Monday, January 31, 2011

Investing in good kitchen tools has some delicious rewards

By Carey Denman

As a child, I remember restaurant pizza being expensive and a rare treat for my family. Store-bought pizza was pricey, too, and it didn’t taste that good. And then there was the homemade variety: hamburger pizza made on a giant, blackened cookie sheet and always a little too doughy for my taste.

These days, it’s easy to get a decent pizza at a reasonable price, but I’ve found it more difficult to prepare pizza at home that excites my family— in the same ways that store-bought or restaurant pizza might, at least. In fact, until quite recently, I’ve had moments of “homemade pizza anxiety,” because my pizza doesn’t behave precisely as it should. It sticks to the pan, or won’t slide onto the pan, gets too puffy, or browns too quickly on top, leaving me with the kind of too-doughy crust I don’t like.

Convinced that pizza should never make me crabby, I decided to invest in some tools that will help me make truly good pizzas at home. First, I bought two baking stones and some cornmeal. The idea is that you preheat the baking stones to 500 degrees; then slide the prepared pizzas onto them. The stone meeting the crust is supposed to be a little bit of magic—that is, if you can manage to slide a 12-inch pizza onto a crazy hot piece of ceramic.

As you might have guessed, this process did not work as well as I hoped. I tried sliding the pizza from the back of a cookie sheet onto the hot stones, and I also tried not preheating the stones as suggested. More than once, I dropped my pizza on the oven rack or sent a shower of cornmeal into the bottom of my stove, or ended up with subpar pizza.

My mother, having observed—and sympathized—with my frustration, gave me what is known as pizza peel, the flat shovel-like object used in pizzerias. The result has been nothing short of a miracle, as it relates to the quality of pizza we’re eating. This homemade pizza is better (and far cheaper) than what we can eat out or buy at the store. Plus, we’re happily trying different kinds of toppings: spinach and goat cheese, caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella, and chicken apple sausage with feta.

The lesson, as it relates to finances, is that it pays to invest in good-quality kitchen tools that you will actually use. I got my pizza stones on sale for $10 each, and I’m guessing that the cost of the pizza peel was about $20. With $40 worth of appropriate tools, I can make meals that fit our budget and our lifestyle.

On the other hand, a kitchen full of unused—even wacky—gadgets is money sitting on your shelves. This means that as interesting as an automatic peppermill with a light might be (yes, such a product does exist), if you don’t need to light up your salad while you’re grinding pepper on it, then you shouldn’t buy it.

The only way to know what tools you need is to be honest about how you use your kitchen. Start with a kitchen inventory and pull out anything you haven’t used in more than a year; sell or donate those items. Then, consider which tools you believe indispensable to the way you live. For our family who eats pizza at least once a week, we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the pizza-making equipment. Over time, we’ll save ourselves hundreds of dollars we might have spent buying pizza, without depriving ourselves of the pleasure of a dinnertime favorite.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Distractions can be hard on your finances

By Carey Denman

I can easily get distracted when I’m at home with our four young children. The level of my distraction is well illustrated by the story of the missing cheese. Recently while making dinner, I somehow misplaced a two-pound brick of cheddar cheese (yes, two pounds). Try as I might, I couldn’t find it anywhere. After much fuming, I finally gave up, imagining that I’d unearth a moldy mass of cheese months later.

I eventually found the cheese (in our large chest freezer, thankfully), but the experience reminds me of the dangers of not paying attention to what I’m doing. When the cheese “disappeared,” I’m reasonably certain I was multi-tasking – probably talking on the phone or tending to a child – and I wasn’t in tune with the task at hand.

It’s humorous that I lost (and then found) a block of cheese, but it isn’t so funny when I find myself losing money because I’m preoccupied. While at the drugstore recently to pick up teething medicine for my fussy 1-year-old, I grabbed what I needed and headed to the register. I laid out my purchases and handed over my debit card, signed my receipt and lugged my now-sleeping daughter to our van. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been overcharged by $8.

Had I been paying closer attention, I would have saved myself the hassle of having to return to the store for a refund. And while $8 isn’t what I’d consider a lot of money, I don’t want to be cavalier about losing any amount of cash. If I’m not looking out for my best interests, no one else will. This is true whether I’m overcharged a few bucks at the pharmacy or thousands of dollars on a major purchase.

