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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Talk: 10 Leftover Ideas

Mr. Poorhouse bought a twenty-pound turkey for only four people this year. The good news is it was only $.99/pound. The bad news is it's, well, turkey, and it's starting to dry out. Here are 10 quick ways I have to use it up without going insane.

1. Papa Poorhouse's Turkey Sandwich


Sliced leftover turkey
toast (sourdough bread works too)
mayo
leftover cranberry sauce
romaine lettuce
thin slice red onion

Yum.

2. Thanksgiving, Part II


Pile one of each of the leftovers on your plate. This is why God make microwaves. Use lots of gravy if the stuffing and turkey are a little dry. You may want to freshen up the mashed potatoes with a little milk or cream first.

3. Turkey Soup


After salvaging all the meat possible to a ziplock in the fridge, break the carcass into 4-5 pieces. Put it in a big stock pot with a chopped up onion, any leftover veggie trimmings from your Thanksgiving prep, a chopped carrot and chopped celery rib, a bay leaf, and some thyme. Simmer gently (this is the key) for a couple of hours. Skim the foam off as it cooks. Strain, discarding the veggies and bones and meat. Chill. Remove the fat layer. Add new chopped carrots, celery, rice or cubed potatoes. Season. At the last minute, add chopped turkey from your leftover stash and noodles if you didn't already use rice or potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes. Season again.

4. Open Faced Turkey Sandwich

This one's easy. Bread (or toast), turkey, gravy. Whatever sides you have left.

5. Potato Pancakes

Do you have leftover mashed potatoes? My mom used to add egg and fry them up and call them potato pancakes. You could add bits of chopped cooked bacon, sausage (or even turkey--Bwahahaha!) or veggies, garlic, and spices first for an easy variation of the Czech bramborak.

6. Turkey Tetrazinni


This was a one of my Mom's standard post-thanksgiving meals. It's a fancy version of southern Chicken Spaghetti, with mushrooms, cream sauce, spaghetti or linguini, and a dash of sherry. It is a casserole dish. Warning: make sure the spaghetti is completely covered in sauce before baking, or you get crunchy dried out noodles, which, in my book, is a texture violation. I don't have her recipe handy, but this one from Cooks.com looks close.

7. Gobbledygook


This very 50s-style recipe is actually called "Gobble-Good Turkey Casserole" but we like our name better. It is a tuna noodle casserole variant made with cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup, and, of course, turkey instead of tuna. My son brought this recipe home from school one year and now asks for it after every Thanksgiving.

1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of celery soup
1 package onion soup mix
1 1/2 C milk
2-3 C leftover turky
1 C cooked rice

Combine all ingredients in a large casserole dish. Bake covered 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

8. Turkey Curry

Colin Firth at the Nanny McPhee London premiereImage via Wikipedia
This one's in honor of Bridget Jones's mother. I think I'll try this recipe from The Daily Green tonight. Serve it in a buffet on New Year's Day, and maybe Colin Firth will stop by!

9. Pulled Turkey Sandwiches

This option is very not-turkey-like and much healthier than the better known pork alternative. It's a good way to disguise the turkey when your family starts to rebell!

Here's the recipe I used last year from Favorite Brand Name Recipes.

10. Devonshires

My mom's recipe calls for chicken, but I don't see any reason why you couldn't use turkey. Here it is:

4 slices light wheat bread
12 slices bacon, cooked
1/4 c bacon drippings
1/4 c flour
4 C 2% milk
2 C shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 t dried mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1/8 t ground sage
4 slices cooked chicken (or turkey) without skin
8 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast bread. Warm bacon fat in sauce pan, add flour, cook until flour is brown. Make a roux with the milk, stirring constantly until thickened. Add cheddar cheese and mustard, stir until melted in. Season with salt, pepper, and sage.

Put 3 slices of bacon on toast, a slice of turkey, and sauce. Sprinkle parmasan on top and bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

When all else fails and you can't face another bite of turkey, give it to the dog. I guarantee you she will not mind!

Further Reading:


Uses for leftover Mashed Potatoes from The New York Times.cooked

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

More On Penny-Pinching Parenting

Once more, Grey at http://frugal-fu.blogspot.com/ and I are on the same wavelength. Check out her post on why having your kids do the dishes is as great as taking them to the ice rink.

It's eerie how she and I think alike. See my earlier post on Cheap Things to Do With Kids and you'll understand what I mean...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Home Never Seemed so Sweet

I'm very pleased that this post has been chosen as recommended reading in the 87th Carnival of Money Stories, hosted by The Financial Wellness Project. It has also be chosen as "The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere" in On the Moneyed Midways, Political Calculations' roundup of the best financial carnivals of the week. Please visit these sites for other interesting reading about personal finance. While you're here, please poke around at some of my other posts. If you like what you see, please sign up for my RSS Feed. Thanks for dropping by.
Like many of us, I've taken stock of my blessings during this season of Thanksgiving.

I am most thankful that we still have our home and that it looks like we will be able to stay in it. In past years I have taken this fact very much for granted.

This house represents stability to me. To have lost it would have nearly broken my heart, although I know we would have managed somehow.

Yes, it's cluttered. We've deferred maintenance. The basement is dark and damp. The kitchen needs to be painted. The weeds have taken over the yard. But it is where we became a family.

My parents and Mr. Poorhouse's are gone now. His childhood home is occupied by another family, and another little boy lives in his room. As an Army brat, I have lived in upwards of 20 houses. My mother made a home in each of them by accumulating stuff (much of which, I'm ashamed to say, I still have).

In my twenties and thirties, I spent many years in a major city. I loved almost every minute of it. Mr. Poorhouse, on the other hand--not so much. A carjacking finally kicked us to the suburbs. I made a fantasy wish list: our dream house would have a porch, sidewalks, a garage, a yard, 3-4 bedrooms, and a hallway staircase. It would be an older house within walking distance of shops, public transportation, and good schools. It would be in a place with a strong community feeling.

