Scary stories and fiendish tales are all part of Halloween fun. But the last thing you expect is for those spooky stories and tricks to be played out in real life.

Debt has become the American way. So has denial. Super-high debt levels paired with serious denial can be downright terrifying. While not all debt situations reach critical levels, when they do, the response must be equally severe.

Kevin, 24, has $19,000 credit-card debt, drives a heavily-financed $45,000 fancy high-performance car ($580 monthly payments) and still lives at home because he cannot afford to move out. He can barely afford to eat because, in addition to his debt, he pays $2,400 a year for car insurance and $3,000 on gasoline—all on less than $32,000 annual income. Extreme debt.

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As I write, it is very early in the morning. I just peeked out to see that it’s snowing! As you may recall, we are new to Colorado, having moved from Southern California. I must be still in that wide-eyed, child-like phase of transition because I am all giddy with excitement and wonder. Snow!

How fitting it is that our first reader question is right on-point with wanting to keep warm and cozy without breaking the bank.

Dear Mary: A coworker had a programmable thermostat installed in her home. She says the temperature is always perfect and her utility bills are lower. Hers cost over $200, plus installation. Is it really worth it? Martha in Vermont

Dear Martha: Programmable thermostats that control a home’s central heat and air conditioning can return many times their original cost in lower electricity bills. You can set your timer to turn off the AC about the time you leave for the day, and to turn back on a half hour before you get home.  Contrary to popular belief, this does not use more electricity than having the heat constantly maintain a warm temperature; it uses less. In the summer you can program your air conditioning similarly.

Programmable thermostats like the Lux Products TX500E-010 Smart Temp Programmable Thermostat are available online or at local home improvement stores and start at about $35. All programmables come with installation instructions, which I’m confident you could follow easily. Or it’s a quick job for an electrician if you’re not comfortable doing the installation yourself.

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Look up the word ‘impulsive’ in the dictionary and prepare to see my face. In my basement pantry, I have at least six bags of chocolate chips to prove it. They are the ghosts of a Christmas past—left over from one of my Gift-in-a-Jar marathon projects.

And those two containers of candied fruit that must be ten years old by now, which I keep because they’ve become such a novelty? They appear to be the same as the day I bought them.

Baking supplies are notoriously on sale at rock-bottom prices starting now in anticipation of Thanksgiving and continuing through the end of the year. I still have four five-pound bags of all-purpose flour from last holiday season, which I bought for $.99 each. Sugar is cheap during the holidays, too. Ditto for other holiday baking ingredients from marshmallows to sweetened condensed milk dates to nuts.

One of my basic rules of grocery shopping is this: When it’s on sale, buy enough to last until it’s on sale again. Baking supplies become so cheap this time of year, now is the time to stock up.

Which begs the question you might be asking: How long will baking supplies last in the event you decide to buy enough to last the year? It all depends on the item and if you have the storage space to keep them at their optimum. Here is a handy guide:

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I don’t consider myself a complete stranger to high-priced gourmet fare. After all, I did enjoy a lovely $100-per-person meal once.

But even that experience in my semi-impressive culinary repertoire did not prepare me to handle gracefully the idea of a 10-course dinner with a price tag of $25,000 per person. And it wasn’t a political fundraiser. Just a fancy meal in an exotic location—Bangkok, Thailand.

Sure, this gastronomic extravaganza included the very best in Cristal champagne, foie gras, truffles, Kobe beef, Beluga caviar and Belon oysters, but come on! Twenty-five grand per person—a price that does not include tax or gratuity or airfare?

I don’t think I could do that even if I were so rich $25,000 would be mere pennies when compared to my vast net worth. There are some things I simply would not be able to get out of my mind like …

I could keep going with this, pointing out that $25,000 would cover the full cost to finish the basement at our house. Or paint the entire interior at least five times, but I’ll refrain.

And I’ll try not to get all worked up that the tax and tip alone for a party of two at the extravagant event in Bangkok would boost the tab by at least another $15,000.

