Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Era of Hope

I cannot recall an inauguration that has gotten people so excited. A friend of mine is going to one of the many balls tonight and got a lot of help from her online friends in finding just the right dress and shoes. We've taken to calling her Cinderella.

My kids will be watching at school. My American colleagues in the UK will be going together to a bar to watch. My boss is expecting us to watch in the US office as well.

Soon-to-be President Obam: You've got yourself a tall order. A story on NPR last week was talking about a return to Keynesian economics--you know, economist who said No, actually, the market doesn't always work itself out--sometimes we need to kick start it.
Not everybody agrees, of course. It took World War II to pull the US out of the Great Depression.

But it seems to me that public works projects are a great idea until the economy gets itself sorted out. Everyone know our bridges and highways are crumbling. These are public goods that require public funds. If housing is overbuilt, let's put labor to work fixing that stuff. They'll make good wages, and maybe will be able to buy stuff, and maybe the retail sector will hire some people back, and maybe eventually people will be able to take out mortgages again, by which time the banks will figure out that they can make money the old fashioned way: by lending to people who have sound prospects.

Jobs, Mr. President-Elect, Jobs.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Let's Encourage Older Pilots to Retire--NOT!!

The airlines have been in trouble for a while. They've been cutting costs. They charge for services that used to be included like meals and luggage.

One of the cost cutting measures has been encouraging older (and more highly compensated) pilots to retire.

Here's an example of American Airlines' approach, this from the union side as reported by the Associated Press's David Koenig last summer:
The union also proposed that pilots who decide to retire get five years of credit toward age and length of service to increase their retirement benefits. The idea is that, by encouraging older pilots to retire, the jobs of younger ones might be saved.

When do you suppose American businesses will learn that, sometimes, it isn't the next quarter's results that matter, it's the health (and in this case safety) of the business in the long run that is important.
Aren't you glad that Chelsey Sullenberger didn't work for American and didn't decide to retire early?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Guardian Asks if Women are the VIctims of the Economic Downturn

Worth a read. Provocatively "What if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?"

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Knitting up a Winter Storm

I just learned to knit as part of a charity knitting project. Coats & Clark invited people to knit or crochet handmade scarves for participants in the Special Olympics World Games to be held in Idaho. A group of us managed to completed more than 30 scarves.

By the time we were done, the Special Olympics World Games announced that they had far exceeded the 5000 they were hoping for. A member at a ravelry.com, a knitting forum, reported that they had received 36 THOUSAND scarves and that the Post Office was having to send out special trucks to deliver them all. A volunteer reported that each athlete and volunteer would receive one..

Special Olympics Chapters all over the country have been contacted by knitters wondering what to do with the extra scarves that have been lovingly made, but not yet sent. Many of these chapters are holding their own regional winter games, and are delighted to have the donations.

I'm dumbstruck by the response. Maybe it means that people reallly want to find ways to give if only asked.

Gives me hope for the future.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

A resolution

Saying this publicly so I'll actually do it.

I'm going to work on my 2008 taxes this weekend.

Despite the fact that taxes now send me into a tailspin.

I will. I will.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chicken Confessions

The original Boston Market logo that was used ...Image via WikipediaWell, last night we finally ran out of our Omaha Steak's sampler that was my husband's Christmas gift from his boss. And we haven't actually done much grocery shopping for main dish material since the package (complete with dry ice--COOL) arrived.

I confess to stopping off at Boston Market for a family meal on the way home from work. The cool thing was that they were offering an additional whole chicken for !.99. Since I was going to buy the meal anyway, I said, "Sure."

And had a yummy chicken salad for lunch today.

Tomorrow--the supermarket.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bad News from the IRS this Week

Short version of the back story (which starts here if you want to follow the gore). I owe the IRS upwards of $20K. They wanted me to pay $300 a month. I can't afford to, so I requested a reduced payment of $200. They requested and I sent financial backup three separate times (plus some very cute birthday thank yous by mistake.)

I got a letter. They now say I can afford to pay $500 a month. They say they did not keep any of the previous documentation so I must resubmit all my backup for the past three months.

I'm just tired. And I can't think where this money is going to come from.


(The next installment of this soap opera is here.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Books on the Cheap

Photo by Ron Brinkmann

I've been a little obsessed lately by a book swapping site: PaperBackSwap.com (which, despite its name, accepts and delivers hardcovers too.)

