Monday, August 13, 2007
So far, I've delved into the worlds of knives and cookware, defining what I think is the best way to equip a kitchen on a budget. Today, I'm going to take a brief look at kitchen power tools.
As a foodie, an engineer, and just a plain 'ole guy, it's hard not to be sucked into the large and confusing world of kitchen power tools. They combine three of the things that I love most: physics, food, and power tools. If finance could be somehow shoehorned into that mix, there's no way I could resist the siren-song of the kitchen power tool department at my local kitchen store.
My kitchen is by no means expansive, and storage space, especially for gadgets, is at a premium. So, it certainly pays to have equipment that can perform double-duty. Now I'll be the first to admit that I have more kitchen power tools (KPTs from here on out) than I could possibly need and a good percentage of them are single-function tools. Some of them are mistakes, some are worth every penny. Many of them were gifts, but some were definitely well-pondered purchases. Here's the skinny on them all, good and bad.
*DISCLAIMER* - If you're reading this, and you're one of the people that gave me one of the items as a gift, please don't be offended if I'm critical of the device. I'm not being critical of you or your choices, just the merits of the device itself.
Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker - While this item is without question a single-function tool, it's a darn good one. There's really no way to make good ice cream, sorbet or slush without one. Like most home ice cream makers, it's got a removable bowl that goes into the freezer before making the ice cream. Typically, I just store the bowl in the chest freezer in our basement. The times I've used it, it's been flawless. I guess if I had to complain about something, it'd be that it's a bit noisy and it doesn't make more than just a couple cups of ice cream. If I were going to purchase one (mine was a wedding gift), I think I'd probably focus one a key characteristic: power. My ice cream maker has a 50-watt motor. It seems to have plenty of guts to spin through some pretty thick ice cream even with chunks of chocolate and what-not. I don't have a good solid number that you should shoot for, but I can tell you that 50 watts seems adequate to me. If you have no intention of making frozen desserts, this is a complete waste of cash, but if you enjoy the flavor of mint julep sorbet (as I do), this KPT is a not a bad choice.
KitchenAid Stick Blender - Oh baby. I affectionately refer to this magnificent gizmo as my "boat motor". My particular model has selectable speeds and it's perfect for smoothing out sauces, thickening lighter sauces and blending stuff in a pot. I like to make my own barbecue sauce, and I use this wonder-tool to puree all the chunks of onion and garlic and make the sauce as silky as can be. I also use it quite a bit for smoothing out pasta sauce, since I don't particularly care for huge chunks of tomato and vegetables in my sauce. This blender cleans up easy, too. The blade portion is removable, so a quick rinse in some hot soapy water and it's good as new. Since you can pick up a decent one for a low price, and it doesn't take up much storage space, this is also a definite buy. Although mine has got nine speeds, I don't think that's necessary at all. Just two would be certainly adequate.
T-Fal Deep Fryer - I'm on the fence with this one. Since I'm responsible for safety in my job, I tend to bring that mindset home. If you're going to deep-fry food, this is probably one of the safest ways to do it. Frying can be a dangerous job, and this machine helps reduce the danger. It's got a basket the lowers itself into the oil, a safety-minded cord, and a lid that covers the oil while cooked, all of which greatly improve the safety of frying. It also has a built-in adjustable thermostat so that the oil doesn't get too hot, and since there's no open flame (like from a burner), there's little risk of a grease fire.
It is rather convenient, too. All the oil is self-contained and the adjustable thermostat makes temperature control pretty brainless. But, at $90 or so, it's expensive and it takes up a lot of storage space. And, the same foods could be produced using a dutch oven and a thermometer on the stove, albeit with a lot more headache and danger. I guess what it comes down to is this: if you deep-fry stuff more than a couple times a month, it's probably worth it. If you don't, it's not.
Rival Crockpot - This slow-cooker is worth every penny if you like good food and you're lazy. You can cook a pork roast in it all day long (with potatoes, carrots, etc.) and have a meal ready for when you walk in the door from work. You can cook chili in it. You can keep potluck-style items warm for long periods of time. Although I got mine as a gift many years ago, they're inexpensive and easy to find. If you're looking to purchase one, try to find one with at least two heat settings. More settings mean better temperature control and less over-cooked food and less worry. Even one with just a high-low-off switch is much better than just an on-off toggle. They're selling some pretty sweet crockpots now with timers, so that you can have it turn on or off automatically. Also, find one with a nice, heavy ceramic liner. This makes clean up easier since you can just remove the liner from the heating elements, and the heavy ceramic evens out the heat across the entire pot. Even though this takes up a good amount of space, it's a KPT that's worth having around. It's just a shame that I got mine before Rival started making them without the silly country flowers motif. It never fits with my decor.
So, that's a start. I'll delve into some more KPTs tomorrow.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
In college and in my pre-marriage days, I cooked with some middle-of-the-road T-Fal cookware. It came in a big (13-piece?) set at Target for the low price of about $60. In hindsight, it cooked fine for the most part, but almost all of it was non-stick, and it didn't heat all that evenly. After a few years of use, the Teflon coating was chipping in places and the enamel outside was scorched and looked awful.
Shortly after our wedding, MLB and I purchased a new set of All-Clad cookware from their Stainless line. When I switched to the All-Clad cookware, I couldn't believe the difference, even over the decent T-Fal set. It heats very evenly, heats very quickly, and when used properly, is nearly as non-stick as the Teflon-coated stuff. Temperature control is more precise, and clean-up is cinch. I found myself cooking better purely due to the improved cookware.
“Wait a second. That sounds a little loony. You’re saying you became a better cook just by using better cookware?”
Absolutely. I’m not sure how I’d set up a test to quantify it (maybe a thermal gradient test or something), but I guarantee the quality stainless steel stuff improved my cooking. There’s no question in my mind that the heat is more even and the temperature control is more precise. An ultra-low simmer is now achievable across the whole pan, where before just the part of the pan directly over the burner was controllable.
“Okay, you’ve established that you’re a fan of All-Clad’s Stainless cookware. Can you be a bit more general?”
Absolutely. Here are some of my basic guidelines:
There’s no question in my mind that stainless steel is where it’s at. Stainless steel is non-reactive to 99.99% of foods, so it won’t stain or discolor like an anodized aluminum pan might. I'd choose to avoid non-stick in most cases (one 12" non-stick frying pan would be okay) because it shouldn't be used for browning, sautéing, or anything hotter than about medium-heat. More on that later. Plus, with shiny stainless steel surfaces, I don't have to worry about scratching all those silly non-stick surfaces with metal utensils like whisks and spatulas.
I’d also choose something that’s relatively heavy. Heavy pans retain heat well and distribute it more evenly than light, thin pans. A copper or aluminum core clad in stainless steel would also be a major plus in this area.
“…clad in stainless steel?” What the heck does that mean?”
Think of a clad pan like a plain turkey sandwich. The two pieces of bread would be stainless steel, and the turkey in the middle would be copper or aluminum. The stainless steel totally surrounds the inner metal. Copper and aluminum have a thermal conductivity (or k value) of five to ten times that of stainless steel, which means that pan will heat more evenly and rapidly than a purely stainless steel pan would. Basically, you’re getting the best of both metals: the conductivity of the inner metal, and the non-reactivity of the stainless steel.