Instead, I’m going to be grateful that I live in a country where we are free to do with our money as we please even if that means dropping a load on something as fleeting as a 10-course meal.

If you had $25,000 spare what would you do with it?

They want independence and freedom; you want them to take responsibility for their actions. They want decision-making power; you want them to make the right choices. They are struggling to break away; you can’t bear the thought of letting go. Welcome to adolescence.

Teenagers long to feel significant. They want to demonstrate to themselves and the world that they matter and are capable of making a difference. Many of the problems teens encounter today is because their desire to be significant is ignored or diminished.

 

Having raised two sons, my husband and I now understand a thing or two about teens and money. And if there is one thing we have learned, it is this: If you trust your teens with some amount of money and then allow them to make their own independent financial decisions on a level commensurate with their ages and abilities—and allow them to suffer the consequences of their financial decisions—you will address the five key motivators that influence kids:

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Finally, you found a perfect pair of jeans. They fit great and feel fantastic. Basically, you want them to last forever, but that’s not going to happen. In fact, just the opposite is what I’m hearing from my readers: These days, jeans seem to rip and fall apart long before their time, a problem that sent me in search of a solution.

What I’ve learned is fascinating. The problem is our laundry habits. We’re pretty much washing our jeans to death.

Truth be told, your dream that your favorite pair of jeans should pretty much last forever is not that far from reality. They really should, and they can if you learn these seven simple secrets for how to make denim jeans last longer:

Wash rarely. And when I say “rarely,” I mean once every few months—not every wearing or even every week. The trick is to immediately spot treat any spills or stains, then launder them much less frequently. Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh says that a good pair of jeans worn regularly doesn’t really need to be washed in the washing machine, except for infrequently—once every six months. (While I’m not quite ready to follow that extreme practice myself, I have no doubt that I’ve been guilty of washing jeans to death.)

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There exists in the average American household a rather common malady wherein no-longer-needed clothes, shoes, boots, coats, pants, shirts, toys, games, seasonal decor, sports equipment, electronics, appliances, computers, kitchen utensils, dishes and other useful items seem to reproduce in the dark of night filling cupboards, closets, attics and basements to the brim and beyond.

I call it Stuffitis—a condition for which there is an easy, and surprisingly profitable, treatment. Should your home have contracted this malady, there are two effective ways to treat it: a) Sell the stuff or b) Donate the stuff.

SELL THE STUFF. There are several ways to do this, none of which guarantee success. I hosted my final Garage Sale several years ago, to great disappointment. Having carefully cleaned, priced and displayed every item of which there were many—and being met with way too many offers of, “Would you take five bucks for everything?” at the end of a very long, hot and disappointing day—we hauled all that was left to a donation bin, which was most of it. Read more

Loyal readers of this column know by now that I love to cook. And I prefer to make things from scratch. But given my crazy work-travel-speak-write schedule, I don’t always have a lot of time to get a meal on the table. That’s the reason I am always on the lookout for quick and easy meals that are also delicious. Because if something tastes good, it’s so much better than going out.

Recently, a friend turned me on to a recipe for “homemade” soup that truly is one of the best soups I have ever tasted. Ever. And yes, I’m going to share it with you now, plus a couple more.

Butternut Squash Soup

You’ll need one container of butternut squash soup from the store (it comes in a quart-size “box” container at my store; also available at Trader Joe’s and others), a bag of frozen butternut squash cubes and pure maple syrup.

Pour the soup into a medium saucepan or soup pot, and add the bag of frozen squash. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low. Allow to cook very gently, uncovered, until the squash is tender (15 minutes or so should do it, but check from time to time as you don’t want this to turn to mush). Stir in 2 tablespoons of maple syrup.

You’re done, Einstein. I call you that because this soup, served with a dollop of sour cream and croutons, will make your friends and family think you’re a genius. Serves: 6

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