Carpet the Garden and Other Clever Reader Tips

NO MORE WEEDS. Some years ago we decided to set out 18 tomato plants and–wouldn’t you know it?–the area we chose for the garden was covered with millions of tiny weeds. Preparation of the soil appeared to be overwhelming. In a moment of amazing creativity, we decided to cover the area with an old piece of carpeting, weeds and all. We made 18 3-inch cross cuts, one for each plant. We lifted each cut, dug a hole beneath and set the plants. We had a very colorful tomato patch (the carpet was yellow), vigorous plant growth and gorgeous easy-to-harvest tomatoes. Even during dry months, our tomatoes grew and produced remarkable yields with hardly a weed. Since then we’ve used old carpeting for our strawberries, too. Dolores B., Illinois

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PAINTING TRICK. When tackling a painting job you may not be able to complete in one day, don’t waste all of the paint in the rollers and brushes by cleaning them. Simply wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in the freezer. The next day simply remove the wrap and you’ll be ready to pick up right where you left off. Catherine F., Washington

Chicken Labeling: Prepare to be Surprised

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If you’ve ever stood in the supermarket wondering if paying more for chicken that is free-range, antibiotic-free, no hormones added, farm-raised, natural, and organic, makes you a better person, you are not alone. 

Recently, as I was doubting myself on my chicken choices I decided to get to the bottom of what all of this really means. It’s not at all what I thought.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a cabinet-level agency that oversees the regulation of food-grade chicken and is responsible for the claims on packaging and labels. And despite all of the hype and fluff, there is only one label (“organic”) that guarantees specific standards and for which you might consider paying more. 

Briefly here is what all of it means–or doesn’t mean–according to the USDA.

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Free-Range. There is no specific definition for free-range. For sure it does not mean  “running free to forage for grubs and grain on acres of rolling green pastureland.”  The USDA generally allows this term if chickens have access to the outdoors for “at least part of the day,” which could mean a matter of a few minutes, whether that chicken chooses to go outdoors or not. A single open door at one end of a huge chicken warehouse meets this definition of free-range. Even so, fewer than 1 percent of chickens nationwide are raised as “free range.” 

When You’re Stuck and Can’t Get Going

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A question I receive nearly every day goes something like this: I’m ready to take back control of my finances. But how do I get started? It’s like I’m stuck.

Don’t think you are alone if you find yourself wanting to do all the steps at once. But that could be a big mistake. If you were building a house, you wouldn’t try to pour the foundation, raise the walls and put on the roof all at the same time. It’s the same with “building” a plan to manage your money. You need to take things one step at a time.

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First, you need to lay the foundation. I call this initial step “tracking.” You cannot manage what you cannot measure. 

Tracking means knowing exactly where every penny goes. If you bring home $793.42 this week, next week you should be able to account for every single cent. Where did that money go?

I suggest that you track on a daily basis. The only way to do that is to write it down. Every morning start with a fresh sheet of paper or note on your smartphone. Somehow, come up with a method that works for you. Throughout the day write as you spend any amount of money, write it down. You need to record just two things: How much did you spend and what did you spend it on? How much, what for. Got it?

Do this for at least 30 days (longer may be necessary if you are really in a financial fog). One sheet of paper or note per day. Then just stash them away into a safe place and start fresh the next day. Ideally both you and your spouse, partner or person with whom you share your finances should be tracking. 

Just One Pound Makes a Meal

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Last week I had the perfect opportunity to test a tip sent in by reader: “Before you pay full price for ground beef, look at other cuts of beef that might be on sale. If the price is better, ask the butcher to grind that roast or flank steak.” 

This particular day 80 percent lean ground beef was $4.99 a pound, but boneless London broil was $2.47. Wow! What a difference. I selected three London broil that had the best marbling and the butcher was more than happy to grind them and just like that I saved $2.47 a pound. When I got home I broke it down into six packages of about one pound each and froze them. 

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So, what can I do with a pound of ground beef? I can easily feed four to six people using the ground beef as an ingredient. 

Best Location for Potato Storage

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I don’t really have a mail bag but it would be fun if I did. What I do have is a file named EC_Mailbag. That’s where I save all of the questions and letters that you, my dear readers, send to me. I just don’t have the time to respond personally so I love it when once each week I get to respond to your questions here.

Dear Mary: I just read your past column on keeping produce fresh longer. You said to not refrigerate potatoes. Why not? I have been doing this for several years. Dee H.

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Dear Dee: When potatoes are stored below 40ºF the starch in them turns to sugar. This affects the taste and you will also notice that refrigerated potatoes turn an ugly brownish color when cooked. The ideal storage conditions for potatoes are a dark, cool, well-ventilated place like the lowest shelf in a pantry. Too much light makes potatoes turn green. If that happens or if they spout, you can still use them. Just cut off the green spots and the sprouts before you cook them. 

Next time you cruise the produce section at the supermarket notice how the potatoes are handled: Never refrigerated and kept perfectly dry.

Little Ways to Save Big

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Wash it yourself. Don’t assume you have to send certain items to the dry cleaner—it pays to look at the label. According to Procter & Gamble Global Fabric Care, 65 percent of dry-cleaned clothes are actually machine-washable. Unless the label says “Dry Clean Only,” follow the care directions listed. If you wash just two items you’d normally dry-clean, you’ll save at least $10 a month.

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Holding on to your hard-earned money is a lot tougher these days. Just when it looks like the economy is recovering, it takes another hit from rising prices. Add to that personal financial emergencies and fewer work hours on the homefront. All you can think about is how to shore up your cash. Embrace these simple changes and you’ll just might see a boost in your bank account.

Fabulous Household Cleaners You Can Make Yourself

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It pretty much kills me to spend money to pay for things I know I can make myself. Take cleaning products for example.  Knowing I can make specific cleaners for pennies that costs dollars at the store just makes me happy. It’s a no-brainer. In the past I’ve shared lots of my recipes with you Want to know how to do that? Here are three handy recipes to help you get started saving all that money you used to spend on household cleaners.

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Granite Cleaner. Countertops made from granite, marble and stone are tricky because these materials are porous and stain easily. You never want to clean them with anything  acidic, which means vinegar and lemon juice are both out. Here is a homemade granite cleaner that will not stain nor is it acidic. It works like a champ to clean and shine these natural counters. 

Pour 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol into a 16-oz. spray bottle. Add 3 drops (only 3) Dawn liquid dishwashing detergent, 5 to 10 drop essential oil (this is optional, but will add a nice fragrance) plus enough water to fill the bottle. Apply the spray top and shake to mix. You  can use this cleaner to clean and shine your appliances as well.

Cheapskate, Who Me?

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Some people think the word cheapskate is an insult. Not me. I enjoy being called a cheapskate. It reminds me that I’m not what I used to be: a credit-card junkie. There was a time I used plastic to fill the gap between my pathetic income and the life I so richly deserved. 

When my six-figure bridge collapsed, (yes, you can take that to mean more than $100,000 in non-mortgage debt) I had two choices: change my ways or lose everything. Knowing I wouldn’t do well with the latter, I opted for change. I could fill several books with all that happened and what I’ve learned (wait! I have), but I’ll cut to the chase. We didn’t go bankrupt, we paid back every penny and now I live to tell. Yeah, you can call me a cheapskate any day and I’ll take it as a compliment.

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So, you may be thinking, how did she do that?! I stopped spending every penny I had and all we hoped to have. Bottom line: I learned how to live on less than our income. A lot less. The steps are simple:

Rein in your brain. You have to stop believing you are entitled to have it all now and then pay, and pay, and pay for it later. The truth is you can’t have it all, but you can have enough.