When we first toured our house, it was way out of our price range. It was the last of seven houses on a kamikaze house-hunting weekend day. As we walked out the front door that day, I sighed to Mr. Poorhouse, "This is a great house. Wouldn't Christmas be wonderful here?" The agent, rather desperately I thought, said, "Make us an offer." We just laughed.

We started calling it "The house with the weird porches" because not only did it have one porch, it had three--a front porch, a partially enclosed side porch that had been part of the original wraparound porch, and a screened-in porch added in the 50s.

As we got closer to actually making a decision (months later), we engaged a buyer's agent to help us. One day she said, "The next house we'll see is in a far better neighborhood than anything we've seen yet, but it has a structural problem."

It was the house with the weird porches. The price had come down. We swallowed hard after our home inspector gave us the run-down. "At no point," I said to him, "did you say the words 'falling down'."

"No," he replied, "It is not falling down."

So after reading his 20-page report, we made an offer, closed, and dealt with the structural issues. We stalked the neighborhood for weeks before we actually moved in, and every time we met people on the street, they looked us in the eye, smiled and said hello. This behavior was foreign to us. Where we had lived, making eye contact was a losing sport.

The first week in the house, we made a home video for our parents modeled on This Old House (complete with Fat's Waller's Louisiana Fairy Tale playing in the background.)

The house was built in 1904. The architect lived in our neighborhood and designed each house to look a little different. It was a bedroom community built within walking distance of the first commuter rail line in the country. I went to town hall and looked up the census to see who had lived here before. I pulled the engineering permit and was charmed to find the hand-written request from the 1920s "for to enclose the piazza" which explained one of the weird porches.

A four-year-old neighbor girl came over one day and asked us if we had any kids. When we said no, she looked dejected and wandered away. We learned quickly that without kids, you're nobody in this town. We discovered our neighborhood used to be known as "Rabbit Hollow" on account of the number of large families who have been raised here.

Even the plants spur memories here. Like my brother-in-law telling us with absolute certainty that the big tree in the back yard was a linden tree. (It's a pignut hickory, for the record.) Or the Tropicana rose we planted to remember my Grammie, the Peace rose for Gramps, and the burning bush we planted in memory of my father-in-law, who passed away during our first year in the house. Or the weeping cherry we planted when baby Prissy was born. Or the maple tree I hugged with all my strength while in labor with baby Paul. Our first year we re-graded one side of the house and planted shade-loving plants which our new neighbor dubbed our "love garden." Mr. Poorhouse planted corn three years in a row, only to finally have it all stolen by squirrels, who not only ate it, but left the cobs strewn about the entire neighborhood.

The inside of the house, too, surrounds us with memories of our families. Many of the rugs and furniture were Grandma's. The walls are littered with paintings by Mom, Grandpa, and my mother-in-law, who I never met. Upstairs in the hall we have the wall of babies--family pictures from many generations. Adjacent is the wall of teenagers--our parents and grandparents when they were young. Also upstairs is a box of letters Mr. Poorhouse's parents wrote to each other when his father was in the Navy, one for every day of his three-year tour on an aircraft carrier. Another box contains the letters my mom sent to her mother from every new house we lived in when I was growing up--from Alabama to Frankfurt.

Almost as soon as we got the key, our first order of business was to get a dog. Pal, though not cleverly named, was a clever dog. A shelter dog of Australian Shepherd descent, he would escape the house at every opportunity, and then herd all the neighbors to their porches. He wouldn't actually run away, but just buzz anybody who was trying to catch him. And you couldn't catch him the same way more than once. He wouldn't come home until he was completely worn out. Sometimes this took twelve hours! Everyone in the neighborhood got in on the action trying to help us catch this evil genius. In every other way, Pal was a gentle and loving friend.

In this house I stayed up with our 20-year old black cat, PJ, as she breathed her last.

Eventually, we also lost Pal to kidney failure at the age of 11. We invested in a fence for the back yard for our new puppy, Pax. She became part of our family routine, without the drama Pal had provided.

How could we forget the day a film crew with its award-winning director spent a rainy day on our front porch and in our basement creating a short film that went on to win critical acclaim at a number of festivals?

Or the many Thanksgivings? My brother-in-law was a regular at our holiday feasts until a falling out last year. One of the most memorable was the Thanksgiving day we brought new baby Prissy home from the hospital. My mom and sister were here to manage the cooking while I set up a nursing nest in our crazy blue striped library. I spent many hours in that room--nursing and snoozing and reading and crying and laughing as Prissy and I worked out our sometimes tumultuous mommy-baby relationship.

On our front porch, we met our dear au pair Pavla, as she literally charmed a bird who hopped right up to her. We stripped and sanded three generations of old wallpaper on plaster walls in our spare room into lavender splendor for our first au pair, Patricie. Mr. Poorhouse joked that these wonderful young women were more responsible than we were!

I started a business and worked from a converted bedroom for seven years. I remember the phone calls I took at my desk--the call when my mom told me she had breast cancer--the call from my Dad when my lovely niece was born--the call from my mother's neighbors the day they found her on the floor of her condo.

One of my favorite memories was of our long-awaited piano sailing through the back yard because it wouldn't go up the steps to the front porch. I played late into the night for months. Though we can't afford lessons anymore, the kids still play on occasion, and it feels right.

This is where I came home to be with my family when I left work early on September 11, 2001. On this porch I stood on with a candle later that week. Here is where we hang our flag. Here is where we have watched in dread and relief as elections have been won or lost.

Prissy and Paul are now 11 and 8. This home is the only home they have ever known. I wonder sometimes what that must be like. They have friends they've known since preschool. They've dressed as characters from their favorite books and movies for Halloween, run through the house and yard finding Easter eggs, lit the Menorah in the window over prayers, and wondered with delight at their presents from Santa.

Here we cuddle on the couch for family movie night and pile into bed together to read Harry Potter. Here the kids can go outside to play with friends without us having to arrange formal play dates. They walk to school and back on their own now. How grown up they are.

In the past year, we have been through two periods of foreclosure warnings from our bank. It looked for a while like we would lose our home. We only dodged the bullet by being lucky enough to find better jobs (not easy after extended periods of unemployment and self-employment) and by the generosity of my father's wife. We have a 30-year low-rate fixed mortgage. We have equity. We just didn't have the income to pay our bills.

