Feel Like You’re Always Eating Out? You’re Not Alone.

Here are some charts illustrating a couple of interesting food trends in the US.

Americans are spending a smaller percentage of their income on food than ever. From America’s Shrinking Grocery Bill:

In 1984, the average U.S. household spent 16.8 percent of its annual post-tax income on food. By 2011, Americans spent only 11.2 percent. The U.S. devotes less of its income to food than any other country—half as much as households in France and one-fourth of those in India.

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But you see that big orange slice of the chart?

We are also spending a larger percentage of our food budget on food prepared away from home than ever. From Cheap Eats: How America Spends Money on Food:

foodathome

Looking at the chart, it seems like only a matter of time before we eat out more often than we eat in.

Our peak period of eating out was after the birth of our first child. It felt like we were whipping out the binder of take-out menus nearly every day. More recently, we completed the Dinner Boot Camp which contained a week-long plan for easy home dinners, and since then we’re on our 4th consecutive week of cooking dinner (and the following day’s lunch) at home at least 5 times a week. It’ll be hard to keep up, but doing a bit of planning before every week really does go a long way.

Baby Gear Reviews: Baby Bottles and Accessories (Part 3)

azbottlesHere is Part 3 of my series on baby gear, organized in the order of Amazon’s Baby Registry. The entire multi-part series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. This time I’ll talk about our experiences with baby bottles.

Our first baby was colicky and not a great eater, and that is really where these bottle companies make their money. Design a bottle nipple that reduces the unstoppable crying of colic, and we’ll gladly pay upwards of $6 per bottle. Heck, if it really worked I’d pay $50 a bottle without blinking an eye. The basic idea is that air is being swallowed when air backflows into the nipple during drinking, which supposedly causes colic. So the fancier bottles all have some mechanism to alleviate that vacuum.

Our babies were breastfed, so we got a “free” Medela breast pump (it was covered by our health insurance). Thus, we started out with a few Medela brand bottles. Baby didn’t like it. Between purchasing and borrowing from friends, we ended up trying most of the brands: Medela, Born Free, Playtex, Tommee Tippee, AVENT, and Dr. Browns Natural Flow. We tried the last three because they were the most recommended by the Baby Bargains book.

The two that ended up working best for us were:

tippee

  • Tommee Tippee – The silicone nipple does look most like a human nipple with a wide base, the construction felt of high quality, and the wider bottle was easier to hold in my palm. Keep the air vent hole facing upwards so milk doesn’t block it. On the expensive side.
  • Playtex Drop-Ins with the Latex Nipple – I bought this when desperate in a drugstore after reading a recommendation from a parenting forum. Latex is softer than silicone and thus feel more natural, although silicone is more durable and some babies are allergic to latex. The collapsible liners are convenient and eliminate vacuum but are not eco-friendly. Really, it was all about the soft latex nipple.

All bottles sold today should be BPA-free, I would check if you are using hand-me-downs. I would also note that you can buy nipples with different-sized holes that change the flowrate, your baby may prefer one to another and that could make a big difference in itself.

Other things to buy. As for accessories, a simple dishwasher basket was a very good buy; we’ve used it daily for 2 years now for all kinds of small kiddie things, even after we stopped using bottles. A good bottle brush is also helpful for thorough cleaning.

Other things we didn’t buy. We did not buy any bottle sterilizers or bottle warmers. When we had our first child, I think the first two weeks we boiled water and manually sterilized the bottles every time. What a pain. After that, we only sterilize them before the first use. Now we just wash them with warm, soapy water or use the dishwasher and rinse them well. Hot tap water works fine for warming milk or formula. When eating out, we simply ask for some hot water like they would serve for tea. If you formula-feed, the advice is to start them at room temperature and your baby will be fine with it. Our pediatrician agreed these were unnecessary. Perhaps they are wonderful inventions, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

  • Verdict: There are endless combinations of nipple shapes and bottle designs. I’m sure some babies will drink from anything. For us, there really wasn’t a huge difference between any of the bottles, but I listed our two favorites above. If possible, try to borrow different bottle brands from friends to try out.

