My Hate-Love Relationship with a Skillet

I really don’t know where I got the thing. It may have been a wedding gift. What I know is that I tried to use that cast iron skillet without success and I mean not even a little bit.

Food would become hopelessly stuck to it and burned beyond recognition. If it wasn’t turning out charred fare, it was growing a fine coat of rust.

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photo credit: WestChesterCycles c/o Flickr

In the interest of full disclosure, these shots above are not of my skillet. They are an apt depiction. Mine looked like all of the above. At the time, I wasn’t photographing my culinary disasters with hopes that one day I could share them with you.

Things got so bad, one day I threw that skillet and its sorry charred contents into the trash. What followed what a case of guilt that prompted me to dig it out, chiseled it down, put it through the dishwasher (the worst thing ever for cast iron) then banish it to the back of a closet.

Years later—OK decades—I pulled that skillet out of detention. I’d been learning that cast iron skillets are highly revered by experienced cooks. I was determined to take on the challenge of cast iron. I am proud to say I won that battle.

This skillet pictured below—now more than 40 years old—is the skillet I abused and which abused me right back. It has become one of my most prized possessions. All is forgiven and now my skillet and I have quite a thing going on.

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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.

Family-Friendly Finger Foods

Are trips through the closest fast-food joint driving a hole through your food budget? It’s no wonder. Prices on all foods seem to be sky-rocketing, but fast food takes that prize. Yikes!

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Unlike supermarkets where every week you can find fabulous sales, you’ll never find sales at Wendy’s, McDonalds or Burger King. Or any other fast-food restaurant for that matter. I don’t consider an occasional coupon to be a Sale.

I know what you’re thinking: Chicken. Chicken Nuggets, Chicken Fingers, Chicken Sandwiches—they’re all so tasty from these places, so convenient and so kid-friendly.

Just consider this: In less time than it takes you to get into the car and drive to the closest drive-thru, you can make your own fast-food chicken fare—for half the price, or less. In fact, you can make a fabulous coating mix to mimic the best coated chicken you’ve ever eaten, in five minutes flat. And if that’s not enough, you’ll get three bonuses for your effort:

Try This Old Restaurant Cleaning Trick

Ever leave the coffee pot on overnight only to wake to a blackened, burnt on mess? Can’t get rid of the gunky build-up in your favorite carafe or thermos—stuff you can see, but not reach? Don’t toss them out before you try a cool trick to get them sparkling clean.

Photo credit: milkallergymom.com

Photo credit: milkallergymom.com

Dear Mary: I have a big stainless coffee thermos. The opening makes it impossible to get in and clean. I have tried baking soda and vinegar, but that hasn’t worked to dissolve and remove the build-up of coffee stains. I can look in and see stuff I’d rather not see. How can I clean inside my thermos? Karen

Dear Karen: I have the perfect solution: Ice and salt. Fill the thermos about 1/4 full of pieces of ice just small enough to fit through the opening. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of ordinary table salt depending on the size of the thermos. Apply the lid. Now shake it up, baby! Swirl it round and round, first clockwise then counter clockwise; upside down, up and down. The salt will begin to melt the ice allowing the pieces to move freely. You’ll get a good workout, too.

The salt acts like little non-abrasive sanding blocks. You may have to do this for a few minutes if you have a nasty build-up, repeating as necessary. Rinse well with cool water. This old restaurant trick works with glass coffee carafes and glass-line thermoses, too. It‘s so much fun I almost look forward to a burned on mess in the bottom of our office coffee pot so I can amuse and amaze the staff.

Dear Mary: My husband contributes 8 percent to his employer’s 401(k) plan. Would it be wise to temporarily stop that contribution in that we have about $50,000 unsecured debt? Debbie

Dear Debbie: Yes, but only until your unsecured debts are paid. Putting your hard-earned money at risk is while you are carrying high-interest consumer debt is not wise. No matter how you cut it, money in a 401(k) is at risk. But investing in your debt carries no risk and offers a guaranteed rate of return. Here’s how that works:

Let’s say you have a $10,000 revolving credit card balance at 18% interest. Each month you are paying $150 in interest ($10,000 x 18% / 12 = $150). Great Aunt Gertie dies and leaves you $10,000. You can either pay off the debt or invest the money. Let’s say you invest it.