Paying close attention to the details of your financial transactions is the only way to ensure that someone hasn’t made a mistake or isn’t trying to take advantage of you. This can sometimes mean taking on tasks that you may find mundane, or even unpleasant. You may not be in the habit of balancing your checking account, for example, relying instead on the online details of your account. Nevertheless, if you’re not taking the time to reconcile your account, it’s easy to let mistakes or errors go unrecognized.

This is true for other kinds of financial business you conduct, too. When we received a $25 bill for a well-child visit, my husband believed that our insurance should have covered the service. He dug out and read the policy to be sure, then called our insurance company to dispute the charge. If he hadn’t been familiar with the particulars of our insurance coverage, and done the work of reading the specifics, we could have unnecessarily spent $25.

It might take some practice, but you can train yourself to pay closer attention. The next time you’re in a retail store, make a mental list of prices and keep a loose running total as you shop. Before you leave the store, review your receipt for accuracy. If you’re taking advantage of an advertised sale, bring along the sale flyer so you can verify the price if there’s any dispute. When you receive your credit card statements this month, look at all the charges carefully and take note of the interest rate you’re paying (nearly a third of cardholders don’t know their interest rate).

Avoiding distractions could add up to a lot of “found” money. If, by paying closer attention, you saved yourself even $50 or a $100 this year, just imagine how much you’d enjoy some extra cash in your wallet.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Investing in each other, not things, brings lasting happiness

By Carey Denman

A few nights ago, I sat with my children, husband, and parents in our living room. We’d just shared a pot of chili and homemade blueberry muffins and were sprawled out on couches and chairs. Soon after, my 6-year-old daughter brought over a bowl of small, smooth “story stones.” (Our story stones are rocks decoupaged with pictures of woodland creatures I clipped from an old children’s book.)

She sidled up to my mom, handing her the bowl and pleading for a story. I sat back and listened as my mother plucked stones from the bowl one by one and wove a story about a wayward chipmunk looking for a new home. My daughter listened, too, with rapt attention, and then took the bowl of stones and told her own story. It was the simplest form of entertainment—a meal shared together, followed by a time of storytelling and conversation—and an evening I won’t soon forget.

Such shared experiences, according to scientists, have a significant influence on individual happiness. In fact, several published studies have concluded that time spent building relationships makes people far happier than getting any new material possessions, even so-called luxury items. In part, this is because the initial pleasure of getting something new, such as a computer or car, fades so quickly.

Just how quickly a person’s exuberance over a new purchase wanes is astonishing. Psychologists report that we typically get used to seeing a new purchase, and therefore adapt to it, in a matter of six to eight weeks, or three months at best. This phenomenon, known as “hedonistic adaptation,” explains why lottery winners return to their original level of happiness not long after they’ve collected their winnings.

On the other hand, when we invest our time in relationships and in collective experiences, we create memories that we can draw on for many years to come. Unlike material possessions, our memories generally make us feel more alive, according to assistant professor of psychology Ryan Howell.

It seems that investing in other people’s happiness pays dividends, too. A 2008 study from Harvard Medical School and the University of San Diego concluded that your happiness is not only influenced by the people that you know, but by people they know. In other words, you’re more likely to be happy if your friends are happy, and even if your friends’ friends are happy.

It’s amazing to think that happiness has this kind of domino effect, indirectly spreading to a vast network of people, even influencing someone whom you may have never even met. It makes sense, then, for you to cultivate relationships in deliberate and meaningful ways.

The beauty of being intentional with your relationships is that it doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor. For example, you might host a neighborhood potluck or write a hand-written note to a friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. Play a board game with your spouse in the evening, or take a child on an individual “date” and share a piece of dessert. You could invite a group of friends to start a supper club or undertake a volunteer project together. Or you might consider joining a group that is devoted to something you enjoy, such as gardening, archery or French.

No matter how tight your budget is, you have the ability to create a richer, happier life - right now - by simply investing your time, love and talent in those closest to you. Happiness doesn’t depend on more money or the latest gadget. In tough economic times, that’s refreshing, encouraging news for us all.


Michaele Pena


(843) 735-7840

Friday, January 7, 2011

Resolve, and a plan, are keys to achieving your goals

I would never want to underestimate the power of resolve, that state of mind where tenacity and firm determination help you accomplish something difficult or out of the ordinary. I would say I had resolve, for example, when I earned my college degree – and paid for my education myself. But I have to admit that I wouldn’t consider myself a resolute person.

That’s one reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Another reason is that resolutions usually don’t lead to the success you hoped for. A resolution presumes you can change things in your life just by making the decision to do so. On the contrary, true and lasting change is most often the result of making a commitment, followed by series of deliberate choices.

