Thursday, April 24, 2008

Online "Free" Credit Reports Not Always So Free

American Public Media's 5-minute daily tech show Future Tense did an episode yesterday about and similar websites (link goes to site where you can stream this episode). Several years ago, the U.S. federal government required credit agencies Experian, Equifax, and Transunion to put up the website, where you can actually get a free, annual credit report. Since then, these same credit agencies have put up other websites with similar names. These other sites often include "free" in the web address, but they actually exist to try and sell you unnecessary, additional credit services that the average consumer doesn't really need. So, despite the advice of the singing pirate guy, you should probably stick with if you want a report that is easy to get and actually free.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Saving on Regular Monthly Expenses

I'm a believer in taking stock of your regular monthly expenses and thinking seriously about what could be cut or reduced. What you find and the action steps you choose to take will vary depending on your situation. What my wife and I found a couple of years back is that it made no sense to keep a land line phone when we had a cellphone plan. We also found that we are people who can live without cable television and never really miss it. (In fact, we know that if we did have cable, we would be unable to resist the lure of watching pure garbage. I just can't take the risk of seeing more than one episode of VH1's Rock of Love.)

More recently, we found a way to cut our high-speed internet bill by $20. We're honest with ourselves when it comes to the fact that we are people who need the internet. A good deal of our information and entertainment comes from the web, and it's also rather important when it comes to our personal correspondence and shopping. We had been paying quite a bit for cable internet, and while researching other options we realized that our cable company offers a lower tier of broadband internet at a significantly lower price. This is still broadband - just slower than the 11 mbps he had been paying for. From the research I did, all of the things we use the internet for (YouTube, email, research, news) should still work fine. I just called them yesterday to make the switch, and I'm already feeling about $20 cleverer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Benign Neglect" versus Overstimulation

This morning I listened to a recent edition of the BBC 4 radio program Bringing Up Britain (available to stream online here). The topic was one that I think all of us modern parents think about a lot when comparing our own childhoods to today's world: what is the right balance of free play (running around the yard, exploration without guidance, sitting around, thinking, "hanging out" with friends) to structured time (piano lessons, sports, band, speech team, baby swim lessons). This brings up a lot of other questions that I've only begun to explore on this website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The First Windows-Open Day of Spring

Pictured above: A view of My Fair City, April 2004

Today was the fairest day so far this spring. It was sunny all day and the afternoon temperature reached 74 degrees. The only negative thing was a bit of a stiff wind, and even that - considering that every other aspect of the day was on its best behavior - was merely an exhilarating tousle of the hair. After picking up my son from daycare, doing some banking, shopping for groceries, and having a little snack with him at the dinner table, we both settled into the sort of afternoon nap a person remembers fondly years later. I found myself meandering easily in and out of consciousness in my sunny bedroom, intermittently aware of the sound of birds and my son breathing in the next room. A profound calm came over me. I realize this is something I feel every year, but only fully understand when I'm in the midst of it. This is the true beginning of spring. This is human life becoming easier, lighter.

While the boy still slept, I went to the kitchen to brew some iced tea.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Buying Toys From Consignment

I cannot put enough emphasis on how great it is to buy toys secondhand, be it from consignment stores, thrift shops, online auction, classified ads or what have you. I've mentioned before how babies grow out of things so quickly that used supplies and toys are often in great condition. Recently, realizing that our son wanted some independent practice in the art of walking, we stopped by a local consignment superstore and found a cute toy ice cream cart, which was the perfect height for our baby and had just the right amount of stability to help a beginning walker keep his face off the floor during those afternoon constitutionals around the living room. This was five dollars well spent, and it's in equal or better condition that the toys he plays with during his mornings at daycare.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Encouraging Independence