Try to find something that has oven-proof handles. This makes it possible to go directly from the stovetop to the oven and vice-versa. That means no plastic handles! Well, some manufacturers have plastic handles that they say are oven-safe, but I’d still shoot for metal. The drawback to metal handles though, is that they can get pretty warm, especially on the lids. When it comes to attaching the handles, rivets are way better than screws. Quality pots and pans will have big thick rivets holding the handles to the main part of the pan. Because the rivets are deformed strong pieces of metal, they'll never loosen or wear out. Lower quality pieces have handles held on by screws that are more likely to corrode and loosen over time.
“Okay. I know basically what I’m looking for, but those clad stainless sets are pricey! I thought this was going to be a budget deal!”
It is. I’m not saying you need to plunk down a grand for a full set of pots and pans. Most recipes and cooking techniques require only a single pan or two. There's no doubt in my mind that you can get by with just some basic pieces, and here’s what I’d pick, in the order that I'd pick them:
- 12" frying pan - This will probably be your "everyday" pan. With a tight-fitting lid, you can slowly cook risotto, quickly sear a steak, or pan-fry some tilapia fillets. Preheated properly, and with just a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of fat (like oil or butter), it's nearly non-stick. Make sure you get one with gently sloping sides so that you can easily flip your food. Also try to find one with a gentle radius where the bottom meets the sides of the pan. A nice, gentle radius makes it easier for whisks and spatulas to get in there and move things around.
- 2.5 to 3 quart sauce pan - Again, make sure you get one with a nice, tight-fitting lid. This pan will be absolutely essential when you make any sauces or small batches of soups or pasta. A second handle opposite the main handle is nice for pouring or draining, but it’s really not necessary.
- 5-7 quart casserole - This can be a rather expensive piece, but it'll be able to serve many purposes. It can easily handle big batches of pasta, soup, and with oven-proof handles, can even be used as a make-shift roasting pan and casserole dish.
"Okay, so those are the three critical pieces. What about any others?"
To be honest, the other pieces you'll get with a set are likely just slight variations of the above three pieces. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some are taller, and some are wider. If you find yourself saying "Gee, this would work a bit better if this pot were a bit wider," pick up something that fits the bill. You may be happy with just those three pieces.
Personally, I've got several frying pans, and several other pans, but I nearly always reach for the above three pieces. Seriously.
"Okay, all these pans you've mentioned so far are not non-stick. I'm scared to fry an egg on anything but Teflon!"
I understand. If you've tried to cook something high in protein (like an egg or cheese) on a cheap standard pan, it's likely that it stuck. So, now you're apt to use Teflon as your crutch. Fine. I'll agree that there are some foods that are a bit easier (and less nerve-wracking) to cook on Teflon. If you absolutely must buy a non-stick pan, make sure you look for certain characteristics.
First, make sure that the Teflon coating is very smooth. There are a lot of non-stick pans out there that are ridged or bumpy. I don't understand why. If you want something to slide around easily, why would you make the pan bumpy, and add surface area? Second, make sure that the pan is still high-quality and heavy. Even heating is still critical with a non-stick pan. Finally, try to find a pan that uses the same lid as the pans you already have. Lids take up lots of space, so the more they can do double-duty, the better.
"I've completed my shopping list and I think I'm ready to buy. But, I'm a little queasy about maintenance and cleanup. Won't stainless pans be a pain?"
Not at all. Even with the worst baked-on gunk, my All-Clad stuff cleans up easily. You've just got to remember to get it clean in a reasonable amount of time. If you leave a pan sit overnight with burnt crusties on it, it'll be much tougher to clean that if you just cleaned it right away.
Most of the time, my pans clean up with just soap and water and a sponge. If it's tougher gunk than that, it may have to soak in soapy water for a couple of hours. Only occasionally do I use a fine powder cleanser to get the really stubborn stuff. Check with the manufacturer of the pans you choose, but they're likely dishwasher safe, too. That's great for when you're really lazy like me.
"Throughout this whole post, you've been pretty anti-non-stick. How come?"
A couple reasons. First, aside from crepes it's almost never necessary, and I don't want to have a ton of pans cluttering up my cabinets. Second, Teflon gives off toxic gasses at high temperatures. This outgassing is fatal to pet birds (not that I have one) and can cause "polymer fume fever" or "Teflon flu" in people. That's why you should never do high temperature cooking, like sautéing or broiling in a coated pan. Third, it limits your utensil usage. Teflon can be easily gouged and scratched with metal utensils, and sometimes a wire whisk is the best way to get the tasty bits off the bottom on the pan. I figure that the less I have to concentrate on not scratching my pan, the more I can concentrate on the food.
So, if you're still a non-stick user (and I am too, occasionally), just make sure you never use range heat higher than medium, never use metal utensils, and never broil in your pans. If you're okay with that, they should last a long time.
There are certainly places to save money when stocking a kitchen, but I don't think cookware is the place to do it. Besides, when you purchase quality cookware, it should last a lifetime, and I fully expect to pass my All-Clad set down to my children eventually. There's no doubt that high-quality cookware is expensive, but to me, the All-Clad Stainless cookware is worth every penny.
Monday, August 6, 2007
I'll start with my favorite equipment: knives.
Knives are an absolutely critical component to an efficiently-equipped kitchen. The important thing here is to buy decent quality, sharp knives, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is safety. Cheap knives and more importantly, dull knives are a safety hazard. Yes, that's right, dull knives are much, much more dangerous than keen, sharp ones. Here's the reason: Say you want to slice an apple up for a Waldorf salad. When you use a dull, cheap knife, you have to use much, much more force to cut through the skin of the apple (or tomato, or whatever). All that extra force has the potential to cause a slip and then the tip of your finger can decide to make a swift departure. With a sharp knife, you just slice right through.
The second reason to buy some quality knives is longevity. Cheaper knives are typically made from carbon steel or stainless steel and wooden handles.
"Great! Stainless steel is really resistant to rust. That's perfect for a knife!"
Not quite. First of all, it's important to remember that it's stain-less steel, not stain-free steel. Improperly handled, stainless steel with certainly corrode. Second, regular stainless steel isn't very hard as far as metals go. Because of this, it doesn't keep an edge well, and as stated before, a dull knife is frustrating and dangerous. Avoid regular stainless steel knives. They're typically labeled with "18-8" or "surgical stainless steel."
"Okay, carbon steel it is. I'll have to be careful about rust, but at least it'll stay sharp."
Well, high-carbon steel is a good knife material, but it's certainly not stain resistant. High-carbon steel knives will rust, and well-used blades will turn black, even with good care. With the way I tend to leave knives in the sink and such, that's not a good choice either.
So what's left? Well, it's kind of a combination of the two. Good quality knives are typically made from high-carbon stainless steel. Most companies have their own proprietary blend of steel that they use. They keep a nice sharp edge, and they're very stain resistant. So, keep an eye out for "high-carbon stainless steel" construction.
“Okay, so what about the handles?”
Most low-end and even some very high-end knives come with wooden handles. High-end wooden handles are comfortable and luxurious, but wood tends to harbor bacteria and other creepy-crawlies if it's not perfectly maintained. Plus, if they get wet (or are run through the dishwasher), the wood can split and deteriorate. Other options are stainless steel or plastic composites. In my opinion, either is a fine choice. I personally like the warmer, softer touch of the plastic handles.
"Okay, so I'm looking for high-carbon stainless steel knives with plastic or metal handles..."
