Archives for April 2013

Live Below The Line Challenge: $1.50/Day Menu Pictures, Cooking Tips, and Taste Test

I’m now nearly halfway through the Live Below the Line challenge, and here are some pictures and additional cooking/eating commentary about my $1.50 a day menu. Please also refer back to my menu and ingredient list and my nutritional information breakdown.


These banana crepes/pancakes are pretty big at nearly 8 inches in diameter. At 300 calories each, each one has about the same calories, fat, and (update: half the) protein as an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s but at only 10 cents each they are less than 5% the price and have no added flavors or preservatives. If I added another egg, it’d be 15 cents each and the protein would be equal. (It’d be even better if I used whole grain flour.)

I have to prepare them from scratch daily, but I timed myself and cooking time including prep was only 15 minutes. I know that may still be too much time for some folks, but waiting in a busy drive-thru line can take 5-10 minutes on its own. I simply whisk .75 cup flour, an egg, 1 cup water, and a little salt together to make a thin batter. Then add one sliced banana. While frying the second pancake, I clean up my mixing bowl, whisk, and measuring cups. When done eating, I simply wash my single plate and rinse/wash the nonstick frying pan.

They actually taste good; I would eat them on any given weekend. I don’t really miss the milk found in the original recipe. I do wish I could alternate between apples and bananas, but apples cost too much for this challenge. For a bit more money, the variety would be nice.


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What are the Cheapest Vegetables Per Pound?

While doing research about getting the most nutrition for my dollar, I ran across an interesting report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? [pdf]. The overall goal of the study was to better understand why Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Here are some neat charts of vegetables ranked by price per pound, as well as ranked by cost per edible cup equivalent:

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Live Below The Line Challenge: Sample $1.50/Day Menu Nutritional Information

I’m taking the Live Below the Line challenge this week, which means eating for 5 days on just $1.50 a day. I plugged all the ingredients from my $1.50 per day Sample Menu into the food diary at, and below is a screenshot of my breakdown of total daily calories as well as grams of fat, protein, and carbs.

As you can see, I won’t exactly be starving. The “daily goal” is based on my height, weight, age and my stated desire to lose one pound per week. The total calories in my BelowTheLine daily intake are around 2,000, which a bit low for a male of my size, but may be too high for someone else. I’m actually too high in carbs, a little short on protein, and even shorter on fat. To compensate, I may add a little extra canola oil to my food with the 8 cents left in my budget. Most of my food is cooked and ready to go (pictures coming). Is it weird that my only wish right now is that I could drizzle on extra virgin olive oil instead?

How Our Interests Change As Get We Closer To Retirement

Stephen Wolfram, of Mathematica and WolframAlpha fame, used his natural language analysis tools to crunch through a huge set of Facebook data. The results are some interesting visualizations, including a series of charts about how the popularity of a topic varies with age. For example, both men (blue) and women (red) post increasingly more about career and money topics between ages 15 and 30. After that, interest levels stay pretty much constant for the next 30 years. I suppose it’s because virtually all of us are still working until then. 🙁

Here’s the chart for family and friends; I wonder if the drop in the 20s is due to a focus on finding a partner? Other than that, the gap between men and women seems pretty constant.

A growing gender differential occurs in terms of health-related topics. No wonder us guys don’t live as long. 😉

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Live Below The Line Challenge: Sample $1.50/Day Menu

I’m taking the Live Below the Line challenge, which means eating for 5 days on just $1.50 a day. After a shopping trip and a few cooking experiments, here’s my menu for next week (4/29-5/3).


Even though the challenge rules allow it, I won’t be using anything that is significantly processed. That means no ramen noodles, protein powder, multivitamins, etc. Also, when calculating the cost of the ingredients, I will use the unit costs based on common supermarket sizes, not wholesale or warehouse store sizes. Examples are 5 lb bag of rice, a Morton can of salt, and a 28 oz. bottle of oil. I cross-checked all my listed prices with the USDA database to make sure they were reasonable.

Update: I misread the rules and have made some changes in order to avoid buying things like a 10 lb bags of beans, even though in reality that would be the most economical. Instead, I had to find the places that had the cheapest bulk bins. Some prices went up, but some prices actually went down. I had to leave out the onion from dinner, but otherwise the menu stayed the same and under budget.

The Menu

I wanted to make things simple, so I just planned to have the same meal for all five days. Breakfast is pretty quick and will be made each day. Lunch and dinner will be prepared on Sunday night and be reheated for the rest of the week.


