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Foods in Which We Find Comfort … Ahhhh!

I was shocked out of my mind when I learned the origin of two of my all-time favorite comfort foods—rice pudding and bread pudding. Can you believe it, both were born out of, well—let’s just be straight up about it—poverty.

It was during the Great Depression that clever cooks who preferred to feed their families than let them starve, came up with the idea of making a special treat from the lowliest of ingredients—leftover rice and dry, stale bread. How clever.

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But even more amazing to me, both have become respectable—even gourmet—food items. Take the White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Orange Cognac Sauce at Ruth’s Chris Steak House or Rice Pudding with Caramel Sauce at L’Ami Jean in Paris. Oh my, both are to die for. Certainly not offerings that comes from anything close to poverty but inspiration to make gourmet versions of both—at home!

For the Love of a Good Iron

While it’s true that life is uncertain, there’s at least one thing of which I am very sure: I will never be held hostage for refusing to iron.

Unlike Mrs. Tyrrell whose son Robert held her at gunpoint for six hours because she refused to iron his clothes, I love to iron. I’m not saying that I would be that thrilled to do it for a 29-year old son who refused to leave home, but I would do it.

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I know that my love for ironing is a little odd. It’s just that I find the process to be soul soothing. It gives me instant gratification. I love the sound of a good surge of steam over an ample ironing board that is positioned in good, natural light. More than that, l love ironing for the fact that it helped me get out of debt. I’m not kidding.

Years ago when I came to terms with the fact that I have a serious shopping problem, I sat down one day to analyze it. I figured out that I just love the emotional sensation of buying stuff. And being able to get the feeling even though I didn’t have any money (buying stuff on credit made me feel like I had money) was a kind of emotional high that defied description. I loved the feeling and I wanted to repeat it as often as possible.

I’m no therapist, but I figured that if I could find something less damaging that would produce a feeling at least equal to my shopping rush—and was easily accessible on a moment’s notice—maybe I could use it to modify my behavior.  I knew in a heartbeat what that activity would be. Ironing.

Giving myself permission to iron whenever I got a sudden urge to respond to an infomercial or head for the mall (this was somewhat prior to the advent of online shopping) was like giving a kid the key to a candy store. And you wonder why I didn’t tell a soul about this for so many years? Because I feared they would think I’m nuts the way you’re thinking right now.

My secret plan worked. And better than I could have ever imagined. I didn’t realize how quickly my urge to spend would vanish once I could successfully distract myself.

Over the years my ironing has taken on a more serious tone. I have possibly the world’s finest home ironing system for which I make no apologies. It was pricey, granted. But compared to multiple sessions with a therapist, untold thousands in credit-card debt or the heartbreak of divorce, my venerable and rather noisy IronMaven has turned out to be quite a  bargain.

The fringe benefits are myriad. I have all but eliminated dry cleaning bills from my life. I realized that I can hand wash just about anything that would normally be dry cleaned. What I was paying for in the past was the professional press. I can do that myself now and I get to enjoy doing it, too. My husband’s clothes, even his jeans, are always freshly ironed. Guests in my home sleep on fine, ironed linens.

There are some who might believe I’ve just traded one obsession for another. Could be. But I’m happy with the results.

And I never fear being held hostage for lack of a good iron.

(While my old IronMaven is no longer available, in a recent column I responded to a reader asking for the best inexpensive steam iron out there. I responded with three options—best inexpensive, best of the best and best steam station in “Three Best Steam Irons,” together with my brief reviews and best prices.)

With Apologies to Pawn Shops Everywhere

In the wake of America’s big economic wake-up call back in 2008, dollar stores and thrift stores have seen a big resurgence. And now another kind of retail quasi-lender is commanding all kinds of attention from sellers and buyers, too: pawn shops.

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I admit to having grown up with a weird bias against pawn shops. To me pawn shops were just one level above Vinny the Loan Shark operating illegally in some dark alley in the bad part of town just waiting to break some knees. Where did that come from? I have no idea really, but let me quickly follow by saying it is a most faulty stereotype. Pawn shops are respectable businesses that offer a viable service in many communities. And these days business is booming.