Hold on, there's more to the story. You've also got to think about knife construction. The construction method of the knife defines its balance and heft, both of which are important to ease of use and comfort. Most cheaper knives are stamped, or blocked. Basically, the blades (and the inner part of the handle) are stamped from a single sheet of metal, much like cutting cookies from cookie dough. The cut-out shapes are then ground for the edge and the handles are riveted or glued to the handle portion (or tang). This produces a lightweight knife that usually isn't well balanced. A better way to manufacture a knife is to forge it. Think of a medieval blacksmith hammering a sword out of red-hot metal on an anvil. That's essentially how a forged knife is made. Well, except nowadays they use big heavy presses and machines, but you get the idea. This method of manufacture allows the knife to have a bolster (a thick section between the blade and handle), and a more pronounced spine. This is good because a stronger spine means less flexing and bending, and the bolster adds to the heft and feel of the knife while helping to really balance it.
"High-carbon stainless steel, plastic or metal handles, forged blades. Got it. How many of these higher-priced knives do I need?"
Actually, not too many. You could go out and buy a set of knives that would have everything from a tiny paring knife to a huge 10" meat cleaver, but most wouldn't be necessary. It would be much more cost effective to pick up a few essential pieces right away and add to your collection as needed.
Here's what I think is essential:
- A good chef's knife - A decent chef's knife is my #1 tool in the kitchen and it's the knife I'll reach for nine times out of ten. It chops, it dices, it'll slice when necessary, and it'll even strike (like for cutting through bones) when it has to. It's the do-all knife. An eight to ten inch chef's knife is absolutely critical to a properly equipped kitchen.
- A paring knife - A paring knife is perfect for peeling vegetables, making decorative cuts, and for more detailed work. It'd be pretty stupid to try to peel an apple with any other knife.
- A slicer of some sort - Slicers have long, thin blades for less drag, and may or may not be serrated (toothed). They're perfect for slicing soft bread, a big pork tenderloin, or nearly anything else. If I had to pick just one, I'd pick a long (ten inches or longer) serrated bread knife. Bread knives can cut more than just bread, you know.
Everything else is certainly nice to have (I love my Japanese Santoku knife), but are not really necessary. Those three knives will get just about any job done.
"So, FNN, what do you personally use?"
I personally have a full set of Wusthof Grand Prix II knives, and I wouldn't trade them for the world. I absolutely love, love, love them. If it were safe and socially-acceptable to make out with cooking equipment, I'd be more than happy to smooch these knives like crazy. They're rather expensive, but certainly worth it to me.
Other good choices would be this design from Farberware or any Henckels knife.
"Ewww. You are creepy and disgusting, and you're gonna get hurt! Let's move on. So, how do I care for and maintain these new beauties?"
Well, it's really not that tough, but there are a couple of critical things to remember. First, use a good cutting board. I refuse to use anything but the plastic ones, for a couple of reasons. First, is safety. I absolutely hate glass cutting boards. Hate, hate, hate them. The food slides around, creating a safety hazard, and the hard surface dulls a knife super-fast. Plus, you have to worry about them breaking, and I don't particularly care for glass shards near my food. On the plus side though, they're dishwasher safe, maintenance free, and they don't harbor bacteria.
Then, there's your grandmother's favorite wooden cutting board. Sure, it's easy on the knife and the food, and those butcher-block boards sure are pretty, but that's about all it's got going for it. They can't be put in the dishwasher because they'll split and age, and they have to be oiled and sanded now and again so they stay nice and don't dry out. Plus, since they lots of little ridges and valleys and holes and can't be put through the dishwasher, they're great at storing little nasties like bacteria and such. Yuck. Add the hefty price tag for a quality wooden cutting board and you've got a real loser on your hands. If you absolutely have got to have a wooden cutting board, please only cut foods you intend to eat raw, like vegetables or fruits. No raw proteins like fish, meat, or poultry!
Nope, as far as cutting boards go, the only choice for me is plastic. It's cheap, durable, sanitary, and easy to maintain because you can just pop 'em in the dishwasher. My favorite cutting board is a big, thick one about the size of a large cookie sheet. It's even got a juice groove running the perimeter so that when I slice up a pineapple or a perfectly-cooked pork tenderloin I don't get juice all over the counter. Plus, it's so inexpensive that when it gets really hacked up, I can get another one for only a couple of bucks.
"Okay, you've digressed again. Can we get back to maintenance, please?"
Yeah, sorry. Okay, so as you use your knives, they eventually start to dull. Basically, your sharp edge becomes slightly bent on the microscopic level. However, all is not lost; you can fix most of the problem by using a steel before you use your knives.
"A steel? Didn't we already cover metallurgy?"
Not that kind of steel. A steel is that "sharpening stick" that makes that great "zzziiiiinnggg!" sound when you move your knife across it. It basically straightens out all the tiny bends that can create a dull knife. It can be a bit tricky to use at first, but this video should help. I use my steel right before I use any of my knives. It only takes a few seconds, and I love the way it makes that awesome ninja-sword zing sound.
Since a steel just straightens the knife's edge and doesn't really remove any metal when you use it, there will come a day when a steel just won't get the job done and you'll have to have your knife sharpened. Please, please, please don't use one of those home sharpening gizmos or try to do it yourself at home on your garage grinder. Sharpening a knife correctly is a complex dance of angles, pressure, materials, and skill and should only be done by a professional. It only costs a couple bucks per knife and if you're using your steel properly, it shouldn't have to be done more than once every couple of years. There's likely a professional sharpener near you, and if not, many manufacturers will allow you to send the knives back to them and they'll sharpen them.
Finally, don't put your knives in the dishwasher. They'll just bang around and hit other knives, the racks, plates and who knows what else. The blades will be duller than a butterknife in no time, and your handles will not appreciate the steam and dry heat, especially if they're wooden. Take a few minutes after you're done cooking and wash and dry them by hand.
So, that's my take on knives. I know this post was lengthy, but I really think these are the most important tools in the kitchen.
Finally, when you get some favorite quality knives, don't be afraid to give 'em a kiss now and then. They deserve it.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The last 59 months have officially been longest stretch of my life away from an educational facility. Be it college, high school, or kindergarten, I've never been so far removed from schooling. Add that to the fact that my little brother just graduated from college, my little sister will be receiving her Master's degree in a short couple of weeks, and my mother is nearing completion of her Doctorate degree, and I'm starting to feel like the most uneducated moron to don the family name.
So what does this actually mean? It means that I've got the itch to do something educational. Likely, that'll mean my getting my MBA.
I'm fortunate in that TCFWIW will pay for a good portion of my schooling, if I so choose. They probably won't cover the entire bill, but anything is better than nothing. In fact, they'll even foot the bill up-front, which seems to be a bit of a rarity.
Also, time is something that is now available to me, for the most part. I've settled into my position at work a little better, so the hours are shorter, MLB's and my wedding is over and done with, and the household in general is pretty stablized.
It seems the stars are aligning for YFNN's higher education. I'll keep you informed.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
The majority of the parts are steel, and the black paint on them has weathered off long, long ago. Due to the paint's slow disappearing act, rust has decided to show itself, sometimes in large, destructive amounts. Fortunately, like I said, most of the parts are steel, so repair is not that difficult.
So, I loaded up the family truckster with some parts, some tape, some spray automotive primer, and some Rust-Oleum Rust Reformer and headed to my place of employment.
