Monday, May 23, 2011

Kitchen vigilante wages war against wasting food, money

By Carey Denman

Some recent number crunching confirmed my nagging suspicion: we are once again breaking our monthly food budget. In fact, a closer look revealed that our spending has gone up incrementally during the first four months of this year.

On one hand, hearing my husband rattle off those numbers made me cringe. On the other, it reaffirmed that I want to be more diligent than ever about avoiding food waste. After all, if I suggested you withdraw $100 in small bills from your bank account and drop them one by one into the trash, you’d think I’d lost my mind. Yet when we waste food, that’s essentially what we’re doing.

Avoiding food waste lets me be a good manager of what I have and helps save me money. Still, little to no food waste is only possible with a lot of diligence and creativity. So I am publicly declaring myself as a kitchen vigilante with this pledge: I will do all within my power to ensure I use the food I have. I will not be deterred by the likes of stale bread or languishing apples. I will resourcefully repurpose the food in my kitchen to create delicious and satisfying meals.

You might be wondering if the words “delicious and satisfying” can rest comfortably alongside “resourcefully repurpose.” Can using up bits of leftovers and past-its-prime food actually result in something worth preparing—and more importantly—eating? I believe the answer is unequivocally “yes.”

With a little practice, you can transform all of your kitchen bits into something better. A good place to start is by learning the many uses for stale bread. Who hasn’t had slices of bread or bagels that have lingered a bit too long?

Bread crumbs, croutons and stuffing are all common uses for stale bread. I’m much more likely to cube it and throw it in a freezer bag to use for dishes sweet and savory: egg strata, baked French toast, or bread pudding. A strata is particularly good use for old bread, and you can toss in other foods you need to use up, as well. Leftover vegetables, small amounts of meat, and a variety of cheeses are all good compliments to strata.

Fresh produce is another kitchen staple that seems to spoil faster than I can use it. I’ve gotten in the habit of freezing overripe bananas in their skins for smoothies, breads, and muffins. If berries get mushy, I throw them in the freezer, too, or I use them to make syrup for pancakes or waffles. Grapes that have softened can be frozen and used for snacks. We’ve also been known to grate mealy apples for muffins, pancakes, and oatmeal or to sauté slices with a little butter and brown sugar for a tasty side dish.

Soured milk generally works well as a replacement for buttermilk in baked goods such as pancakes and biscuits. Single servings of yogurt that are approaching their expiration dates can be thrown into the freezer and eaten later; the result is similar to sorbet. Leftover rice can be used in soups, to make fried rice or for rice pudding. Small servings of pasta can be used in frittatas, while the extra spaghetti you have hanging around in the fridge can be reinvented into a baked dish; just add ingredients such as cured meat, sun-dried tomatoes and a strong cheese, like fresh parmesan.

With some creativity, nearly any food you have on hand (unless it has spoiled) can be transformed into a recipe that will make you wonder why you ever thought of throwing that food away in the first place.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What is a Representative Payee?

By Aaron Heath

What is a Representative Payee?

I was talking to a friend the other day who was asking me about what we do as a company. I said ‘Well, we do financial literacy and first time homebuyer education, foreclosure prevention, credit and bankruptcy counseling, debt management, behavioral health services, homeless prevention, conservatorship and have a representative payee program.’ To which he said, more or less, ‘representative what?’ causing me to realize that representative payee really is a strange combination of words to describe what it actually entails- although this is exactly what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls it. So, as my third blog posting I have decided to explain exactly what it means to be a representative payee and why they are important.

A representative payee is someone who handles an individual’s Social Security benefits in the case that that individual is deemed to be incapable of handling the benefits themselves. Or more mundanely, I mean eloquently, defined by the Social Security website:

Social Security's Representative Payment Program provides financial management for the Social Security and SSI payments of our beneficiaries who are incapable of managing their Social Security or SSI payments.