A few years after we moved in to this quirky, not-falling-down, fabulous house, I found that list I had written describing our fantasy home. I realized this house had everything on that list. Plus things we could not have begun to imagine then.

I am thankful for my home.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Cards

Wow. Thanksgiving is here. Time to get those holiday card orders in.

I may be old fashioned, but I'm not yet ready to send electronic-only greetings. Nor am I a big fan of the postcard style family photo with just room to scrawl "Happy Holidays!"

Nope, I like a nice, generously sized folded card. I never write real letters anymore except at holiday time.

Here's how I save money. For casual acquaintances and business associates, I send cards that I picked up at a steep discount at the previous year's post-holiday sales.

For personal friends I have used Vista Print for the last couple of years and have been satisfied with their templates, their flexibility, and their speed, as I always seem to be doing this at the last minute. If you don't fall for all the add-ons, they can give quite a good price, especially with their "10 free cards" offers. (Full disclosure--I am part of the Vista Print affiliate program, but only because I have used them and am satisfied with their product and service.) If you want to give it a try, This link will give you 30% to 60% off holiday products.


I have previously had cards printed at FedEx Kinkos, but they are more expensive and less skilled. Plus they didn't have a way to eliminate their own logo on my expensive cards, which I thought was kind of tacky. That may have changed as I haven't used them for awhile.

In both cases, you can design your cards online. With FedEx Kinkos, you can also go into a participating store to order the cards if you like talking to a real face.


10 FREE Holiday Products from VistaPrint!


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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Job Checklist--Making the Most out of Benefits

This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance, Cyber Monday Edition, hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter. Please have a look at some of the other great financial tips there this week.
As I have mentioned a bunch of times, I started a new job a few weeks ago. (And I am very thankful for it.)

The benefits are good, but I needed to do some planning to make the most of them. I finished the paperwork today:

Flexible Savings Accounts

I have one for dependent care and another for medical expenses. Here's where people who track their expenses with Quicken or MS Money have the advantage--just run a report on your last year's spending on these categories, think ahead to any big known medical procedures or changes in child care arrangements, and you're done. Make sure to look at your plans covered expenses and exclusions as well--you don't want to set aside money and then lose it because the expenses aren't eligible.

I had to do a little homework to see if money paid to high school babysitters (we use them after school) qualify for the dependent care FSA. (They do, but if they are under 19, they can't be related to you. I'm not sure if that's an IRS rule or one for my plan, so make sure to read your own plan carefully.) I think the forms require Social Security numbers and paper backup, which is a little hard to produce with an informal hourly arrangement. Time for better record keeping.

If you can't estimate accurately, be conservative, because whatever money you save and don't use, you lose!

Retirement Plan
I'm not eligible for the 401K program for 6 months, but you bet I'll be taking advantage of that as soon as I'm able. My plan is to start with the percentage I was contributing at my last job plus 1/2 the percentage of my salary increase. Once we get the debt thing under better control, I hope to bump up to the maximum allows, which is currently $15,500 per year for most people. And once the new plan kicks in, I'll also roll over the small amount of money from my previous employer's 401K into the new one so that it's easier to track. (I'm trying not to look at the actual value for the time being.)

COBRA
My previous employer gave me a COBRA form. I have until the first of the year to claim COBRA health coverage from them. I will not need it, but I'm holding on to the forms just in case something catastrophic happens. When you leave a job that provides health insurance, for specific reasons, the company will offer you the option to continue on their health plan (at your expense, of course). The quirk that works to your advantage is that you have a 60 days (or so) to sign up, so if you don't end up needing the insurance during that period, you don't have to spend the money. Anyway, even those who are young and healthy with no dependents should not be without health insurance, so if you are among the (too) many unemployed, hang on to that COBRA paperwork, and if you don't have a prospect of another job by the time the deadline looms, find the money and sign up.

All the Rest
Of course, I also did the the paperwork for the health, dental, disability, and life insurance.

Further Reading
US Department of Labor COBRA information
Maximize Your Employment Benefits from About.comThis

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Monday, November 24, 2008

10 Bargain Birthday Ideas

This post has been included in the 154th Festival of Frugality. Join the other cheapskates over at Living Almost Large for some great tips for putting the reins on holiday spending.


Whew! The last of the giggling gaggle of giddy girls has left the building. Birthday season at the poorhouse is officially over, and we managed to have fun and save money at the same time. Read on for ten ways to control birthday party costs without making your kids feel deprived.

1. Avoid Prepackaged Parties

Choose a theme by all means, but don't buy the overpriced instant paper goods sets from places like Birthday Express.

Every couple of years we go to iParty, buy a roll of plastic table cover in a bright solid color. It lasts us through several birthday parties, Girl Scout events, and messy kitchen crafts.

2. Try a local salvage or job lot store for inexpensive napkins and paper goods.

For our recent pirate party, we found red cups and black and red napkins dirt cheap. You may find mismatched cups and plates, but with the plain napkins and table cloth, you may find something that works.

By the way, we usually are greener than this, and don't use paper plates and cups and plastic utensils, but we make an exception for birthday parties.

3. Make your own invitations.

You can get themed printer paper, design something on the computer, and print away. We used a scroll paper for a princess party and the pirate party. For the pirate party, we saved on stamps by rolling each invitation in a cleaned soda bottle, tying a ribbon around it, and leaving it on the guest's front door. They loved it. The same paper doubles for thank you notes.

For the Star Wars party, Mr. Poorhouse made a short video with letters scrolling away from the user (like in the movies) including some home videos of the birthday boy. The DVDs were the invitations. This was probably expensive, but we already had a spindle of DVDs lying around, so there was no out of pocket expense.

4. Put together your own goodie bags.

Those preselected favor boxes in the catalog stores are overpriced. Use your imagination. You can get colored bags at your local Michaels or AC Moore. Use them plain, or have your kids decorate them with markers, stickers, or stamps. Or, use Chinese food take-out boxes for a fun change of pace. If you are having only a few kids (like for a sleepover) you may be able to get an inexpensive bag as a favor.