Things don’t go well and you lose some or all of it in the stock market. You still owe that $10,000 on the credit card and you’re still paying $150 interest each month. Now let’s say you go the other way and use the money to repay the debt in full. Every month you get to keep the $150 you were sending to the credit card company. That is your guaranteed 18% return on the $10,000 “investment” you made in your debt. It’s a sure thing regardless what happens with the economy. Now that’s a good deal! Caution: Even though you stop making contributions for a season, do not cash in his 40l(k) account. The penalties and tax consequence are too severe.

Dear Mary: It takes about two weeks after I mail my mortgage payment for the check to clear my bank. My sister says my lender is making me pay more interest by delaying depositing my check. Is it true? Mary S.

Dear Mary S: No. Your sister may be confusing your mortgage, which is a “closed-end contract” with an open-end contract like a credit-card account. The law treats the two differently. A closed-end contract has a fixed payment schedule. The interest portion of your monthly mortgage payment is the same whether you pay it early or at the last minute. A credit-card or revolving open-end contract works differently. Making your payment early allows more of it to go to the principal because interest is figured on the average daily balance. Federal law stated in “The Fair Credit Billing Act” requires open-end lenders to credit all payments on the date they’re received, unless no extra charges would result if they failed to do so. But with your mortgage payment it doesn’t matter on which day during the month it is processed, provided of course it gets there by the due date.

Hope that helps!

Cucumbers in Plastic Wrap, and More Great Reader Tips!

I think it’s universally understood that a red flag means stop or some variation of caution. A green flag, on the other hand means, “Wow what a great idea!” That’s how I mark email from my awesome Everyday Cheapskate readers who send me their best tips. Check out this fresh batch of “green-flagged” tips:

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SAVE A CUKE. You know how the expensive English cucumbers at the store are wrapped in plastic? The guys at Cooks Illustrated tested wrapping regular uncut and cut cucumbers in plastic wrap. Both work and amazingly to allow you to keep a cucumber fresh for up to a week! Jessica

LAST MINUTE SEARCH. Before you buy something online do a general search on the Internet for the item you want. You can often save a lot. For example, I recently was shopping online for a new headboard for my bed. After much searching I found the exact one I wanted for $499. Just to see what would happen, I typed the name of the item into my Internet search engine and found exactly the same item on another site for half the price. I’m glad I searched. What a savings. Caitlin

So You Think You Can’t Save?

According to Moody Analytics, young Americans have stopped saving money and by young we are talking about adults under age 35—the so-called millennial generation. That compares with a positive savings rate of about 3 percent for those age 35 to 44; 6 percent for those 45 to 54, and 13 percent for those 55 and older.

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Take a minute to find yourself in that statistical lineup. Are you behind or ahead in the savings game? If you aren’t saving you need to be. And if you are? You need to save more.

Here are five of my favorite almost-painless ways that any determined person really can spend less to save more.

Become your favorite creditor. Take an envelope and write your name and the amount you intend to save from each paycheck and place it in the front of your “Bills to Pay” file. Make this the first bill you pay each month. If you use online bill pay, add your savings account as the number one creditor—the most important bill that is paid automatically each month.

Stash a C-note. Crash-save until you have enough in coins and currency to exchange for a crisp, new $100 bill. Stash it into a very safe place known only to you. Whenever you get the urge to purchase something or feel overcome by a case of the “I wants,” tell yourself, OK, but you’ll need to go home and get that $100 bill. For some reason, the urge will pass quickly. Knowing you can if you want but you choose not to has a wonderful preventive effect. You are going to amazed.

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.

The Other Gift-Giving Season

Most of us think of December as the big gift-giving season of the year. But there is another and it is right now. Don’t believe me? Check your mailbox.

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Undoubtedly, you’ll see graduation announcements, invitations to baby showers, bridal showers and loads of wedding invitations, too. Add to that Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Easter and you’ll know why spring has become the other gift-giving season. Ka-ching!

It’s time to get creative. I’ll bet you’re not at all surprised to know that I have a few ideas to get you going.

HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE GRADS

Laundry kit: a mesh laundry bag, detergent, dryer sheets, lots of quarters and directions on “How to Do Laundry.”

Mug with instant coffee, hot chocolate, tea and cookies.

Paper money. Get creative with the presentation. Google origami money for instructions on how to fold bills into creative shapes.

Container of coins good for laundry, vending machines or coffee.