, if you're going to be Machiavellian, ultimately add to your grocery bill. (I'm not sure about you, but the baggers at my local market seem disinclined to put more than one item in each bag.) I consider myself somewhat conscientious about the blight of plastic shopping bags, but I often forget to keep spare reuseable bags in the car when I go shopping, and find that I have a huge bag full of little plastic shopping bags stuffed in my basement. Multiply my bag stash by hundreds of millions of shoppers, and you see the problem.

Morsbags.com offers a free, easy sewing pattern (great for recycling old sheets) for reusable fabric shopping bags. The site also has a cool map showing, globally, the number of morsbags that have been made and reported. Each bag has the potential to eliminate dozens of these throwaway plastic bags.

At the time I'm writing this, nearly 18,000 morsbags have been made. If each is used a dozen times, which is likely a conservative estimate, that's 216,000 plastic bags that won't be getting into the stomachs of marine life, or ending up flapping off trees in our parks.

I attend industry trade shows periodically, and consequently have a plethora of logo-emblazoned tote bags. Morsbags.com made me get off my butt and actually put the tote bags in the car so that I have no excuse for using plastic shopping bags. In addition, I'm going to make morsbags for Max and Tommy out of an old sheet from Max's room, so that they can help at the grocery store and start to internalize that we don't need throwaway plastic bags.

Happy sewing!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Free Entertainment: The Midwest Earthquake

Sylvia's sleeping patterns have been changing lately. While she now is willing to go to bed before 1 or 2 a.m., the result is that she's waking up hungry and crabby sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. Last night she woke up a little after 5 a.m.

So I feed her and change her and am quietly rocking her in her room, listening to the only sound in the house, which is Max's hamster running frantically on her hamster wheel, when a truck hits the house. The room shakes. Sylvie hardly notices; no one else wakes up. What the...?

I run into our room and whack Phil a few times. "Get up! Something weird is happening!" In the best of circumstances, Phil isn't a morning person. But I yell, "The room *shook*!" and he snaps to.

He tells me, "I'm going to get my glasses and put some pants on," which I interpret to mean, "I'm going to get my glasses and put some pants on." What he really means is, "While you take our infant downstairs to investigate, I'm going to go to the bathroom and then head right back to bed." Which is what he does. When I come back upstairs to find out what the holdup is, he says, groggily, "everything look okay?"

What does he expect? "No. A madman drove a tanker full of explosives against the house, but Sylvie and I took him on." Or, "Well, the furnace exploded, but Sylvie and I were able to make all necessary repairs."

So I guilt him into getting up and at least checking the furnace. On the way, we check the TV, and learn that West Salem, Illinois, experienced an earthquake registering 5.2 (whatever that scale actually means), and that I'd felt the reverberations from the quake. The news channel is featuring folks from around the state calling in, even more freaked out than me, telling their experiences -- most of which were as unremarkable as mine. ("I woke up, and the headboard was actually *shaking*. No, nothing else happened. But the headboard *shook*.")

Considering that the most exciting thing I had planned for the morning was getting ready to meet a friend for lunch, it did start the day with a bang.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quick Craft: Quilty Pillows

A couple months ago I bought a collection of 16 fat quarters (18-inch-by-22-inch pieces of fabric) from Anna Maria Horner's Chocolate Lollipop fabric collection; we were doing some work with Anna Maria, and with our marketing manager expecting a daughter, I thought it would be fun to make her a baby quilt using some of Anna Maria's fabric. The quilt was only going to take three or four fat quarters, which left me with about a dozen more pieces of this gorgeous, colorful fabric. What to do?

Then I was lounging in the TV room, technically a first-floor bedroom that we made into a small family room. We live in that room. And it shows. This day I actually looked at the bedraggled pillow on the love seat, which I'd grown used to:

So I decided some of the extra fabric needed to perk up our dumpy TV room.

The fabric has big, bold patterns that would look great with a little extra texture. Because I was feeling all maternal and wanting to do some hand stitching, I made mini-quilts of the pillow tops, backing the pillow fabric with some quilt batting and a piece of muslin. Then I hand-quilted around random parts of the pattern. When each pillow top was finished, I machine-sewed three sides of the mini-quilt to the pillow back, stuffed in a 16-inch pillow form, and hand-sewed the fourth side.

I like the slight texture that the hand-quilting gave the pillow tops; you don't even really notice it, but I think it gives even more depth to this great fabric. And the hand-quilting was a relaxing way to hang out with the boys while watching Speed Racer episodes.

Cost of the project:
About $9 per pillow: $3 for the patterned fabric, $5 for the pillow form, $.50 for the muslin, and $.50 for the solid-colored backing. The quilt batting came from some batting scraps I had from other projects, so it was free.

How to make it cheaper:

  • Not using specialty fabric, which is about two to four times as expensive as sale fabric at a store like JoAnn's. Or better yet, for prolific sewers with good stashes, using leftover fabric. Vintage fabric from the 60s, if you can score it at thrift stores, would make incredible floor pillows.
  • Using regular pillow forms, which would have been about $2.50, rather than getting sucked into buying the "eco-form," whatever "eco" means in this case. Better yet, recovering existing throw pillows.
Random thoughts:
After extensive usability testing, Tommy certified the pillows 100% nappable:

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ancient American Secret

Recently my sister-in-law brought over a Boppy for me to borrow. Mind you, I had a Boppy. I hadn't even gotten rid of it during the great we're-done-having-kids purge of 2007, which was followed closely by the oh-dear-we're-having-a-third-kid realization that same year. But I did ruin the Boppy by throwing it in the washer, which those liars at The Boppy Company say you can do, but which I found to matte the stuffing to both ends of the horseshoe, rendering it basically lumpy and useless.

