Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Don't Waste Your Health Care Dollars

If you think you have the flu, don't waste your time or your money badgering your doctor for a prescription for antibiotics. Flu, including the current swine flu, is caused by a virus.

Antibiotics only work against bacteria. If you do develop a secondary bacterial infection as a result of your body being weakened by influenza or another viral infection, antibiotics will help those secondary infections. Until then, taking antibiotics will not help keep you well, and in fact may lead to worse sickness. First, the excessive or incorrect use of antibiotics can lead to the development of resistant strains of bacterial illnesses, so that the antibiotics won't work when you really do need them. Secondly, antibiotics purge all the bacteria in your body indiscriminately, including the helpful bacteria that are normally resident in your gut and help you gain nourishment from your food.

So save your money for medicines that will actually help you get and stay well.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Staying Healthy in Hard Times

You've probably been hearing about the swine flu outbreak that's spreading around the world from Mexico. Especially if you're without health insurance or afraid you soon may be losing your employer-provided health insurance, the thought of rapidly spreading deadly illness will be particularly terrifying. How will you pay for care if you get sick?

First and foremost, don't panic. Fear can lead us to do counterproductive things, even harmful ones. Remember that even if you have no money, there are still ways to obtain essential medical care. Most cities have free clinics that can provide some basic health care, and there is at least one hospital at which the emergency room will treat anyone with a life-threatening illness or injury, no matter their financial situation.

Second, remember that prevention is the best medicine. There are many ways to avoid becoming infected in the first place, including such basics as regular hand-washing and avoiding people who are ill. You may already have cut back on driving in order to reduce gas costs, but it will also help you avoid being exposed to people who are ill.

Eating healthful foods and keeping rested may seem easier said than done. After all, it seems like crap carbs and fats are always cheaper than good, solid fruits and vegetables, and if you're working three part-time jobs in an effort to keep ahead of your bills, sleep's one of the first things to get sacrificed. But this is a good time to jettison the junk foods you piece on without even thinking about and cut back to only those foods you actually eat as part of a meal, with a plate and silverware. And you may want to re-examine some of your non-work activities and see if some of them can go by the wayside without too much pain.

And you might just find that you feel better even without a looming pandemic to spur you on.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish

When times are tough, it's tempting to cut down on everything. However, cutting out some expenditures can actually cause bigger expenses in the long run.

For instance, don't skimp on the routine maintenance on your vehicles. It may make sense to take your car to the cheap oil-change place instead of the dealership, but don't stop getting the oil changed altogether, unless you want to risk ruining the engine altogether.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Protect Your Glassware -- and Your Hands

There are few things more frightening when washing dishes than discovering that a glass has broken in the sink -- the hard way. One of my brothers still has a scar on his hand where he cut it on a broken glass while doing dishes.

To protect your glassware from being broken in the sink, fold a soft towel into the sink before you drain water into it. The towel will cushion the glassware as it is moved around, and will help protect it should one piece slip from your hands and fall back in.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Too Convenient

One way to save is to avoid making purchases in the convenience stores attached to gas stations. The merchandise in them are often grossly overpriced compared to the same items sold at mass-merchandisers such as K-mart or Wal-Mart. For instance, the two-pound bag of sugar at the local convenience store may well cost as much as a five pound bag in the grocery store. They count on making their money on people who don't plan ahead and find themselves short of some necessity without the time to get to the grocery store.

If you find it excessively tempting to buy a bag of chips or a candy bar as you pass by the convenience store shelves to pay for your gas, use pay-at-the-pump whenever possible. Then all you will be buying is the gas you actually need.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Making a list beforehand and sticking to it while in the store is an excellent way to control impulse spending on shopping trips. However, there's no need to buy expensive pads of list paper. You can make your own list paper simply and easily.

Simply take a sheet of scratch paper that has one side still blank. Fold it in half. Fold it in half again, then fold the resultant rectangle in half. Cut along the creases, and you will have eight small, narrow sheets of just the right size to make a shopping list.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Life after Death for Pantyhose

Don't throw away pantyhose that have seen better days. Unless they've completely disintegrated, you can cut away the panty section and braid the leg parts around a metal coathanger. This will provide protection from staining or rough spots for fragile garments such as silk blouses. Because nylon knits dry quickly, you'll be able to hang a damp garment on such a hanger without worrying that you'll cause the metal to rust.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spare the Sideboard

Do your sideboard or end tables have water rings where people have set drinks? You can avoid these unsightly stains by placing coasters under glasses so that condensation does not touch the wood. They don't even need to be expensive store-bought coasters -- a plastic jar lid a little larger than the glass will do an excellent job.