Something that I've had to actively remind myself to do, being a person who often wants things done a certain way, is to allow my child to do things for himself. This includes recognizing when he is potentially capable of doing something and then giving him the opportunity and plenty of time to do it. Eating with a spoon is an example of this. It is going to be a long time before my son is proficient with a spoon, and for now he mainly just makes a mess. However, I think it's important that he be able to play around with it, getting a feel for the spoon in his hand and a sense of what he can do with it. To do this, I have to temporarily set aside my need for things to be neat, tidy and done efficiently. It is absolutely worth it, though, when I watch him making a terrible mess with a bowl of applesauce and I look at his face to see how much this is challenging and entertaining him.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sparks Will Fly

Here's an interesting science experiment that I recently conducted entirely by accident: Did you know that green beans will spark in your microwave? Supposedly, the veggie is so dense and the mineral content so high that you get a similar effect to that which takes place if you accidentally leave a fork in a bowl before heating it up. This is not a safe experiment to intentionally carry out in your home, so if you are planning to microwave some green beans, make sure you add some water to the dish, which seems to eliminate the weird effect.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Recipe: Toaster Oven Strawberry Shortcake

Ah, spring. What better embodies this happy time of year than supermarket shelves being stocked with fresh strawberries at sale prices? This amazing dessert got my wife through the last month or so of her pregnancy, and she often refers to it as the reason our baby is so sweet.

1 cup low-fat baking mix (Bisquick or generic equivalent)
2 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup nonfat milk
1 cup thawed, frozen strawberries (optional, can substitute store bought strawberry syrup)
5 or 6 fresh strawberries

The Shortcakes:
Preheat toaster oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together baking mix and sugar, then stir in milk just until dry ingredients are moist. Drop onto ungreased baking sheet (makes 4 cakes). Bake for 8 minutes, or until just barely starting to brown on top.

The Sauce:
You can either buy strawberry syrup from the store (probably near the maple syrup and pancake mixes) or you can make your own healthier sauce by pureeing about a cup of thawed, frozen strawberries in a food processor or blender.

To Serve:
Cut each cake in half while still a bit warm. Put the bottom half on a plate and add some sauce and chopped, fresh strawberries. Place the other half on top and do the same. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream if you desire.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fad Toys

There's a so-so article on Slate about the Webkinz phenomenon, and it causes me to think about how my kid will very likely want one of the irritating fad toys with which marketers so proudly assault children's growing minds. Webkinz has the added annoyance factor: the stuffed animal you buy comes with a completely unnecessary online component, which as far as I can tell is kind of like Warcraft for kids, only more demented and pathetic. The importance of instilling sales resistence in my child early has never been more clear.

It is a coincidence that I happened to be thinking about this right around the time a PR firm sent me a Tamagotchi V5 to review. Looking at the packaging, I see that this toy also wants to guide me to their online community. We'll see how I fare with this thingie. I'm hoping that, unlike what I've heard about Webkinz, the online games aren't mandatory for keeping your little pet alive - because that is seriously weird. Stay tuned...

Monday, April 7, 2008

High Chair Alternatives

Baby Cheapskate recently posted about the money you can save by skipping the traditional high chair and instead opting for a cheaper baby seat or booster that attaches to a regular chair. This is the setup we have, and we're very happy with it. An added bonus is that the seat is extra portable, in case you're visiting friends or relatives who don't happen to have anything of the sort in their home.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Baby Haircuts

Did you know that there are places that charge twenty bucks to cut a baby's hair? I guess people who cut a baby's hair have to put up with a bit more squirming and screaming than your average stylist (unless you figure in Medieval barbers), but I'm afraid I am just way too stingy to part with one score dollars for this service. Fortunately, my wife has bravely taken on the role of our little boy's stylist. She has no formal training, but she used to cut her roommate's hair in college, and has even had a go at mine from time to time.

The Washington Post's On Parenting wrote about this recently, mentioning the modern-day, expensive kiddie haircut establishments, while also noting that your ordinary, neighborhood barber might be a place for a simple cut. There are sources on the internet to help you learn to cut your child's hair, but I'm going to let you Google it. Searching for it yourself with give you a sense of accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Craigslist and Baby Supplies

Thinking about all the costs associated with being a parent can be overwhelming. I remember feeling this way as my wife and I were preparing for the birth of our baby and doing the requisite research into just what kinds of things we needed to have in our house before this little person was allowed to set foot. One of the first things we learned (and we had an inkling of this already) is that you don't need most of what the Baby Industry tries to sell you. A lot of things are nice if you can afford them. Other things actually seem to be a lot more trouble than they're worth.