Confessions here: I'm a bookaholic. I buy books, and then I don't read them. Or I do read them. But I never get rid of them. It got so bad that at one point we had a whole room filled with books. We called it "The Library," but the books had outgrown the wall-to-wall and floor to ceiling shelves and were also stacked all over to the point where you could not walk in the room.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Poorhouse and I decided to reclaim the Library and, GASP!, get rid of some books. "Some" books turned out to be 30 cartons of books, donated to the "Books for Africa" trailer at our town dump

I vowed not to let it get out of control again. I started using the public library. Which is, oh yeah, FREE!

So now I'm down to a stack of unread books on my nightstand and two shelves of unread books in a bookcase.

In a moment of weakness after Christmas I walked into a Borders and bought, new, 3 books (to the tune of $40.) Old addictions resurface, apparently.

So I was intrigued to discover these cool sites like , BookMooch, TitleSwap, frugalreader, bookcrossing, and of course ebay and Amazon, that will rehome your books.

I find it easier to part with books when I know they will be loved again.

So I came up with a modest list of books (PaperBackSwap.com requires that you post 10 books to be traded to get your first book credits) that I no longer wanted. It was pretty easy--I'm not a consultant anymore, so I started with my consultancy library.

The kids got in on the act and cleared out their own bookshelves once they understood they could get new-to-them books in exchange.

Posting that you have books available is as simple as typing in their ISBNs. Suddenly I had more than 70 books posted, and the requests for them came flying in. (I've since learned this is a newbie phenomenon, as outstanding wishlists from other members are processed against new members' "bookshelves".)

The deal is that you pay postage for the outgoing books. In my case, 11 of my books were requested right away. At about $2.50 a pop to mail, that was a little more than I was planning to spend right away, but I sent them off anyway. (The site provides a mailing wrapper for which you can even buy online postage--for a surcharge), which means no standing in line at the Post Office.)

This may not be the very best solution for me, as I still need to downsize my collection, and swapping means there are incoming books too. For books you don't intend to keep, your community library is still likely to be your best bargain.

But sometimes, having and holding a book is the right thing.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Complaining to the Phone Company Pays Off

I was pretty frustrated last week because my AT&T mobile phone wasn't working. I don't generally use it that much, but my sister was having her travel adventures (link), so she, my husband, and my stepmother were all trying to reach me.

I thought it was my fault, really. In the rush of the holidays, I had left my charger at work. (By the way, thanks so much, Mr. Poorhouse, for the spare charger I got for , and then a couple of snow storms meant that I worked at home more than I had planned. My family complained they couldn't reach me. My stepmother reported that she had gotten a "no longer in service" message. I figured it was because the phone wasn't charged.

I picked up the charger, charged the phone, and tried to use it occasionally throughout the week. Text messaging worked OK. I called directory assistance a couple of times. But when I tried to make phone calls, I'd get a weird phone tone and a message that only emergency services were available. I was busy and distracted and thought "Oops, maybe I didn't pay my bill again."

Except after the holiday was over and I had a minute, I looked it up, and I've been current for months. Plus Mr. Poorhouse's phone, which is on the same plan, was working fine throughout the week. I tried to call 611 (customer service) from the phone over the weekend, but everybody was home with their families.

By Monday morning when the offices were reopened, the phone was working. But I called to complain anyway. The rep could not have be nicer. She offered me a $50 "good faith" credit, and transferred me to tech support to see if there was a reason for the disruption. I admit that after 30 minutes on hold waiting to speak to a rep, I hung up.

But it just goes to show that if you aren't getting the services for which you pay a premium, it pays to squeak.

So despite my unhappiness with their deposit policy for a new line (link) AT&T's in the white hat camp again.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Dance of Refunds and Returns

A Bed Bath and Beyond store in Oxnard, California.Image via WikipediaMaybe it's just me, but this holiday season, we had a lot of gifts that need to be returned. Sure there were a couple of things that didn't fit or were duplicates, but I'm talking about stuff that just didn't work right.

Broken stuff included these gifts:

* A $70 electric guitar from KB Toys. The amp hums loudly and it doesn't play like any guitar I've ever heard. I'm filing complaints for this one, but the store is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and maintains that All Sales Final means "we can sell you any old carp and take your money and you can't do anything about it." We shall see about that.

* A $55 girl's parka from Kohls. The zipper broke on wearing #2.

* A $30 used DS Lite game from GameStop that doesn't work.

* A $5 butane lighter (like for a grill, not for a cigarette!) from Bed Bath & Beyond that just plain doesn't light.

So maybe this is just a case of "you get what you pay for." But I really didn't. And I aim to. We don't have $160 to just throw away.

Off to the dance hall.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Airline Agony

Photo by Erin and Lance Willett

After a wonderful week-long visit with my sister and niece, we bundled them off to the airport on Monday, where their nightmarish journey home began.

