Saturday, March 29, 2008

Family Visiting from Out of Town

Family is visiting from out of town and whenever family or friends visit or we go on vacation, it is usually not time for frugal living. In fact, it seems to be the polar opposite. We eat out or go shopping or even when entertaining, expenses increase. So, this weekend promises to be a weekend of spending. However, since our carpet is looking a little worse for wear, we're borrowing my MILs Hoover All Terrain Steam Vac rather than renting a carpet cleaning machine from the market or having it done professionally. This is the first-time using it so I'm interested to see how well it works.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spring Break Update - To the Park We Go!

So, I'm spending the day with the boys today rather than going to the office and we went to a local park today. It's was an unusually warm March day ringing in around the high 70s/low80s so the boys were sweating while I searched for a shady spot whenever I could. We met another mom and son at the park. So, who what's the big news about going on a park playdate? Well, I'm just grateful that we have public parks!. It's a benefit from our tax dollars and Central Park in NYC was one of the first public parks to be built in the mid-1800s. What a blessing to have this option! I'm glad our citizenry support the idea of parks. Sadly, Will Rogers State Park is being considered for closure. It's not a play park like the local park but in light of budget issues, certain parks are slated for closure. In any event, even though I use local parks quite a bit for the kids, there are so many adults who walk their dogs or go on their daily "constitutionals" as it were at the parks. Parks can be wonderful equalizers and since there aren't the "main streets" of yesteryear, I guess a park must suffice in the meantime. After lunch and naptime/quiet time, I got the boys to help me wash my car. Granted they're only 2 1/2 and 5 1/2 but it's never too early to learn a valuable skill!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Visiting the Museum

In LA, there are a row of museums in Exposition Park right by the Coliseum and USC. We decided to go to the Natural History Museum to view the extinct animals, the dinosaur bones and the new Thomas the T-Rex Lab which allows visitors watch the paleontologists work with the dinosaur bones. My husband, who took time off from the business on Friday afternoon, came with us. This was partly due to the fact that I couldn't handle both boys on my own. I could see my 2 year old heading into the display areas while my 5 year old stood mesmerized in front of T-Rex. In any event, the normal 45 min - 1 hr drive turned into 1 and 1/2 hours of LA traffic--typical but frustrating. We finally arrived at the museum only to discover the dinosaur exhibits were closed and Thomas the T-Rex Lab wouldn't open until March 30! So, off we went to the California Science Center (which happens to be free whereas the Natural History Museum is not). Even though the boys were young, the museum was interactive and had plenty of things for them to do. They did some sound experiments, some building, and some study of light. We opted against the Earthquake Experience. There was even an indoor play area at the top floor which was a nice break. In the end, I'd recommend the museum for the 7 and older crowd.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Great Kid Websites for the Pre-K to Gr 2 Crowd

Now that Spring Break has arrived, it's time to think about what we'll be doing next week. Of course, we'll be going to the park and probably the zoo or museum and perhaps an amusement park. For the in-between times, I've found some good websites that appeal to my 5 1/2 year old and wanted to share them. I imagine some of you are familiar with them but there might be some new ones to consider.

PBS Kids - Has games and activities associated with their popular programs
Legos - Has online, interactive games associated with their products
Starfall - Has online phonics games, stories and activities

What are some other good websites for kids games and learning that you've found?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Missed Fortune or Messed Up?

I have just started reading Missed Fortune 101 by Douglas Andrew. His thesis turns everything I've learned about retirement planning on its head. He basically eschews the IRA/401(k) model of retirement because he believes that the taxation on the withdrawals puts you in a higher tax bracket and negates much of the lifetime of savings that you've assiduously put aside. Instead, he advocates that there are more attractive retirement benefits.

Andrew writes that "The reality is that other, non-qualified retirement vehicles may provide greater net spendable retirement income." He also posits that proper equity management can assist in financing these vehicles which include investment-grade whole life insurance and second homes.

I would never have actually considered any of this prior to reading the book but I recently had a very interesting conversation with my Dad who was actually complaining about the fact that he has to pay an inordinate amount of taxes on his IRA/401(K) withdrawals and he is planning on taking equity out of his house by refinancing in order to seek the tax benefits of writing of interest to balance the higher taxes. So, that being the case, I see Andrew's point. However, in my Google search, I ran across a scathing criticism of Douglas Andrew's book from Mighty Bargain Hunter. Here's a snippet of the review:

"This book has got to be about the biggest billboard advertisement for mortgage brokers and life insurance companies that I’ve ever seen. You definitely can’t judge this book by its cover — you need to read the majority of the book before you get to this!

It beats the tax savings of mortgage and home equity debt to death over the first eight chapters. It rarely, if ever, mentions that you’re paying a lot more in interest to the lender than Good Old Uncle Sam will ever give back to you in tax savings through the mortgage interest tax deduction."

