Ask Me Anything: Kitchen Appliances, Counters, Gunk Cleaners

Want to create enough confusion in your head to make it feel like it’s going to explode? Go shopping for kitchen appliances. Listen to all the sales pitches, let every friend and relative weigh in with their opinions and then set out to find all of it on sale. Yep, that will do it for sure.

To avoid that kind of near-explosive situation, you could do what today’s first reader did—ask me! It seems that I have a response (and opinion) for just about anything.

Dear Mary: We are remodeling our kitchen, which means new appliances. Do you have a suggestion for the brand we should consider and should we get them all to match or do more of a mix-and-match to get the best prices available? Also, which type of countertop do you feel is better? We have nine grandkids so we want everything to be very durable. Liz


Your Data Has Been Stolen from Equifax and What You Need to Do Today

This past Thursday, we got chilling news: Hackers have stolen personal identifying and sensitive information for 143 million American consumers—including Social Security and driver’s license numbers—from Equifax, one of the big three consumer reporting agencies.

How this could happen is beyond my comprehension. As I read about this cyber break-in, I could feel the anger begin to well up inside of me to the point I wanted to just sit in the corner and chew my hair. But now is not the time for anger.

We must assume that all of us and our family members are part of the 143 million individuals who are now ripe for having their stolen identities and personal information used by criminals to open accounts, file tax returns, buy property and more. It’s up to us to take steps to prevent this. No one else is going to do this for us.

Here’s what I am doing today in response to this horrible event: Nothing.

That’s because I, my family and my staff have LifeLock identify theft protection. Call me paranoid—or maybe I’ve just read too many horror stories—but I’ve never fully trusted the credit bureaus. Today, I’m even more untrusting. Even my young grandsons have LifeLock because it is horrific what ID thieves can do with the Social Security number of even a minor child.

The best approach here is to assume your data has been breached in this massive Equifax cyber break-in. If you do not have LifeLock identity theft protection (it’s not too late, but let’s just say you don’t have it), here are the steps you need to take as soon as possible:


Top 10 Student Loan Tips for Recent Graduates—and Not So Recent, Too!

Whether you just graduated, are taking a break from school, or have already started repaying your student loans, these tips will help you keep your student loan debt under control.

By “under control” I mean avoiding fees and extra interest costs, keeping your payments affordable, protecting your credit rating and paying those loans in full as quickly as possible. If you’re having trouble finding a job or keeping up with your payments, there’s important information here for you, too.

1. Know your loans. It’s important to keep track of the lender, balance and repayment status for each of your student loans. These details determine your options for loan repayment and forgiveness. If you’re not sure, ask your lender or visit You can log in and see the loan amounts, lender(s), and repayment status for all of your federal loans. If some of your loans aren’t listed, they’re probably private (non-federal) loans. For those, try to find a recent billing statement or the original paperwork that you signed. Contact your school if you can’t locate any records.

2. Know your grace period. Different loans have different grace periods. A grace period is the time between leaving school before you must make your first payment. It’s six months for federal Stafford loans, but nine months for federal Perkins loans. For federal parent or PLUS loans, it depends on when the loans were issued (see details). The grace periods for private student loans vary, so consult your paperwork or contact your lender to find out. Don’t miss your first payment.


How Easy It is to Become Blinded by Easy Credit

It makes me laugh now, but years ago when I watched a particular episode of the television show Little House on the Prairie, I was so judgmental.

Whaaaat?! Are you kidding me? Not Pa!

Seems the mercantile had some new fangled plan where the owner would trust Pa to buy stuff now, put it on his bill and he could pay for it later. There I was, horribly deep in debt myself, but aghast that kind of thing would be allowed back when life was so simple.

As convenient as credit can be, it can really mess up a person’s life. While I won’t get into that here   (you can read all about my journey, how I beat the debt monster and you can too, in my book Debt-Proof Living), a couple of letters in my inbox this week reminded me just how easy it is to become blinded by easy credit.

Dear Mary: Can you give us some tips on overcoming temptations and impulse buying?  I’m sure you printed a flow chart of sorts once before, to help people decide what they really need vs. impulsive spending. Thank you. Barbara

Dear Barbara: Here is a cleaned up version of the chart I scribbled out and attached to my checkbook cover many years ago. It was a kind of visual STOP sign I needed to make me think about what I was doing. Hope this helps!

Dear Mary: We are one month behind on our mortgage payments and plan to catch up this month. We have told our credit union we will pay half on the 1st and the second half on the 13th. This will bring us current. They call all day, every hour. When we answer they say they have to call us constantly until the amount due is paid. That is their policy. I say this can’t be true or allowed by law. It seems like harassment. Cindy, Maryland

Dear Cindy: I can certainly understand your frustration, but I can understand your lender’s policy as well. I know of no laws they are breaking by calling you at reasonable hours during the day. (You may be confusing this with laws that protect you when a debt is turned over to a  third-party collector.)

Look, when you signed the original loan document, you promised to make your payments on time, every month, in accordance with the agreement. You failed to do this. It’s not the end of the world, but you have to look at this from their standpoint.

