Online Shopping Safety Tips

As convenient as Internet shopping can be (stores never close, no parking problems, no cranky salespeople), there are as many hazards. There are many good buys online, it’s easy to assume that everything is a good buy.  The simplicity of online shopping can blind us to potential pitfalls.

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The way to become a savvy online shopper is to know how to avoid these hazards:

Hidden costs. The quoted price may not be the full price. It may not include applicable sales tax (varies by state and merchant) or the costs of shipping and handling. “Handling” can include just about anything that merchant wants to charge for the box, packing materials, tape and labor to put all of that together. The cost of shipping can vary greatly depending on the carrier and speed of delivery.

Unscrupulous merchants. There are millions of online merchants online including some with no scruples. The way to avoid this hazard is to know your merchant. Stick with merchants you recognize because they have brick and mortar stores. Read the reviews others have posted regarding their experiences with that merchant.

The Secret in the Frosting

I don’t like surprises. I’m sure that says something about my propensity to be a control freak. I prefer to think it’s because I love the anticipation. To me, that’s half the fun. 

But a secret? Oh, yes! I love a good secret. Like this one about how to make whipped cream frosting that actually holds up, tastes fresh and looks gorgeous for a couple of days. You want to know the secret, too, don’t you. I didn’t pinky promise to not tell, so just keep reading and you’ll find it in today’s first great reader tip.

Cake with icing and cherries

photo credit: justgrandeko.blogspot.com

SECRET INGREDIENT. Using real whipping cream to ice a cake can be a hassle when it runs and separates. The way to stop this is to blend one teaspoon of dry instant vanilla pudding mix per one cup of cream before whipping, then whip it to a firm consistency and add sugar to taste. This mixture can be piped or spread on any cake and sets up to last for days in the fridge.

My family favorite is to use two round white cake layers. Pipe or spread a ring of cream on the edge of the bottom layer then spoon cherry pie filling in the center. The ring of cream helps the filling to stay in the center of the cake. Top with the second layer. Put a ring of cream rosettes or small spoons of cream closely together around the top edge and use more cherry filling to fill the top center. The sides can be piped or spread with the cream.  This can also be made a day ahead and looks just as beautiful. Kerri

The Case of the Stinky Coffeemaker

Got a resistant odor in your kitchen that you just can’t identify? Or locate the source? Hmmmm. When did you last de-grunge your coffeemaker?

photo credit coffeedetective.com

photo credit coffeedetective.com

Our good friends at NokOut.com tell me that coffeemakers need to be cleaned at least monthly to remove hard water deposits, leftover coffee oils that become rancid and other impurities. The oils in coffee collect, spoil and form bacteria when allowed to lurk inside that appliance.

This means I am about 10 years behind. Sure, I run a carafe of white vinegar through my coffeemaker from time to time (read: maybe once a year), but that’s about it. Whoops.

I’m learning that vinegar alone won’t do a good job of deeply disinfecting the appliance. But I’m not comfortable with pouring bleach into my coffeemaker, either. Nok-Out is the perfect solution because it is non-toxic and completely safe to use in the kitchen, around kids and pets, too.

This is how to do a proper cleaning, disinfecting and deodorizing with Nok-Out: Spray the coffeemaker inside, outside―and all over with Nok-Out. Allow to sit for up to 10 minutes. (You could use this time to disinfect the rest of your kitchen while Nok-Out is doing its magic on the coffeemaker. Have you looked deeply inside your refrigerator, lately? Yikes.)

Would You Rather Stick a Fork in Your Eye or Talk About Budgets?

For lots of people, just thinking the word “budget” is like nails on a chalkboard. I know the feeling.

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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.

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 prefer to call this a “spending plan” rather than a  budget, but honestly, the terms are interchangeable.

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.

The Perfect Small Gift: Pie in a Jar

Over the years I’ve written about dozens of ideas and instructions for how to make every kind of “Gift in a Jar” imaginable (collected into one place here). I thought we’d exhausted the topic. Well, I was wrong. Look what I made.

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These are single-serving Mini Pumpkin Pies in a Jar. I got this great idea from our friends at Our Best Bites. And yes, I’m talking about making, baking, serving and even gifting homemade pies in half-pint (8-oz) canning jars.