I'm lucky to have place like I do to perform this kind of work. The company for which I work (TCFWIW) used to have full-scale manufacturing capability under its expansive roofs, but as of late 2004, it's moved on. But, the large and well-equipped model shop has remained intact. Since the place is pretty lenient about after-hours work (especially if you're friends with the facility manager), I've got a full shop at my disposal whenever I'd like.
When I got to work, I let the guard know I was going to be there for a couple hours and toted my stuff inside. I powered up one of our solvent baths and made short work of all the grease, oil, and grime that had built up on the parts over the years. The swingarm was the worst. because of the drive chain, I'm sure.
Once that was completed, and the parts were thoroughly dried with compressed air, I fired up one of our media-blasting cabinets and went to work on the parts. Because the media and the through-wall gloves were recently replaced, getting rid of the rust and old paint was a comfortable and easy task. As I finished cleaning each part, I made sure it was dust-free and hung it in our paint booth. Some automotive primer did a great job covering the bare metal. In the places where the sandblaster couldn't remove some of the rust, the part was hit with some Rust-Oleum Rust Reformer (which is good stuff, by the way).
A couple of the parts had some pretty severe rust damage, so I had to fire up the welder to add some metal to them and then reshape them. Fortunately, that was pretty easy, and I got them cleaned and primed as well.
I left the parts hang and cure all night, and they should be ready for another coat this evening. Soon after, I'll hit them with some satin black and some clearcoat and they should look good as new. Heck, even in just primer, they look pretty darn good.
I've still got to find a place to blast and powdercoat the frame, though. unfortunately, all of the cabinets at work are too small to fit the frame, and I'm not going to make a mess of the backyard with an external blaster. Besides, I'd rather have the frame powdercoated, so I've got no issues paying someone to do it.
I also recently received the new (well, undamaged) steering stem and triple clamps, to replace my damaged ones. That's a headache lifted. I thought for sure that I was going to have a really difficult (and expensive) time figuring out how to replace the stripped threads on the main stem. I did a lot of swearing when I found that lovely surprise.
All in all, things are cleaning up pretty well. Once the frame is painted, I'm pretty much ready to start reassembling.
Once the paintwork is done, it's time to order a few new parts!
Monday, April 9, 2007
1) Hit the snooze alarm about 6 times every morning.
My alarm goes off about an hour before I really need to get up. Every night, I think that I'm going to get up when the alarm goes off the first time and take my time getting ready and enjoy the morning. Does it ever happen? Of course not. I hit that snooze button every nine minutes until I'm 30 minutes away from having to leave. The real kicker is that I'm sure that hour of intermittent dozing does absolutely nothing for my rest, and it drives MLB crazy. Yet, every day it continues. Dumb.
2) Put off doing laundry until the absolute last possible day. My laundry hamper typically overflows onto the floor several days before I decide it's time to do laundry. What this means is that when I decide to do laundry, it ends up being an all-day chore, and I hate doing laundry. It makes for a miserable day. I'm sure it'd be much less painful for me to just do a load or two every couple of days, rather than all at once, but I never do. In fact, I've even gone so far as to buy new underwear so I could put off laundry a couple more days. Also dumb.
3) Buy a soda for the drive home.
I know it's expensive, I know it's a poor choice, and I know it's intentionally marketed this way, but I always do it. It never fails that when I go to the grocery store (or Target, or Lowe's), I'll pick up a bottle of soda on my way through the check-out lane. Why? Well, because I'm thirsty. Why can't I wait the four or five minutes until I'm home and get a drink of water? Because I'm dumb. Those check-out lane coolers get me nearly every time.
4) When working in the garage, place a tool down someplace unusual and think "I'll remember where I put that because it's an unusual place for it."
For example: If I'm underneath the car, I'll place the ratchet on top of one of the tires, rather than back in the toolbox or on the floor next to me. Then, when I'm ready to use it again, I spend ten minutes trying to figure out where the heck I put it. Or, I'll put the notes for the motorcycle restoration in with the sandpaper, thinking "I'll remember that," and then waste 45 minutes later in the day. Dumb.
5) Leave my cellphone at work.
I don't get very good reception at work, so I typically leave my phone charging on my desk all day. As I leave, I'll bet four out of five workdays, I leave my cellphone in my office. Usually, I'll remember as I get out to my car and have to go back in the building, unlock my office, and retrieve the phone. Somedays, I forget until I get home. I leave it there on my desk, just charging away 80% of the time. Dumb.
So, that's a good start. Maybe now that I've put these dumb things into writing I'm stop doing them. Not likely, but maybe.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Last fall, I bought an old motorcycle as a project for super-cheap. It's a 1975 Yahama RD250B, US model. When I picked it up, it was pretty beat up, rusty, and older than I was. It's tiny by today's motorcycle standards and it sounds like pissed-off weedwhacker on steroids. But, it was so darned cool and with only 2000 original miles, I just had to put some wrenches to it.
However, it's provided me with some challenges so far, mainly because it's very different from what I'm used to working on. First, since it's older than I am, it's carbureted and I'm a fuel injection guy. I'm more comfortable adjusting injector pulse widths than I am changing jets. Now don't get me wrong, I fully understand how carbs work and how to adjust them, it's just not something that I've ever had to do.
Second, this bike is a two-stroke. A smoker. It's a high-revving, oil-injected, cam-less wonder, which is also new to me. Running down the road, it spews healthy blue smoke out the tailpipes and sounds absolutely vicious. Apart from my weedwhacker, I've never touched a two-stroke engine. I'm most amped about this aspect. There's just something completely appealing about a loud, fast, polluting, smoking, relatively unsafe, 30-year old, rolling piece of history. It's just so, um, irresponsible. I absolutely love it.
Third, it's a serious restoration project. I'm not a restoration guy. I'm more a modern-day, horsepower-building, racecar guy. This bike needed to be stripped to the frame and completely redone. That is very different from what I'm used to doing.
So, it's definitely going to be a challenge.
As of today, the bike has been completed stripped down to the frame, and the frame itself is ready to be sand-blasted and painted. I meticulously documented and photographed every part and bolt that came off, so I know exactly how it's supposed to go back on.
I've measured every single fastener that has come off the bike and have kept a log of their location, thread size and length, so that they can be replaced with new ones. I've kept a notebook with more notes that I care to remember, and have lots of labels all over every wiring harness and connectors.
It's going to take me a while, and I'm sure I'm make some bonehead mistakes, but so far, I'm having a blast working on it.YFNN
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Finally, the last two foci on my list! I apologize for the long delay; the weather here has been beautiful lately, and I spent a lot of time in the garage putzing and working on the '75 Yamaha. I even took a half-day of vacation on Monday so that I could best use the great weather and continue my progress on the restoration. More on that later. Regardless, here's #9 and #10!
Focus #9: Create and maintain a budget.
This document is going to be your rock. It will guide you, help you make good, sound decisions, and keep you focused on your financial goals. It will keep you grounded and set you free at the same time.
It is absolutely imperative that you learn to work with a household budget. There's lots of good websites out there to help you get started, but here are my main points:
1) Know where you money is going. Track each dollar that you spend. You'll quickly realize where the leaks in your spending are, and where you can save some money. Once you know where it's going, you can make better decisions regarding where it should be going.
2) Give each dollar a job. Make sure that each dollar you receive in income is given a job. Make sure each income dollar is either put towards an expense, saved, or invested. Once each dollar has a task to perform, it's much more difficult to waste them. Idle dollars are easily blown on frivolous things.
3) Most importantly, spend less than you earn. That is the ONLY way to get ahead. If you're consistently spending more money than you have coming in, you're in a downward spiral into financial disaster.