4. Try Mail Order for Favors

We use Oriental Trading Company. They have a lot of cheap junk, but if you shop carefully, you can get a couple of cute things. Also, we've noticed that most of the junky stuff sold for goody bags at iParty comes from Oriental Trading Company, so you might as well eliminate the middle man.

A friend of mine forgoes goodie bags altogether and gives books related to the party theme as favors.

5. Make your own cake

As Martin Short so eloquently put it in Father of the Bride "everything revolves around the cake." But that doesn't mean you have to spend big bucks on a spongy, bland, and expensive supermarket cake. You can make a cake from scratch for a fraction of the cost. If you're pressed for time, cake mixes are often on sale and taste OK.

Now before we go on, I must confess that I obsess about birthday cakes. I've been known to stay up all night on cakes in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine, a pink princess castle, a sports field with soccer ball, a cake in the shape of Madeleine's hat, and, most recently, a pirate ship.

As time wears on, I've learned a few tricks. First, bake the cake itself a week ahead, cool it, wrap in plastic wrap, and stick in in the freezer until the morning of the party. Make your own frosting, or color canned frosting the night before the party.

These cakes don't take any particular skill to make. A number of internet sites have clever ideas you can steal for almost any theme. And the kids love it.

Try these for starters:
Betty Crocker
Better Homes & Gardens
Coolest Birthday Cakes

6. I've had parties where I cooked and parties where we ordered pizza. The fact is, the kids always eat the pizza and it's cheap and easy.

7. Go easy on purchased decorations

Try ebay for inexpensive one-of-a-kind decorations. We scored an American Idol bus poster one year. The kids sang karaoke in front of it (dressed in shades and boas) and had a blast. Another year we tried to make a paper mache Death Star. That didn't go over so well because we didn't allow enough time. We used to do balloons, but they are always a pain to pick up and half the time the guests forgot to take them home. We haven't had them for the last few years, and nobody seems to have noticed. Maybe it's just that our kids are getting older.

8. Buy fewer presents

If your kids are like my kids, they get more stuff from their guests then they need or can neatly store. So go easy on your own gifts to your kids. One nice thing they really want is plenty. If parents of the guests call to ask what your child wants, consider giving them the name of your child's favorite author.

9. Don't Try to Keep up with the Jones's Entertainers

This may be your biggest budget item. When I was a kid, we had parties at home, played pin the tail on the donkey, opened presents, and called it a day. (Well, actually, I'm a Halloween baby, so we usually went trick-or-treating too.)

In our affluent suburb, the party venues my kids have attended are varied and almost extravagent. Party places include the gymnastics school, batting cages, rock climbing walls, trapeze schools, hotel pools, the dreaded Chuck E Cheese (or Chucky Cheezits as we like to call it), bowling, and even fencing. Home parties have included paid entertainers like animal guys, the ubiquitous clowns and magicians.

But it doesn't have to be so. If you live in a warm climate, or the birthday is in spring, summer, or fall, do what my neighbors do for their athletic son: Have all the kids meet you on a neighborhood field for a day of sports, and then head home for cake & ice cream.

For winter parties with lots of little kids, I totally understand wanting to have the party somewhere other than home. We have had luck with reasonably inexpensive parties at locations like the show room for a play structure manufacturer, our local recreation department (they even provide a teenager to facilitate active games), and a pottery painting studio for kids. In the latter case, the piece they create is the favor, so the whole thing is very affordable.

As the kids get older, the slumber party reigns. Eleven-year-old Prissy Poorhouse just had three girls overnight and then went to a movie. To be honest, they would have been fine without the movie. A few bottles of nail polish, hair doo-dads, lip gloss and sparkle powder was all it took. I realize that wouldn't work for all girls, but it did for mine.

10. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Return, and Reciprocate

After the presents have been opened, save those gift bags. They are green! They can be reused numerous times. They're easy. The tissue paper can also usually be folded and reused a few times as well. Win, win, win! We also wash the candles and cake toys. They burn just as brightly a second and even third time.

When the party is over, take the unopened napkins, cups, favors and what-have-yous back to the store. Or, better yet, donate them to a local children's center where the kids might not have birthday parties without donations. Birthday Wishes is another organization that will accept such donations.

Have fun at the party!

Further Reading
Cheap Birthday Party Ideas

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Negotiating a New Salary--Believing You're Worth It

This post has been included in the Carnival of Debt Reduction: Thanksgiving Edition hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter. Do stop by and check out the other financially savvy advice. I'm also very pleased that it has been selected by Political Calculations as a one of the best posts of the week for their On the Moneyed Midways feature, where you can see highlights of other financial blog carnivals.

I just came across a cool site, http://www.indeed.com/salary, where you can plug in a zip code and a job title and get an instant report of salaries from recently advertised jobs at that location.

Other than being nosy, this tool is enormously helpful in providing third-party objective data in salary negotiations. For more on why this is important, I highly recommend the negotiating classic Getting To Yes.

When I accepted my new job a few weeks ago, I was working through a retained recruiter. So she was going to get paid no matter who they hired. It was her job to screen applicants and "package" them for the employer. (Packaging in this case meant reformatting my carefully formatted resume into the recruiter's house style and asking me to write a summary of my experience for her to submit.) Part of the screening was to see if the salary was in the ballpark.

I'm sure you all know that as much as you like a recruiter, he or she is being paid by the employer, and everything you tell them goes straight to the employer. They are the employer's "agent."

In my screening call with the recruiter, she asked me how much I was making at my old job. I decided to tell her.

Then I pulled a trick. The hiring company was a not-for-profit organization. Tax returns (Form 990s) for not-for-profit organizations are available, for free, at Guidestar. And 990 forms list the highest-paid employees of an organization--with their salaries.

So, I did what any good negotiator would. I looked up my predecessor's salary. And found that she had been making substantially more than the hiring range they had given me.

