Simple Ways to Wake Up a Cake Mix

If I didn’t know better I’d swear that boxed cake mixes reproduce in the dark of night on the shelves of my pantry. One day I counted 18 boxes of cake mix.

Chocolate Cake

Here’s how that works: Cake mixes go on sale routinely. One week it will be Duncan Hines, then Pillsbury takes its turn and so on. The typical sale price for a cake mix is typically $1.50 or less. I hold onto my cake mix coupons until that particular brand goes on sale. With a $.75 or even $1 off coupon, rarely do I pay more than $.50 for a cake mix.

The challenge for me has been to find better ways to make a boxed cake mix taste homemade. 

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photo credit: BakedBree

Check these quick hits plus five of my favorite recipes that use a cake mix as one of the ingredients:

Forget the water. Use whole milk (or even buttermilk) in place of the water called for in the package instructions.

Devil’s food. Any kind of a chocolate mix will really perk up and take on that wonderful homemade taste when you use strong brewed coffee in place of the water, and toss in a handful of chocolate chips, too.

Counteract the sweet. Cake mixes are very sweet with a distinctive “cake mix” taste. Adding 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 or 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice to any white or yellow cake will counterbalance the sweetness and hide the tell tale taste of the mix.

Butter is better. Instead of the oil called for in the box mix instructions, substitute with melted butter.

Your TV May be Watching YOU

I took a little heat the day my son walked in and noticed the tiniest piece of Gorilla Tape I’d strategically stuck over the built-in camera on my MacBook Pro. “Paranoid much, Mom?”

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Ever since I’d read a news story about how identity thieves are hacking into webcams and computers to do their dirty work, that tiny dot-sized camera had become a giant eye staring at me and it was giving me the creeps.

I figured some do-it-yourself pre-emptive action on my part couldn’t hurt, if only to give me some peace of mind. It worked.

I didn’t think much about it again until I watched my friend and cybercrime expert, Bob Sullivan, on TODAY discussing Samsung Smart TVs. It seems that these Smart TVs that come with voice control (also known as voice recognition) are super smart with an interactive feature that allows its owner to use many of its features with voice commands. Simply put, you talk to the remote control instead of fiddling to figure out which buttons to press. 

Samsung SmartTV is listening all the time, too. It not only collects what you say into its remote control—Samsung uploads and stores everything Smart TVs hear from the room  without encrypting it. You can read about it in Samsung’s privacy policies

“That means anyone who can insert themselves between your TV and Samsung’s collection devices and its partners can hear what you say on your couch. Not a surprise,” said Bob. “New gadgets always arrive with features first, security second.  Watch this pattern play out again and again as The Internet of Creepy Things invades our home.”

Samsung is not alone.

25 Ways to Chop Your Grocery Bill

Need a foolproof way to cut your food/grocery expenses by 25 percent this month? Announce to your family that there will be a complete ban on the consumption of food during the first week of every month. There. That should do it!  25 percent right off the top.

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What?! Don’t think you can pull that off? Me either, but not to worry. Here are some less painful—and I hope a bit more realistic—ways to get a handle on your food expenses.

Make out your shopping list at home when you are hungry. You will be more creative and thorough.

Never shop when hungry. You will be compelled to buy everything in site regardless of what’s on your list.

Leave the kids home. You will stick to your shopping list with much less frustration and stress if you fly solo.

Don’t shop at convenience or specialty stores. You won’t find many bargains there.

Enlist a kid. When you need to make milk and produce runs between your regular major shopping trips, make a precise list and engage the services of an errand runner (like a responsible child.)

When Frugality is Not Fun

I was not born frugal. Everything in me wants to spend, acquire, achieve and amass. I am drawn to luxury. I live with visions of grandeur and opulence. My fondest dreams include custom tailored clothing, domestic staffs, $600 silk bed sheets, manicured gardensDooney & Bourke All-Weather Leather, fabulous cars, limousines and private jets.  That’s just how I am.

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For me, practicing frugality is not really fun. Oh, there’s an occasional situation from time to time when scrimping might be slightly amusing but on the fun meter of life, planning and budgeting, paring down, doing without when it seems that everyone else in the world is prospering beyond belief—none of that can hold a candle to carefree shopping, living and spending as if money were no object.

My dilemma is that I do not have the means to indulge in a life-style equal to my natural-born tendencies. Those of you familiar with my story know that my feeble attempts to play out my natural tendencies landed me in a lot of trouble. I took the treacherous path of incurring debt to acquire things I couldn’t afford. I learned firsthand that living under mountains of debt is not living … it feels like dying.

