Friday, May 30, 2008

Consumer Reports: Thumbs Down on Most Rewards Programs

This guest piece has some insights about all of those so-called rewards programs. There are also tips from Consumer Reports about getting the most out of rewards programs.

"In tight economic times, savvy consumers may look to rewards programs for relief when buying essentials, but Consumer Reports’ July issue finds reaping real savings can be tough, and even the more generous programs have limits on how much consumers can earn.

To keep shoppers coming back and spending more, supermarkets, drugstores, warehouse clubs, gas stations, bookstore chains, and many other retailers are pushing points programs.

About 85 percent of U.S. households participate in at least one rewards program. A recent poll of Consumer Reports Money Adviser subscribers found that 41 percent of the newsletter’s subscribers carried three to five such cards, 9 percent had six to nine of them, and 3 percent somehow found room on their key rings or in their wallet for 10 or more.

Consumer Reports finds that along with the dizzying number of programs have come increasingly complex rules, restrictions, and limits on how much consumers can earn—making many of the programs not worth the bother.

“Carrying the right cards and ignoring the rest can save you a little money on your purchases, but consumers must choose programs that compliment their spending habits,” said Amanda Walker, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.

Some rewards cards do double duty as credit cards. Cash-back, gas, and grocery rewards credit cards can offer some relief for costly essential items, but often carry higher Annual Percentage Rates than traditional credit cards. Looking at some of the more generous credit card rewards programs, CR found that rates varied from 9.74 % to as much as 19.99 %.

“If the rates are high, the cost to carry a balance will often erase any savings the rewards program may offer,” Walker said.

A look at some of the more generous cash-back, gas, and grocery store credit card rewards programs is online at

Getting the most from Rewards Programs:

For consumers looking to reap the most rewards and avoid the traps, Consumer Reports offers the following advice:

Consider where you shop. Save your key ring or wallet space for cards that will earn rewards at stores you use most often.

Project your spending. Translate the amount you’re likely to spend into cash back or points, depending on the program. If it’s points, find out how many you need to get something you might want. If you’re using a credit card, subtract the annual fee, if any. If that calculation shows you’d have to spend a fortune to earn a pittance in rewards, you might want to use another card.
Favor cash back. You might never redeem your points, so at least you will get something. Plus cash-back cards tend to be more generous in their rewards, CR’s research has found.
Skip credit if you carry a balance. Rewards credit cards often charge relatively high interest rates, which will eat up your reward (and then some) if you carry a revolving balance. The issuer can also hold points hostage or stop adding to them if your payment is late.

Do the math on do-good programs. Cards that give your reward to a charity usually pay only about 25 to 50 cents for every $100 you spend. And you can’t write off the donation on your taxes. Both you and the charity might do better if you use a more generous rewards card, keep the money, and just write the charity a check.

Use airline miles fast. Cashing in frequent-flyer rewards has become more difficult because airlines have cut flights and now have fewer seats available. So rack them up and use them up as quickly as possible. Airlines also change their rules frequently, and several big carriers have recently gone bankrupt.

Avoid temptation. Research has shown that people who use rewards cards charge more. It’s easy to overspend just to earn a new digital camera or set of golf clubs. Beware."

For more information or to see a complete breakdown of some of the more generous credit card rewards programs, check out the July issue of Consumer Reports, on sale June 3. ______________


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Invitation: The Frugal Duchess Book Party

Wearing a $20 dress and a lot of attitude, I'll launch my first book: The Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save. The book party will be held at Books & Books on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

Please drop by if you're going to be in South Florida on June 12 @ 8 p.m. There will be free food & drinks.

It'll be great to see you there! Thanks.

Here is an excerpt from my book as featured on the Florida Trend website.



Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Financial Preperations for Hurricanes, Storms & Other Natural Disasters

I live in Paradise with palm trees, an ocean breeze and hurricanes. But you don't have to live in Florida to create emergency plans for your home and money. Unfortunately, wild fires, high winds and floods can happen anywhere.

Based on that reality, the following release about emergency plans for money apply to all of us:

"Hurricane Season starts June 1, and while Florida was spared from a major storm the last two years, many Floridians have already begun preparing for what could be a very active 2008 season. You may have already stocked up on batteries and bottled water, tested the generator, and planned an evacuation route, but have you thought about how you will manage financially should a storm come our way?

"The economic impact of a major hurricane will be felt long after the storm has passed," said Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast (CCCS). "Proper financial preparation and follow-through can make the difference between surviving a natural disaster and being financially devastated by one."