But, as always, I digress.

My sister-in-law dropped by her Boppy, and also brought me a present: A bar of Fels-Naptha soap. (Yes, it thounds like you're lithping when you say it.) The soap quietly sits in the grocery store, devoid of corrugated displays and celebrity endorsers. In fact, I'd never heard of it, although my mom, who was in town at the time, was amazed to see the soap and packaging. She remembered her mom taking a paring knife and cutting off little pieces to use as laundry soap back in the 1940s. Her best friend Gloria's mom also used Fels-Naptha for laundry, grating the soap into the washer using a bell-shaped cheese grater. The soap, now produced by Dial Corporation, has been around for about 100 years.

Laura, my SIL, swore by this as a stain remover, and I was interested to try it after I worked through the Spray and Wash Stain Stick I'd recently purchased. My experience told me that it would be about 17 hours before the stain stick was gone, based on the number of spit-up/blow-out incidents a newborn brings to the table.

So when Sylvia took a five-hour nap and woke up having unspeakably soiled her lovely pink "Fun to Be Me!" onesie and polka-dot pants, I held my nose and stain sticked the mess. Later, I crossed my fingers and threw the clothes in the laundry. As I'd feared, they came out largely clean, but with an unmistakable shadow of the stains. Sigh. I know from experience these shadows don't go away, but with nothing to lose, I wet the spots down and rubbed some Fels-Naptha on them, Laura's praise for the soap fresh in my mind. Then a bit later, threw them in with some laundry.

And hand-to-God, the stain was gone when the clothes emerged from the washer. Just gone. Sylvie's wearing the outfit today, and she can hold her wobbly head high.

I did a little web research, and learned that Fels-Naptha has been a miracle elixir for frugal families for years. The site SoapsGoneBuy.com carries 12 five-star reviews, along with customer-supplied and traditional uses and laundry recipes for the soap for everything from an aphid deterrent to a face wash. (I'm going to trust them on that last one; I don't see washing my uber-sensitive skin in something that can power out set-in diaper stains.)

You can buy the soap online at SoapsGoneBuy.com, or at select grocery stores. My sister-in-law found the bar she gave me at Kroger. The cost will be between $1 and $2 for a huge bar that will take out stains for the next several years.

The big question now is what do I do with the half-used stain stick?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The 7-cent Breakfast

I've started attending a weekly breastfeeding support group. It's really just a group of women who meet at the hospital and have access to a baby scale and some great advice from some experienced and comforting lactation consultants. It's been good meeting other women -- most of whom will also be returning to work soon. And I love the group leader. At last week's meeting, I asked her what I should do to treat my mastitis, and she told me to "leave here and go straight to bed." I like the way she thinks.

At the meeting, I'm learning about foods that are supposed to produce more milk. Weird things like pineapple and oatmeal. Who would have guessed? I love oatmeal, but have gotten out of the habit of eating it because I get distracted while I'm cooking it on the stove in the morning, and it always boils over when I try cooking it in the microwave. But the leader suggested a really simply way to make it in the morning, and I've been eating it every morning now.

In a big (4-cup) Pyrex measuring cup, add half a cup slow-cooking oats to 1 cup of water. Microwave it for about 2 minutes (my microwave is slow, so I do 2 minutes, 20 seconds). It's ready.

For years I've been refilling an old Quaker Oats container with oats I buy in bulk from a local health food store. The bulk oats are 70 cents for non-organic, and $1.30 for organic. There didn't used to be such a price disparity between the two varieties, and at my last trip, I went cheap and bought the non-organic. Because a pound of oats yields ten breakfasts worth of oatmeal, a bowl is 7 cents. Extras like dried fruit, nuts, and honey obviously increase the cost, but you'd have to add a lot of extras to get up to a $3 Starbucks muffin.

I have been adding a couple Tablespoons of raisins every morning, which, at the cheapest consistent price I can get them, adds another 8 cents or so. So it's 15 cents for breakfast. Not too shabby.

If you want to try your oatmeal cold with milk, here's my favorite granola recipe. It's largely from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook with minor tweaks. The author does everything bigger than life, so the quantities I use are cut in half from the book.

Really Good Granola

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
Up to 2 cups dried fruit, like raisins, cranberries, figs, or apricots (clean out your pantry, and cut any large fruit into the size of a raisin)
Up to 1/2 cup other nuts, like sunflower seeds, cashews, walnuts, or pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the oats, coconut, and almonds together in a bowl. In another boil, mix together the oil and honey. Pour the honey mixture over the oats mixture and stir to coat the oats. Pour everything onto a 9-by-13 baking sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, and being sure that the oats aren't burning. The granola will be a lovely golden brown color when it's ready.

After the granola has cooled, add the dried fruit and additional nuts, and you're ready for breakfast.

This makes a great gift packed into quart, or even pint, canning jars.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mommy's Little Tax Deduction

Meet Sylvia.
The weeks leading to her birth were very hectic and highly uncomfortable, and I've spent the last several weeks enjoying her and largely steering clear of my computer.
Today she turned a month old. She's starting to smile, getting a bit saucy and loud in her requests for food and attention, gave me mastitis this week (which, along with the wholely uncomfortable pregnancy, I'll remind her of any time she causes me hardship during the teenage years), and loves to snuggle. We hadn't planned on Sylvia, but I already can't imagine our family without her.

The whole family, minus one photographer, wearing an unspeakably ugly hospital gown and recovering from a c-section 12 hours earlier.

If only she'd come three months earlier, so we could receive an extra $300 on the upcoming tax-relief package!