A very short list of things are absolute necessities: You need (you must have) a car seat, you need a safe place for the little one to sleep (though the industry really tries hard to sell you a Cadillac of cribs, which you don't need at all), you need whatever supplies will be involved in feeding her, some simple clothes, burp cloths, and a few other items. For a great way to calm yourself way down about the responsibilities and supplies associated with a new baby, check out the book Baby Love: A Tradition of Calm Parenting by Maud Bryt from your local library, or buy it online. This book will really put you on an even keel once What to Expect When You're Expecting sends you into a frenzy of terror.

The trouble with a lot of these things is that you'll use them for less than a year and then have to buy all new things for your now much larger baby. That's another thing you don't think about before actually having one: babies come in different sizes, and your baby will at some point be all of them. We found that a great place to get rid of these items and take in some extra cash for buying the next round of stuff is Craigslist. This, you may know, is super-easy, free online classified advertising. It beats eBay for a lot of the big baby stuff since the shipping costs on such items would be quite hefty. Sales are done informally and all your buyers are local, so you just need to arrange a time for them to stop by and hand you some money for a tiny baby swing that your now nine-month-old child could bend in half with his bare hands like Superman would a lead pipe.

A while back, my wife discovered an almost unbelievable deal on baby food. We stocked up, though we mostly made our own baby food, as this deal was literally almost free and it's always good to have backup if you can. Recently, after using some and giving a good deal away to other friends with babies, we sold what was left on Craigslist and actually made a profit. Okay, so this story is kind of a rare, extreme example of making money off your old stuff. Most of the time, you can only hope to get a little bit of your initial investment back to put toward something else your baby needs, but even so it's still well worth your while to look into it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Happy Side-effect of Coupon Shopping

My wife and I have been getting more and more into finding the best deals lately. We've been watching for sales on supplies we need and keeping our eyes open for coupons. This in itself can save you a lot of money, but I've found that it has an added side-effect that serves to keep more of our money in our bank account. When you go into a store specifically to buy a couple of sale items, carefully checking prices and flipping through your small handful of coupons, you are much less likely to pick up an item you don't need as an impulse buy. You just look at the price on something as small as a pack of gum and imagine it as the savings you worked so cleverly to secure suddenly disappearing at the last moment. Put into that context, you're certainly not going to let that happen!

Recipe: Cinnamon Scones

These are the greatest thing in my personal baking repertoire.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold butter cut into pieces
1/2 cup Hershey's cinnamon chips
1 large egg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 capful imitation vanilla extract (optional)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Have a large, ungreased baking sheet set aside. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly in a large bowl. Drop the margarine in and cut with 2 knives or a pastry blender, tossing the pieces with the flour mixture to coat and separate them as you work, until the largest pieces are the size of peas and the rest resemble breadcrumbs. Do not allow the butter to melt or form a paste with the flour. Stir in the cinnamon chips. Whisk the egg, cream, and vanilla together in a separate bowl, then add to the flour mixture. (Keep some of the egg mixture back - maybe about half a teaspoon. It will be used later.) Mix with a rubber spatula or what have you just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Gather the dough into a ball and knead it gently against the sides and bottom of the bowl, turning and pressing until most of the loose pieces adhere to the dough and the bowl is fairly clean. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and pat the dough into two 6-7 inch rounds, each about 3/4 inch thick. Cut each into 8 wedges and place at least 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Brush the tops with the remaining egg mixture and sprinkle with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Bake until the tops are golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on a rack or serve warm. Excellent with tea.

Adapted from the recipe for Classic Currant Scones found in the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking. For a lower fat recipe, substitute margarine for butter and half and half for heavy cream.