Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dr. Pepper Onion Rings

I was just experimenting in the kitchen tonight, and I decided to make my own recipe of Dr. Pepper onion rings. Try it out and let me know what you think and your own suggestions on how to make it better (I am not a chef, and I was just having fun with this, so I won't be offended by critique).

1 cup flour
1 cup caffeine free Dr. Pepper
1 tsp worcestershire sauce
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground red pepper

Mix all ingredients for batter. Slice onions and separate into rings. Using a fork, immerse the rings in the batter and then pull them out and fry in canola oil until golden brown.

Wendy, you have a bye on this one ;)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beautiful Fairy Friends

I'm so glad that my two girls seem to be playing together more and more. Like most parents, I'm sure, I really wanted my kids to be pretty close in age so that they could play together and always have a friend. It is just a great big bonus that they are both girls, so they are likely to have more of the same interests.

Tonight I found them running around the house with their fairy wings on.

Kallie would look to Paige to see what she was doing...

And then follow right along.

They would run around with their arms spread when they were flying, and they even sang "La la la la" together.

And I'm just posting this one from the other day because it is so cute.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Humanity in War

I'm now reading "When We Were One," which is first-hand accounts from World War II written by a journalist who was there, and though I'm not very far into the book yet, my heart weighs so heavy, and I felt the need to pause for a moment of contemplation. If you read Wikipedia, it will tell you that 70 million people perished in World War II, making it the bloodiest human conflict in history. This number is so massive that it is nearly impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy, and yet the sad reality of the loss of these souls doesn't seem to really sink in until you hear the stories of individual soldiers and how they lost their lives.

Amid the horrors, though, a beautiful beam of humanity shines through, and those are the moments when you realize that, above all, the soldiers were human, and they were humans capable of extraordinary acts. I read of a "kid" (and really they were all kids, most of them under the age of 21) who risked his life by running across an open area to bring water to a platoon, and was blown away 50 yards from the command post. A whole life - someone's beloved son - and all his dreams, gone in an instant. I read of a tank that was hit, and when reports came back to the infantry that the two men inside were in a bad way and that medics had not yet arrived, two men ran out in the open without the protection offered by white medic armbands and helped bring those men off the field, though one was already dead. These men were strangers, yet they were all bound together by the common thread of humanity.

In the photographs in the books, I have looked into the faces of those young men, and I could see people I know in their faces. They were just people like you and me and our friends and neighbors, and it has made me wonder about us. In a generation that is far removed from the horrors endured by the sons of World War II and its predecessor that killed their fathers, it seems we have become petty and deeply divided. We seem to stand on one side of the fence and say that anyone on the other side of the fence is not like us, and we work to keep the fences high and sturdy. And while we argue and point fingers, I wonder if those soldiers now cry from the grave to be grateful and loving and kind and to work together because living is no guarantee, and your legacy can be sealed at any instant. I wonder, but I do think that it is during our toughest trials that we can really show what we're made of, and I believe even our generation could rise to the same greatness I saw in those soldiers of long ago.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Lesson in History

After watching Valkyrie, I became interested in finding out more about World War II, so I went to my local library and checked out some books on the subject. I just finished reading "Our Finest Day" subtitled "D-Day: June 6, 1944." At times I cried, as I imagined the horrors of the ordeal, and at other times I was just full of awe at the bravery and determination of the Allied troops. I've heard of D-Day before and the storming of the beaches at Normandy, but I didn't really know what they were. When I arrived in Le Havre on a cruise ship in 2003, I had no idea how close I was to the site of the pivotal Allied push on the western front in WWII. In fact, I had no idea the scope of Hitler's ambition, and I am embarrassed to admit I didn't know that the Nazis occupied France.

It made me wonder why I knew so little. After all, this second world war of the 20th century was within the memories of my grandparents, and it was a really big deal. Why didn't I know more? I mean, even though I've heard of the Battle of the Bulge, I couldn't tell you one thing about it, except maybe that it was during WWII. I remember being so proud of myself in high school because I never studied before my history tests, yet I could ace them because I could cram the information into my head really quickly and keep it there long enough to pass. Now I'm not feeling so proud.

I went through this same train of thought after reading "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and realizing how little I knew about the struggle between the whites and the Indians. It made me feel a sense of shame over the white man's actions that I never felt when I was in school... I really think I never got the "meaty" substance of the events in school. Before, I had felt proud that my 3rd great grandfather was so brave in staving off the Indians amid flying bullets in early Utah settlements, but now that I've heard the other side of the story, I'm not so sure how I feel.