CCCS offers tips to help families weather the storm:

Start an emergency savings account. Most experts recommend having a minimum of three to six months of living expenses in an emergency fund. This fund can provide financial security in the event a hurricane hits, and can greatly reduce the stress of recovering from a major storm or other disaster. These funds can be used to make disaster repairs, cover insurance deductibles, or pay monthly bills if your income is interrupted by job loss.

Review your insurance coverage. Review your policy and make sure you have the proper amount of coverage to repair or replace your home and belongings. Pay special attention to deductibles that apply to specific events, such as hurricanes, which can be a percentage of your home's value. Also review your flood coverage, which must often be purchased separately from your homeowner's insurance. You do not want to be in the position where you need coverage that you thought you had, but do not.

Secure critical documents. Take some time to make sure that your critical documents are in a safe, secure place and could be taken with you if you have to evacuate. Collect critical paper records and if you have records on your computer, be sure to make a backup and store it away from your home. Documents you will want to secure include identification records (driver's license, green card, passport); social security and tax information; titles, deeds, and registrations for property and vehicles owned; insurance policies; credit card, bank and investment records; birth certificates, marriage certificates, and wills. Invest in a fire-proof box or safe-deposit box to keep these records secure.

Review your "what if" scenarios and make a plan. What if your place of employment is damaged and will close either for a few weeks or indefinitely? What if your employer is ready to reopen but schools are still closed and you don't have a place to bring your children? What if your home is damaged and no longer safe to live in? It is a good idea to think about all the ways the storm could impact your life and what you would do if that happened.

For example, if your place of employment will not reopen for weeks or months, do you have an emergency savings fund to carry you through? Is there another place you could work in the meantime? The rebuilding effort following a storm often creates new job opportunities. Talk to friends and neighbors about sharing the childcare responsibilities until school reopens so that you all miss as little work as possible.

"With the prediction by NOAA of up to 16 named storms and 5 major hurricanes, chances are good that we will find ourselves in the recovery process this year," said Cecere. "While we can't disaster-proof our community, we can be prepared to handle the challenges the storm leaves behind."



The Frugal Duchess Booktique
The Frugal Duchess of Beauty Store

Book Shop of Fear
The Poetry & Drama Queen
Frugal Jazz & Blues
Frugal Comic Book Connection

Monday, May 26, 2008

Saving Money through Safety: Quick Fixes & Recalls

At a recent event, I met the interior designer who had arranged the large stately room in which the gathering was held. It was a lovely space, but the designer was concerned about the safety of the marble floors and staircase.

To reduce danger, she planned to strongly suggest that her client install carpet runners or a nonskid coating on the steps and high-traffic areas.

Her concerns are well-timed. June is National Safety Month and the National Safety Council is launching a month-long campaign to improve safety at home and in the office. Home-related injuries cost an average of $1,300 per household in 2006, the National Safety Council says. To reduce accidents, it recommends the following steps:

• Fix loose or damaged carpets on floors and steps. Apply nonskid coating or ''slip-resistant mats'' on slippery floors.

• Tidy and declutter. Promptly clean up spills and pick up dropped items. Close drawers and cabinets after each use.

• Inspect ladders before and after each use.

• Install railings and ''grab bars'' in stairways and bathrooms in homes with older residents.

Household hazards also include defective products and contaminated food. You can register online for free recall bulletins from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the USDA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to Cathy at Chief Family Officer.

Warning: Given the volume of recalls, pick your targets carefully. You can also fill out product registration from the manufacturer after you make a purchase.

By registering a car seat, crib or stroller, you'll receive recall notices straight from the company. In some cases, the manufacturer will send a retro-fit kit to repair or correct the defective item, according to Cathy at CFO.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day Travel & Fuel Prices: Poll Shows Derailed Summer Plans

High gas prices -- combined with credit problems -- are prompting many of us to cut or downsize our summer travel plans. That's the word from a recent survey commissioned by TransUnion. Here's the overview from the news release:

"While the Memorial Day holiday usually sees Americans beginning to hit the road for well-deserved vacations, skyrocketing fuel prices and the uncertain economy are likely to make this a difficult summer travel season for many families.

TransUnion’s commissioned Zogby International to survey Americans about their summer vacation plans as well as their general philosophies toward financial planning.

*33 percent of all respondents say they will not go on vacation this summer.
*28 percent plan to spend less money than last year on summer vacation.
*21 percent say they plan to spend just as much money as last year on vacation
*13 percent say they will spend more.

Of those who say they will spend less or not go on vacation:

*72 percent cite concern about fuel costs as a reason.
*35 percent cite concern about credit card debt
*47 percent cite concern about other debt or financial obligations
*4 percent express concern about terrorism
*3 percent are worried about identity theft.