And if you already have some, you can get rid of them without needing to send your furniture off for expensive refurnishing. Just cover the stain with a clean, thick blotter and press down firmly with a warm iron. Repeat until the water stain goes away.

Rubbing the wood with salad oil or toothpaste has also been reported to work. However, you may want to test the effect on an inconspicuous part of the item of furniture first.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Energy Vampires

Did you know that your appliances can be using electricity even when they're turned off? Most modern electronics maintain a low-level "trickle charge" in their circuitry so that they will come on immediately instead of needing to warm up like old-fashioned televisions and radios. However, if you're not going to be using them for several days, it makes sense to unplug them to save that electricity.

Power adapters for cellphones and other rechargeable devices also draw power when plugged in, even if the actual device isn't plugged into them. Similarly, an extension cord left plugged in and coiled up but with nothing plugged into it can draw a surprising amount of current to maintain an electrical field within its length.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Drip, Drip, Drip

A steadily dripping faucet can waste gallons of water over the course of a month. Generally the repair is simply a matter of replacing a worn washer; however, in some faucets it can be almost impossible to get to the washer. This can be particularly true with tub and shower faucets, which are often built into the wall of the tub or shower surround.

If you have a dripping faucet which is beyond your skill to repair and you don't have the money to get a plumber in to do the repair, don't despair. Simply set a clean bucket under the faucet to capture the water and use it for such tasks as watering plants or washing floors.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ding Discount

Did you know you can get significant discounts on a wide variety of household goods simply by willing to accept one that has a relatively small cosmetic defect? A small scratch in a hidden place may well be worth 25%, 50% or even more off the regular list price.

For instance, I was able to get a set of shelves which would normally cost over fifty bucks for ten, simply because a forklift had torn the box and scratched one of the panels. I was able to assemble it so that panel would be against a wall, keeping the scrape discretely out of sight.

I've also gotten cans of fruits and vegetables at a fraction of their normal price simply because the edges have become dented and are thus less attractive. Of course you will want to use any dented cans right away, and be careful that they are not bulging or leaking -- either of which can be signs of spoilage rather than mere cosmetic damage.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Eagle Eye Saves Money

When you go to the store, do you regularly watch to make sure that specials actually ring up at the advertised price? If you don't, you may be losing money.

This weekend I saw a bargain on salmon listed in one of our local grocery store fliers. However, when I actually bought the item in question, it rang up as $3.99 per package, rather than per pound as listed in the flier. If I hadn't been watching and complained, I would've ended up paying four times what I had planned.

Sometimes these discrepancies are honest misprints and miscommunications (for instance, the people in the meat department may not have been told correctly what item the ad refers to), but it is not unknown for less scrupulous stores to deliberately misprogram the computer for one or more items' prices, thus being able to bring in some extra money. So keep a close eye on those prices, and don't be afraid to hand something back if it rings up higher than it was marked. Merely having put something in your cart and brought it to the checkout counter does not obligate you to complete the purchase.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Praise for the Humble Potato

Potatoes have received a bad reputation of late for being unhealthy, largely because of their high starch content, and thus their high glycemic index. However, like so many unhealthy things, the real problem with them is eating them in excess, rather than eating them at all.

In lean times, when food is hard to come by, potatoes can be a very useful way to stretch otherwise inadequate food supplies to make a complete meal. For instance, you have a roast on Monday, and the left-over piece isn't big enough to give everyone a full-sized portion. Or you get a round steak at the food pantry which isn't quite big enough to go around. Instead of giving up, or tucking it away for some day when some family members are absent, you can cut the meat up into chunks and stew it with two or three potatoes cut up into cubes. Slice up a few carrots to give everyone a vegetable serving, chop an onion for flavor, and you have a complete meal in a single skillet.

Potatoes can also help extend a soup or stew when unexpected guests turn up close to mealtime. My great-grandmother, who raised a brood of nine on a carpenter's wages, never worried when one of her children had a friend over to play and suppertime approached. She'd just peel an extra potato (or two if several little friends showed up) and add it to the pot, and the meal would now stretch to feed everyone without anybody feeling like they were getting shorted or overstaying their welcome.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Job Seeker Beware

With job security becoming nearly non-existent, even at long-established firms, even people that still have jobs are thinking about picking up an additional job on a part-time basis. But in today's busy lives, fitting a second job into one's schedule may well seem like a monumental task.