  • Banana “crepe” pancakes
  • Ingredients per day are: 0.75 cup flour, 1 egg, 1 banana, 1 tbsp oil, and a pinch of salt. Basically mix everything together with ~0.75 cup water to make thin batter, and fry. This makes two large pancakes (see picture) and my first attempt was pretty tasty. The riper the bananas, the sweeter. Total cost of 5 meals: $1.88


  • Lentil soup with 2 large chapatis (flat bread).
  • Soup ingredients for all 5 days are 2 cups dry lentils, 4 carrots, 2 onions, 4 cloves garlic, 1 tbsp oil, and 3 tsp salt. 10 large chipatas (2 per day) are 3 cups flour, boiling water, and 1/4 cup oil. I haven’t made the soup yet, but I fried up some chapatis and they were a nice bread/tortilla replacement. Total cost of 5 meals: $2.03 + $0.44 = $2.43


  • Plate of rice, beans, and tomatos.
  • Ingredients for all 5 days are 2 cups uncooked rice, 2 cups dry pinto beans, 1 can crushed tomatoes, 2 tbsp oil, and salt. Pile o’ cooked rice, pile ‘o cooked beans, pile o’ canned tomatoes and diced fresh onions. I actually used to eat this anyway when in “bachelor mode”, except with canned beans and bottled salsa. Total cost of 5 meals: $3.11

Total cost for the week: $7.42

Shopping List

Here are all the ingredients that I will be using, broken down into the price of the overall package and the unit cost.
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What Does 200 Calories Cost? A Visual Guide (Economics of Obesity)

WiseGeek has an interesting article on What Does 200 Calories Look Like?, where it photographs the portions of several foods that equal 200 calories and sorts them by weight. Here’s broccoli next to peanut butter on the same plate:

200 Calories Of Broccoli and Peanut Butter:

I thought it would be neat to extend this idea and see what 200 calories costs. So I extended my usual grocery trip by finding out the price per weight for each of the food items they selected. The results are below, grouped by price per 200 calories. Image credits go to Please go there for the full versions, these are just thumbnails for reference.

Cost of 200 Calories: Less than 50 cents
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Canola Oil
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Wheat flour
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Brown Sugar
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Peanut Butter
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Uncooked Pasta
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Glazed Donut
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Salted Pretzels
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Wheat Dinner Rolls
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French Sandwich Roll
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Smarties Candy

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Live Below The Line Challenge $1.50/day – What to Eat?

I recently learned about Live Below The Line, an annual anti-poverty campaign which challenges people to feed themselves on the equivalent of the extreme poverty line for five days. According to the World Bank, that works out to spending less than US$7.50 total ($1.50 per day). I’ve accepted the challenge, which will run from April 29th to May 3rd, 2013 (Mon-Fri).

I don’t want to make this about politics, guilt, or anything negative. Although this is in part a fundraising campaign, I’m not asking you to donate money. (I will fulfill the goal with my own money. If you really want, you can give here to the Global Poverty Project.) It will be a learning experience for me; I hope to gain some perspective and appreciation for my many blessings. I liked how this tweet put it:

So… 7 bucks and 50 cents. What should I buy?

I’ve read about many families of four that claim to live on $200 of groceries a month, which is pretty much $1.50 a day per person. Getting more people to pool resources definitely helps. But since it’s just me on this challenge, things are going to be a bit tougher. I’ve gone vegetarian for short periods before, so it looks like that will be my best bet. Here are some brainstorming ideas:

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Your Entire Financial Life in One Deceptively Simple Chart

Time for fun with charts! A famous chart in the early retirement community is The Crossover Point from the book Your Money or Your Life, which shows that you’ve reached financial independence when your investment income equals your monthly expenses:

Fellow blogger Adrian of 7million7years also shared a related chart from Chris Han of Quora, where wealth is the shaded area between your income and expenses:

Specifically, if you plotted all your income and expenses over time, the shaded area between would the amount you’ve saved your entire financial life. Bigger shaded area, bigger nest egg.

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Tracking Inflation: Consumer Price Index vs. MIT Billion Prices Project

AFter calculating the new savings bond rate, I noticed that from March 2012 to March 2013 the inflation rate per the Consumer Price Index was only 1.5% over the past year. Whenever you see the government announce a relatively low inflation numbers, there will always be people shouting “the government manipulates the inflation data!”. I looked into this previously with my post Does The Government Underestimate Inflation Through The CPI? Short answer: Yes they do, but maybe not in the way you think.