Let me just start by saying that she called to reconfirm their flight and that she arrived two hours early for her originating flight. The weather was in the 40s and clear--a relief after the two snowstorms they had braved on the way out.

An hour before their flight was scheduled to leave, we said goodbye at security. Three hours after that, she sent me a text message that they were still on the tarmac. I thought she meant at her connecting airport, but she was still in our city.

When she arrived at the connecting airport (where, incidentally, the weather was clear), she and her daughter sprinted from one end of the airport to another to try to catch their once-daily connection to the opposite coast city where they live.

They got to the gate. The jetbridge door was open, but there were no agents. They sped down the jetway. An attendant caught up. "Sorry, ma'am, the doors are closed."

After literally hours waiting in various lines, the airline customer service agents told them they would have to spend TWO days in their connecting city, because the flight the next day was oversold as well. The airline did not try to reroute them on other flights or other airlines. And, get this, they only offered them a voucher for one night's hotel stay (not in the city of the airport, buy the way, but in the middle of nowhere), though they would have to wait two nights for their flight. Huh? And the agent made a big deal about how this was special and no one else was getting vouchers. According to the agent, it is the passenger's responsibility to make sure they are in the gate area at least 10 minutes before boarding. Huh again? Even though my sister and niece were delayed on one of their own planes? (The delay was attributed to air traffic at the connecting city.)

After many mobile phone conferences, I suggested that the airline fly them back to where they started. If they were going to be stuck, why not with family? But no, that wasn't doable.

My sister is not a frequent traveller. So she didn't realize that there was no possibility that her luggage was also at the connection city. She went to baggage claim, called the hotel for which she had a voucher and was told, "Oh, we don't accept airline vouchers--I don't know why they keep sending us people."

By this time, my sister was tired and worried. She discovered that their bags were not at baggage claim, went to the agent, and, well, she started to cry. (I might have too at this point.) The baggage claim agent gave them toiletries kits to tide them over, called the airline manager, who called the hotel manager, who verified that the hotel in question DID accept their vouchers.

At 10 pm, they boarded a shuttle (filled with voucher recipients, by the way) to East Palookaville. By 11:30 pm, they were in their room.

In the meantime, our fairy stepmother (or she seems to be sometimes--see this story for an example--she had bankrolled the trip) had managed to call the travel agent who had made the reservation and get them on the next day's flight.

Tuesday, they boarded the last hotel shuttle for the airport at noon. Their flight was scheduled for 6pm. They didn't feel adventurous enough to go into the city, so the plan was to shop and try a Philly cheesesteak. Mmmmmm.

Photo by lil'bear

But I digress...

The flight was delayed (for non-weather related reasons) for 4.5 hours. They arrived home safely 30 hours after their scheduled arrival.

So what to do?

Here's what I suggested. Write a letter to US Airways. Describe the bad experiences in detail. (They had another missed flight on the outbound fight that again wasn't their fault and that connected through the same inept airport.) Send copies of the receipts for food. (Did I mention they were not offered meal vouchers?)

Cite Rule 240, which is a little-known rule left over from the days before airline deregulation quoting the airline's own policy of reimbursing passengers for trips that arrive more than 4 hours after their scheduled time. (They were scheduled to arrive at 9:40 pm Monday. They arrived at 3:30 am Wednesday. I think they qualify).

Some travel experts recommend that passengers travel with a printed copy of Rule 240 (there's a different one for each airline, and some are discontinuing them altogether), or, better, the airline's contract of carriage, which you can often get on their web site.

Request compensation. Airlines are much more likely to give a travel voucher for a free flight in response to a well-reasoned and civil letter than to an angry mob at the counter. My hope would be that they get two domestic travel vouchers and reimbursement for their meals.

My ten-year-old niece was a real trooper through the whole ordeal. But they were prepared. They had healthy snacks with them (nuts, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit). She had entertainment: two books, a Nintendo DS (but they packed the charger, so it didn't last the entire trip), and a book of travel activities.

Further Reading:
"Airlines' Rule 240: Myth or magic bullet?" by Christopher Elliott, Tribute Media Services

"Fights Cancelled, Delayed, and Rule 240,"
by Arlene Fleming, About.com

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Prepaid Mobile Phone: Accomplished

Photo by Woodley Wonderworks

Well, Prissy got her mobile phone for Christmas after all. When our family plan carrier, AT&T, told us we'd need a $300 deposit to sign her up for an additional $9.99/month line AND sign a two-year contract, we told them, "Thanks, but no thanks." (See my post about that here.)

Off to Circuit City for a $12.99 prepaid Tracfone. Activation was free and came with 20 free minutes--just enough for her to call all the numbers we're allowing her to call and get everyone's number in everyone's phone memory.