These benefits include Retirement, Survivors and Disability Insurance (RSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). (More info about how to receive and who receives these benefits can be found here and here.) There are three basic reasons why SSA would assign a payee to a beneficiary:

  • They are a minor- under 18
  • They are deemed legally incompetent (by a doctor)
  • SSA determines that they are incapable of handling their money

Payees are responsible for ensuring that the beneficiary’s basic needs are met- food, shelter, spending money, etc… and that they have “a stable living environment.” The full list of their responsibilities can be found here. Their responsibilities include helping to make sure that these individuals stay off the streets, that they are reasonably housed, that they don’t get taken advantage of or spend all of their benefits on illicit substances, and that they have access to basic necessities. The stability that this program provides also results in a lower overall burden on public resources such as medical care and law enforcement.

In working with some of the payees from our department, I have seen what a tough job it can be. Payees DO NOT have power of attorney, so they often have to negotiate, compromise, explain, talk down, work with and make deals with our clients to help them understand what is going on with their money. After all it is THEIR money, and they let you know it. You can probably see how it can get pretty heated sometimes.

Here in Charleston, Family Services, Inc. has about 500 Representative Payee Clients. We work with the local social security office as well as several others from around South Carolina and in some cases Georgia. From what I can find there more than seven million Americans who have a representative payee, most of them minors.

Hopefully this was somewhat enlightening for you.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Life’s messy, risky adventures can bring great satisfaction

By Carey Denman

Drippy snow cones, unwieldy light sabers and crowds of people aren’t exactly a prescription for a parent’s happiness. But it’s a gleeful combination if you’re a kid at the circus.

Our 3- and 5-year-old boys waved those light sabers with wild abandon, and our 6-year-old joyfully wore remnants of a sticky snow cone from her neck all the way down to her toes. Even our youngest babe watched dancing dogs and horses with rapt attention, jabbering about the raucous display in front of her.

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sitting through the two-hour show with four small children. In fact, I would have rather been at home, where there was at least the possibility of relative quiet. But had we stayed home, I would have missed the gleam in my children’s eyes as they took in the high wire act or each relished having a snow cone all to themselves.

There’s no question that the circus is messy. But being afraid of life’s messes and clinging to the safety of the ordinary can deprive us of some of life’s best moments. The point of stagnation, when we aren’t willing to embrace new and unfamiliar experiences, can be a major roadblock to happiness.

I find positive change often happens when I’m a little uncomfortable and when I’m willing to take a risk. Sure, there have been many times when I literally don’t have a clue what I’m doing, like when I decided to take a solo (and somewhat impromptu) backpacking trip to Europe. I’d never been outside the country, but when the opportunity to travel abroad presented itself, I took a leap.

I’ll never forget sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport, staring at the ticket desk and wondering if I should just purchase a return ticket and go home. Despite my fear (and not having a single plan made), I stayed for the entire month and trekked across three countries. I made new friends, saw some of the most amazing sites of my life, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and my abilities.

I’ve experienced the same kind of satisfaction from doing something as simple as planting my first garden. I’d never grown a single thing before that first venture, but that year, I ended up with a bountiful harvest and a new passion for cultivating the earth that has stuck with me ever since.

I even count learning how to make my own hamburger buns as a rewarding experience. Homemade buns aren’t a revolutionary idea, but this small kitchen success has buoyed my confidence and encouraged me to make more food from scratch. My family eats better food, and we save money in the process.

Even if you can’t plunge head-long into a new adventure right now, you can tackle a small hill - even a hill as small as making homemade buns. That adventure may not turn out quite as you had planned. But this doesn’t mean that the unexpected (and often messy) moments aren’t worthwhile. In fact, they often end up being the very best moments of your life. What small hill can you tackle today?

Monday, May 9, 2011

South Carolina Making Moves to Head Off Electronic Waste

By Aaron Heath

After July 1, electronics MUST be recycled

A new South Carolina state law will come into effect on July 1 banning the waste disposal of electronic equipment. South Carolina will join 25 other states in their efforts to cutback on wasteful disposal of electronics. Specifically:

- Computers

- Monitors

- Printers

- Televisions

All equipment will have to be recycled from now on. Landfills caught accepting the equipment could face fines of up to $1000.