“It appears that given the economy, many consumers either can’t justify or feel they won’t be able to pay off the debt they’d incur to travel as they have in the past,” said Lucy Duni, vice president of Consumer Education for TransUnion’s “Since paying your bills on time and carrying low credit balances are critical components of managing your credit health for the long-term, the restraint consumers are showing is probably well advised.”

According to the survey, Americans are taking a long-term view of their finances.

*49 percent say the statement: “I’m a long hauler. I devise and adhere to long-term plans for my money” best represents their personal financial philosophy
*25 percent agree with the statement: “I’m a baby stepper. I set short-term plans and stick to them.”
*18 percent say they are best described as a finger crosser (getting by day-to-day and hoping for the best).
*2 percent characterize themselves as a dice roller (making risky moves in the hope of big returns). "


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Automatic Pilot Lands in Another Crappy Moment: A Financial Lesson

It was just another crappy moment, but as the cliche goes: I learned a lot. And so goes life with my dog Scruffy, who continues to teach me Zen-like lessons in patience, planning and the dangers of living life on automatic pilot.

Here's the scenario: A little while ago -- at sunset -- I was walking the dog and I ran out of doggy bags during our walk. (TMI) Anyway, when Scruffy (that's him in the photo) headed for a neighbor's yard, I acted like a good citizen. I asked for a plastic bag and cleaned up after my dog. And then stuff really happened. Here's what I learned:

  • Don't be smug. Blissed out from my do-good efforts to clean up after my dog, I stopped paying attention to the task at hand. Mindlessly, I let the plastic bag flap in the wind. As such, the bag missed the target, but my hands hit pay dirt. (Don't ask. TMI.) Needless to say, I needed a lot of soap when I returned home. Lesson: Stay focused on money, savings and clean-up efforts. Be mindful. Pay attention to details.

  • Don't get angry: Annoyed, I let the leash drop into the mess. As such, one mistake led to another error. Lesson: Misdirected anger just leads to bigger messes in personal, financial and professional matters.

  • Don't get lost in regrets. "I'm tired of pulling lessons out of crap." That was my mantra as I walked the dog home. But I was so lost in regrets that I twisted my ankle and almost broke my pretty silk flip-flops from China. (These pretty shoes look like Madame Butterfly meets Surfer Girl). As I tripped over the curb, I realized that in past personal and professional stumbles, I have squandered time, money and effort by banishing myself to purgatory circles of regrets. My target attitude: Stuff happens. Just clean-up and move on.



Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Welcome to Life Hackery Readers: 99 Uses for Everyday Items

A Big Welcome to readers who are visiting from The Life Hackery. That site has a great feature called "99 Extraordinary, Creative and Unusual Uses for Ordinary and Everyday Objects." I am grateful that my post on weird uses for butter is featured in that roundup.

I encourage regular readers to checkout The Life Hackery list. I thank the editors of Life Hackery for including me in the mix.

Here's a snippet:

"Imagine all of the silly old stuff you have sitting around the house that is simply going to waste and hasn’t been used in years. Think it’s all junk? Perhaps not. Here are ninety-nine creative ways you can use things you thought had only one purpose, from beer and soda to rulers, stamps, sugar, toothpaste, old CDs and even your iPod."



Monday, May 19, 2008

How One Mom Uses a Freezer to Save Time & Money

With a full plate of family, work and community commitments, one busy mom -- a neighbor -- saves time and money with a 20-cubic-foot freezer. She considers it a valuable household management tool.

Her secrets -- bulk shopping and marathon cooking sessions. On a typical shopping trip she purchases 30 half-gallon containers of milk, and large quantities of chicken and salmon. Her super-sized shopping helps her reduce trips.

She keeps her freezer stocked with soups, home-made breads and other goodies. The rationale: cooking a large pot of soup takes no more effort than preparing smaller portions. And having a supply of prepared foods reduces kitchen prep time for this mom who holds down a part-time job.

She bakes bread for the taste and the savings. ''I don't buy baked goods,'' she said.

The freezer offers cold storage for uncooked noodles, cereals and other grain products. The freezer preserves freshness and keeps products bug free, a consideration in Florida.

Whether you store dry goods or meat in the freezer, the team at Whole Foods store recommends the following handling tips:

• Seal food properly. Food, especially meat and fish, should be properly wrapped and stored to avoid frost burn, leaks and cross-contamination.

• Don't block the fan. If a freezer is overstocked with food, a lack of ventilation could hamper the cooling units.