Photo Credit: Our Best Bites

Photo Credit: Our Best Bites

I’ve experimented with all kinds of pies and so far, every variety has turned out great. Traditional pie recipes translate easily to these little cuties.  I’ve made double-crust jar pies with crumb topping, even cream pies. I’ve frozen them unbaked and baked them weeks later. I’ve baked them, then applied the lids and frozen them for later.  I’ve given them for hostess gifts, birthday gifts and Christmas gifts, too. These pies are just as adorably cute as they are delicious and practical!

Making Mini Pies in a Jar is easy as pie! You will need clean, sterile oven-proof jars (like Kerr or Mason), crust and filling. Half-pint jars come in various shapes. For these pies, you will want the short, squat, straight side, wide-mouth variety, like these available on Amazon

Once baked, cooled jar pies are ready to have their little lids and rings applied, then embellished for gift-giving. Or get your pies ready for the oven, then apply the lids and rings and freeze them instead. Then you can bake one at a time or as many as fresh pies as you need.

Readers’ Tips Come with More than Just Great Ideas

The only thing I love more than great tips from my readers is the lovely words of love and thanks. Yeah, I’m a sucker for friendship and I value that more than you know.

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Just knowing that so many friends are reading these columns every day keeps me going. So whatever you do, keep those tips, great ideas and questions coming.

FREEZE MILK FOR LATER. I use whole milk, but only occasionally in some of my special recipes. Earlier this last year instead of purchasing the smaller size milk container for that one recipe, I purchased the gallon-size whole milk which is much cheaper per ounce. I froze what I didn’t need in 1 cup measurements in freezer bags. I am surprised how many times during the year this saved me from purchasing yet again a smaller size milk container for that one recipe.

I am so grateful for your daily emails–they have helped keep me on the right track. Thank you. Linda

SAFE TAKE-APART. I am a retired soldier. During my active career, we moved often. That meant my inner DIY needed to come out often. We disassembled many things over the years and I would like to add to your tips on taking things apart. Once the item is disassemble, always reposition the fasteners, screws or bolts and nuts back into the holes, exactly where they were. You are not putting the item back together, simply inserting the hardware into the specific slots and holes.

Packing all of these items into a zip-type plastic bag sounds like a good idea, but unless you very securely tape the little bag to the back of the item you took apart, the bag always seems to get lost some way or another.

Putting the fasteners back where they were means they will always be in the right place when and where you need them!

Now that we have retired, we still have some things disassembled in our shed for storage, and the fasteners are back in their spots waiting to be used in the reassembly, without hunting for them. Colonel T.W.

Dreaming of an Organized Garage

I really like an organized home. When things get all chaotic and messy, I find that my mind kinda’ gets that way, too. But when everything has a place—and everything is in its place—I feel a sense of peace. I can think straight, relax and enjoy.

Some rights reserved: Rubbermaid

Some rights reserved: Rubbermaid Fast Track

I really like an organized garage, too. At least I’ve enjoyed the pictures I’ve seen of garages that function in all the ways that garages are supposed to. Let’s just say I haven’t experienced this first hand.

Faithful readers know that my husband is a woodworker—a master craftsman. He remodels our homes, designs and builds heirloom furniture. This amazing talent does come with unintended consequences. Let’s just say the man does not possess a single iota of organizational talent. I’ll leave it there, although I could offer several pictures examples to illustrate my point.

For 27 years we had a two-car garage, also known as the hubs’ workshop—and for the record, there was no space in this garage for a vehicle of any size.

How to Afford the Big Stuff

You don’t need me to tell you that we’re living in uncertain economic times.

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One day stocks are plummeting and home foreclosures are skyrocketing, the next day things seem to be looking up.

But whether the economy is good or bad, expenses keep rising. There’s the mortgage and the car payments to deal with and all of your other necessary expenses.

But what about the big ticket items? Something like a busted water heater often hits without warning and with the potential to blow a giant hole in your finances.

The secret for handling a big money decision isn’t to grab the credit cards. Instead, you need to anticipate these expenses, divide them into manageable pieces and make them as routine as paying the phone bill. Here’s how it works:

Define the goal. The first and biggest step is to figure out what your next big money decision will be. You may not be aware you have any, but the truth is you have several to choose from. Do you think big medical expenses could arise in the next several months? Is your car beginning to show its age?