Family vacations can be either delightful or disastrous—it depends greatly on your attitude and the care you devote to research and planning.

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Adjust your attitude. Here is the first rule of family vacations: Parents on vacation really aren’t. If you can unload personal expectations that you will be relaxed and refreshed when it’s over, you won’t be disappointed when you’re not. And if you do get a little R&R along the way, consider it an unexpected bonus.

Be realistic about cost. Decide ahead of time how much cash you have for this vacation. If you have say a family of five and $500 to spend, don’t even think about a couple of days at Disney World. Always consider the money you have first and then design a vacation that will realistically fit within that financial boundary.

Be realistic about time. Don’t try to stretch your available cash to cover the maximum time you have to be away from home. Divide what you can spend by a reasonable daily budget to determine how many days you can be gone. Carefully consider all the costs, not only the admission fees and overnight accommodations. Instead of full weeks, consider day trips or a weekend vacation. When it comes to family vacations, quality is considerably more important than quantity.  Read more

I must admit to being a wimp when it comes to shopping for salad produce. I glance momentarily at the cast of greens available and then settle back into my iceberg lettuce rut. Other greens look quite tempting, but I’m never quite sure what’s what, so I stick with my old standby. But that’s going to change. I’m determined to branch out.

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There are hundreds of lettuces and salad greens beside the standard lettuces like iceberg, romaine and spinach. Many of these greens are sold in grocery stores, farmer’s markets and gourmet stores. Most are also easily cultivated, so if you have the space, you might try growing your own specialty mixes of different plants and varieties.

Butterhead Lettuces. The most common in this group are Bibb and Boston. The leaves form a head but are very loosely packed around a small center core. Butterhead lettuces have soft delicate leaves that are nearly melt in your mouth and work very well with vinaigrettes and light dressings.

Leaf Lettuces. These lettuces often have crinkled leaves that do not form a head. Some common types are green leaf, red leaf and Lollo Rosa. Because leaf lettuces are so beautifully colored, they add interest and unique texture to a green salad. Best served with light dressings and vinaigrettes.

Chicories. This group of greens that includes endive, escarole and radicchio have a strong, slightly bitter taste. I’m not sure these will show up in my shopping cart anytime soon, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. Chicories work best when mixed with other strongly flavored ingredients like bleu cheese, citrus fruits, nuts and heavy dressings. They also brighten the flavor when mixed butterhead and leaf lettuces that tone down the flavor. Read more

If you’ve been putting off updating or sprucing up your home because of the high cost of home improvements, today’s readers are sure to inspire you to do those projects yourself, for less!

HARDWOOD FLOORING. My husband and I wanted a hardwood floor but the estimate of more than $3,000 (which worked out to more than $7 per square foot) was out of our budget. We decided to try 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of veneer plywood at less than $45 a sheet, or about $1.40 per square foot.  We installed the plywood and sealed it with two gallons of polyurethane. The floor is beautiful and cost about $675 total. Jenn

Photo Credit: Curbly

Photo Credit: Curbly

SHOWER CURTAIN RESCUE. In a house full of boys who don’t know their own strength I frequently find the shower curtain torn away from the hooks. To fix this I use clear packaging tape to cover the hole, punch a new hole, replace the shower ring and its good as new.  Double the tape and it lasts twice as long. Maureena

VERTICAL BLIND RENEW. Do not throw away your old, faded, cloth verticals blinds. I didn’t want to pay for new ones, so I painted them with the same off-white paint I was using in another part of the house. Any color latex paint will work. Just allow a couple of days for them to dry. I discovered that with the extra weight of the paint, they hang more beautifully than ever. Dottie Read more

Every day I drive by a beautiful new assisted living complex under construction close to where I live. As beautiful as this place is, it’s become a daily reminder to me for how difficult it can be to talk to aging parents about their health and future needs.

If you’re 40 or older, you’re part of the “Sandwich Generation,” and likely to fall into one of these categories:

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TRADITIONAL SANDWICH. Those being squeezed between the needs of aging parents, relatives or friends while also supporting and meeting the demands of their own children, spouses and careers.

CLUB SANDWICH. Those in their 50s or 60s sandwiched between aging parents, adult children and grandchildren, or those in their 30s and 40s with young children, aging parents and grandparents.

OPEN FACE SANDWICH. Anyone else involved in elder care.

DOUBLE STUFF SANDWICH. Those whose adult, post-college kids return home to live with their parents for lack of unemployment, direction and or money. Also known as the “boomerangs.” Read more

Start with one of the principles of living beneath your means: Take care of what you have. Next, add one of the most effective ways to reduce stress: Find an activity that gives you a sense of personal satisfaction. And what do you have? Laundry! No seriously.