• Divide and seal fish and meat into meal- or individual-sized portions before freezing. Smaller portions defrost more quickly.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.



Sunday, May 18, 2008

Thank You to Frugal for Life and MSN Smart Money

Dawn at Frugal For Life provided column space to me as a guest writer. My post -- An Open Letter to Consumer Products Companies -- was recently featured by Karen Datko at MSN Smart Spending: "She's ticked and she's not buying it anymore." Thanks to Dawn and Karen for providing the links and the space. I encourage my regular readers to check out the tips and information offered by Dawn and Karen.

If you are visiting my blog from either of those sites: Welcome and please look around at some of my other posts. Thanks!



Saturday, May 17, 2008

5 Great Uses for Rebate Checks: Kiplinger's

Invest in your career? Domestic travel? Those are a few of the creative ideas for rebate checks that arrived in my email box. Here's the list:

"The June issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance offers creative ways to spend the cash, benefiting you—and the nation:

1. Travel Stateside. No one can argue the restorative power of some great R&R, especially if the attractions are in the U.S. Check out a two-night trip for two from the Brewster House, a bed-and-breakfast in Freeport, Maine for $580.

2. Boost Your Career. Perfect your Microsoft Office skills and learn to navigate the Internet more adroitly through local community college classes. Use the American Association of Community Colleges' locator tool at to find a local school.

3. Help The Planet. Refrigerators can claim 12% to 20% of a family’s annual power supply, but Energy Star-rated models—many priced under $1,300—consume about as much as a 60-watt light bulb.

4. Focus on Your Neighborhood. By donating your rebate to a community foundation, you can deduct the gift from your 2008 taxes. Find a foundation near you via the Council on Foundations' directory at

5. Lend a Financial Hand. Fund a family member's mortgage at Or put your own financial house in order. Rates for financial planners in the Garrett Planning Network average $150 to $300 an hour; get a once-over for $800 to $1,500.

Here's the link to the full article.



Friday, May 16, 2008

Free Coffee Giveaways & Other Great Freebies

Last night, this sign caught my eye: "Free iced coffee every Thursday." Every Thursday from May 22 through June 12, Dunkin' Donuts offers the iced giveaway in different flavors: french vanilla, hazelnut, coconut, toasted almond and other flavors.

Each franchise owner has the option to participate, and my local DD, which is also Kosher, opted to start giving away the free coffees last night. I had hazelnut coffee--with lots of cream and sugar--on the rocks. No charge.

Starbucks also has a weekly coffee giveaway that takes place on Wednesdays during May. We received special cards for this offer. Here are details in this blog post: Free Starbucks Coffee!

Meanwhile, the current issue of Woman's Day has an excellent list of freebies or almost free stuff. The offers are not scams and the author (Mary Hunt) sampled or researched the list.

Here are two of my favorite free offers from her list:

"Business cards

VistaPrint is an online printing company known for its amazing offer of 250 free business cards. They're good-quality, too. Visit, create your card and all you have to pay is about five bucks for shipping.
Why's it free? VistaPrint would like you to join their 12 million customers who buy printing online, so they offer this enticement. Just know that once you get your business cards, you may hear from them a lot.

Expert computer help

If you've ever had a computer problem and wanted to pull out your hair in frustration, this is for you. Need to solve a hardware glitch? Want to learn how to use HTML? Submit your question at and you'll get a pretty prompt answer e-mailed to you from a volunteer expert.
Why's it free? It's no secret that many computer manufacturers provide mediocre support for their own products and charge good money for it. The folks at Protonic are tired of this sort of treatment, and believe it or not, their service is free because they enjoy helping people."



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kiplinger's Targets 8 Money-Saving Travel Sites

This item -- a guest post-- from Kiplinger's contains some solid tips about affordable travel:

"With average round-trip fares now topping $325, you need to do some serious planning to get the best deal on your next plane trip. The May issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance names eight need-to-know sites—guaranteed to save you time and money when booking your next trip—including:

· The Google of travel, it’s the fastest and most comprehensive search engine. In just a couple of minutes, it will fetch hundreds of airline fares, from Delta to Darwin Airline.
· Unlike many other sites, it lists prices for major discount carriers (notably Southwest) and some smaller airlines. It’s also usually the first to sniff out the lowest fares offered through unadvertised “fire sales,” when airlines try to fill empty seats by dropping fares and posting the discounts on their own sites.
· It goes one step beyond ferreting out bargain airfares for travelers with flexible travel dates. even tells you whether you should wait to book because fares may go even lower.
· Aptly named, it tops the charts for best deals on spontaneous trips. Even buy your tickets and book a hotel simultaneously—just a few hours before takeoff.
The article in its entirety is available at:"


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Let's Make a Deal: Haggling at Department Stores & Other Shops

Haggling over prices is expected at flea markets, yard sales and auto lots. But my sister, Debra Patterson, negotiated a sweet deal for kitchen chairs at a department store.