If you broke your promise to make a payment on time, why should they believe that you will keep your promise to catch up on the 1st and 13th? If you didn’t have the money last month, what makes them confident you’ll have it this month in addition to your regularly scheduled payment?

Rather than feeling entitled to paying late on your terms, why not consider this through their eyes?

Untold thousands of people in this country have decided to walk away from their mortgages. But do they tell the lender this fact? No. They stop making their payments and then lie when the lender calls. They remain in the home until the lender can make it through the complicated and expensive maze called foreclosure. The statistics are staggering. Many people manage to eek out years of making no payments while remaining in the home.

You missed a payment and that’s a red flag for your lender. Frequent calls are keeping them at the forefront of your every thought, which you have to admit is pretty smart.

Here’s an idea: Tomorrow, call them before they can call you. Be kind and once again express your remorse for running late. Tell them exactly the day and time that you will be bringing them money, even if you’ve told them a dozen times. Then keep your promise. Show up in person. And be grateful for their long suffering.

Dear Mary: Several years ago, I began following your advice use cash, not credit or debit cards for day-to-day purchases. On paydays, I’d stop at the bank and withdraw enough money to last until the next payday. I then challenged myself to have some of that money leftover in my purse, which would then go into a piggy bank at home.

I just want to thank you because this has really worked well for me. I am way ahead of their game. I still don’t use debit cards for purchases―only cash. I feel like I have won and all from a lesson learned from you several years ago. Keep up the good work. We’re still listening! Carol

Dear Carol: Your letter just made my day. Thanks for writing.


Please Don’t Touch the Retirement Account

I know it’s hard. I know you’re desperate. You’re stressed and losing sleep. Things are tough. You have to do something, and soon.

But whatever you do, don’t touch your retirement account. Don’t borrow against it. Don’t withdraw from it. Leave it alone.

What’s so bad about liquidating a retirement account?

Momentum. Your retirement account, even if it’s currently losing value, is money you are going to need after you reach retirement age. And I can guarantee you are going to need it much worse then than you do now. If you bleed it dry now, you stop the momentum—the pace at which it is growing. Think of your retirement account as completely out of your reach for now.


How I Spent Forty Bucks to Avoid Surgery

It was a total self-inflicted injury. I did a really stupid thing. Early on a Saturday morning, I heard the doorbell chime, which reminded me I’d set up an early appointment with a landscape company.

Not wanting a second ring to wake my husband, I flew like a flash from one end of the house to the other—and down the hardwood staircase. Wearing socks.

When I hit that top step, my legs shot out from under me like a rocket and down I bounced. On my bum. Hitting the landing halfway down didn’t stop anything. Instead, it propelled me for a second shot all the way to the bottom where I landed hard and in full view of one bewildered gardener.


The High Cost of Being Hopeless with Math

“I don’t do math—numbers give me a rash.” That’s a line I’ve used a lot, mostly because it’s true, but also because it gets me a laugh.

Truth be told, most of us stink when it comes to doing the math on the fly. That’s a problem because being hopeless with math makes us putty in the hands of retailers.

Why is it socially acceptable to say that we’re bad at math, but not to say we’re bad at reading? The truth is that it’s not okay to be hopeless with numbers. Here are three ways that our aversion to math costs us money:

The number 9. Amazingly, 65 percent of all retail prices end in the number 9. Unconsciously, we’re charmed into believing the item is a bargain.

Whenever you see a product priced at $29.99 or $9.99, the retailer is attempting to “charm” your brain by marking prices just below a round number. Because our brains are trained to read from left to right, the first digit is the one that sticks in our head and the number we use to decide if the “price is right.”

Both Steve Jobs, who came up with the 99-cent app, and the guy in California who founded the 99-Cents Only stores have made millions off this human quirk. Retailers use 9 on purpose to lure us into buying something because they know we’ll assume it’s been discounted.

This phenomenon is known as the left-digit effect and studies have shown that it absolutely works and has a big impact on our buying decisions. So whenever you see a price ending with a .99, get in the habit of rounding up, then decide if it’s a good deal.


Tackle Ant Problems with Ordinary Pantry Items

Ants are fascinating creatures. For example, each ant colony has several different kinds of ants. They are all the same species, but they look different. If the heat of summer has you in a constant battle, you might like to know that most of the ants you see are workers. They are female, but they cannot reproduce.

Inside the nest is the queen, she is a large female, and is the only one who can lay eggs. Only males and queen ants have wings, but the queens remove their wings when they start a new nest. Worker ants never have wings.

Now that you know what you’re looking, here are 11 ways to get rid of ants—especially those teeny tiny sugar ants*—using ordinary things from around the house or in the garage. Think of what follows as a kind of buffet where you pick the solutions that meet your immediate need with items you have on hand.

MOP AND VACUUM. To get rid of sugar ants, start by mopping the floor at least once a day. Mopping and vacuuming help to remove the ants pheromone trails. Cleaning and mopping will also rid your home of the food and crumbs that attract the ants. Make sure you don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink and empty the trash bin regularly.