So, when I got my job offer, I asked for more. I asked for less than what my predecessor had been making but more than they offered me. The recruiter was a little bent out of shape because she knew they had offered me more than I was making, and she knew I wanted the job, so she thought she was done. It was uncomfortable for a few minutes. I explained that I had a lot of experience, that I'd be expecting a raise in a few months for my existing job, and that I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a bump in salary in their offer. She asked me what I was looking for. I named a number.

I let the silence go. She said she'd ask. There was a time delay. The employer came back with a "split the difference" offer--all brokered through the recruiter. To be honest I was almost ready to say I'd take it. But the recruiter did something strange. She said she would go back and ask for the full amount again. She did. I got it.

Those 10 minutes or so of extreme discomfort with somebody I will probably rarely if ever speak with again went further toward decreasing my debt than a whole year of penny pinching would have.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Case of Mistaken Identify

Straight from the "Keys in the Freezer" department, we have for you today a case of mistaken identity. Alert readers will recall I've been trying to provide documentation of my income and expenses to the Internal Revenue Service via FORM 433-F for weeks now.

It took me awhile to get it together. After all, we had our wedding anniversary, Mr. Poorhouse's birthday, Little Poorhouse's birthday, Halloween. Whew.

I try to instill a sense of thankfulness and manners in my kids. So Little Poorhouse spent two whole afternoons writing thank you notes for his many birthday presents.

In the meantime, I got the 433-F done, and sent it to the address given me. And the IRS lost it.

So Friday morning, on my way to work, I grabbed the manilla envelope off the front hall table, stopped by the post office and sent it to the new address the IRS agent had given me. Good for me. Another thing checked off.

Today, on my lunch break, I opened the manilla envelope with Little Poorhouse's thank yous so that I could put them in the mail.

Imagine my surprise and horror to discover in the envelope--my 433-F and all it's documentation. Which means--wait for it--that I sent Little Poorhouse's thank you notes to the IRS. Certified Mail. Return Receipt Requested.

This story isn't over yet. See this post for the next installment. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

University Resources for Kids

A friend of mine who had heard about our piano lesson dilemma suggested that local university music programs may have group lessons for kids taught by very talented graduate students. It turns out they do and they are a fraction of the cost of private lessons and about half what our community music school charges. But it's still more than we can afford right now, which is, well, nothing. But it may help some of you.

Our nearby university also has something similar--inexpensive swimming classes taught by the swim team in the spring and the fall. It is a fundraiser for the team, and is great experience (sometimes one on one) for the kids.

There are probably lots of other programs. Have you heard of any?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Arts on Shoestring


We're not going to be going to any Broadway shows or touring companies or major ballet companies or concert halls anytime soon.

But I'm inspired tonight. I just got home from a breathtaking concert, held at my church, two blocks away. The act was a chamber group. They specialized in contemporary music, and they knew just how much to say to make it accessible. (Let's face, it, lots of people aren't big fans.)

The evening was wonderful. There was a suggested donation, which I paid, but even so it was a small fraction of the cost of a concert hall performance, and I think these musicians were every bit as good. They ended with Mozart "for dessert".

So don't deprive yourself or your family the finer things in life. Here are 10 ways to get some culture into your lives as the holiday season approaches.

1. Go to a local production of The Nutcracker.
Surely a ballet school near your offers a performance. Many schools have talented local dancers in the lead roles in addition to the student dancers.

2. Check the website or get on the mailing list for your local community music school. In addition to student recitals, many hold frequent faculty recitals to showcase the musical talent of their instructors.

3. While you're there, find out if they give financial aid for music lessons. Ours does, although they do ask you to contribute in other ways, like helping to set up chairs for concerts and recitals.

4. Patronize small, local museums. We happen to have a world-class photography museum in my little town. Admission is cheaper than at the major metropolitan collectoins.

4. Some museums have free admission times. Find out when yours are and soak it all in.

5. Visit outdoor sculpture gardens. Many have no admission charge, and a self-guided walking tour may even be available.

6. Get together with friends and host a music party. A potluck takes the expense burden off the host. Ask everyone to perform something. Maybe some duets will even break out!

7. Borrow music recordings from your local library instead of buying them or downloading them. If they don't have what you want, you may be able to get them through interlibrary loan.

8. Inquire at major venues if they have rush or standing room only seats for major performances. Standing ticket-holders often do find seats after the first break in the performance.

9. Scan the newspaper, or subscribe to the RSS feed for arts news. Recitals and concerts by up and coming artists are sometimes available for the asking. I recently saw an award-winning young pianist in recital at the Southbank Centre in London, just by searching the web and emailing a request for tickets. Oh, and it was FREE.

10. For special occasions, find out if there is a half-price ticket booth for music, theater and dance near you or at a destination. I often forgo an expensive dinner if I'm traveling on business in New York or London in exchange for an evening at the theatre, thanks to the TKTS and Leicester Square booths. I can't afford it any more, but when I could, it was always worthwhile.

Photo by BdwayDiva1.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Play it Again, Uncle Sam

My dear friends at the IRS called on Monday and left a message that I MUST call back by the close of business.

I got the message on Tuesday, which was Veterans Day, a federal holiday. Not surprisingly, nobody answered at the IRS when I called.

So, the next day, I dutifully called at 8 AM when they were scheduled to open. I put my wireless phone on speaker as I went about my morning--getting kids off to school, preparing for a Girl Scout meeting, getting my lunch together for work. Thirty minutes later I hung up. After all, a girl's gotta go to work, especially on her second day at a new job.

At about 3:30 pm, I tried again. I called from my cell phone in cubeville, and just left the 1812 overture playing again through my speaker phone. When someone finally picked up my call, 40 minutes later, I was relieved to speak to a very pleasant gentleman who gave me his name and employee identification, asked for information about my account (which I had already entered into the bleeping phone system, by the way), and then put me on hold for another 20 minutes while he looked up my record. I walked outside and waited and waited and was almost ready to give up when he came back on.

After that shaggy dog intro, let me cut to the chase. The IRS was calling me because they never received my 433-F and accompanying documentation. I spent HOURS on it. Gone. Could I please resend it by certified mail, to a different address by the end of the week? They need it to evaluate my request for a lower monthly payment of my overdue taxes.