The package came with two chargers, a case, and a boatload of coupons for extending minutes. We've opted for the monthly plan of $9.99 for 50 minutes, which is about 20 cents/minute. The cheapest minutes come if you buy a 800 minute year-long service card, but it's money up front, and I'm still thinking we may switch her back to AT&T at the point they begin to be more reasonable about the deposit thing. (Or, more fairly, after I've had 6 months or more of on-time payment to them.)

I did find in my due diligence of review sites on the internet that people seem to either love Tracfone or hate them. Apparently their customer service leaves something to be desired. We shall see. For us, though, it was a cheap solution, and according to Andrew Lavellee in a Wall Street Journal article on the subject, not an uncommon decision in these tenuous times.

Further Reading:
"Things Your Cell Phone Company Won't Tell You," by Karen Datko, Smart Spending MSN MoneyBLog.
Hat tip to My Wealth Builder: Pre-Paid Phones Save Money

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Retail Rant

Photo by Paul Keleher

I just gotta ask this. What could possibly be so all-fired important that you have to go shopping on New Year's Day? It's a holiday. The people who work retail deserve a holiday too. Who decided that stores should be open on the first day of the year? What about spending time with friends and family?

Apparently this trend of adding yet another consumer holiday to the calendar started more than 20 years ago, when Macy's of all places, opened on New Year's Day for the first time.

What is wrong with everybody?

OK. I feel better now.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Good Luck and Good Eats for Holiday Meals on the Cheap Throughout the Year

Photo by Mike Licht

It occurred to me today that holiday meals are by nature frugal. Thanksgiving Turkey? Cheap. Potatoes and Apples for Latkes and Applesauce? Super Cheap. Black-eyed peas for Hoppin' John? Real cheap. Sweet Potatos? Dirt cheap.

We're a family of food traditions. Our holidays revolve around the menu. Let's have a look at the calendar:

New Year's Day: Hoppin' John

I was born in the south, but never really spent any time there. This is a tradition I picked up from Joy of Cookingrather than from a family practice, but we've done it for at least 10 years. The idea is that the more black-eyed peas you eat the better your luck will be for the year. So far it isn't working, at least financially, but it's hearty and at least it isn't setting us back to make it.

Valentine's Day: Red Velvet Cake and Sweetheart Cookies

My mom used to make this lovely cake, and it seem to be making a comeback. I got a yummy recipe from the New York Times a couple of years ago. It's even more fun made in heart-shaped pans, or, you can make a heart shape by using one square and one round pan. Cut the round layer in half so you have two half-circles, place the square in a diamond shape, and frost the half circles on the upper flat edges of the diamond. How romantic.

I got the cookie recipe from the February 2000 issue of Working Mother magazine. They're so popular that we sold them at a church bake sale one year and made a fortune for our local Childrens Hospital.

Sweetheart Cookies

1 large lemon
1 1/2 C (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 C confectioners' sugar
1 large egg
1 t vanilla extract
3 C all-purpose flour
1/2 t salt
Raspberry jam
additional confectioners' sugar

1. From lemon, grate 2 t rind and sqeeze 1 T juice; set aside. In large bowl of electric mixer on high speed, cream butter and sugar. Reduce speed to medium; beat in egg, vanilla, lemon rind, and juice. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour and salt; beat until blended. Divide dough into 2 pieces; cover each piece with plastic wrap and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. On lightly floured board with floured rolling pin, roll 1 piece of dough to 1/4-inch thickness. With 2 1/2-inch heart-shape cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as possible. Place 1/2 of the cookies on ungreased baking dishes (Note: I use Silpat liners.)With 1-inch heart-shape cutter, cut out centers from remaining cookies; place large cutout cookies and small heart centers on another ungreased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and rerolled scraps.

3. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes for large solid hearts, 10 minutes from cutouts and small hearts. Let cool on sheets for 3 minutes; transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

4. When cooled, turn large solid hearts over; spread bottom side with 1/2 t raspberry jam. Sift additional confectioners' sugar over tops of large cutout hearts; place on jam-topped hearts. Sift confectioners' sugar over small hearts. Store in airtight container; place wax paper between layers. Makes about 2 doz sandwich cookies.

Purim: The Unexpected Gift

On the bleakest day of winter each year, we are suprised by a gift from a friend sent through her temple. It is a small bag including grape juice, raisins, hamantaschen, and chocolate. I don't know much about the holiday, but it is a wonderful, thoughtful tradition. I've never made hamantaschen myself, but Faye Levy includes instructions in her wonderful book 1,000 Jewish Recipes.