So, I'm not sure what to believe but I plan to investigate further. It's an interesting premise for sure and, as I mentioned, my father, who's now unbelievably irked by the taxes he's paying on his IRA distributions, is considering all sorts of alternatives. Andrew's suggestion might not be the best solution for most people and, in light of the "credit crunch", I don't know that anyone even has access to their equity right now even if they wanted to try this approach.

In any event, Mighty Bargain Hunter's post created a firestorm of commentary. It seemed like it was 50/50 in support versus against. Here's a comment that I'm going to look into from MRL "— My financial adviser took the course with Douglas Andrews and he put me in a policy called Master Choice Group Flexible Premium Life Insurance with Equity Index option by OM Financial Life Insurance company. I think it is out of Amsterdam. It follows the Index 500 with a minimum of 1% cap and a maximum of 17% cap. It also has an annual reset period which reestablishes my initial investment yearly and never lets it go below that point. This was for the equity money that I had in my house. It has averaged 9.18% over the last 17 years. It has no lapse guarantees and decreasing insurance premium rates because the insurance premiums are high at the beginning but only 1% of the policy value. My 401K was put in a different type of insurance policy with a little more risk but is being actively managed by Foxhall Capital Management Inc. which charges approximately 1.2% but has averaged 12.5% return over the past 12 years. Hope this helps.– S"

This might be worth checking out!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pricing the Pump: Gasoline, Sugar Cane, and Corn

Gas prices are inching toward $4 in my LA suburb and in parts of the city, it's actually at $4/gallon as a friend reported to me when she went into Santa Monica to visit her CPA. If you want to track the best gas prices, there are many sites that can provide that information. Eco Trekker recently featured a list of 33 tracking sites to use.

With prices this high and the cost of filling a tank ranging between $40 and $70 per visit, it's worth considering our alternatives, something forward thinkers have been doing for years whether here in the United States or elsewhere around the world. Brazil is often held up as an example of creative thinking to lessen their dependence on oil by cultivating large amounts of sugar cane to turn into fuel. The New York Times wrote an article about deriving ethanol from sugar cane two years ago that outlines their investment in the future and the expected payoff. One of the most interesting comments is as follows: "Brazilian officials and scientists say that, in their country at least, the main barriers to the broader use of ethanol today come from outside. Brazil's ethanol yields nearly eight times as much energy as corn-based options, according to scientific data. Yet heavy import duties on the Brazilian product have limited its entry into the United States and Europe." Brazil started looking into alternative in the mid 70s and started small-scale implementation in the mid-80s. Now, 30 years after their initiative began, they are self-sufficient. If the United States could have shown such prescience, we would not be in the dependent state we're in today.

In the United States, one of the best known fuel alternatives is ethanol derived from corn. However, University of Minnesota researchers claim that soybeans as well as prairie-grass (phot above is of Texas prarie-grass) would also meet meet energy needs and perhaps provide even more energy output. Debates are currently raging about the efficacy of corn production, whether corn ethanol is more expensive and less efficient than gasoline and what might happen if corn production was inconsistent.

No matter your political position, I think we can all agree that our pockets would prefer and more affordable solution.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Not Buying It! Review (Part II)

I'm going to continue with my review of the book, Not Buying It!, with the next three chapters covering March, April, and May and as with my first review, will just choose to focus on a few of the topics that caught my interest.

In March, one of the topics that Levine delved into was the nature of ethnic neighborhoods and the shopping advantages therein. She and Paul had returned from their rustic country cabin to their NYC apartment and went to Chinatown to avail themselves of their favorite things. It reminded me of my trips to the Valley, and in particular Reseda, to do the same because of the variety and the low prices. In Reseda, I can find Korean markets, Latino markets, Vietnamese markets, Arab markets and more! And there are the small restaurants and take-away places. Of course, other parts of LA have their ethnic neighborhoods--the San Gabriel Valley is the jewel of Asian markets, shopping and businesses. There are Armenian neighborhoods in Glendale, Indian in Artesia, Vietnamese in Westminster, Cuban in Burbank, Ethiopian in mid-Wilshire to just name a few. That's one of the great things about LA--all the diversity!

In April Levine joined a group called Voluntary Simplicity. She and a few others had signed up for a course on following "frugal consumption, ecological awareness and personal growth." She wrote about their discussions and individual members and their challenges. I was inspired to think that there are enough people who care enough to live simple lives to take group action. I'm sure there are many out there--it's just that they're not too apparent in my neighborhood!