Sure, why not? I guess I should have paid more than the $4 to send it the first time.

Something makes me think that if I were the one to misplace something so important, my revenuer friends wouldn't treat it so cavalierly.

Could be worse. They could still be threatening to garnish my wages.

There's more to this story here

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Credit Union Credit Cards--A Very Good Deal

I've had my problems with the aggressive (some might say predatory) practices of commercial credit card issuers. But just for the record, I would like to extend my appreciation to the folks at Members First Federal Credit Union. Despite my undoubtedly scary credit rating, they haven't jacked up my rates. They haven't charged me exhorbitant late fees. My rate has been hovering around 8-10% for years now.

As I've previously mentioned, my friends at the Amazon Chase Credit Card have somewhat sticky downward rates, and despite the number of times I have called to ask for a lower rate, I'm still paying TWENTY-SEVEN something percent. Twenty. Seven. Two-Seven. Sigh.

So I called up the folks at M1FCU. I haven't got much credit left, but I have some. I have two balance transfer options--one for 6 months at 3.99% APR. After 6 months it goes up to my normal purchase rate of 8.99 or whatever it is at the time.

The other is 4.74% APR for the life of transfer. Ding ding ding. I'll take door number 2, Bob. It's going to be a lot longer than six months before we've got this debt under control. But, hmmm, let's see 4.74% is, yes, better, than TWENTY-SEVEN PERCENT. (Shakes head). Twenty-seven. How IS it possible?

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that if I hadn't opened the bleeping Amazon Chase card to begin with, I wouldn't be in this mess. At the time, they had a 0% balance transfer rate that seemed better than the 8.99% I was getting at the credit union. I was playing the arbitrage game. It never occurred to me that I'd get into a situation where I wouldn't be able to pay my bills.

Off to do the paperwork.

Polly's Pointer
Your local credit union may not always have the best credit care rates (although they might), but they are also unlikely to practice usury. Develop a relationship with one.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembering Our Homeless Veterans


Photo by Bill Wooten

Many people, and perhaps mothers in particular, have mixed feelings about Veterans Day. How can we honor the service and sacrifice of our men and women in the armed forces without glorifying the violence that is war?

Literature is full of stories of boys anxious to go to war for to fight for their country and cause, only to return broken and disheartened once they experience the horrors that await. The lucky veterans, men like my father, are able to integrate the experiences they had and readjust to life at peace, at home.

But many veterans are not so fortunate. While measuring homelessness is notoriously difficult, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, perhaps a third of all those without homes.

Many of these homeless veterans (up to 45 percent) suffer from mental and physical disabilities, which makes the path back to economic stability even more challenging.

The VA has instituted a number of programs for homeless veterans, but funding at the VA is always a challenge.

How can we help? The National Coalition for Homes Veterans makes these suggestions:
* Support emergency shelters – Donate personal care items, clothing (new underwear, socks and T-shirts are always needed) and food, or make cash contributions.

* Volunteer as mentors, counselors or legal aides – Homeless veterans in transitional or supportive permanent housing often need help with learning basic life and social skills, employment training and placement, mental health or substance abuse counseling, and help with legal problems.

* Raise funds for programs – Contact churches, civic and business groups, schools, and veterans service organizations for contributions, or a share of proceeds from community events. Large corporations in your area may agree to an employee matching program. Involve the local media to ensure benefactors are recognized for their support of America’s veterans.

* Volunteer at Stand Down programs – These are 2- to 3-day events that give homeless veterans a secure, community-like retreat to receive health care and personal hygiene services, food, clothing, housing and employment referrals, and VA benefits counseling – all in one location. For a list of upcoming Stand Down programs, click here.

* Develop Homeless Veteran Burial Programs – Several programs have been developed over the last few years to ensure that homeless veterans receive proper burial with military honors. Programs are collaborative efforts involving local medical examiners, hospitals, VA regional offices and funeral services providers. For information on a successful national program, visit www.dignitymemorial.com/HomelessVets.html.

In addition to showing our support and thanks by flying our flags and marching in our local parades, this year let's commit to making a better lives to those who sacrificed for ours.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

10 Cheap Things to Do With Kids

This post has been included in the Festival of Frugality~The Veteran’s Day Edition, hosted by On a Quest to be Debt Free and Kids and Money hosted by Money Hacks. Check out these interesting carnivals for many other creative ways to pinch pennies.
It has also been included in the Thanksgiving Traditions edition of the Carnival of Family Life hosted at The Expatriate's Kitchen. Please visit for tips on all things family from finance to food and further.


Photo by C├ęsar Astudillo

One of the big problems of living through an economic crunch is not being able to provide your kids with lessons and activities that get them thinking, moving, and learning. We've suspended soccer, dance, piano and violin lessons, and chorus. We've also had to put on hold plans for things like hockey, science club, and language lessons. The kids know what's going on, if not the extent.

Forgoing toys is another matter, and one I'm not really concerned about right now, except to say to my little ones, "The less we have to spend on xyz, the more we'll have for more important things."

So what can we do in the meantime? Here's what works so far:

1. Girl Scouts.
It's the best kid bargain on the planet, and the girls learn and grow so much it's worth every penny.

2. Bike riding.

Already got bikes? Great. Find a local bike trail and ride away. It gets you and the kids moving, and keeps you off the streets.

If you don't have bikes, see if there's a swap in your neighborhood. Our town dump has a swap meet where we have picked up numerous kid bikes in the right size. Our neighborhoods also hands down bikes from kid to kid. (And not just bikes either--the littlest Poorhouse recently scored a hand-me-down skateboard from the big boys next door.) Sometimes churches or other community organizations will hold sports swap events as fundraisers. Or, check out the local second-hand sporting goods stores. The one in our area is called Play it Again Sports.

3. Boys and Girls Clubs

These fabulous places provide a safe and nurturing place for your kids to go when you can't be there. For a nominal annual fee (ours is $22), your kids can do homework, play games and sports in the gym or outside, take classes (may be slightly more), do crafts, participate in discussion groups, or (insert parental rolling eyes here) play video games and watch TV.