OBi200 Adapter + Google Voice Installation Review

obi200After the announcement that Obihai VoIP adapters were officially supported by Google Voice, I bought one of their discounted Obi200 adapters. I wanted to learn more about this cheap alternative to landline phone service, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device.

Obihai adapters have been around since 2011, but this is the first Obi product I have purchased. I don’t know that the installation procedure was in the past, but I believe the official integration has made the installation even easier than before. Supposedly the authentication method is also more secure and your Google password is no longer stored. I thought about making a video, but it really wasn’t necessary.

  1. Open the box and plug in the cables. AC adapter, telephone line, and ethernet cable to router. All ports are clearly marked. All the cables are included except the phone cable which you should already have. The image below says it all:

    obi200a

  2. Write down your unique Obi number. This is clearly printed on the bottom of the Obi200 box. Mine was 9 digits like “123 456 789″.
  3. Go to your computer and visit ObiTalk.com. Click on the link that says “Register” in the top right corner. Then just follow the directions. Dial a test phone number when it asks. It is easiest to use the “Sign in with Google Account” button since you already have one if you use Google Voice. I didn’t even have to type in my password. They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

    obi200b

  4. Use your phone. I turned on my phone, listened to the dial tone, and called my cell phone. Success! Traditional phone service with unlimited calls within the US and Canada for the great price of $0 a month. The voice quality was fine, but I’ll test it out more over the next couple of weeks.

Total set-up time was under 10 minutes. If for some reason my directions don’t work, check out the official Obi200 Starter Guide [pdf] or their extensive set of tutorials. You can also add e911 service for $15 a year.

The Obi200 is currently $49.99 at NewEgg and $48.89 at Amazon, both with free shipping options. The newer Obi200 supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter. If you want to save some money you can buy the OBi100 for $37.99 at NewEgg and $37.99 at Amazon (prices often change). NewEgg works with Shoprunner which many people have for free, giving you free 2-day shipping. Here is a comparison of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

obi200compare2

Healthcare FSA $500 Rollover and Open Enrollment

rxbottleIn October of last year, the government announced that administrators of Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) could allow employees to roll over up to $500 of unspent FSA money into the following year’s balance . This change was designed up help address the (stupid in my opinion) use-it-or-lose-it nature of these accounts. Per this Reuters article, given the short notice only 8% of U.S. companies adopted this rollover policy in 2014.

As Open Enrollment season for benefits starts for 2015, keep your eyes out for mention of this rollover option. Adoption rates could jump up to 50% now that they’ve had a year to prepare, according to benefits administrator Alegeus Technologies.

If your company does offer a $500 carryover (and your job is stable), then it would be much more appealing to contribute at last $500 even if you are unsure of your future expenses. If you don’t spend all (or any) of it, you can simply roll it over year after year.

Despite the potential tax savings, we stopped contributing to our FSA last year because the company switched to a new (likely cheaper) FSA administrator that made you do everything online while also repeatedly rejecting half our claims without clear explanations as to why. So painful! Thankfully it sounds like everyone else hated them too, as they are back to processing FSA claims in-house.

Obihai Free Monthly Home Phone Service; VoIP Adapter Deal for $30

obi200If you still have landline phone service and are looking for a cheaper alternative, Obihai is officially supported by Google again (it ended back in May 2014):

Obihai is excited to announce official support for Google Voice. With a Google Voice account and a companion OBi device you can make and receive VoIP calls on a regular telephone. To get started, just login to the OBiTALK website, add your OBi device and select Google Voice as your service. You’ll then confirm your account with Google, and within minutes, you will be making and receiving calls from the comfort and convenience of your home phone.

An Obihai VoIP phone adapter is a little box that will allow you to plug in any standard landline telephone and use Google Voice to make free phone calls within the US and Canada. You can also make cheap international calls starting at 1 cent a minute. Many people have been doing this happily since 2011.