I'm left wondering what percentage of the information I was supposed to learn in high school and college actually sank in. It's humiliating to write this, but I'm wondering if anyone else feels the same way. Do you ever feel you may have forgotten a lot of what you learned or never learned it at all? All I can say is thank goodness for books!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When the Dollar Store Rules

The dollar store... I have to admit, it's one of the places I go every so often... not that I love cheap junk, but I do love a good deal. I've been burned there, though. I bought a cooking spoon that appeared to be made of the same tough nylon that that the spoons selling for five times its price at Target were... but I guess it wasn't, judging by the fact that it snapped in half after a short time of use. Aw, there's a dollar down the drain. I replaced it with a spoon from Target. But did I give up on dollar stores? No way! Here are some of my ideas about when the dollar store rules:

Gift wrap, bows, bags, etc. At most stores, by the time you get the holographic wrapping paper, a big bow, and a decent card, you're out $10! Instead, get 2 cards, 2 bows, and wrapping paper for $3, and have enough left over to wrap another gift later. I'll admit, the paper is thin, but really... it's meant for the garbage... should we really be splurging here?

Party supplies. Again, why does a pack of plates cost $4 at a party store but only $1 at the dollar store? I don't really know (anyone?). These are also items that will be used once and then thrown away... the perfect candidate for dollar store merchandise. I am ward activities committee chairperson, and I love getting 20 tablecloths for $20. I also get 3-liter bottles of pop for the ward parties here.

Kids. I make my kids save at least half of their allowance, so they only have a couple dollars left to spend. This could be disappointing for them if I took them to the mall afterward, but when I take them to the dollar store, they can buy more than one thing... and even better than that, ANYTHING in the whole store! Sometimes when we're bored, we just go there to find something fun to play with... the kids love it, and I have no guilt.

Halloween "poop" candy. Every year, I make sure to get a couple of bags of the nastiest candy I can find to give to the teenagers who are too old to be trick-or-treating or any kids who don't dress up. The dollar store always comes through for me on this.

Glow sticks, bracelets, necklaces. Yes, the ones you see at outdoor night time events that are already glowing and being whipped around by the person selling them are enticing, but oh the markup! I always tell the kids, "We can get some at the dollar store before we come next time," which I never do because I forget, but still...

Stocking stuffers. Need I say more?

Mylar balloons.

So, even though it's pretty much a junk store, it does have its place. Cheap thrills and good deals... what more could you want?

Monday, January 19, 2009

I dove in... and then closed my eyes

October's stock market crash was the first I've experienced since I began investing. My jaw dropped as the losses poured in, and it left my portfolio badly wounded. Since I subscribe to the buy-and-hold philosophy of stock market investing, I did nothing but watch. I didn't panic, though... after all, retirement is still far away... and as time passed, I got more and more used to the idea of my new account balances.

Always an avid reader of all things economic, I began seeing several articles by analysts I respect about how now is the best time to invest, and it may be the best chance my generation ever gets. I wanted to invest more money in the stock market, but the problem was that I didn't have any extra money to invest. So, I began to get creative.

Saying I didn't have any extra money to invest wasn't strictly true. In 2005, I set up my and my husband's Roth IRA's to make automatic investments once a month so as to invest the entire amount of our yearly contributions by year's end. Since the contribution limit changed in 2008, I had a small cash balance in each account due to the higher contribution. I decided to go ahead and invest that money in a total stock market index ETF.

Some of the assets in my and my husband's 401(k) accounts were in bonds, and since the market had dropped, there was now a higher percentage of assets in bonds than normal. I took the plunge and moved everything into stocks. That's when I closed my eyes.

I increased my husband's 401(k) contributions so that we are now contributing the maximum, and I changed future contributions to invest in stocks only.

Now, I plan to be patient because it may take a long time to recover from this recession. I made a plan to slowly move assets back into bonds as the market recovers (for example, I'll put 5% in bonds when the DOW hits 9500... these are just numbers set by me). Hopefully, this strategy will help lock in profits. In the future, I will move more money in bonds when the stock market hits record highs, this also to lock in profits and protect me more in downturns.

One article I read suggested that the market crash actually removed a lot of the risk from stocks because so much of the inflated value has disappeared. Another article pointed out that the high average of return that we have come to expect from the stock market isn't possible without the huge increases normally experienced in the years after a stock market crash. I want to be poised to take advantage of that.