Of course you will want to visit first to make sure you're comfortable with the staff and supervision, but this is a fabulous resource for parents who need a place for their kids to go after school.

4. Take a Hike
In our area of the country fall is beautiful, and we are lucky to have miles and miles of trails nearby to explore. We could go everyday and not be bored. (We don't, but that's another story.) Little kids can ride in a backpack. Bigger kids can carry their own snack and waterbottle.

5. Find a Community Playgroup

Parent groups for those with young children may hold a co-op playgroup with toys and coffee at local public facilities (like churches). They may be during the day, so more suitable for parents who don't work outside the home. If there isn't such a group near you, consider starting one.

6. Go to Free Town Concerts, Movies, Plays

Our town hosts weekly concerts in town center during the summers. Show up with a blanket or chairs, a picnic from home, and some able bodied dancing machines, and you've got yourself and evening out.

7. Take in the Historic Sites

Have a National Park location nearby? Bundle the kids in in the car and take them. You probably haven't been since you were a kid. Bonus: The Rangers Rick and Rickette are fabulous storytellers who can really get kids excited about history.

8. Check out your Local Library
Ours has storytime for infants, for preschoolers, pajama party nights for slightly older kids, a summer reading program, AND (get this) FREE passes to local museums. And how much does all this cost? Nothing, Zilch, Nada. Such a bargain. Plus all the books. We can even get travel packs to keep the kids busy in the car on a long trip.

9. Go to Church or...

...synagogue, or mosque, or ethical society, or whatever works for you. Regardless of your religious persuasion, your local house of worship probably provides lots of activities for kids.

My kids are very musical, and I feel the worst of all about having to suspend their music lessons. But our church has an active children's chorale where the kids are learning to read music, singing in harmony, learning rounds, and really getting something.

The social action committee at our church is teaching the kids to knit and using their results for people in hospital or otherwise ailing. So much better in so many ways than paying for private craft lessons, don't you think? My kids have held a talent show and raised money for a children's hospital, planted flowers on the church grounds, sung and visited with nursing home residents, donated supplies to a pet shelter, and learned about giving. Priceless.

10. Rake some leaves.

Kids love helping out and spending time with their parents. If you can't afford yard service (we've never used one), teach your kids about the land around your house. What needs to happen to prepare for winter? How does compost work? Have them help you plant bulbs and see their delight in the spring.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. With a little imagination and your time, your kids will have plenty to do. All they really need is you.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

If Your Boss DOES Find Out You're Looking

Whether from a monster saved search as discussed in a previous post, or whether by your network backchannels, it's wise to assume that your manager may very well find out you're looking to move on.

If he or she does confront you with this knowledge, it's admittedly going to be awkward. But maybe this is an opportunity for an honest discussion about what you're looking for. Who knows, your current organization may be able to accommodate you.

In the meantime, here's some advice from Facebook and Myspace about trying to remain anonymous in the first place

Further Reading:
5 Job Search Tips from Indy Star.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Gross-Out Factor--Another Way to Avoid Eating Out

OK, not to go all Howard Hughes or anything, but I just watched an episode of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and it's enough to put me off eating out for well over a month.

A friend tells me that the book Kitchen Confidential had the same effect on her.

At least eating in will save me some dough. And maybe my life.

Yuck.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Belated Trick or Treat--Monster Can Bite You


Photo by Vik Nanda

Here's a dose of paranoia for those of you who may also be trying to improve your financial situation by getting another job. I probably shouldn't have been, but I was semi-shocked when a friend told me last week that the owner of his company has a saved search at Monster for any job-seekers posting resumes containing his company's name. The owner then makes a practice of telling his managers that he has found resumes of current employees and asking them to find out why the person is looking for another job. EEK.

A couple of people I talked to about this found that practice borderline abusive. I find it just to be a cautionary tale. Even if you choose to make your contact information anonymous (one of Monster's privacy options), a savvy employer could still identify you by your company name or job details. And even if you choose to make your entire resume confidential (in other words, it doesn't show up in searches) there is nothing keeping people you do authorize viewing it from emailing it to your boss.

Monster itself warns
As with any career or networking site, the general rule is: If you don’t want your friends, family or boss to know about it, don’t post it online. Once you’ve set your information to public, understand that you really are getting your name -- and a whole lot more -- out there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Dreaded IRS Form 433F--The Saga Continues

This post has been included in Tax Carnival #43 at Don't Mess with Taxes. For lots more tax cheer, head on over after you've rounded up all you can here.

Photo by Scot Campbell

About six weeks ago, in response to a request from the IRS, I started documenting my income and expenses on Form 433-F or Collection Information Statement. Unfortunately, lots of stuff happens around here in October and I didn't get it done until yesterday, so I had to start over.

The back story on this project is that I couldn't pay my federal taxes, and I tried to work out a payment agreement. The problem is the IRS thinks I can pay more than I think I can pay. So they reasonably asked me to document what I have and what I spend. The process is similar to applying for a mortgage--in other words, involved. And it was the same information requested in my interviews with the debt counseling folks. (I describe my differing results: greater success and not so much success) in earlier posts.)

I learned something in filling out the form that I will pass along to folks in a similar situation. First, the IRS reps will try to get you to answer the questions on the phone about your income and expenses and assets. Don't do it. It's too complicated. Request that they send you the form, take your time, and document everything accurately.

Second, you don't have to know exactly what your expenses are. After looking up the IRS's own national standards, I discovered I was UNDERestimating our expenses. The rules allow you to claim national and regional standards for some items.

So, I don't know how this will all turn out, but for now, I'm glad that I got this piece done and hopeful I didn't forget to put anything in the packet.

Incidentally, you can tell the frugality bug has hit me because I was annoyed that it cost over $4 to send the package. Wow. $4. When did postage go up so much?

Note:  To find out what happened next, see this post.
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Monday, November 3, 2008

Vote...and Save Money


Nationwide, companies are giving away freebies to voters. Start with Starbucks, then work your way to Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme, Chick Fil-A and then Ben & Jerry's for dessert. Could be quite a day. Slick Deals has got a list of some of the places to try.