In May, the main theme was scarcity but the part that grabbed me was her critique of government support of public art and museums. It's true that our country does not support the arts to the extent that European countries do. And, libraries are an integral part of supporting the arts. It's also a standard in frugal living to go to libraries to borrow books or to visit museums on the free days. So, it becomes an interesting question--how can we and how much should we direct our tax dollars toward art and literary efforts. Those of us who are frugalistas certainly love to use these kinds of cultural amenities!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Setting Priorities

I met with our financial advisor today and although I wasn't thrilled that in September she recommended that I buy a lot of funds that have currently tanked and now wants me to buy different, more recession-proof funds, she did bring up an interesting point about priorities where we were discussing big-picture issues. I want a bigger house or at least a house with a layout that is more family-friendly with a yard that is a good size for kids but my husband wants to buy an office condo. So, these goals are conflicting with each other and we need to prioritize which ones we value the most. I guess if I had to list them right now they'd be this way:

Bigger and/or different house
Put more money aside for retirement/college
Office condo

We own our business which is why we want to buy the office condo. We're in an industry where it's hard to attract good talent without paying dearly for it and even then, it's an industry where the anti-social personality is quite common. We're talking IT here! So, my point is it's hard to grow if it's hard to find good people and they're expensive. Although, if the recession occurs, some people might be losing their jobs although right now I don't see the effects in a personal level. But, our local newspaper has two full pages of home defaults listed whereas a year ago there were none or maybe just a few.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Beauty of Spring

Sometimes, it's enough to enjoy the beauty around us without having to spend money shopping, eating out, or traveling to far away places. This year, the plum trees that are in bloom are magnificent. I awake each morning and from almost every window of the house, I see the pink lace that decorates each tree. They will soon disappear to be replaced by deep purple leaves that provide a beautiful accent throughout the late spring and summer. But, for now, I'm enjoying the feast for my eyes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Frugal Friday Round-Up - Clean House, Clean Mind

My topic du jour for today is Spring Cleaning! I know when I clean and organize my house I always feel that I have more "room" to focus and to live. Clearing and cleaning my house clears and cleans my mind. So, to prepare myself, I've scoured (hah!) other blogs for the best on cleaning advice, planning, execution, strategies, materials and more for my assault on my house next weekend.

Fly Lady has some good strategies for some small steps I can take before this next weekend. I can do the 27 Fling Boogie and the Hot Spot Fire Drill for some quick forays into the battlefield without a full engagement.

This is a post that I've lifted wholesale right off of MomAdvice called Organizing for Spring Cleaning which I found on the Frugal Hacker blog about cleaning supplies and materials. What I like about it is that most of them are natural cleansers. Normally, I wouldn't include the entire post, but, for my own benefit, I want to have this list of cleansers available for reference at my convenience!

Last week we discussed some of our organizational hurdles and the challenges with getting our home into gear for company. I really understood and felt the same way when many of you shared that your real challenge was getting over your own perfectionism and feeling like your home is not as worthy as other people’s homes for doing any entertaining. I have often felt this way myself so I can completely relate and I am trying to challenge myself to stop doing this so that I can enjoy more time with loved ones, instead of using my home as an excuse to not entertain. My homeowner projects and perfectionisms need to stop holding me back from opening my door to others.

We will kick off this series by gathering up and getting our cleaning supplies ready for the cleaning challenges ahead! I thought we could start by peeking into my caddy of tools that I use for cleaning:

All-Purpose Cleaner- Mix together two tablespoons of mild dishwashing soap and two cups of water in a spray bottle and give it a shake. Use these anywhere that you would use a commercial all-purpose spray. This cleaner is particularly great for countertops, bathroom surfaces, and high chairs. This cleaner is also great for wiping down your plastic outdoor furniture and getting it ready for the spring season.

Glass Cleaner- Mix together one part white vinegar to one part water in a spray bottle. Spray this solution on your mirrors and windows. Just swipe until you have a nice streak-free finish.

Scouring Scrub- Mix one cup Borax, one cup baking soda (or you can use washing soda), and ¼ cup salt. This can be used in your dishwasher to clean your dishes (only one tablespoon is needed) or this can be a great scrubbing agent to add to your toilets, tub, and sinks to make them gleaming white again.

WD-40- Sounds strange, but this is always never far from me. WD-40 helps remove any sticky residue lurking in my home and I use it constantly to remove crayon marks in our house (two year old + crayons= buying WD-40 in bulk!)

Microfiber Cloths- Available at discount retailers, dollar stores, and in the auto section of your local wholesale club. These are great with or without cleaners on them. Wet, they are great for cleaning the bathroom sink, fixtures, and to help get that nasty soap scum off of tubs. Dry, they work wonderfully to dust surfaces. Place one of these on the bottom of a Swiffer mop and use the handle as an extension to get up in the corners to release cobwebs and dust from the corners of your ceilings.