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I’m one of those people who loves to do laundry. From the challenge of getting a stain out to the smell of clean when the clothes come out of the washer, to pulling warm sheets and towels from the dryer—all of it appeals to my enjoyment of instant gratification. I love the entire process. Even like the folding part. Read more

Yesterday I got a letter that took my mind back to the years when our boys were small and I was too busy, too tired and too stressed to cook.

Dear Mary: I know where the money is leaking out of our household: Fast food. We are expecting our fourth child and I am so bushed at the end of the day, we get take-out 2-3 times a week. What can I do? It gets to be dinnertime and out comes the phone book. It’s all I can do to just get through the day. Carly

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Dear Carly: The last thing you need is for someone to tell you to get a grip and plan ahead. So I won’t. Instead I’m going to tell you what worked for me when I was in somewhat your situation (two boys only 17 months apart) and a few things I’ve learned since.

Five-menu rotation. Come up with five simple menus you know your family will eat, one for each night of the week. These don’t have to be gourmet or anything fancy at all. Example: Monday: Spaghetti, salad and bread. Tuesday: Meatloaf, baked potatoes, green beans and so on. Ask your husband to handle one weekend dinner and give it a name like Daddy’s Delicious Dinner or let the kids give it a title. That leaves one Family Fun Night or some other reason to order in pizza. Post your weekly menu on the refrigerator. Now everyone knows what to expect, including you. This will simplify your grocery shopping, too. As the children get older and you get more courageous you can expand your repertoire, but for now stick to the five-menu rotation.

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Today I thought I’d reach into my bulging mailbag to respond to a few of your questions. I love to get mail from you, my lovely readers. Even though I cannot personally respond to every message, I read them all. Keep them coming.

Dear Mary: For the first time in my life, rather than getting a tax refund, I owe the IRS. I’m talking about a lot of money, too.

Should I use my savings to pay my taxes, or is there a way to make payments that will not be overly taxing? I’ve been planning to use that money to pay off my high-interest credit cards. Phyllis

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Dear Phyllis: While the IRS purports to set up payment plans in certain situations, I would not advise that you go that way if there is any way you can avoid it. The interest rates are high, and in my opinion, not reliable.

I’ve seen numerous cases where a payment plan was set up and going along fine when out of the blue, the IRS slaps a lien on the taxpayer without rhyme, reason or explanation. You can have a plan all worked out, and BAM! without notice they can just change it. I’ve concluded that the last person on earth you want to owe money to is Uncle Sam.

My advice is that your taxes should take top priority. If you believe you are in a position to handle monthly payments to the IRS, great. Begin making those payments to yourself instead to restore your savings account once you have paid your debt to the IRS. Once you have your savings built up, then you need to aggressively attack that killer credit-card debt.

Dear Mary: How can I get the hard water marks off my glass shower doors? I’ve tried vinegar and that helped some, but the marks remain. Thanks! Julie

Dear Julie: There’s a slight chance the glass has become permanently “etched” over time by minerals in the water, but I’d give it one last try using the mother of all hard water mark removers: oven cleaner. I’m not kidding. I’d go with something like Easy-Off Professional Fume Free because you don’t want to introduce fumes into an open area of your home if you can help it. Be sure to put on rubber gloves and then apply with a sponge. Leave it overnight and rinse in the morning. Expect magic! That’s how well oven cleaner works on shower doors. Read more

I have a can of lacquer thinner that I keep handy for one purpose: To clean up any kind of paint spills on carpet, tile or clothes*. It works well, but it is a pain, to tell you the truth. And now it dawns on me. Why not do something clever to prevent the spills in the first place? Yeah, I like that a lot better.

PAINT CAN COASTER. When I am doing a painting job, I always glue a paper plate to the bottom of the paint can before I open it. That way I can pick up the can whenever I need to move it and I know that the paper plate will catch all the drips and spills. Sam

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DE-SALT THE SAUCE. If you find that your tomato sauce or soup is too salty, just add a little brown sugar. It will neutralize some of the salty taste. Janet

NO-STICK BEATERS. Before you use your electric mixer, spray the beaters with some non-stick cooking spray. It will keep the batter or frosting from clinging to the beaters and clogging them up. Sarah

FREEZING BREAD. Whenever I freeze bread or bagels, I always add a dry paper towel to the inside of the storage bag before slipping it in a freezer. The paper towel soaks up the extra moisture and the bread stays fresher longer once defrosted. Carolyn

SOFTEN HANDS. Here’s a fast and easy way to soften hands: Squirt 2 tablespoons inexpensive lotion into your hands. Add a generous tablespoon of sugar, and rub the concoction all over your hands. The sugar exfoliates your hands and the lotion softens them. Rinse with warm water, wash the solution off, and apply a fresh coat of lotion. Soft, smooth hands for pennies! Brooke Read more