Her pitch: “If we buy more, can we get a discount?” The salesman didn’t have authority to respond, but a manager was able to give her a discount of $120 on the set of four chairs.

Asking for a lower price is a strategy that wins high marks from Consumer Reports. In a recent national survey of more than 2,000 shoppers, Consumer Reports National Research Center discovered that 61% of consumers have bargained for furniture, cell phones and other services at least once in the last three years. And of those who tried to cut a deal for home furnishings, 94% were successful in getting better bargains.

Among buyers who negotiated lower furniture prices, 61% saved $50 to $99, with 14% saving more than $100, and 26% saving $1 to $49.

Bargaining can also yield handsome savings on medical bills, home electronics products, appliances, jewelry and antiques, according to the Consumer Reports survey.
Whether dealing with a boutique or a national chain, here are some successful strategies:

- Seize moments of power. Use the opportunity of negotiating a new service contract or renewing an existing agreement to ask for a rate cut or extra perks.

- Use cash. Stores typically pay transaction fees of 2% to 8% on credit and debit card transactions, according to Consumer Reports. Cash sales have an extra appeal and many stores are willing to provide discounts for shoppers who pay in cash.

- Shop for flaws. Managers often give discounts for products with small flaws or for floor models.

- There are also savings in numbers. You can ask for a discount when you buy in multiples.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.


Monday, May 12, 2008

In Mourning, In Memory: Why I Haven't Posted in Days

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a recent gap in posts. The explanation: My Aunt Norma passed away and I have been sad.

My Aunt is one of the many inspirations behind my push to live frugally and I wrote about her (and my Uncle Ike) in an earlier post: Happy Birthday, Aunt Norma! Frugal Party Favors from My Aunt's Purse.

They are both important to me for several reasons, personally and professionally. On a professional level, my aunt and uncle provided a home for me in Wilkinsburg, Pa., (just outside of Pittsburgh), when I first worked at WTAE-TV (an ABC affiliate) in 1981. They didn't charge rent; they helped me to open a checking account at Mellon Bank and they helped me to make the transition from college girl to working woman. Gratitude does not begin to cover my feelings toward my Aunt Norma and Uncle Ike.

Apart from my parents and perhaps a few other unnamed individuals and relatives, I don't know of anyone else who gave me more or loved me so unconditionally. Naturally, both my aunt and uncle are featured in my upcoming book, the Frugal Duchess: which is a financial memoir.

But I'm not writing today to pimp my book or promote my career. This is just gratitude and a few notes about what I have learned and realized over the last few days.

  • Emotional account deposits: Don't delay deposits into emotional accounts that you share with friends, relatives and other loved ones. Stay current on all of your I-Love-You's. Quickly adjust any deficits. Don't wait.

  • Age & Death: When someone passes away, try to avoid saying: "At least they had a long life." I used to say that and now I realize how hollow it sounds. Life is never long enough. My aunt lived for 88 years and I wished that she could have lived -- in good health -- for another 88 years. She lived for a long time and it still didn't seen long enough.

  • Listen more, talk less: If life were a DVD or a tape, I would hit the rewind button and try to re-record different chapters of my life. Mostly, I would just talk less and listen more. I would try to really understand the people that I have been blessed to love and to know. What's more, listening is such an act of love.

  • Save more: My do-overs would also include saving more money. I would save more not to have more money or to buy more stuff. No! I would save more in order to have more money to visit, call and to send gifts to those that I love, including my parents, siblings and other relatives, including my Aunt Norma.

  • Less navel-gazing: My resolutions include a promise to be more frugal with my use of time. I wish I could redeem some of my anxiety-filled, wheel-spinning moments for one more phone call with Aunt Norma.

  • No regrets: Of course, I would love to turn back time and re-do some of my mistakes and missteps, especially those lapses in judgment from the 1981-1987, when I first started my career. But when I'm tempted to get lost in that tailspin of doubt and depression, I hear Aunt Norma laughing: "Well, Sugah," she says, using one of her pet names for me. "We all make mistakes. That's life. Now get over yourself and get on with the day."




Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Welcome Florida Trend Readers: Check Out the Frugal Duchess Book Excerpt

Special Thanks to the editors and staff at Florida Trend magazine. The latest online version of Florida Trend, a monthly business magazine, features a snippet from my upcoming book, The Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save. (The book will be published next month by DPL Press.)

I also write a monthly column for that magazine and I'd like to welcome Florida Trend readers to this blog. Thanks for stopping by!

For other readers: Here's a link to the magazine's excerpt from my book.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Prom Dress for $10 & a $370 Dress for My Book Party? Nah!

I've been agonizing over the right dress -- frugal & fashionable-- for my upcoming book launch party. (June 12th at Books & Books in South Beach.) I almost (gasp!) broke down and purchased a $130 dress (the Belted Bubble Dress) from the Armani Exchange. One problem: I would need to buy two versions of the same dress in order to make one dress that is modest enough for my lifestyle.

Going to a seamstress to create sleeves and a new, longer hemline would cost another $100+. Bottom Line: I would spend nearly $400 for a dress for my South Beach party.

Thank Goodness, Marshalls rescued me: I found a $20 dress that is so cute and will require only a minimum amount of adjustments. (I purchased a second dress for $20, just in case I need the extra fabric.)

Goodwill, the Salvation Army and other thrift stores are also a source of affordable fashion. Check out this release from the Goodwill in my area. The same logic applies to other areas of the country. Here's the release:


"The housing crunch, rising gas prices and lack of consumer confidence in the economy are causing more families to drastically cut back and curtail their spending. According the Salvation Army, all six Salvation Army Family Stores in Broward County and the four in Miami Dade are seeing an increase in customers who want name brand labels at a low cost for their growing families.

"Everyone's a winner and everyone gets a deal when it comes to shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army Family Super Stores," said Melissa Zegans, Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center Stores Supervisor.

Many of the items are either new or gently used but in excellent condition. 100% of the proceeds from sales at the Salvation Army Family Super Store go directly to the operation of The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Frugal Decor Fixes for Kids' Rooms

Whether your child is a toddler, teen or 'tween, decorating a kid's bedroom can be complicated by tight budgets and personal tastes.

''Regardless of a child's age, one super quick and easy way to change a room is to add art to the walls,'' says Jennifer Condon, an editor at Domino magazine, which is compiling a special frugal decorating issue for August.

Here are a few simple and inexpensive ways to dress up a kid's room:

Old books: Amy Clark, owner and founder of, collects art from the book jackets and pages of her children's favorite storybooks. For tweens and teens, chose books based on hobbies -- dancing, sports or other passions. Garage sales and thrift stores are excellent sources for affordable books.

• Display accessories: Place colorful plastic hooks at eye level for young children and encourage them to hang up party clothes, costumes and hats, which then become colorful wall hangings. Likewise, hair bows, ribbons and barrettes can be displayed on easy-access cords, says Clark of

Contain clutter: Attractive baskets and bins can be stored under beds, on shelves or in wall units. Condor recommends the brightly covered woven baskets from the Container Store. These baskets have tags for handwritten labels. ''It looks chic, but it's still very kid friendly,'' she says.

• Use paint: Color can add bright accents to a room. For instance, paint a large square behind your child's bed to create an instant headboard, says Condor.

• Calendars and cards: Recycle old calendars by framing photographs and images from past years. Flash-cards, (ABCs, math problems and vocabulary cards), can be mounted to create borders around a room, says Condor.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.




Friday, May 02, 2008

9 Ways to Teach Kids About Money

A little while ago, I wrote about a little boy who thought money came out of walls (a visual image of ATMs.) The sluggish economy provides an ideal time to teach kids how to be savvy about money, according to Eric Tyson, a financial author.

Here's a guest column on the topic of kids and money, featuring 9 financial lessons from Tyson.

"With inflation on the rise (gas prices, grocery bills, health insurance premiums, etc.) and many companies being more conservative, more American families are feeling squeezed. So if you're feeling guilty because you can't buy your child that video game system he desperately wants or send him to that trendy summer camp, Eric Tyson has one word for you. Don't. In fact, he says, now is the perfect time to teach your kids some valuable financial lessons.

"Kids are surprisingly aware of what's going on in the world," says Tyson, author of the new book Let's Get Real About Money! Profit from the Habits of the Best Personal Finance Managers (FT Press, December 2007). "And if they don't know that times are a little bit tough and Mom & Dad are having to watch their spending, it's time to tell them. Sheltering kids from financial realities does them no favors."

Indeed, the opposite is true, says Tyson. A good grasp of personal finance is one of the most valuable life skills a person can have. And while previous generations may have been raised with the constant admonishment that "money doesn't grow on trees!," too many of today's parents neglect that lesson. It's time to change that—and the economic slowdown we're in now provides a great incentive for doing so.

