Eight Things to Do With a Tax Refund

It’s easy to see a tax refund as some kind of gift from the universe. It’s not. It is a chunk of your annual income you should have been seeing all along in your paychecks. Plan now for how you’ll manage it, or your refund could easily evaporate into thin air!


1. Treat it like a paycheck. Give away 10 percent, save 10 percent and put the rest into your household account. This would be especially advisable if you are having trouble keeping up with your current financial obligations.

2. Stash it. Put it in your Contingency Fund or Freedom Account. Don’t think twice. Just get it into the bank quickly before you are tempted to pick out a new TV or book a vacation trip abroad. Money in the bank lets you back away from the “edge” in ways that buying more stuff cannot.

3. Open a Roth IRA. Talk with your bank or go to Vanguard.com to discover your options. Provided your Contingency Fund (a pool of money you keep in a safe place for serious emergencies) is well-funded and you are not drowning in credit-card debt, this may be the perfect opportunity for you to boost your retirement funding.


Leave a Fragrance, Not an Odor

I have something very cool to share with you today, but first a story. About my friend, Herta. It’s been quite a few years now since she and Al came to visit. In their graciously kind manner, they brought gifts. I thought I’d heard of everything, but one of these gifts left me wide-eyed and sputtering to find a good response, which I am not sure I did.


Privately, I concluded that this small, supremely elegant spray bottle that Herta was visibly so excited about must be something special in their country—to me it was it was oddly foreign.

The name on the bottle left me stuttering: Poo-Pourri Before-You-Go Toilet Spray. Herta took me into the powder room to demonstrate. “Look, you just spritz the surface of the toilet water before you go. It stops bathroom odors before they ever begin!” Herta was so excited to show me this fabulous new product. Me? I was like … whaaat?

I have to admit that I couldn’t wait to try it, and I did. You know what? It really works. The product is oily. When you spray Poo-Pourri into the toilet (before … not during or after), it sits on the surface of the water and creates a kind of sealant against, well …let’s just say it—fumes. It traps the odors, sending them down the drain, not out into the room. Get it?


Lessons We Can Learn from the Madoff Scandal

In my mind as a fifth-grader, Mr. James M. Migaki was the smartest man to have ever lived. Every day was special in Mr. Migaki’s class. He taught us the importance of learning history so we would never have to repeat its mistakes. He made that lesson real when he said that last year counted as history, and so did last month and last week.

Mr. Migaki said something is only a mistake if you can’t fix it. Sometimes he would let us re-take our tests to learn from history and fix our mistakes.


Speaking of lessons we can learn from things that went wrong in the past, how about that Bernie Madoff character? He’s the guy who, for decades, was ripping people off, claiming to be investing their fortunes, paying them inexplicable returns on their money, and all the while stealing from them blind with his $50 billion ponzi scheme. There are several important lessons that all of us need to learn for good. Following are my top five:

1. Know what you own. No matter what you have or the investments you own, make it your business to know what you own and where your money is. If your fund manager or broker cannot give you an explanation you can understand, that is not a reflection on you. It could be that person is more unsure than you are. Keep asking questions, keep researching, keep digging and don’t stop until you describe each of your assets and investments in 25 words or less.


Muffins and “Tulips” to Celebrate Spring

In just a bit I am going to give away all my secrets for how to make muffins that are so great your friends and family will call you a genius. But first, I want to show you what happened one Saturday morning as I was in the middle of making a fabulous—if I do say so myself—brunch.

I was all ready to fill the muffin cups with batter when I remembered that I’d used every last one of my cupcake paper liners. I was in no mood to go to the store. Muffin batter is not kind to those who do not move it quickly to the oven once the wet ingredients have been stirred in.

I wanted to kick myself because I’d planned to splurge and order these very nice Tulip Muffin Papers online …


… but at the last minute felt myself choking at the price: $6.95 plus $6.00 shipping for 24 elegant muffin/cupcake papers—about $.54 each.

How dumb would that be to spend twice the cost of the muffin just to bake it in a very cool looking throw away “paper?” Don’t answer. And don’t hate me when I tell you how much I wished that I’d ordered them anyway because at that moment I really needed them.


Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month

The title, Once a Month Cooking, made me laugh. Cook once a month? I didn’t need a book to do that. I needed the motivation to cook the other 29 days of the month, too!