A pawn shop, owned and operated by a pawn broker, makes secured loans on personal property left as collateral. The property can be redeemed by the customer when the loan plus interest is repaid. Think: secured loans.

10 Things to Know About Lestoil

Ever had the occasion to wonder where you’ve been all your life? That’s my reaction to a simple heavy-duty cleaning product, Lestoil. Apparently, it’s been manufactured right here in the U.S.A. for more than 80 years—and loved by many. Curiously, I’d never heard of it until just a few months ago.

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On the off chance you, too, are not familiar with the powerful cleaner of all things hopelessly stained, here are 10 things you will enjoy knowing.

1. Lestoil is a heavy-duty multi-purpose household cleaner that can be used full-strength on stains—especially really difficult stains; the kind of stains you just give up on like ink, toner, grease, oil, scuff marks, blood, lipstick, nail polish, paint, grass stains, coffee stains, crayon and marker stains on every surface you can imagine—even the sticky stuff left behind by stickers and labels.

2. Lestoil has been around since 1933. While I have not been around quite that long, this makes me wonder where I have been since I’ve only learned about Lestoil in the past few months.

3. Lestoil has removed every old stain I’d given up on as well as every new stain I’ve acquired since the two of us met—on clothing, carpet, concrete and all kinds of patio furniture including molded plastic. It removed black stains that accumulated on outdoor furniture covers. It made short order of some ugly stains on cultured stone. It removed that gross, sticky residue that shows up on vinyl and plastic, restoring it back to its former glory. So far, Lestoil has worked on everything I’ve tried.

4. Lestoil contains, among other things, sodium tallate, which is a type of soap. This means that once the job is done, it must rinsed out, washed off or otherwise removed to make sure the item being treated doesn’t retain a residue that will attract a new stain.

How I Inadvertently Saved the Day for One Historic San Francisco Hotel

In the two decades since founding Debt-Proof Living (formerly Cheapskate Monthly), I’ve logged more than 1.5 million air miles for book tours, speaking events and television and radio shows. It’s been and continues to be great fun and I have mostly loved every moment.

As you might imagine, many funny things have happened to me on my travels. But none can top what happened in San Francisco.

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The year was 1998. I was in San Francisco to appear on a local television show. The producer had asked me to bring props that would create some visual interest as I would be demonstrating some of the great tips I’d been publishing in my monthly newsletter.

I arrived the evening before and checked into one of San Francisco’s finest historic downtown hotels before taking a cab to a local grocery store to pick up the props I would need for the show. I wanted the biggest sizes I could find of things like baking soda and white vinegar. I figured that would be easier than trying to carry all of that on the plane.

Knowing I would need only visual representations, I decided to empty all of the containers in order to lighten my load and make the trip to the studio the following day a bit more manageable. After all, I only needed the containers, not the contents.

Despite the fact that I would be wasting a lot of perfectly good stuff, in the interest of convenience and ease, I dumped the large box of baking soda into the toilet and flushed. A few minutes later, I poured a gallon of white vinegar down the toilet and flushed again.

4 Big Money Mistakes to Avoid

I’m going to guess you’ve made a financial mistake or two in your life. Who hasn’t? For some of us, it was more than an occasional late fee or random urge to overspend that brought us to our financial knees. But I’m not talking about the kind of blunders that got us into trouble—we could list those in our sleep. Instead, I want to focus on the mistakes people make while they’re working their way back to financial health.

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Whether you’re recovering from a season of unemployment or from a financial mess you created on your own, avoid these goofs and you’ll get where you want to go much faster.

1. Not saving. You’ve heard this plenty, and here it comes again: Jump to the front of the line—ahead of your creditors—when you divvy up your paycheck. Get over feeling guilty about keeping money for yourself.

You’ll need enough in your fund to pay all your bills for at least six months. But don’t let that big number discourage you. Start by saving enough to live on for two weeks, then up it to one month, and so on until you reach goal.

