Years ago I made a terrible mistake. I froze ten pounds ground beef. That big block of frozen hamburger languished in my freezer for years. What was I thinking? I should have browned it first then frozen it in usable portions. But browning beef in a skillet can be so messy!

A few weeks ago I came upon another cheap ground beef opportunity. The expiration date was nearing and my supermarket needed to get rid of—you guessed it—ground beef. Ten pounds. I almost walked by. Then I decided to try something different, albeit a little weird.

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I put the entire ten pounds of raw ground beef into my big stock pot, added enough water to cover and set it over high heat to come to a boil, no cover, no salt. After about 5 minutes I gave it a stir to break up the big clumps, which were few. The hot water was doing all of my work for me—no splatters, no mess. When all of the pink color disappeared I knew it was done, even though it had not started to boil.

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What do vacuum sealers and apartments that smell like a stale ashtray have in common? Absolutely nothing other than these two messages showing up in my mailbox at the same moment—both of them in response to recent posts.

Dear Mary: Just a few days ago I purchased a Ziploc Vacuum Sealer. It’s still in the box, unopened. A couple of hours later I could have kicked myself when I opened the newspaper and read your column on the FoodSaver vacuum sealer. Now I’m thinking of returning the Ziploc machine and getting the FoodSaver. Before I go to the trouble, I wanted to know if the Ziploc sealer might be comparable to the FoodSaver, in your opinion. Patti

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Dear Patti: The Ziploc machine does not offer one of the most important features and reasons to have a vacuum sealing system—a jar sealer. I use the jar sealer (both the regular and wide mouth sealer because I have both kinds of jars) accessory more than any other feature on my FoodSaver because I love to store everything from popping corn to fresh fruit in glass canning jars.

Even perishables like strawberries and lettuce, when stored in a glass jar—and kept in the refrigerator—last so much longer than they would in other kinds of containers. I do love my FoodSaver for all of its features but would be lost if I couldn’t use it to vacuum seal jars and wine bottles too. FoodSaver also makes a set of canisters that are as useful as they are attractive—just make sure you never put them in the dishwasher. Read more

Some of my fondest childhood memories have the name of my sixth-grade teacher written all over them. Mr. Migaki loved science and that made me love it too with his amazing experiments, formulas and scientific method. He made school so much fun.

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I kinda’ feel the same way about my friends Lou and Ted, owners of Nok-Out. Every time I call on them with yet another challenging odor problem, I learn more about the how and why of Nok-Out Odor Eliminator. It really does eliminate (not cover up) odors—even the most challenging.

Dear Mary: Help! I recently bought a pair of garden Bogs (waterproof footwear that feels like it’s made of rubber) at a rummage sale for a just few dollars. I was so excited to find them that I  purchased them without realizing they wreaked of chemical lawn fertilizer. Once I got them home, I realized my mistake. I tried to remove the odor using full strength Nok-Out, then with vinegar and even submerged them into a bucket of salty water.  Unfortunately, none of my attempts did anything to eliminate the odor. Any suggestion that would help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks! Jill

Dear Jill: This is a tough one, so I sent your dilemma off to our friend Ted at Nok-Out who went right to work. First, he needed to find out the content of your footwear, which the Bogs folks do not reveal, so he is assuming some kind of a rubber and plastic compound that is quite porous.  Read more

Figuring out how to install a new tile floor in her family room paid off big for my friend, Mary Brock, who lives in South Carolina. A close-out sale of 25-cents each for twelve-inch ceramic tile, basic installation tools and a simple how-to-book gave her the confidence she needed to give it a try.

“I got a serious physical workout, great results and still enjoy the bragging rights of a do-it-yourselfer. Plus, with the money I didn’t spend on materials, we got new furniture for the room.”

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This is a Guest Post by Donna Freedman, adapted from her new book Your Playbook For Tough Times: Living Large On Small Change, For The Short Term Or The Long Haul—a book that could make the difference between where you are now and a totally different life. We’re giving away two copies; read on to find out how to win.

Lately, I’ve been hearing concerns about tough times coming back. I say that for plenty of people, tough times never went away.

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Some struggle to stay afloat—getting ahead is a distant dream—and others wonder just where their money goes. If either of those situations sounds familiar, you’ll be (grimly) pleased to know that it isn’t just you. According to the Federal Reserve, our median net worth has decreased by about 21 percent nationally over the past 20 years. However, for the working class—those who earn between $23,300 and $40,499—median net worth dropped more than 50 percent.

Money woes aren’t always about greed or carelessness. Often they’re about the price of homeownership (especially upkeep and property taxes), child care (which can cost more per year than college tuition), groceries, medical treatment, utilities, higher education, automobiles and insurance.

Since most of us are expected to plan our own retirements, a chunk of earnings disappears right off the top—that is, if you’re actually able to do that. When you’re running as fast as you can just to stay in the same place, saving may seem impossible. Read more

If the high cost of restaurant meals is eating up your cash, here are some great ways to keep your tab lean!

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DISCOUNTS. Many restaurants offer a reduced-price menu for seniors and children. If you or someone in your party qualifies be sure to inquire if this doesn’t show up on the regular menu. Typically these discounted menus offer smaller portions at significantly reduced prices.

SKIP THE SODAS. Skip the pricey drinks and dubious “free refills” altogether and you’ll save at least $2 a person. Lisa B. rewards herself whenever she opts for water by stuffing two bucks into her savings account.

SHARE. Splitting a meal these days is socially acceptable and economically savvy. While some restaurants charge a minimal charge for splitting, most are very accommodating. Even if you have to pay a buck or two to split, it’s still better than paying for two meals you cannot eat completely. If you’re embarrassed about sharing, don’t be. If you must explain, say you are a light eater or that you’re doing your duty to the earth by not over-consuming. Many restaurants are so accommodating they’ll split the meal in the kitchen rather than handing you an extra plate.

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School time means new shoes and an unspoiled 64-pak of crayons. It also means getting back to a morning routine. This year, make breakfast a required subject in your house. All you need is fifteen minutes and tips, tricks and hurry-up secrets.

healthy breakfast: banana smoothie

FRUIT SHAKES. Start with the basic recipe and then customize with what’s in the refrigerator: Pour 1 cup juice, 1 cup water, 1 egg (optional), 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup crushed ice in the blender and blend until smooth. Customize your smoothies by adding fresh fruit, yogurt, protein powder, leftover pudding, applesauce—even left-over Jell-O.

FROZEN BANANA SLICES. Keep peeled banana slices in plastic bags in the freezer. Add them to any fruit shake or just plain milk. Read more

I wish I could come up with a better word than “budget” for managing money. While I’ve made peace with the word, for me it still conjures up synonyms like whip, drudgery and cruel master. Personally, I prefer the more elegant term Spending Plan, but for now, because budget is so universally understood, let’s just go with it, all preconceived notions aside.

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While there are many ways to budget, none are perfect. A budget is a tool you develop to fit your lifestyle. There is no single, guaranteed budget method, form or spreadsheet.

No budget is fail proof. Even a template or financial software that fits your temperament and lifestyle is not guaranteed to change your life in the same way a power tool sitting on the garage shelf is not going to put together that new wall unit for you, while you kick back and watch TV. You have to do the work.

Budgets are extraordinarily useful, a lot like training wheels. They can help you get going and give you confidence as you learn to balance. There may come a time that you’ll become an expert “cyclist” and outgrow your need for the training wheels. Or you may want to leave them on for confidence and security should you hit a bump in the road.  Read more