I used to have a very elaborate spreadsheet that performed all the calculations, did all the tracking, and reminded me of bills. But, it got to be very big and clumsy. Now, I use a small program called YNAB Pro (available at www.youneedabudget.com). It works beautifully.
Focus #10: The time to invest is now!
Compound interest is a beautiful thing. The earlier you start investing, the more time you have for it to work for you. More than any one mutual fund or stock selection, the age you start investing will determine how much wealth you actually build. This may be difficult for some to grasp, so here's a real-world illustration:
Employee A, we'll call him Dave, starts putting away $100 a month when he's 22 years old, right after he graduates. Dave's money grows at a conservative 8% a year, and after ten years on his 32nd birthday, he decides to stop contributing and just let the money grow. Employee B, we'll call him Phil, graduates at age 22 but waits until he's 32 to start investing for retirement. He sets aside the same $100 a month, gets the same 8% return, but continues investing until he's 64 years old. So, who's got more money at retirement?
Dave does. When they both retire at 64, Dave will have $234,600 and Phil will only have $177,400. Even after only contributing 1/3 of the money that Phil did, Dave's way ahead. If Dave had just continued to contribute the same measly $100 a month until 64, he'd have $412,000! That's over $175,000 more than Phil, just by starting ten years earlier.
The lesson here is to start saving early!
To review my Ten Financial Foci:
Focus #1: Get a good, low-fee checking account and know how it works.
Focus #2: Use direct-deposit.
Focus #3: Get a high-interest savings account.
Focus #4: Start an emergency fund and feed it automatically.
Focus #5: Don't fall into the lifestyle trap.
Focus #6: Ditch your debt.
Focus #7: Make sure you're covered.
Focus #8: Take inventory.
Focus #9: Create and maintain a budget.
Focus #10: The time to invest is now.
I hope the foci I outlined over the last couple days have been insightful and inspiring to new graduates or future graduates. Getting a focus on your finances now, when you're still young is immensely beneficial later on. So, pass these lessons on to any graduates you might know!
Friday, March 30, 2007
Focus #7: Make sure you're covered.
You may not have thought much about health insurance as a student, but ignoring insurance now could be a pricey mistake. If you decide to go uninsured, you could wind up with expensive medical bills, not to mention poor health. You've got to make sure that you're covered in case of an emergency. At this stage in your life, you're likely pretty healthy, in decent shape, and unlikely to need regular prescriptions, but you've got to have insurance to cover the emergency situations. You're probably no longer able to be pulled along with your parents' insurance, so you need to find your own.
You likely have several options. First, your employer may provide insurance (at a reduced cost) to you. This is probably going to be your least expensive alternative, but many companies won't provide you with insurance until you've been employed for three or six months. Buying your own health insurance is an option, but it's expensive. The average annual cost for a traditional insurance plan is around $4,000,
I also recently learned that college grads are eligible for COBRA when they're no longer considered a dependent. College students who are on their parents’ health plans can sign up remain covered for up to 36 months after graduation. But, you must notify your parent’s insurer that you would like a COBRA extension within 60 days of graduation.
A COBRA extension certainly does have costs, though. You may be required to pay the entire premium for coverage up to 102 percent of the plan’s costs. In other words, you will be responsible for 100 percent of what your parents paid, plus what their employer paid along a 2 percent fee. Ouch.
Finally, you can get some short-term health insurance for relatively low cost. This type of policy is designed for folks without pre-existing medical conditions, and only offer coverage for 12 months. But, they're typically bought in one-month increments, which makes it easy to drop when you get an employer-sponsored insurance plan. One big drawback is that short-term insurance does not typically cover routine preventative care, like physical exams.
Your insurance coverages don't stop at just health insurance. Consider renter's insurance to protect your sweet autographed guitar and other valuables you've already acquired. It's relatively cheap protection, even if you don't have a lot of stuff. You definitely need to be covered in case of fire, theft, or other event.
Focus #8: Take inventory.
If your apartment or house burned down or was robbed tomorrow while you're at work, would you be able to remember exactly what was in it, down to the value of any jewelry or what kind of appliances you had? Me neither. That's why an up-to-date home inventory is something you should spend an afternoon putting together. This list of items will help you get any insurance claims settled faster (with better accuracy), verify your losses for your income tax return, and help you assess how much insurance you need to carry.
Putting it together is simple, especially if you're just setting up a household. Make a list of your possessions, describing each item and estimating its value. Also try to include where you bought it, and its make and model if at all possible. A spreadsheet is the perfect tool. At a bare minimum, include your big ticket items. If you've got the time and ability snap some photographs of your stuff, too. Scanned receipts would also be smart.
Then, store a copy of your inventory someplace safe, AWAY from your home. A relative's house or a safe deposit box is a good choice. MLB and I burn a copy of the photos and our list to a CD and keep a copy in our safe, and I keep a copy locked up in my desk at work. This way, if our home is ever damaged, our inventory isn't.
The final two tomorrow!
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Focus #5: Don't fall into the lifestyle trap (not yet, anyway).
It's all so appealing. You worked hard for the last several years and it finally paid off. You're out in the real world, making the big bucks. Surely you deserve that high-end apartment or that shiny new car, right?
Don't fall into that trap. Think about it. You've been living like a college student the last several years, and you've fallen into a routine. You're used to not eating out very often, pinching pennies on expenses, and putting off expensive purchases. You don't mind eating store-brand macaroni and generic cereal. When will it ever be easier to keep expenses so low and put back tons of cash? The answer is never. Once you find yourself financially able to enter the world of fine dining, fancy cable packages, and a shiny new car payment, it's darn near impossible to get out. Use this time to put back some money and pay off your debts. A little bit of painless scrimping now will pay off big in the future.
Focus #6: Ditch your debt.
If you're like the vast majority of the graduates in this country, you're probably graduating with some credit card debt, and maybe even some student loan debt. Now is the time to eliminate it for good! Debt is going to do absolutely nothing but hold you back for the next several years. Call up your student loan lenders and inquire about consolidating your loans at a lower interest rate. Call up your credit cards and talk down their rates. Do everything you can to minimize interest's impact.
As I said above, you're probably used to living the meager college life right now, and it's not that hard to continue living that life for a few months or a year. Now is the perfect time to pay down your debts with that extra cash.
Numbers seven and eight still to come!
Monday, March 26, 2007
Focus #3: Get a high-interest savings account.
I've already spoken at length of the benefits of the high-interest savings accounts like ING Direct and HSBC available on the internet. They provide security, flexibility, and an interest rate that actually makes you some money. In order to have a place to stash some cash for both short and long-term savings, you need a high-interest savings account. My favorite, for a plethora of reasons, is ING Direct. So, get an account, transfer your first dollars, and familiarize yourself with their functionality.
Focus #4: Start an emergency fund, and fund it automatically.
It's absolutely critical that you have an amount of money easily available to you for emergency situations. Things go awry in the real world: roofs leak, cars break down, and ambulance trips are required. In order to keep on track for your long term financial goals, you've got to have an emergency fund to cover these unexpected events. Ideally, you should have about six months of living expenses, but for most graduates (in fact, most people in general), that's a pretty tall order. At a bare minimum, keep at least $1000 earmarked for emergencies.