"In many ways, a slower economy can be a blessing in disguise," admits Tyson. "It leads families to make a budget and stick to it. It forces them to be conscious about how they handle money. That's good for kids. It shows them how the world is supposed to work."

Tyson offers the following hints:

1. Realize that kids learn what they live. It may sound like common sense, but we are our kids' most influential teachers. When you ring up a barge-load of credit card debt, take out exorbitant mortgages or car loans, and fail to save anything, that's what your kids come to see as normal. If you are modeling unhealthy financial habits, you can't realistically expect your kids to "do as I say, not as I do."

"Adults who live it up now and fail to save for the future can expect to raise children who are accomplished spenders and poor savers," notes Tyson. "Be honest with yourself about the powerful money messages you're sending your kids. If your financial habits are poor, overhaul them now. You owe it to your kids."

2. De-program them. Kids are constantly bombarded with information about what things cost, whether it's the fancy sports car they like or the wardrobe of their favorite athlete or actor, not to mention the 40,000 commercials that the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates the average American child sees each year. What they aren't bombarded with is knowledge on how to manage money effectively. And while schools are increasingly incorporating money issues into the existing curriculum, the broader concepts of personal financial management still aren't taught. Frightening though it may be, some schools rely on free "educational" materials from the likes of VISA and MasterCard!

"These credit card titans provide materials that implicitly and explicitly support carrying consumer debt as a sound way to finance significant purchases and living expenses," says Tyson. "In fact, VISA and MasterCard school-supplied resources endorse spending upward of 15 to 20 percent of one's monthly take-home income to pay credit card and other consumer debts! Explain to your kids that such spending puts a lot of money directly into the credit card companies' pockets, so of course they're going to offer that advice...but that smart people don't listen to it."

3. An allowance is a great teaching tool. You don't have to break child labor laws to find great ways to help your kids earn their allowance rather than just have it handed over to them. A well-implemented allowance program can mimic many money matters that adults face every day throughout their lives. From recognizing the need to earn the green stuff to learning how to responsibly and intelligently spend, save, and invest their allowance, children can gain a solid financial footing from a young age.

"A great time to start is when your kids reach the five-to-seven age range," says Tyson. "Start them on some household chores, and explain to them that they will be paid for their work. Of course, the size of the allowance should depend, in part, on what sorts of expenditures and savings you expect your child to engage in and, perhaps, the amount of 'work' you expect your child to perform around the house. I recommend paying $0.50 to $1.00 per year of age. So, for example, a six-year-old child would earn between $3 and $6 per week."

4. Start them saving and investing early. It's never too early to start saving, and the sooner you can instill the importance of saving money into your kids the better. After they start earning an allowance, have your kids save a significant portion (up to half) of their allowance money toward longer-term goals, such as college (just be careful about putting money in children's names as doing so can harm college financial aid awards). Tyson recommends that children reserve about one-third of their weekly take for savings. As they accumulate more significant savings over time, you can introduce the concept of investing.

"Rather than trekking down to the boring old local bank and putting the money into a sleepy, low-interest bank account, I prefer having kids invest in mutual funds," says Tyson. "Another option is for kids to buy individual stocks. Kids can learn more about how the financial markets work and understand stocks better by sometimes picking individual stocks rather than using funds. Just be careful to keep transaction fees to a minimum and teach your kids how to evaluate a stock and its valuation and not simply buy companies that they've heard of or that make products they like. The money they are able to save and invest will be a huge help to them later on in life."

5. Reduce their exposure to ads. The primary path to reduced exposure to ads is to cut down on TV time. When kids are in front of the tube, have them watch prerecorded material. You can direct the television viewing of younger children, in particular, toward videos and DVDs. And for older kids, if you use digital video recorders (DVRs), such as TIVO, you can easily zap ads. But when an ad does sneak under the radar and set the kids to begging, address it. Explain to your kids that there's never a good time for frivolous impulse spending—but it's especially harmful when money is tight.

"Invest the necessary time to teach and explain to your kids that the point of advertising is to motivate consumers to buy the product by making it sound more wonderful or necessary than it really is," says Tyson. "Also explain that advertising is costly and that the most heavily promoted and popular products include the cost of all that advertising, so they're paying for it when they buy those items."