And then you see that ad, maybe in the newspaper, maybe on a website, touting how you can make big bucks working at home in your spare time. It doesn't look like an obvious fraud -- there's actual work to do, maybe assembling crafts or stuffing envelopes. And it would be so much easier to have something you can pick up and put down at need, rather than having to constantly juggle two regular jobs, each of which acts as though it were your only obligation in life.

But be very careful, particularly if you are being asked to send money for information or to purchase supplies. Unfortunately, a large number of these "job opportunities" are in fact scams which prey on unsuspecting or desperate people, particularly those who have difficulties working regular face-to-face jobs: people with disabilities, full-time parents, etc.

There was a time when working at home was quite common. In the Gilded Age and the early decades of the Twentieth Century, whole tenements were filled with families busily assembling paper flowers, hand-rolling cigars, or participating in other cottage industries. Jobbers would come around on a regular basis to pick up finished products and drop off fresh supplies along with payments for previous work done.

However, during the Progressive Era heightened concern about product safety shifted most of this labor to factories where the workers could be supervised to ensure the quality the merchandise being sold. Over subsequent decades, most of this hand work has been outsourced to countries such as China and Thailand where labor is so cheap that a company that actually paid the prices promised in those "assemble crafts at home" ads could not compete.

Instead, they make money off the marks they sucker into "working" for them, generally by requiring them to buy overpriced equipment (for instance, a sewing machine for twice or three times what one could get it at a regular retail store) and materials. In addition, they will often refuse to pay for the finished product on the grounds that it does not meet their "quality standards," although these are often vague and there is no transparency on the inspection process. Unfortunately, many people will buy two or three more sets of supplies in hopes of meeting the quality standards if they just try harder, never suspecting that the standards are in fact an ever-moving target to which they can never catch up.

Similarly, envelope stuffing at home was once a thriving cottage industry, with smaller companies finding it cheaper to send mailings out to contractors rather than deal with the payroll issues of actually hiring the people to do it in-house. However, the invention of the modern envelope-stuffing machine in the latter part of the twentieth century destroyed this line of work as a legitimate work opportunity.

Instead, the modern "envelope stuffing" scam is little better than a pyramid scheme. The marks who respond to the ad are given a set of "instructions" telling them how to buy mailing lists and send people a letter offering them fabulous income for stuffing envelopes, and to send the same instructions to the people who fall for it in turn and send their money.

Unfortunately, these days there are very few legitimate work at home jobs save those we make ourselves. That is, creating a legitimate small business to sell an actual product or service on our own.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tips for Saving Food

With prices rising and food budgets shrinking, it's always frustrating to have something go stale or otherwise spoil before it's used up. Here are some tips for avoiding needless waste of perfectly good food:

If you get a whole head of iceberg lettuce, immediately unwrap it and rinse it under cold running water. Then wrap it in paper towel and put it in a zipper bag in your refrigerator. If the stem starts to show rust (reddish spoiling), immediately trim it back and remove any leaves that show rust.

If a loaf of bread starts to go stale on you, slip a piece of fresh celery into the bag and tie it back up. The moisture will restore the flavor of the bread.

If you burn gravy when you are making it, transfer it to a clean pan and continue cooking. Add sugar by the pinch to cover the burned taste.

To keep cookies fresh, crumple a little tissue paper in the bottom of your cookie jar.

Some of these ideas are taken from the March 2009 SHARE Food Peoria newsletter.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Do the Thrift Store Shuffle

When I was younger, I thought that thrift stores were only for poor people, that you had to meet income guidelines to be allowed to shop there. So, when I was starting housekeeping and struggling to furnish an apartment, I never went to the local thrift stores because I didn't want to take anything away from people who needed it more.

Since then I've learned that the actual situation is quite different. Far from taking away from the truly needy, shopping at a thrift store often can actually help them, because many thrift stores (Goodwill and Salvation Army in particular) use their revenues to fund job-training programs that give people a hand up instead of a handout. And in addition to being able to buy used goods at rock-bottom prices (I've found a bread machine for five bucks and a lamp for two, by catching half-price sales), shopping the thrift stores helps keep still-useful goods out of the landfill.

Yes, shopping the thrift stores can take some extra time, since there is no guarantee that the thing you need will be in any of them. But if you're not under a huge amount of time pressure and don't need the item instantaneously, getting things at your local thrift store can often save you 80% or more over the original retail price of an item.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Baby Steps

Making a major lifestyle change can be overwhelming, particularly if it affects multiple areas of your life. How can you possibly manage to change everything at once?