Put your savings on autopilot—you won’t miss what you don’t see. Commit to saving 10 percent of every paycheck. If you can’t start there, start with 2 percent. Then in a few weeks, change it to 5 percent, then 7 and so forth until you reach at least 10 percent.

2. Paying for college. If you must make a choice between adequately funding your own retirement and paying for your kids’ college education, put retirement first. The best gift you can give your kids is to make sure you won’t become a financial burden to them in your sunset years.

Kids have far more options for funding their college education than you have for your retirement. They’ve got scholarships, grants, financial aid, student loans, work-study programs and the not-to-be-forgotten method of working their way through college. Once your own future is secure and you’re out of debt, that’s when you’re in a position to help pay for education.

How to Splurge on a Budget

I got the biggest shock of my life the day I realized that living on a budget wasn’t the straitjacket or rigid “diet” I assumed it would be. In fact, it was my life as a credit-card junkie that put me in financial bondage.

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A budget saved my life because it allowed me to get out of debt. It gave me back my freedom. Want to know my secret for staying on a budget for so many years? I splurge. Seriously. And I do not feel guilty. I love nice things and I love to travel.

How to Live on a Budget and Love It

For many years I wouldn’t have anything to do with a budget because I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone—or anything—telling me how to spend my money. And where did that get me? Into one big financial mess.

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Every month, when I ran out of money, I would turn to MasterCard and Visa for a bailout. Really bad idea.

What I learned from going through that experience and finding my way back to solvency is that, as much as we may loathe it, a budget is the ticket to financial happiness―not the straitjacket I feared it would be. I’ve come to prefer to call this a “spending plan” rather than a  budget, but honestly, the terms are interchangeable. It’s just a way to pre-spend your income on paper first.

A good spending plan gives every dollar a specific job to do. Once you have it just the way you want it, the plan becomes a handy road map for keeping your finances on track.

So, take a deep breath and let’s walk through the basics of creating a simple budget, or spending plan.

Step 1: Write down your total take-home monthly income. This is the easy part. Jot down what you earn. Because many expenses are billed monthly, it makes good sense to use monthly income to create your budget.

Step 2: Write down your fixed expenses. Start with fixed bills like rent, mortgage, car payment, credit-card debt and insurance, then factor in other monthly costs that are always the same. These are your essential fixed expenses.

Step 3: List your variable expenses. You know you’ll have these bills, but the amounts vary. Examples are your phone, utilities, food, household expenses, gasoline, medication, public transportation, shoes and clothing. You can assign an estimated amount to each based on past experience, rounding to the closest $10.

Step 4: List reasonable amounts for nonessential expenses. This includes entertainment, eating out, hobbies and other ways you spend money on a regular basis.

Step 5: Find the extras. Go to your checkbook register, credit card statements, Quicken reports or what have you, to see what expenses you’ve left out. You’ll likely see items for car maintenance and repair, gifts, vacations, Christmas and holidays. For items that do not recur monthly, determine the annual cost, then divide by 12 to see how much you should set aside each month to anticipate that irregular expense.

Step 6: Figure out your totals. Add up your expenses, then subtract that amount from your income. Ideally, you’ll come out in the black, with at least a little money left over. But if your expenses exceed your income, you’ll see a negative sum. Don’t panic—this is just the start of an ongoing process.

Step 7: See where you can cut. If you came up short, go back to your monthly expenses and see what you can get rid of. Look first to your nonessential expenses. Which items can you remove altogether for a while (eating out seems like a fine target; perhaps hobby expenses, for a season)? Keep going through the list, making adjustments until your total expenses are less than your income.

Step 8: Follow your spending plan as closely as possible. Track your spending every day. Take notes and research ways you’ll be able to do even better next month. At month’s end, add up your actual spending and compare it with what you planned. Use this information to create the next month’s Spending Plan.

Even if you find yourself in a particularly tight financial position right now, take heart. As you pay off debts and find more ways to cut expenses, you’ll begin to sense a significant loosening of financial pressure. Soon you’ll be ready to add new categories to your spending plan for things like saving for a new car, home improvements or going back to college.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be on your way to reaching financial freedom.