Hat tips to
Wallet Tip
The Boston Foodie
abc15.com

But be careful. Apparently, in California the practice is illegal!.

The important thing, of course is that you vote!



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10 Cheap Dinners to meet Frugal Fu's "No Eating Out" Challenge

This post has been included in Festival of Frugality 11/4 Election Day Edition at Bargain Briana


Photo by Dave Walker

Frugal Fu has challenged her readers to cook their own meals for a month. It's a great way to save money.

It requires a certain amount of planning ahead. I confess that in October, which is event month at the poorhouse, with 3 birthdays, an anniversary, a visit from an out-of-town friend, plus Halloween, we did fall off the wagon and eat out a couple of times and ordered a couple of pizzas.

The sad thing is that these meals are often not any better than what we could make at home. And we know it.

So here are the Poorhouse's top tips for cooking at home. (Warning--we like meat.)

1. Pot Roast
Tomorrow I'm working at home. We splurged on a cheap roast--I'll have time to pot roast it for dinner.

2. Roasted or Grilled Whole Chicken
We can get a chicken (or sometimes two in a double-pack) for about 99 cents a pound on sale. Rub it with a little butter and spices, roast or grill for an hour or so, and yum. (I don't eat the skin, so I don't feel too bad about the butter.) There's enough left over for a chicken salad or two for lunches. Mr. Poorhouse is in charge of this menu, and he cooks without a net, er, I mean recipe.

3. Beef Bourguignon
OK, so this was a little more adventurous, and required some advanced prep. But the other day I made beef bourguignon. It's pretty easy, and very delicious. I used the Joy of Cooking
recipe. Get some really cheap stew beef--marinate it in 2 cups of red wine, chopped onions and carrots and seasoning. The recipe says marinate it for 24 hours. I did it for two days, and it didn't kill us. When you're ready to cook, drain, brown the beef, remove from pan, sautee the reserved veggies, add the meat and reserved liquid and simmer for as long as it takes to get done. In the last 30 minutes, add some small whole onions to the pot and boil up some new potatoes in a separate pan. Even the kids liked it. I think you could probably use a crock pot for this, but I don't want to spend money on another appliance that will clutter up my kitchen, so a dutch oven on the stove worked fine for me.

4. Cheating with Dinner Kits
Sometimes a long-cooking recipe just isn't in the works. I confess that I buy the Old El Paso mexican dinner kits. We generally have ground turkey, salsa and cheese around; we buy canned beans in bulk at a warehouse club. Tonight we were both tired and used the Soft Taco Bake Kit to whip up what we call Mexican lasagne--ground turkey with mexican seasoning (and in this case cheese sauce product) layered with tortillas, salsa, and shredded monterey jack. Dinner was on the table within 30 minutes of my arrival home. It would be even cheaper, of course, if you thought ahead enough to have the tortillas and seasoning packets. I justify the additional expense by only buying the kits on sale.

5. Kielbasi and Rice
A former Cajun roommate turned me on to this instant, cheap and tasty dinner. Couldn't be easier, and around here the kielbasi is often on sale 2 for 1. Slice up a kielbasi. Toss it into a pot with a cut up onion, rice, and water. (2 parts water to 1 part rice). Bring to a boil, cover, simmer for 20 minutes. Instant cheap meal. (Add a salad or something green, of course.) Mr. Poorhouse likes to sautee the rice in butter first and add spices and bake the whole thing in an ovenproof skillet, and as tasty as his version is, it does add time (and calories!) We make this so often that my oldest begged me NOT to make it the other night! Leftovers make a nice rice 'n eggs dish in the morning.

6. Scottish Mince
A similar oldie but goodie comes from my grandmother's recipe file. Grammie wasn't a terrific cook, but she was a working mom, so she knew a thing or two about getting dinner on the table. Brown up some ground turkey, throw in a packet of Lipton Onion Recipe Soup & Dip Mix, a cup of water, 2 TBSP cornstarch. Cook until the sauce is thick. Serve with (gasp!) instant mashed potatoes. (Mashed potatoes is just one of those things I'm not that great at.) Goes well with peas if you like them.

7. A Lighter Meatloaf
Joan Lunden's Healthy Cooking has a recipe for meatloaf that we like. Mix ground turkey with onion and green pepper and seasonings (includes catsup and dry mustard) and probably an egg. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or so, then glaze with a mixture of catsup, dry mustard and brown sugar. Brown for 5 minutes. It is very juicy, so spoon the juices over.

8. Cereal for Dinner Night
A cheap relief for exhausted moms and dads. The kids get a kick out of it. We don't buy sugar bombs, so I feel like it's a reasonably healthy meal, especially served with sliced peaches or other fruit.

9. Let the Kids Cook
Granted this takes more patience than you might have at the end of the day, but a box of Annie's Shells & White Cheddar isn't beyond most school-age kids ability. (And yes, we do buy Kraft-Macaroni & Cheese more than Annie's Organic in these budgetarious times.) Plus a little benign neglect in parenting can develop life skills in the little monsters, um, I mean darlings. My daughter made a nice tuna salad the other day. It took twice as long, but, hey, now she knows how, right?

10. Scrounge-Through-the-Fridge night
One person has a hot dog (one won't kill him.) One has a leftover chicken breast. One has a yogurt. One has those nasty frozen appetizers that somebody bought on impulse at the warehouse club. Add a sliced up melon or some apples and call it a balanced meal.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Polly's Quick Tip: Curb Clutter and Conserve Cash

This post has been included in the 37th Carnival of Money Hacks at Living Almost Large.


Photo by Doug Wilson

A couple of years ago I took a crash course on cleaning and de-cluttering from the local recreation department.

My house is still a wreck, and I spend too much money, but I learned one valuable tip.

When shopping, especially at a big store like Target, Walmart, K-Mart or the like, leave the shopping cart at the front of the store. Get what you need and check out. Having to carry everything in your arms, or having to go back to the front of the store to get a shopping basket or cart may eliminate those impulse buys and keep the cr*p out of your house.

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