With technology progressing at an exponential rate, more and more electronics are being introduced into the marketplace while the rest simply go out of date faster. As this is happening the amount of plastic waste that is piling up is becoming unmanageable. Electronic waste is actually accumulating at three times the rate of normal household trash. These types of plastics and the materials contained in electronics are extremely toxic. Worst, these electronics account for over 70% of all toxic waste found in landfills. (See also this article on eWaste) Not only is manageability an issue, many of these electronics, while out of date for you or me, are usually still in working condition and could be donated and refurbished for use by others.

This will be a great way to cut down on unnecessary waste and make us more conscious of the materials that we do throw away. Here is a list of locations in South Carolina by County where you can dump your old electronics for recycling.

Would also like to cite the Post and Courier for help with this post.

A simple plan cuts the cost of wasted food

By Carey Denman

For the past two weeks, I’ve been staring down a small container of cherry tomatoes. They haven’t spoiled, but they are definitely past their prime. I don’t want to throw them away, but a dozen lackluster tomatoes aren’t inspiring my inner chef. Plus, I feel a twinge of guilt when I think about wasting food, particularly when we devote such a large portion of our budget to feeding our family.

Having a trio of backyard chickens has made it possible to redeem almost all of our kitchen scraps, and I work hard to use up the food we have. Still, I know I could do better with things like the aforementioned languishing cherry tomatoes. I’ve even been known to avoid opening food storage containers in my refrigerator because I’m afraid of what might be lurking inside.

What’s even more frightening than unearthing furry food is the cost of wasting it. According to the USDA, Americans throw away about 14% of the food they buy; some other independent estimates put that amount closer to 25%. If my family’s experience rings true—even to the more modest estimate—we’re literally throwing away $70 every month, or $840 a year.

I could think of a lot of ways I’d like to spend $840 this year—but wasted food doesn’t make the list. Becoming more intentional with my food dollars and my cooking habits will help ensure that more food gets used, and less is discarded. There’s nothing revolutionary about the plan I’ve sketched out for my family, but it will help me make the most of what I have.

First, I will recommit to creating a weekly meal plan and writing it on the family calendar. Doing so allows me to take stock of ingredients I already have, and plan meals accordingly. (Plus, a meal plan avoids “what’s for dinner?” tension at the end of the day.) For example, I have some small pieces of ham and a bunch of boiled eggs leftover from Easter, so I’ll prepare a chef salad. I also have a large tub of ricotta cheese (and those leftover tomatoes) lingering in my fridge; I’ll put both to use in lasagna.

Second, I want to have a specific purpose in mind for everything I buy. Contrary to traditional budgeting advice, I don’t shop with a strict list. My grocery list includes staple items I need, such as spices and baking ingredients. Otherwise, I shop for what looks good at the best price. Last time I went shopping, for instance, organic beef was on sale for half price. I hadn’t planned to buy beef that day, but I scooped up the last four packages, knowing that I could freeze it or use it to make sloppy joes and taco pizza.

Designating a specific spot for leftovers in the refrigerator is another easy-to-implement strategy that I’ll employ. If I know that all leftovers are on the top, right-hand shelf, then I’ll be able to look past the tubs of homemade playdough and the cartons of eggs to see what we need to eat first.

Lastly, I want to find more uses for leftovers and food past its prime. I’ve always thrown away broccoli stalks, but I know they’re suitable for stir frying, soups, and frittatas; I just need to get in the habit of using them. Carrot and onion peels, wilted celery ribs and other vegetable miscellany will be put to use in homemade broths, rather than going to the chickens.

This plan will take effort, but I’m looking forward to less spoiled food, less cherry tomato guilt, and to stretching my food dollars further.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Start when you are young… Credit Cents

Those first few years completely free from parental supervision and financial support bring some very exciting firsts. First apartment, first job, first budget . . . It can all be very overwhelming. With everything happening all at once, it can be hard to know what is best for your finances. Here are a few basics to keep in mind.