I didn’t actually read that book until years later when I met up with co-author Mary Beth Lagerborg. I learned that “once-a-month cooking” is a method of preparing a month’s (or two weeks’) dinner entrees in one mega-cooking session, and then freezing them for use throughout the month.

While Mary Beth along with her co-author Mimi Wilson have developed a specific and thorough plan for preparing many meals at one time, any effort that results in preparing meals now to be used later has decided benefits:

1. Convenience. Having entrees in the freezer provides the convenience of take-out but with the aroma, appeal and taste of home cooking.

2. Simplification. Nothing unravels the seams of family time faster than having nothing on hand for dinner. Knowing dinner’s ready to go promotes household calm and peace. 


Readers Question HE Detergent, Flaxseed Oil and Dental Savings Plans

DEAR MARY: I have been making and using your concentrated laundry detergent for several years now and love saving money with it. But sometimes I end up with white chunky solids at the bottom of the container. Am I doing something wrong? Jean


DEAR JEAN: This “crystalization” that forms after awhile is perfectly normal and harmless. I usually go through a gallon of this concentrate so fast, that doesn’t have a chance to happen. But when it does, I use it up just as if it were still fully liquified. No harm, no foul. I find that if I shake it well each time I use it, the crystallization is less pronounced. If this is a huge problem for you, you could easily halve the recipe to make 1/2 gallon of liquid laundry detergent concentrate at a time.

And now, even though you did not ask but because others will, our homemade laundry detergent is HE compliant, meaning suitable for use in high-efficiency (HE) washing machines. It is completely sudsless which is required for use in low water volume machines, provided you are using a very small amount—2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup maximum. Remember it is highly concentrated.

DEAR MARY: I was totally shocked to read in your recent post, Cast Iron Skillets Making a Healthy Comeback, that the best oil to use to season a cast iron skillet is flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil has a smoke point of 225 F, after which the oil begins to produce harmful free radicals. What is author Ellen Brown’s reasoning for using flax seed oil? Debbie


A Shoemaker Can Save Your Sole—and More

To some people a cobbler is a lovely fruit dessert, best when served warm. To others it is a shoemaker who repairs shoes—an almost forgotten trade. And that’s changing. Suddenly, shoe repair is coming back. Big time.


Sales of luxury goods are down, but it’s a flush time for people who repair them. High-end cobblers, tailors and jewelers have seen a spike in repair business from frugal customers, thanks to a trend toward fixing goods rather than replacing them. We’re quickly moving from a disposable society to one that’s learning to mend and make do.

According to Randy Lipson, third-generation cobbler and owner of Cobblestone Shoe Repair in St. Louis, shoe repair shops nationwide (of which there are only about 7,500 remaining—down by half from a decade ago) are reporting a 20 to 45 percent surge in business. Things are beginning to shift as consumers are learning to make do. And for many, that means getting shoes that fit, fixed.

Not long ago I grabbed the opportunity to sit down with Randy and I learned a lot—not only about the value of repairing rather than replacing shoes, but also that a shoe repair shop does more than just repair shoes.


Beware of this Risk with Gift Cards

Gift cards have become the go-to gift for millions of people. They might seem like the perfect present because it’s so easy. You don’t have to put modicum of thought into the gift and generally a gift card it is well-received. Many people are happy to get them. Unless, of course, they get stuck holding cards from retailers or restaurants who file for bankruptcy—either full dissolution or reorganization—before they get a chance to redeem that gift card.


Millions of consumers holding gift cards for American Apparel, RadioShack, Wet Seal, Sports Authority, Sharper Image, Brookstone and others on the growing list of recently failed or financially ailing businesses need to pay attention to what follows.

Even though I am not a fan of gifts cards, in the past I have suggested that if you must buy one, you should choose a card issued by a retailer—not a bank-issued gift card—because generally retailer gift cards are free of expiration dates, annoying fees and other gotchas.

With worsening economic conditions, consumers should think twice about retailer-issued gift cards. Store-issued cards are not as good a deal as you’d think because of the danger of bankruptcy and or some other court-approved reorganization.

Never forget this: Gift cards are not the same as cash. When you buy a gift card you are purchasing store credit at that retailer. You may know something about store credit if you ever tried to return something only to have your refund denied for some technicality. Instead, the clerk offers you store credit in the same amount as a refund should have been. That’s exactly what a gift card is—store credit that can be used only at the store identified on that card.