Though resolutions can help you to identify areas of your life that you would like to improve, such as your health, your relationships, or your finances, they can’t give you any concrete measure of success along the way. This is largely because resolutions are typically expressed in broad, shapeless statements, such as, “I will enjoy life more this year.” Or “This will be the year I finally get my finances under control.”

Without a clear picture of what it means to enjoy life more or have your finances under control, you’ll likely abandon your resolutions. As a result, you’ll end up feeling discouraged—even powerless—to affect change in your life.

Thankfully, there is a more effective way to accomplish what you want to do in 2011. By setting goals, instead of making resolutions, you’ll be able to create a more realistic, successful plan for the year to come. Goal setting will let you take the statement, “I will enjoy life more this year” and turn it into a series of measurable steps.

To begin, you need to ask yourself this basic question: What will I need to do in order to enjoy my life more? Do you need to work less, carve out more time for hobbies, or reduce your debt? Will being better organized or cooking more meals at home help you reduce stress and improve your life? Or, will starting an exercise plan move you closer to the life you desire?

Next, you can set attainable goals. If you want more time to enjoy a favorite hobby, for example, what else are you willing to give up? If you want to devote more time to writing, you may need to get up a few minutes earlier, spend less time online, or commit to writing during your lunch hour. Your goal, then, might be something like this: I will get up early three days a week and write for at least 30 minutes.

With this goal, you’ll know if you’re making progress. You’ll also recognize when your plan isn’t working. If you end up hitting the snooze button four times, rather than getting up to write, you may want to adjust your goal and write for 20 minutes in the evening.

You can apply the same methods to other types of goals, as well. If you want to pay down your debt this year, determine how much you can realistically afford to repay. Then, consider ways you can reach your goal; taking a part-time job, selling an asset, or redirecting money you normally would have spent on eating out are all possible options.

Setting a goal as we start a new year is a worthy task. If you map out small steps to achieve your goal and resolve to stick with them, you can change your finances, or your life, for the better.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A family mission statement will help us shape our future

When my husband and I recently took a small “life inventory,” we reflected on what went well during 2010. We also began identifying areas in our lives that we wanted to improve. For example, we acknowledged that we want to spend less time on the computer and more time engaging in focused activities that improve our relationship with each other and with our children.

In order to use what we learned from our “life inventory” and to define a clearer vision for our family, we decided to write a family mission statement. On a practical level, our statement will become a decision-making tool that helps us learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” More than that, it will define the kind of family we want to be.

To get started, my husband and I each answered a list of 20 questions that helped us to define our strengths, our priorities, and our desires for our family’s future. (Such lists are easily accessed online with a quick search using the words “family mission statement.”) The list included questions such as “What is the purpose of our family?” “What would we like people to say about our family as a whole 10 years from now?” “What is one way we are unique as a family?” “If our family could be filled with one emotion, what would it be?”

Working through the questions took a significant amount of time, particularly when we had to define what we want our lives to look like in the future. It forced us to think about how our lives will be different with a house full of teenagers, instead of one filled with preschoolers and toddlers. At one point, my husband paused and said, “This is hard. I keep realizing that I’m writing down one thing and that I’m living in an entirely different way.” I felt much the same way; writing down what I wanted made me think about the disconnect between how things are and how I want them to be.

Next, my husband and I shared our answers with one another. On the plus side, we immediately began to see some common themes emerge. For instance, we each defined similar strengths for ourselves and for each other. We also had similar answers to questions about how we want people to describe our home environment and the top four priorities we want our family to value.

Unfortunately, there was a downside, too. As we started talking more in-depth about our answers, our emotions flared up. The questions themselves were deeply personal, and we both felt fiercely attached to our responses, even a little vulnerable. We agreed that we wanted to let our emotions mellow a bit for now; we’ll return to the process of writing our family mission statement in January.

When we’re ready to begin again, our next step will be to take what we learned about each other and ourselves to shape a comprehensive statement about how we want to spend our time and our money. We’ll revisit the common themes that emerged, and we’ll start to write a mission statement that reflects who we are and who we want to be as a family.

At any stage of life, a mission statement can help you focus on what you really want. If, as you start a new year, you’re feeling like life isn’t what you want it to be, consider creating a mission statement for yourself or your family. It requires an investment of time and emotion, but the result could help you positively reshape your life and your family for years to come.