The answer is, you don't. Whenever possible, take one thing at a time. Find the most critical aspect of your life that needs to be changed and tackle it first. Perhaps it's getting a budget together so you know what your financial obligations are and where your money is going. Perhaps it's something even more basic like making sure that you have a reliable source of food in spite of a loss of income. But make sure to identify that one thing and focus on it until you at least have a strategy for dealing with it. Then move on to the next most critical thing, and continue the process until you have finished your lifestyle overhaul.

This process of breaking a major project down into manageable chunks goes under several other names: divide and conquer, the salami tactic, bird by bird. But the principle is always the same -- to reduce an overwhelming task into a number of smaller tasks that will actually feel doable.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Green and Thrifty Intersection

Although it's common to regard environmentalists as all a bunch of hippie wackos, there's a strong congruence between the resource-conservation positions of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" and "Waste Not, Want Not." In fact, I've often observed that the environmentalists could have gotten a lot further with conservatives if they'd packaged their messages in terms of thrift and saving by avoiding excess instead of in terms that came across as Gaia-worship.

And while groups such as Freecycle were originally organized in order to keep usable goods out of the landfill, they can also be a great way to pick up things that still have plenty of use in them. In fact, many Freecyclers will use need as a criterion in deciding whom to give an item when they have multiple responses to an offer.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pulling Together To Keep Food Costs Low

People who are having financial difficulty but not yet destitute are often hesitant about approaching food banks and other food assistance programs. Sometimes there's fear of condescension or having to answer embarrassing personal questions about their income, but far more often the thing holding them back is concern that they will be keeping those who are even more needy from getting food.

But would that change if I said there was a program that offered low-cost food without any qualifications save being willing to show up on the appointed day with a basket to pick it up? A program structured in such a way that you never have to worry that the food you receive meant less for the less fortunate, and in fact the more middle-income people participate, the easier it becomes for low-income people to get affordable high-quality food.

It's not a fantasy, and in fact there are two programs of this sort offering food assistance all across the country. Both of them work by pooling the money of tens of thousands of participants to buy food in bulk with minimal packaging (often only the FDA-required nutrition labeling and a bag to protect it from contamination), and distributing it using primarily volunteer labor. Because of the leveraging effect of pooling a large number of payments, the participation of middle-income families really does help make the food more affordable for low-income families. Generally you get about twice as much food for the money compared to what you would pay in a regular grocery store.

The first is Angel Food Ministries, which is a single nationwide organization. The second, SHARE Food, is actually a network of regional organizations, and there is no single Website that covers the entire nation. Here in central Indiana we are served by SHARE Food of Peoria, but you will want to find out the organization that serves your area.

There may also be other, smaller co-operative food-buying programs that serve your area. Whichever one you look into, you can expect to save a significant amount of money and still eat as well, if not better than you have been.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rediscover Your Public Library

How much are you spending each month on books that you only read the one time? How much goes into video rentals? Especially if you're on a program such as NetFlix that charges you every month whether you watch anything or not, those fees can add up fast.

How can you stem this outflow of money without having to do without books or videos altogether? Your local public library may be able to help. Most libraries not only have a broad selection of books, but also boast sizable collections of videotapes and DVD's on both educational and entertainment subjects.

And if you're having bad memories of getting dinged with overdue book fines because you lost track of a book, worry not. Today most libraries have online catalogs and circulation systems that allow you to log into your library account from any Internet terminal and check what items will be due when. Many can even send automatic reminders to your e-mail address when books are close to coming due.

So be sure to check out your public library, and discover the savings.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Join the Club

The warehouse club, that is. In addition to nationwide chains of warehouse clubs such as Sam's Club and Costco, there are also local and regional ones in many areas.

All of them enable you to buy larger sizes of products than you would be able to in your standard supermarket. For instance, instead of buying a five-pound bag of flour, you may be able to buy a twenty-five or even fifty-pound bag. By buying in bulk, you can often get food and other essentials for significant savings over the equivalent amount of retail-sized packages of the same item.

However, make sure to consider such factors as storage space and ability to use all of a product in a reasonable amount of time. Do you have suitable containers to store staples such as flour, sugar and rice in bulk so that they will remain fresh and be protected from vermin such as insects or mice? Can you use the giant bottle of catsup or salad dressing before it spoils, or will you end up throwing away an inch or so at the bottom? It's no savings if part of it ends up going to waste.

For instance, I routinely buy cereal at Sam's Club because the giant boxes contain three internal pouches, each one of about the right size for us to eat before it becomes stale. The other two pouches can remain unopened until we're ready to eat them. However, I generally do not buy the giant bags of flour or sugar for the simple reason that I have no way to store them until I use them.