St. Patrick's Day: Corned Beef

You don't have to be Irish to enjoy an annual corned beef, or better, New England Boiled Dinner (corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and beets). We never seem to have enough leftovers for Joy of Cooking'srecommended Corned Beef Hash.

Easter: Ham and Eggs Benedict
Though we love a Honeybaked Ham, they aren't cheap. The supermarket knock-offs are a good substitute. For breakfast we like to have Eggs Benedict. My mom's blender Hollandaise makes the timing easier, and eggs are always cheap. (This meal is not for the hard of arteries, though.)

Mom's Blender Hollandaise

Note: this makes enough for a big crowd and a week's work of vegetable toppings!

2 C butter
6 large egg yolks
4 T lemon juice
1/16 t cayenne
1 t salt

Melt butter in microwave. Mix other ingredients in blender. Slowly pour hot butter while blending until all butter is incoporated.

To use leftovers, spoon cold over hot food.

Passover: Matzoh Brie and Matzoh Ball Soup
We don't host a seder, although we love it when we are invited to one. But regardless, we are sure to have lots of eggs on hand for Matzoh Brie, a sort of Jewish French toast/scrambled eggs thing. Yum. Cheap. This is my sister-in-law's recipe. Her husband's family always served it with an additional soft boiled egg on the top, but we rarely do that. Enough is enough!

Matzoh Brie

2-3 C boiling water
2 matzohs per person
2 eggs per person
3 T butter flavored Crisco, butter, or margarine per batch
2-3 chopped onions
1 t kosher salt
1 additional egg per person (optional)

Break up matzoh into bite sized pieces in bowl that has a cover. Add boiling water to cover matzohs. Cover and let stand 10 minutes. Crack eggs into a bowl and mix. Drain excess water from matzoh. Add eggs into matzoh. Add salt and pepper and mix.

Saute onions in large skillet in fat until translucent. Mix egg mixture again and add to pan. Cook on medium low heat.

If serving with additional soft-boiled eggs, put additional eggs in pan with cold water. Bring to boil.

When matzoh mixture is brown on the bottom, turn over in sections. Cook on low until set and done.

For soft boiled eggs, after water is boiling, set timer for 1.5 minutes, then remove eggs to cold water. Serve soft boiled eggs over matzoh brie. (Just in case you needed additional cholesterol).

Matzoh Ball Soup

I can't explain why this soup is so delicious, but it is. It takes two days, but it's SO worth it. If you want it, go to The Boston Globe website, and do an archive search for Claire Rolbein Passover Soup. It requires a subscription or payment, but it's really good.

Memorial Day: BBQ
Mr. Poorhouse is such a barbecue gourmet, that I hate to mention burgers and dogs. But my favorite burger has cheese and spinach (that's right, spinach!) mixed in. Check out the recipe for "A Meal in a Burger" from another of my favorites: The New Basics Cookbook.

July 4: Lobster
Near where we live, lobster is cheapest in the summer. To save money, we vacation close to home. A splurge or two on lobsta in the rough is worth every buttery dribbley bite. Or, to save money, you can cook 'em at home.

Labor Day: BBQ 2
Mr. Poorhouse's barbecued whole chicken is to die for. It's especially good when you start with a free-range bird, but even though that is out of our budget for present a regular roaster is mighty tasty. He puts butter and spices under the skin, dry rubs spices all over the body, and grills for a couple of hours. Hmmmm.

Thanksgiving: Turkey and Potatoes

Brined the day before in a lined 5-gallon pail and BBQed on the grill, our turkeys are tender and delicious. And if you have leftovers, check out my previous post on using the bird that keeps on giving.

I have to include this Sweet Potato Casserole. The marshmallow versus anti-marshmallow debate is intense in my house. This is the only recipe with the nasty little white things I can stand. (I think it's the sherry!)

Two things I have always had trouble with are mashed potatoes and biscuits. My biscuits still come out like hockey pucks, but the recipe in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbookhas solved my mashed potato problem for good. It also includes a fabulous scalloped potato recipe.

Hannukah: Latkes and Applesauce
My sister-in-law is a great cook, but when it comes to communicating recipes, she's hopeless, so I rely on Faye Levyagain for this one. I make her French Applesauce from scratch too. Scrumptious.

Christmas: Whatever
My mom refused to cook on Christmas, so we always had elaborate cold cuts we wouldn't normally have: boiled tongue, smoked oysters, and such. So strangely, our Christmas meal is the one where we have the weakest tradition. This year it was the tough roast, last year, a turkey. We've had also had cornish hens and spiral hams.

Happy Eating in 2009!

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