  • Make a budget. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times, constructing a budget can be your greatest ally when it comes to managing your finances. Those first paychecks may inspire you to make rash spending decisions. Impulse purchases can throw you into debt, which is never a good starting point.
  • Prioritize. While you're putting together your budget, it's important to prioritize your monthly expenses, and your debt. Bills–rent, utilities, etc–need to go first; those are costs that you cannot avoid. Next come any loans (student, car, etc.) or other debt repayment. For the sake of your credit score, it is crucial that you make your payments on time. And if you have credit card debt, make sure to pay more than the required minimum whenever possible, and always put any extra funds toward paying off the one with the highest interest rate. Consider paying yourself each month one of your necessary financial obligations each month; saving just $20 a month can make a huge difference.
  • Ensure you're insured. Health, disability and life insurance are often offered through employers, so make sure you're covered for life's "in case" events. Recent health-reform legislation allows you to stay on your parents' health insurance until age 26. After that you're on your own. Make sure you fully understand and are signed up for the insurance policies most beneficial for you.
  • Look down the road. It may sound ridiculous to be planning your life ten years from now, but having an idea of where you want to be can help you form a plan for your spending and saving today. Do you want to own a home? Get married? Have kids? Your credit score and savings have a tremendous impact on all of these milestones, and you don't want to be looking back thinking, "If I'd only had a financial plan . . ."

Need budgeting help? Already have more credit card debt than you can manage?

Contact our non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling or Homeownership Resource Center for FREE budgeting, credit card counseling, home ownership opportunities and foreclosure counseling. info@fsisc.org phone 800-232-6489

Family Services, Inc. is a non-profit organization with HUD certified and South Carolina licensed consumer credit counselors.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Groans of regret echo long after impulse purchases are made

By Carey Denman

Somehow, we’d managed to stuff a live Christmas tree, a large dog kennel, and all of our luggage in our small, two-door sedan. Getting stuck in our driveway when we arrived home from our trip, however, became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

I don’t remember who made the pronouncement that “we need a bigger, four-wheel drive vehicle,” but one of us did. We found ourselves cruising through car lots the next day. If I remember correctly, we test-drove three vehicles. A few hours later, we were signing the loan papers on a new-to-us SUV.

Though we drove away congratulating ourselves on the new purchase, it didn’t take long for a wave of regret to roll over us. We had been just a few payments away from paying off our sedan. Now, we had a loan for a gas guzzler with an unknown history and high miles. What’s more, we’d gotten a pittance on our trade-in, and because we didn’t shop around, we didn’t really know if we’d gotten a good deal on our new car.

We drove the vehicle for several years, but always with a lingering taste of regret. Interestingly, the word regret literally means, “to groan long after.” For anyone who has regretted making a particular purchase, “to groan long after” is a fitting definition.

In fact, when I asked friends and acquaintances to tell me about the purchases they most regret making, it was almost as if they let out a collective groan. One friend that told me that she regretted the $1,200 vacuum she bought from a very convincing in-home salesman. She even went so far to say, “I hated that vacuum every day it took to pay it off and until the day I sold it.”

Garish wallpaper (that took a great effort to hang and therefore stayed up for a long time), an oversize leather coat, a pricey engagement ring, a used car bought out of frustration, an expensive purse, and a collection of other, smaller buys made the list.

My favorite response came from a friend who bought an expensive aromatherapy wrap from a slick salesman. She recalls, “The last thing I remember hearing was, ‘Hey, pretty lady.’ The next sound I heard was the register dinging. I had immediate buyer’s remorse.”

For all the responses I received, one major theme emerged. The purchases that most often lead to “long groaning” are those bought on impulse. This applies to purchases big and small, on everything from the shirt that didn’t quite fit right to the $8,000 piece of jewelry. Even so-called bargains can lead to regret when you buy them impulsively.

We’ve all made impulsive purchases. But the best way to prevent ourselves from getting caught up in a cycle of impulse buying is to create a filter that we can hold up to anything we might want to buy. The most basic question should be this: Will it make my life better? If it will, and you can afford it, then go ahead and make the purchase.

Next, ask yourself, “Is it fabulous?” Too often, we end up buying things because they’re on sale or because they’re so inexpensive that we think we can’t possibly pass them up. The result is that we end up with a bunch of things that we only marginally like and that clutter our closets and all the recesses of our homes.

If it won’t make your life better and you can’t honestly say that it’s “fabulous,” then you’d be better off leaving it at the store (or on the table at someone’s garage sale).