So if living naturally brings pain but living frugally isn’t fun, is there any hope for the unnatural frugal type? Yes! It requires new behaviors. Voluntarily.

Hidden Benefits in Your AAA Membership

When I pulled out my AAA membership card to get a discount for Sea World tickets  this past weekend, I locked eyeballs with “YEARS AS MEMBER: 40” printed on the card. I nearly nearly passed out. That seemed absolutely impossible, until I did a little mental calculation. It’s true. AAA has been an important part of my life for four decades.

If you are a member of AAA, it’s likely that you depend on it to get you out of an automotive bind with a roadside jumpstart, a gallon of gas or a tow. Just so you know, they also come to the rescue should you ever lock your keys in the car. Or a sleeping baby. Let’s just say that AAA has saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

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photo credit: EdenPictures

AAA membership has so many other benefits that just roadside assistance—some I’ve taken advantage of in the past, but many others I didn’t even know about. If you’re a member, perhaps you’ll be surprised too, by all of the hidden benefits in your membership.

One Recipe, Endless Uses

Last week, a friend called asking me to send her “That Recipe!” Of course I was puzzled, but it didn’t take long to figure out what she was talking about when she mentioned,  “homemade Biscuits with freezer jam.” Apparently, I served that for breakfast the last time she visited.

photo credit: flouronmyface.com

photo credit: flouronmyface.com

That Recipe is my Master Mix. The recipe below makes a lot, and keeps really well. Because it contains dry milk, all you add at baking time is water. And while it makes fabulous biscuits, it’s an all-purpose mix to make everything from dumplings to coffee cake and shortcake.

This mix makes a lovely addition to a Biscuits and Jam gift basket. Simply package a supply of Master Mix in a tightly covered container or bag, adding a tag that describes the contents. A nice idea would be to include the following options for how your recipient can use its contents. Your friend or loved one will probably appreciate the Master Mix recipe as well.

Refinancing Credit-Card Debt Can Get Tricky

Dear Mary: What do you think about the idea of refinancing my credit-card debt with a loan from one of the peer-to-peer lenders out there? It seems like a good idea to me, but I don’t know that much about it. I’d really like to know what you think of this. Thanks. Tom

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Dear Tom: First, I want to make sure you are talking about P2P (peer-to-peer) loans, NOT payday loans (they have NOTHING in common other than both start with the letter P). I am a huge fan of the idea you mention using a P2P loan (NOT payday), but with a few very strong cautions!

Basically, P2P lending offers a fixed-rate, simple interest, fully-amortized unsecured loan with which a person can, as you state, refinance their credit-card debt by taking the proceeds and paying off those accounts.

The interesting thing is that P2P loans offer rates that are often much lower than the variable rates on most credit cards, but only to folks with good credit, verifiable income and reasonable debt-to-income ratios who can qualify. So far, so good!

But it can get tricky. In fact, without knowing what you’re doing it would be like walking though a minefield blindfolded. There are lots of ways you could blow yourself up. For example, let’s say you get a P2P loan, but then don’t handle those paid-off accounts well. You could end up with double the trouble if you run your credit-card accounts back up—because you have the P2P loan as well. That’s only one of the things that could go wrong.

I suggest you not even think about tip-toeing into the world of peer-to-peer borrowing until you get some help.

Secrets of a Cheapskate Gardener

I love a beautiful yard, but I hate spending money to get it that way which explains why I am always looking for do-it-yourself cheap ways to kill weeds, grow flowers and feed lawns.

I have come across some very clever tips and tricks, not the least of which is to reclassify the dandelion as a low-maintenance, hardy ground cover!

DANDELIONS

While you ponder that suggestion, take a look at these clever ideas to make your own landscape supplies.

LAWN FOOD: Mix four pounds magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) with a bag of your favorite lawn food that covers 2,500 sq. ft. Now feed your lawn only half the amount of this mixture as recommended on the lawn food bag You’ll save a lot of money because you’ll be using less than half the normal amount of fertilizer and this formulation cuts down on the nitrogen which makes your lawn grow so fast. You’ll have the wonderful deep-green color, better root structure and you won’t have to mow as often.

LAWN SNACK: Try this on your lawn every three weeks during the summer. (With every third snack, add 1/2 cup clear corn syrup or molasses to the mixture.)

Pour the beer and shampoo (and corn syrup when it’s the third snack) into a 20-gallon hose-end sprayer jar; fill up the jar with ammonia and apply, following the instructions on the hose-end sprayer. You’re going to have very happy grass.