You've also got to fund it automatically. It doesn't have to be much (MLB and I only put in $40 a month), but it does need to be regular. This helps to avoid excuses like "I'll put some money in next week," and, "I just forgot last month.", and keep you on track. Finally, you need to completely forget that you even have an emergency fund exist, right up until you need to tap into it. No using it for TVs or guitars!
Numbers five and six will continue tomorrow.
Friday, March 23, 2007
So, over the next couple of days, I'm going to write a few short posts about how to really get off to a good start financially if you're a new graduate. I'll try to focus on the financial decision-making, but I can't promise that my mind (and writing) won't wander into other areas. I'm going to try to keep it to two main points each day.
Focus #1: Get a good, low-fee, checking account, and know how it works.
Your checking account is going to be your main pipeline for all things financial. Most of your expenses will be paid from it, and your paychecks will likely be deposited into it. Make sure that there's not a high minimum balance ($100 or less is good), and that there are minimal fees. Many banks offer "free checking" accounts that have no fees, no minimum balances and online banking. The downside is that they offer zero or very low interest rates. But, since I think your checking account shouldn't be a long-term storage area for your money, I wouldn't be too concerned about the rate. Try to find an account that provides a debit card or check card. I'm a big fan of debit cards because you don't need to carry cash, they're almost universally accepted nowadays, and the amounts are immediately deducted from your checking account.
It's also absolutely imperative that you understand how the checking account, as well as your debit card, works. Even in the era of 24-hour online access to your accounts, it's important that you understand debits, credits, and how they affect your account balance. Also, make sure you understand that your debit card IS NOT a credit card: you can't spend money you don't already have in the account. Keep tabs on your checking account balances frequently, so that you're always aware of how much money is available to you and so that you can spot any errors quickly.
Focus #2: When you've got that job, set your paycheck up to directly deposit into your checking account.
Direct deposit makes getting your paycheck fast, easy, and error-free. You don't need to drive across town to make a deposit, you don't need to worry about making sure you get to the bank by six, you don't need to worry about misplacing your check (and your money!). It makes getting your money into your account completely painless. Since your checking account is going to be your main money pipeline, the easier and more error-free it is to deposit your money, the less headaches you're going to have.
The next two foci will come tomorrow.
Monday, March 19, 2007
First, a few definitions:
APR - Annual Percentage Rate
APY - Annual Percentage Yield
Compounding - Earning interest on previous interest
The difference between the two is all about compounding. The APR is the annual rate of interest, without taking into account the compounding of interest within that particular year. The APY does take into account all that extra compounding within the year. It seems like a pretty small difference, but it can actually add up to some major bucks. This is really better shown with some formulas, illustrating their inter-relationship.
APR = Periodic Rate X Number of Periods in a Year
APY = (1 + Periodic Rate)^(# of Periods) - 1
"Holy crap, FNN! I haven't had algebra since high school. What the heck does that mean?"
Okay, a more real-world example: Say you've got a credit card that has an APR of 18%. That means that each month, you're charged 1.5% of the balance (1.5% X 12 months = 18%). Pretty simple, right? Well, look at it from an APY perspective: plug the numbers into the formula:
[(1+1.5%)^(12 months) - 1] = 19.56%
That's a difference of over 1.5%!
So what does this actually mean? Well, if you only carry a balance for one month's period, you'll be charged 1.5%, or the equivalent yearly rate of 18%. But, if you carry that balance for a year, your effective interest rate becomes 19.56%. That higher effective rate is all due to the effect of compounding each month.
"That's all well and good, but I'm still not getting it. How does this affect me in a broader sense?"
Well, it depends on your perspective.
As a borrower, you should always be searching for the lowest rate. The lenders know this, and will usually specify their rate in the lower of the two methods, the APR. This is because it doesn't account for compounding, and is a lower number than the APY.
The reverse is true if you're the lender, like when you're shopping for a savings account. The banks will usually specify the larger number, the APY because it accounts for the additional compounding.
So, when you're comparing rates of banks, credit cards, mortgages, savings accounts and everything else in the financial world, you've got to make sure that you're comparing the same thing, either APRs or APYs. It can make a big difference in your wallet.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
I'd imagine that everyone who chooses to receive a big tax refund at the end of the year does it for the same reason: trickery. It's a big psychological trick on ourselves.
I've stated before that I'm a fan of forced savings (self-forced, NOT governmental) because it creates a state of artificial scarcity. It's pretty simple: if I put $500 a month into savings automatically, that's $500 less a month I have to spend. This creates a situation where I'm forcing myself to make more prudent decisions about the money I do have available to spend. Since there are things that I must pay for each month (like the mortgage, food, electricity, etc.), the artificial scarcity situation forces me to cut back on unnecessary spending, like a new set of speakers for the living room, or several meals at restaurants, or new pair of motorcycle boots. By cutting back spending on these unnecessary items, we continue to live below our means and put back more and more money towards debt (mortgage, etc.) and towards savings (IRAs, etc.). This is a VERY good thing.
So, by having more money withheld throughout the year from our paychecks, we're implementing another forcing savings, payable in April. Now, this extra bit of money only amounts to about $75 a week, which when paid to us on a weekly basis, is very easy to waste on frivolous, useless things. It's too easy to say "It's only $10...", or "I'll save some money next week..." when you're paid in small amounts. But, when taken away every week, and paid to us at the end of the year, this amounts to a sizable sum of money. And, when MLB receive a big windfall all at once, it's easier for us to say "Wow, we better do something smart with this extra cash!"
Having said all this, it's probably not entirely necessary for MLB and I to do this. We're both rather prudent with our money, and certainly not wasteful. We've developed enough self-discipline to use our money wisely, even when it comes in small chunks.
Even though I'm a big numbers person, I'm not going to argue that you shouldn't get a refund. Do what works for you. If you're disciplined enough to make good use of those smaller amount of money throughout the year, then forgo the refund. But, if it helps you to save or spend more wisely, like it does for MLB and I, get the refund. You just need to realize that you're paying a slight financial penalty for doing it.
I, for one, am okay with that.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
To understand why tax refunds are evil and what you can do about it, you really need to understand how the whole withholding and refund tax thing works. As I'm sure you're well aware, an amount of money is withheld from each paycheck to pay your federal taxes (and state, local, FICA, etc., but I'll only deal with federal for simplicity). The amount withheld for your taxes is dependent on how much money you earn, how many exemptions you claim, and how much additional withholding you allow.
"Exemptions? I think I remember seeing that on a form when I first started my job. Isn't that the thing where the HR lady just told me to put a zero or a one?"
Pretty much. Basically, that form you filled out is a W4. It helps to tell your employer how much money they should withhold from your paycheck to pre-pay your taxes for the year. That way, when tax day rolls around on April 15th, or April 16th this year, your taxes are already pre-paid (deducted from each paycheck) and the government doesn't have to worry about trying to squeeze you for the entire bill at once. When you receive a refund, you've essentially pre-paid too much money, and they're giving you the amount you overpaid back. The reason the smiling HR lady suggested that you only claim zero or one exemption is that it helps to ensure that the ignorant masses don't underpay their taxes for the year and aren't stuck with a tax bill in April.
“I’m still confused. I thought a refund was the government paying me?"
Think of it this way: Assume your electric bill only comes once a year. But, in order to make sure they get their money, the electric company makes you pay each month. Since they don't know exactly how much your bill will be for the year, they make a guess: say $110 a month. So, at the end of the year you've paid a total of $1320. But, what if your yearly bill only comes out to $1200? Well, you'd be refunded the $120 you've over-paid for the year. They're just giving the extra money back that you've paid them unnecessarily all year long.