Now, I know the future isn't guaranteed to anyone. However, I try to keep my head and avoid emotional investing, which usually leads people to buy high and sell low. I know I am making a bet by moving all my assets into stocks, but I figure I have time on my side. I wondered what the worst that could happen was, and I decided I was willing to accept it. After all, if armageddon comes in the mean time, we're all hosed anyway.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How I Bring in a Little Extra Money

If I died today, I'm sure my husband would have a terrible time trying to figure out where all our money is, but once he did, I'm sure he'd have an even harder time trying to figure out WHY. To him, a checking account and a savings account are all that is needed, but that's not enough for me... apparently. Last year, I decided that since I was spending so much time managing our finances, I'd try out some strategies to try to bring in just a little more money. It's my way of contributing, right?

So, the first thing I did was to sign up for rewards credit cards, which have brought in roughly $900 in the almost two years I've had them. Since this money is cash back, it is TAX FREE!

The next thing I did was to open an interest bearing checking account. I already had a high interest savings account at ING Direct, so I just opened a checking account there, too. This has been a bit of a pain, which I'll probably explain in another post, but in the almost two years I've had it, I've earned $58.80. Since the checking account earns less interest than the savings account, I keep most money in the savings account, so the interest earned here is pretty low, and it's TAXABLE, so I don't think this particular move was worth it.

I still had a savings account at Washington Mutual for my tithing, which was earning a measley 0.5% interest rate. So, I opened what they called an online savings account, which at the time was giving a 5% interest rate. Of course, this rate has fallen considerably since then. This move has earned me an additional $258.63, which is also TAXABLE.

So, opening these three accounts, in addition to the accounts I already had (and this is why my husband rolls his eyes at all this), I have brought in another $1217 in almost two years. If I had it to do over again, I'd definitely do the rewards credit cards and the online savings account, but I probably would not do the interest bearing checking account. The credit cards do take time to manage because I have to watch my budget more closely, but they bring in the highest reward, so they are definitely worth it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Love Rewards Cards

Yes, the advertising worked. As I kept seeing commercials and internet ads for credit cards that offered rewards, I started thinking, "Why don't I do that?" I mean, I already had a credit card that had a low interest rate, but I never carried a balance, so it didn't matter what my rate was, and I was getting absolutely nothing for being a good and loyal customer. I'm usually risk averse... well, mostly... so, even though I knew that interest rates are higher on these types of cards, I also knew that I've always been responsible with credit, and I decided this was a risk I could handle. My idea was that I would charge as many of my monthly expenses as possible to my cards and earn interest on my paycheck while I waited for the credit card bills to come in (more on that in another post). I thought, I'll just give this a try, and if I don't like it, I can always go back to my debit card. I had nothing to lose.

The first thing I did was go to a website that compares credit cards and find which ones would work for me. First, I decided on the American Express card from Costco, which gives 3% back for gasoline and eating out, 2% for travel, and 1% everywhere else. Since American Express is one of those cards that you can't use everywhere, I also got a Citibank Driver's Edge Visa, which gives 1% everywhere plus $.01 for every mile I drive. I guess I didn't understand the terms completely because when I got the card, I realized that it offered rebates, not cash back. BIG DIFFERENCE! This means, I can only redeem the rebates for services performed on my car or a car purchase, and I have to submit a form to get a rebate. Kind of a pain, but I've dealt with it okay. After almost 2 years now, I've gotten $337.73 back in rebates on car services (including oil changes, which is the most useful to me) and a $225 reward check from my American Express last February. This February, I'll get another check, and this time, since it spans an entire year instead of a partial year, I'll get approximately $382. It's really not much, but I feel I might as well be getting money back for purchases I would have made anyway!

Overall, I am glad I did it, and I'll keep doing it. For one, I never have to worry about the balance in my checking account because all the little expenses go on the credit card. However, I do keep closer tabs on my budget to make sure I'm not overspending (I'll talk about how I do my budget in another post). I also have to make sure I'm never spending just to increase my cash back. Since I'm such a control freak when it comes to my money, it works for me.

So, I would recommend getting a rewards card if you've been thinking about it, but I do have some caveats to add:
  • If you carry a balance, you are much better off with a traditional card with a lower interest rate.
  • If credit cards tempt you to overspend, and you know who you are, stick to cash... you must have plenty of spending discipline to make this work.
  • Also, be sure you do your research and make sure you understand how you earn rewards and how you redeem them.