6. Find entertaining ways to teach good money habits. You'll probably be facing an uphill battle when trying to get your kids to sit down and learn about personal finance. That's why it's so important to find entertaining ways to instill good financial habits in them. For younger kids Tyson recommends age-appropriate books like The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies. For late-elementary-school-aged kids, Quest for the Pillars of Wealth by J.J. Pritchard is a chapter book that teaches the major personal finance concepts through an engaging adventure story. You could also get them a subscription to Zillions, a kids' magazine from the publishers of Consumer Reports, which covers money and buying topics.

"Another great opportunity to teach your kids about personal finance and get to spend quality time with them in the process is through board games," suggests Tyson. "Monopoly and Life are two games that are very effective at getting your kids to think about the best way to manage money and plan whether they should spend or save."

7. Teach them how to shop wisely. Family shopping trips, whether for groceries or something else, are likely to be your kids' first encounter with spending. They'll see you make decisions based on what the family needs, maybe see the occasional coupon used, and will observe how you pay. These trips are a great time to teach them lessons about money.

"Explain that being a smart consumer requires doing your homework, especially when buying more costly products," says Tyson. "Teach your kids the value of product research and comparison shopping. Demonstrate how to identify overpriced and shoddy merchandise. Finally, show them how to voice a complaint when returning defective products and go to bat for better treatment in service environments, two additional tasks that are part of being a savvy consumer."

8. Introduce the right and wrong ways to use credit and debit cards. Those plastic cards in your wallet offer a convenient way to conduct purchases in stores, by phone, and over the Internet. Unfortunately, credit cards offer temptation for overspending and carrying debt from month to month. Teach your kids the difference between a credit and debit card, explaining that debit cards are connected to your checking account and thus prevent you from overspending as you can on a credit card.

"Explain to them that credit cards should be used sparingly and then practice what you preach," says Tyson. "Wean yourself off of using your credit card, and tell your kids why you've decided to do so."

9. Encourage older kids to get a job. An allowance doesn't have to be the only way for your kids to earn money. Your child's initial exposure to the work-for-pay world can start with something as simple as a lemonade stand. Depending on age, he or she might do yard work for neighbors or offer babysitting services. And the fact that we're in a recession makes it all the more appropriate for older kids to "help out" by getting a part-time job—especially to fund unnecessary purchases like DVDs or cool clothing.

"I had an extensive newspaper route for a number of years, and I cut lawns and did other yard work during high school and college summers," says Tyson. "By holding down such jobs, kids can learn about working, earning, saving, and investing money. It also provides welcome relief for parents to not continually be the source of spending money. Working outside the home does raise some safety issues, so by all means be involved in ensuring that your child has a safe work environment."

Besides the learning opportunities it presents, there's another positive to the economic downturn, says Tyson. It forces families to be more thoughtful about how they spend their time—and this often leads to the stunning realization that money really doesn't buy happiness.
"Often, the pricey toys we buy for ourselves and our kids and the lavish vacations we take are simply distractions from the people we love," he says. "They send the message that it's necessary to spend a lot of money in order to have a good time. It's not, of course. The best things in life—friends, family, quiet evenings at home just being together—really are free. Sometimes it's good to be reminded of that."

--Eric Tyson




Thursday, May 01, 2008

Walking to Save Gas & 4 Other Paths to Easy Exercise

A little while ago, I spotted a family friend walking and multi-tasking. His goal: conserve gas, get exercise and finish an errand.

"Saving gas and saving money," he said from across the street.

His pedestrian efforts prompted me to think of other easy ways to save energy through frugal exercise. Here's my list:

1. Walking School Bus: Walk your kids to school. Here's a link with details about creating a walking school bus. Basically, instead of gas-guzzling car pools, parents can organize a neighborhood walking tour to school. Substitute the walking school bus for any or all of the car pool rides.

Think about it: Sometimes we drive our children to school, which may be just a few blocks away.

2. Errands: Is it possible to walk to the grocery store, the dry cleaner or the pharmacy? Too often, we pop into stores to accomplish errands that can be undertaken on foot. And consider this: Because you're walking --no trunk space -- you'll limit purchases to items that you really need and can really carry.

3. Visit Friends: On weekends, I will walk 20 or 30 minutes to visit friends. Get more mileage out of social visits with a round trip hike.

4. Walk to restaurants or ice cream stores: Walk off calories from a restaurant meal or from sweet treats. The average family dines or purchases desserts from nearby cafes and shops. Why waste additional money and gas by driving?

5. Use public transportation. Bus and train fares cost much less than driving and paying crazy prices for gasoline. That's the word from my fourth-grade daughter. Public transportation typically involves foot traffic. And walking -- from a bus stop or to the train station -- represents another opportunity for easy exercise.