So what can you do to keep from overpaying throughout the year? You adjust your exemptions. Basically, the more exemptions you claim, the less they'll withhold each paycheck, and the more money will end up in your pocket each month. But, if you claim too many exemptions, or withhold too much additional money, and they don't withhold enough, you'll end up owing money at the end of the year.
"Okay, so how come getting a nice big check for a refund is so evil?"
A couple reasons:
1) You're giving the government an interest-free loan. Basically, you're saying "Here's some extra money. I won't need it until April, so go ahead a use it until then."
2) You're cheating yourself out of additional interest money. When you don't pre-pay extra money, you have more money available to invest or pay off debts. That's pretty valuable time money-wise, since when it comes to interest, either on your mortgage, credit cards, or a savings account, time is money.
3) You're depriving yourself out of additional monthly cash-flow. Every extra dime you pre-pay the government is one less dime in your pocket each month. Those dimes could be used for groceries, the electric bill, or insurance.
Basically, loaning someone (the government in this case) money interest-free, while you could use the money is a very poor financial decision. From a purely financial, numbers-only standpoint, it's a no-brainer to try to eliminate your refund.
All that said, MLB and I are will be receiving a rather large tax refund in the next week or so, and we did it completely on purpose.
"What? After that long dissertation on why refunds are evil, you STILL get one?"
Yep, we sure do. More on why we intentionally make such a poor financial decision tomorrow.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
I spent a good portion of the day this past Saturday and all of Sunday in the garage, enjoying the nice weather and getting in some solid, quality puttering. Since spring is right around the corner, I concentrated on getting some things cleaned up and ready for summer use.
The lawnmower was thoroughly checked over. It received an oil change, a clean air filter and some fresh gasoline. I cleaned and repainted the deck and performed one of my favorite garage tasks: sharpening the mower blade. For some reason, I just love donning some gloves and safety glasses letting the sparks fly.
I also prepped the snowblower for storage. I removed the remaining fuel with my brand new shiny transfer pump (I busted my old one), and gave it a good cleaning and a coat of wax.
"He waxes his snowblower!?!"
Yes, I wax my snowblower. It helps to keep rust away, and it helps the snow to slide off the paint in the winter. So what?
I also finished the small table I built for a friend's dog. It needed another good finish sanding and another couple coats of polyurethane.
The rest of the time was spent sanding and refinishing my workbench (winter projects had it pretty banged up), putting away the tools, odds and ends that had accumulated over the last several months, and giving everything a good cleaning and wipedown.
Now, that sure sounds productive, but I'll be the first to admit that a very large portion of my garage puttering is just that, puttering. I re-organize tool drawers, sort sandpaper, perform some basic cleaning, and just generally move stuff from here to there and back. But, I love it. I love listening to the radio (talk radio or baseball games in the summer) and just being around tools, dirt, and projects. I love the smells of gasoline, sawdust, and that wonderful hot-electricity smell that power tools emit.
If this is what retirement is going to bring everyday, I can't wait.
Monday, March 12, 2007
I wheeled the white and silver two-wheeler into the center of the garage bay and got it up on a stand so I could do some checks. I noticed that my license plate sticker was almost expired, so I retrieved the new 2008 one from the safe and I went through my routine spring inspection:
- change the oil and filter
- check the air cleaner
- check tires for flaws and check pressures
- check the drivebelt
- bleed the brakes
- check all bulbs and switches
- wrench-check all critical fasteners
Once all that was done, I filled it with some fresh 93 octane and pressed the 'engine start' button. It fired up on the first crank with no leaks and no unusual sounds. Then I took it around the cul-de-sac a couple of times to check the operation of the clutch, gearbox, suspension and brakes. No problems were found, so I deemed the bike ready to rock and roll for the spring.
After my little test-ride, I pulled back into the garage and shut the bike down. I looked back through the open garage door and the weather outside was absolutely gorgeous: 55 degress and sunny with little wind; for a cold-weather wuss like me, it was perfect for the first ride of the year. My eyes slid over to the leather jacket and gloves hanging on the garage wall, then to my selection of helmets. I was already anticipating the rush of acceleration accompanied by the glorious sound of a big-bore V-twin at wide-open throttle and I could still smell the freshly burned gasoline in the air. Manly-man personality was kicking in hard and I wanted to go for a country ride badly.
But, my more nerdy side quickly brought manly-man to a screeching halt.
During the winter, I de-activate all insurance on the motorcycles except for comprehensive coverage. I don't ride November through February, so it saves me a couple bucks a year to do the de-activation/re-activation dance once a year. Since it had been cold and snowy recently, I hadn't yet thought to contact my insurance agent to re-activate my insurance on the motorcycles. To make it worse, it was Saturday so I couldn't make a quick phone call to my agent to get the job done. The last thing I want is to get into an accident and not be covered by insurance, so my riding for the day was painfully limited to the four minute stint around the cul-de-sac.
Sunday was beautiful, too. Sometimes nature is so cruel.
1) I can't drink a lot of caffeine anymore. In college, I used to be able to suck down a couple bottles of Coke doing some homework, and still fall right asleep. Shortly after that, I was drinking Diet Cokes all day long, sometimes up to nine or ten a day (soda is free at TCFWIW). But, one night I was sitting on the sofa, watching television with a Diet Coke in hand. My chest started to get tight, my left arm started to tingle, and I got that shortness-of-breath and heart thumping that you get when you get really scared. I thought "Oh boy, these are heart-attack symptoms and I'm only 26." So, I went to the doctor and had a stress test done, as well as lots of other scans. As it turns out, my health is very healthy, even more so than most people my age, and everything else was normal. So, the doctor turned to my diet. As soon as I mentioned the amount of Diet Cokes in a typical day, he stopped me and stated that was my problem. So, I dumped caffeine almost entirely, cold turkey. Those first two weeks were the most painful I've ever experienced. Relentless terrible headaches, sleepless nights, and general crankiness were par for the course. But, caffeine is gone and I'm likely healthier for it. I still miss that sexy silver can, though.
2) I play "mystery bruise" in the shower. When I was younger, it seemed like I could practically whack myself with hammer and show no marks. What daily injuries I incurred seemed to heal before my very eyes. Now though, I get bruises that I have no idea where they even came from. Did I run into a table? Did I bang my arm on something? Who knows for sure, but it seems like I get bruises for no good reason now. When did I become so fragile?
3) I went from an iron stomach to one of paper. In my younger days, I could eat two dozen super-hot buffalo wings, some chili, and some warm Dr. Pepper in one sitting and feel like I could run a marathon. Now, my stomach moans and groans just at the thought of a greasy pizza or Chinese food. What the heck happened?
4) I take vitamins. When I don't take vitamins, I'm sluggish, cranky, and achy. If I miss my gingko biloba, I'm stuck with a dull headache all day. Am I really this close to a shoebox-sized box of pills with the days of the week on it?
Like I said, reality smacks me around on a pretty regular basis, but Mother Nature has been more than happy to throw some extra jabs and uppercuts my way over the last couple of years. With my birthday coming up shortly, it sure seems like she's not holding back now.
If anybody finds a fountain of youth, let me know, okay?
Friday, March 9, 2007
For those too lazy to click the above link and read the general premise behind my self-tax, it's okay; I totally understand. Here's a nine-word breakdown:
I pay myself a 10% tax on poor purchases.