Newspaper- Recycle your papers by using these to dry your mirrors and windows. They offer a lint-free solution and are a great alternative to other cloths, which can leave a dusty finish.

Old Toothbrush- These are great to get in the crevices of sinks and to do detail work around tight areas. Keep one of these in your bag of tricks to make that tedious work a little less tedious.

Store your tools in a caddy or in a bucket to make it easier to lug around as you accomplish your tasks. Next week we will be taking our tools into the kitchen and begin our spring cleaning there. Don’t forget to get your kids in on the action. After all, why should mom carry the burden of all the cleaning when able hands can help?

I am looking forward to the challenge and the encouragement that we can offer one another.

Sound Off: If I were to peek into your cleaning supplies, what would I find there? Do you have any great formulas for cleaners or any products you swear by?

And, to finish off, there's a blog I stumbled upon in my search called The Bumble Bee Blog which is about gardening, for the most part, so I'm not sure why she's writing about Spring Cleaning except to rant and rave about the inanity of Real Simple magazine in a very witty way and to wonder why anyone would need to spend time spring cleaning because cleaning should be an ongoing process. I agree with one of her commentators who said that by the time

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Where has the Middle Class Gone??? LA Unified Middle Class Task Force

Although this is not a post about being frugal, it is about what happens when the state short-changes its students.

I find this incredibly ironic that the LA Unified School District is having a forum entitled "How Do We Bring the Middle Class Back to LAUSD." For one thing, in my profile, I mention that the middle-class is disappearing. Also, like all other school districts in Southern California, they are facing declining enorllment

I've copied the relevant portion of their agenda although the full agenda is below. Items 4a through 4e pretty much are an indictment of
their own district. Evidently there are concerns with how money is allocated to students, whether services are up to par, whether educational
offerings are relevant, if schools are safe, and "other factors". So, basically, if this was a business, they'd probably
be out of business. In any event, one of the criticisms of LA Unified has been high administrative costs. But,
the State of California has also been negligent in supporting pupil education coming in at around $5500 per student
which means the state is ranked 47th in the nation. So, if you're a well-educated parent living in LA Unified, your
choices are to permit out, homeschool, find a charter or magnet school, or go private. Or, in more extreme cases,
move out of LA Unified.

4. How Do We Bring Middle Class Students Back to the District?

a. Equal Allocation of Resources

b. Improved Service

c. Educational Reforms

d. School Safety

e. Additional Factors

I don't live in the LAUSD so we are not facing these challenges although declining enrollment is a huge issue
because the cost of housing is so high that many families with young children can't afford to live in the
area anymore. Our district has started a new, progressive school which has attracted quite a few out-
of-district families including those from LAUSD. That's forward thinking.


West Valley Special Education Center

6649 Balboa Boulevard, Van Nuys, CA 91406

9 a.m., Saturday, March 1, 2008

1. Welcome and Self-Introductions

2. Remarks from Board Member Tamar Galatzan

3. Remarks from Attending Board Members

4. How Do We Bring Middle Class Students Back to the District?

a. Equal Allocation of Resources

b. Improved Service

c. Educational Reforms

d. School Safety

e. Additional Factors

5. Task Force Timeline

6. Adjournment

Not Buying It! - Review (Part1)

Judith Levine and her partner in life, Paul, decided that they weren't going to buy anything except the necessities (sustenance, health, and business expenses) for an entire year and her book, Not Buying It!, chronicles their journey. Thanks to Finally Frugal for mentioning the book in one of her posts. I've started reading it and it is compelling and well-written. As an author, she is a master in her craft. In each chapter, she details each month starting in December 2003 just prior to starting her year. I will be highlighting a few of the ideas that I found particular interesting in each chapter.

December 2003: Panic
December was a month of splurges and last-minute purchases to help them survive their upcoming year. I wasn't sure whether it was strictly "fair" to try to prepare ahead of time for a year of non-consumption. If it was a year to avoid consuming, then shouldn't you just live as you would have? Nonetheless, I'm sure I'd have done the same.

January: Surplus
January was spent trying to decide what was strictly a necessary purchase. If you were buying food to eat, could they buy fancy mixed greens or would just a plain head of lettuce suffice? I enjoyed the fact that she shared the details of the struggle to decide what was strictly a necessity. I don't think that would be easy.

February: Consumer Psychology
Levine spent quite a bit of time discussing the activity of homo economicus in this chapter. As such, homo economicus is not a specific individual per se but serves as the bellwether of so many economic actions that consumers take. She also made the point that purchasing and consuming is very much a social behavior and emulation. We want what everyone else has. If you were to live somewhere else in the country or the world than where we are now, our economic behavior would most likely mirror our neighbors.