Usually, this is followed by the anecdotal argument “Does gas ever go down? Does your rent ever go down?”. It certainly feels like prices are rising quicker than that. My water bill just got hiked another 10%. The thing is, we always notice the increases, but tend not to notice when prices drop. When something is cheaper, we just chalk it up to being great bargain hunters. Truth is, gas prices did go down for a while.

Another way to keep an eye on inflation is with MIT’s Billion Prices Project (previous post) which tracks prices in real-time by grabbing them from websites. By checking on 50,000+ different prices daily covering everything from prescription drugs to clothing to real estate, this alternative inflation measurement has the potential to keep governments “honest” with their numbers.

Index Values: CPI vs. BPP

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The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN Review

The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPENThe Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN is an premium charge card for small businesses where you must pay off the balance each month, but you get the AMEX perks like purchase price protection, extended product return protection, and the famous AMEX extended warranty that actually pays out. Here are the highlights:

  •  Get 25,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on the Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership
  • Built with business-sized purchasing power and fast rewards
  • 3X points on airfare purchased directly from airlines
  • 2X points on US purchases for advertising in select media, shipping, at gas stations, and made directly from select computer hardware, software, and cloud computing providers
  • Up to $100,000 in each category per year, then 1 point
  • Use points to entertain clients, reward employees, reduce travel costs, or just offset the everyday expenses of moving your business forward
  • Terms and limitations apply

Note: “Welcome bonus offer not available to applicants who have had this product or any other Business Gold, Green or Platinum Card account within the last 12 months.” I’m not eligible for this one because I already got this exact card in January, but check out my post on apply for multiple American Express cards for ways to maximize your bonuses even more.

Business Credit Card Eligibility

Many people aren’t aware that they can apply for business credit cards, even if they are not a corporation or LLC. Any individual can be a small business. Perhaps you sell items on eBay, Craiglist, or Etsy. Maybe you do some graphic design, web design, freelancing and/or consulting. If you received a 1099-MISC tax form and filled out a Schedule C, that means you have business income, you pay self-employment taxes, and you’re a sole proprietorship. This is the simplest business entity, but it is fully legit and recognized by the IRS. On a business credit card application, you should use your own legal name as the business name, and your Social Security Number as the Tax ID.

This card will require you to personally guarantee that you’ll pay them back what you charge on the card, which means they’ll check your personal credit score like any other consumer card. However, as the card is a business card, American Express won’t have it show up on your personal credit report, so it won’t change things like your credit limits, average account age, or credit utilization ratio.

Savings I-Bonds May 2013 Upcoming Rate: 1.18%

New inflation numbers for March 2013 were just announced, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update and rate predictions.

New Inflation Rate
September 2012 CPI-U was 231.407. March 2013 CPI-U was 232.773, for a semi-annual increase of 0.590%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately 1.18%. The new fixed rate is nearly guaranteed to be zero, so the total rate will be 1.18% as well. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be different.

Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminder
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April

If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.76% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 1.76 = 1.76%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.0 + 1.18 = 1.18%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th and sell on April 1, 2013, you’ll earn a 1.28% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. This is better than any 1-year bank CD that I can find right now, keeping in mind the liquidity concerns and the purchase limits. If you hold for longer, you’ll be getting the full 1.47% over the first year.

Given the combination of current low rates and the fact that you lose the last 3 months of interest (again, for holding less than 5 years), it might be better to wait long enough to grab 12 full months of interest by holding for 15 months (14 buying late). If you buy on April 30th and hold until July 1st, 2014, you’d achieve a annualized return of ~1.26% over 14 months. After that, you can see what the new rates are and decide whether to keep holding them.

Buying in May

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Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Review: What’s Inside (VTSMX, VTSAX, VTI)

(This post is part of a new series taking a closer look at some popular portfolio holdings.)

The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund is one of the largest funds in the world, and definitely the largest index fund. For individual retail investors, it is available in mutual fund flavors (VTSMX, VTSAX) as well as ETF flavor (VTI). Across all shares classes, there is currently over $230 billion dollars of total assets invested in this fund – that’s nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars! If you own a Vanguard Target Retirement or LifeStrategy fund, you own this fund as well. So let’s try to understand what’s inside.

Despite the name, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund only tries to represent all the stocks in the U.S. equity market, from big to small, from financial companies to shoe store chains. The fund is currently transitioning from tracking the MSCI US Broad Market Index to the CRSP US Total Market Index. These are both market-cap weighted indexes, which means that the amount of each stock held is directly proportional to the total market value of the company. In other words, if all Nike shares together are worth $50 billion while Skechers is worth $1 billion, then the index would hold 50 times more Nike than Skechers.

Market Capitalization Weighting

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