Anyway, it's been four complete months since the implementation of the self-tax, and it seems to be pretty effective. Since January, spending on lunches out has dropped by over 60%, and since MLB doesn't really eat lunch at restaurants very often, it's been mostly because of my choices. I can definitely tell you the decision to eat a packed lunch or a Wendy's hamburger (oh, baby), has been affected by the penalty of the tax. Well, the tax and the fact that I had to move my belt tab out a notch in January. Ouch.
So, for the rest of the data freaks, here are the numbers and the matching lame excuses for January and February:
January: $193.65 paid in tax. This was pretty high for a couple of reasons. First, I threw a small birthday party for MLB, and I had to buy prizes, food, and some other odds and ends. That drove the number up. Also, we replaced our CRT monitors in the office with some pretty 19" LCD ones, which kicked the tax up by over forty bucks. The good news is that the tax from dining out dropped by almost 70%.
February: $254.31 paid in tax. I can blame a sizable portion of February's tax on MLB. She went on a bit of spending spree for clothing (deservedly, though), and had a rather pricey hair appointment, so that punched it up about seventy bucks. Add in a payment to DD's daycare (boy, does that topic deserve it's own post), and a new color printer for the office, and some passport renewal fees, and the result is a sky-high tax. Again though, dining out spending was way down from December.
So, all things considered, the tax has brought down our expenses by more than enough to cover the tax itself, as well as put a little additional money into savings. Both are very good things.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
"What?! Is he crazy? Ceiling fans in the winter?"
Yeah, crazy like a fox. Here's why: Ceiling fans can actually save on heating costs in the winter. The temperature of the air in a heated room varies in layers; it's stratified. Because warm air is less dense than cool air, the air near the ceiling is warmer than the air near the floor. A ceiling fan can help push the warmer air that is trapped near the ceiling back down into the room, de-stratifying (or breaking apart) the layers of air. This way, the warm air is circulated where it is needed (to the middle and floor of the room, where the people are), and the heating system doesn't have to work as hard to warm the room.
"Okay, I'll just walk over here and turn it on..."
Not so fast. It's not quite that simple; it has to be running the proper direction. Have you ever noticed that there's a small toggle switch on your ceiling fan? That switch controls the fan's direction, making it spin either clockwise or counter-clockwise. But, there's a catch. That switch isn't labeled with a "forward/reverse" sticker on most ceiling fans (none of ours, for sure). You have the beauty-conscious "form before function" folks to thank for that one.
"Great. I'll just flip that little toggle switch and..."
Hold your horses. It's a bit more complex than that. The direction the fan needs to turn is dependent on the height of your ceiling.
"Now I have to measure my ceiling? I'm all about saving money, but not if I have to do math. FNN, this is getting too complicated!"
Hang in there. I promise to keep it as simple as possible and you won't need a calculator. Basically, if you have a standard height ceiling...
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. A 'standard height ceiling?' Now, I'm a contractor?"
Alright, fine. Stand up. Stick your hand up in the air. Jump. If you can touch the ceiling, or almost touch the ceiling, it's a standard height ceiling, typically eight feet. If you can't touch it, and your tallest friend probably couldn't touch it, it's greater than standard height. See? No math required.
Anyway, if you have a standard height ceiling, then you want the fan to run in the reverse direction. Specifically, the fan blades should be running with the lower edge being the leading edge into the air. Having the fan run in this direction will pull the air in the room upward, which will push the warm air near the ceiling outward and force it to mix with the rest of the air without creating turbulence that you can feel. While it seems to be common sense that running the fan in the forward direction (as you would in summer) would also push the warm air down, it also creates a breeze in the room, which gives you an undesired cooling effect, much like wind-chill. Running it reverse avoids this wind-chill effect, but still mixes the air.
However, if you have a tall ceiling (greater than eight feet or so), you want to run your fan in the forward direction. Specifically, the ceiling fan blades should be running with the upper edge of the blade being the leading edge. This pushes the warm air near the ceiling down into the room. But, because the fan is far enough from you, the breeze that is created is dissipated before you can feel it.
"Okay, I got my fan running the right direction. So, how much can I save?"
Well, according to the manufacturer of the ceiling fan I installed last year, you can save about 10% of your heating costs in the winter. That's nowhere near the 40% you can save in the summer, but still noticeable. These savings are more noticeable homes with high or vaulted ceilings.
10% in the winter...and you didn't even have to do math.
Who's crazy now?
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
When I get home from grocery shopping, I take my receipt upstairs to the office and go over it in detail. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to make sure that what I paid was correct, and that I wasn't charged something way out of line for toilet paper or ground sirloin. Second, I want to generate some illustrative data.
"Wait, did he just say 'generate illustrative data'?"
Yes, I did. Remember, I'm a data man. Things like this should no longer surprise you.
The prices that I paid for regularly purchased items (bread, milk, chicken breasts, green peppers, etc.) are logged in a spreadsheet (surprise!) and I track them over time, generating trend curves for their prices. For example, I can tell you what the low price I've paid for chicken breasts has been for the last six months, and I can tell you the average price I've paid. This way, before I head over to our Giant Eagle grocery store, I can see what I've been paying historically, and make a decision as to whether I should buy something now (because the price is below my average), or if I should wait until next trip. That said, my grocery-shopping methods and adventures should probably be another post. Back to how this relates to gasoline...
What I'm getting at is this: produce and meat prices fluctuate far, far more than gas prices ever have. Even when you throw out sale price ups and downs, they're still far more volatile. And, you can save more money driving across town for cheap vegetables than you can by driving across town for cheap gas.
Example: The last time I went to the grocery store for green peppers, they were priced at an outrageous $2.19 each at Giant Eagle. So, of course, I didn't buy them. However, I still needed them for a recipe, so I went to Kroger instead. They had them for $1.39 each. I bought two and saved $1.60.
Compare this to gas prices. I personally know people that will drive well out of their way to save a measly five cents a gallon on gasoline. But, by buying just two green peppers at Kroger instead of Giant Eagle I saved more money than buying thirty-two gallons of gas (more than two fill-ups) priced at a nickel cheaper. How absurd is that?
Furthermore, I use coupons at Giant Eagle and regularly save around 7-10% because of it. On a typical $250 a month food budget, I save $20 to $25 just by cutting out a few slips of paper from the newspaper. In order to save the same amount of money on 5-cent discounted gasoline in a month, I'd have to drive over twelve-thousand miles in only thirty days! That's almost as much as I drive in a year! I save far, far, far more money by clipping coupons than nearly anyone ever will by changing their habits about gasoline.
There are a ton of places you can readily yield more savings if given the same amount of effort that many people do trying to penny-pinch at the pump; green peppers and coupon clipping are just a couple. Yet, lots of people moan and groan about the fluctuations of gas prices and drive well out of their way for five or ten-cent discounted gas, yet completely neglect to clip coupons or merely price shop for other items. It simply doesn't make sense.
So why do we have this undeserved obsession with gas price ups and downs? I think it's simply because gas prices are constantly in your face around town and constantly pounded into your mind by the media. When was the last time you heard Katie Couric say "Kraft Cheese Singles hit their highest price in six weeks, today..."?
In fact, most prices look outrageous when you put them on tall signs in big numbers. If you see huge numbers displaying the price of gas every single day, you can't help but notice and track them, and of course, I still do. But, I certainly won't go out of my way to find the cheapest place to purchase gasoline.
Green peppers, though, is another matter entirely.