To celebrate, Obihai is running a promotion where you can get a Obihai OBi200 VoIP Telephone Adapter from NewEgg for only $29.99 with free shipping (also works with Shoprunner) after using coupon code EMCPAWW99. Promo ends 9/14/14, or while supplies last. Retail price is $49.99.

Even though I am still quite happy with the quality of my Ooma VoIP phone service, it is really hard to beat 30 bucks upfront and no ongoing monthly fees or taxes. (Note: It is up to Google to continue offering free domestic calls, which they usually only promise a year at a time.) I just bought my first Obihai box just so I can tinker with it and maybe send it to my parents.

Google Hangouts App Update: Free Voice Calls Over Data for Android and iPhone

hangoutsGoogle has just announced better integration between Google Voice and their Google Hangouts smartphone app. Both iOS and Android apps can now make domestic and international calls through a Wi-Fi or data connection (like 4G). You can also receive calls if you have a Google Voice number. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are currently provided by Google free of charge from all countries where Hangouts calling is available.

What does this mean exactly?

  • For the frugal minimalist, as long as you have a data connection like WiFi, you can now make and receive unlimited domestic voice calls using a basic Apple or Android device. You can pay for a cheap prepaid option as a backup, or simply go without any cellular plan. You can also use voice over data to complement T-Mobile’s $30 plan which offers 5 GB of 4G data but only 100 voice minutes (this plan isn’t heavily-advertised, but scroll down and you’ll find it).
  • For the international traveler, as long as you have WiFi in a supported country you can call back home to the US for free using your phone. No foreign SIM card or even Skype account required.
  • For the international caller, you can more easily use Google Voice’s discounted calling rates which have recently been lowered again. For example, rates to India (mobile or landline) and Mexico (landline) are only 1 cent a minute.

iPhone / Apple iOS. Download the Google Hangouts app and the calling functionality is built-in.

Android. Download both the Google Hangouts app and the Hangouts Dialer app. If you need help, here are directions straight from Google: Make calls with Hangouts on Android.

SMS text message support is also supposedly coming, first to Android devices “in the next few days” and then to iOS devices “soon”.

Get Rid of Second Car and Use Uber Instead?

uberiphone5Forget borrowing money to buy a car, the concept of owning a car itself is changing. Owning a car requires committing to a long list of expenses:

  • car payment and value depreciation ($1,000+ a year)
  • car insurance premium ($500+ a year)
  • fuel costs ($600+ a year)
  • government tax, registration, and fees ($300+ a year)
  • maintenance and repair costs
  • parking, traffic tickets, and tolls

In rough terms, owning a car runs at least $3,000 a year with most people spending more than $5,000 a year. Consumer Reports calculates the median at $9,000 a year over the first 5 years for new car buyers.

As a couple with two cars, I’ve been thinking about trying to get by with one car in the household. Even besides public transit, consider all the car-based options that may be available:

  • Renting a car, but driving ourselves. (ZipCar, RelayRides)
  • Being driven around by other people who rent or own cars. (taxis, Uber, Lyft)
  • Being driven by autonomous robotic cars. (Google or major auto company)

After recent positive experiences with Uber and reading about the advancements in self-driving cars, I now believe that within the next 10 years we will shed at least one car. (I doubt I would want to go completely carless with two kids and all their activities.) Some food for thought on the subject:

  • With Uber, Less Reason to Own a Car – Farhad Manjoo at NY Times.

    “In many cities and even suburbs, it’s becoming much easier to organize your life car-free or car-lite,” said David A. King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University who studies technology and transportation. By car-lite, Dr. King means that instead of having one car for every driver, households can increasingly get by with owning just a single vehicle, thanks in part to tech-enabled services like Uber.

  • A Financial Model Comparing Car Ownership with UberX (Los Angeles) – Kyle Hill at Medium.

    So there you have it… for the average American who drives 13,476 miles per year, owning a motor vehicle will cost them $12,744 per year to maintain, and the cost of taking UberX everywhere will cost them $18,115 per year. However, Americans who drive less than 9,481 miles in a year should seriously consider ditching their car, because UberX will be cheaper.

  • How Do Car Ownership Costs Compare to Uber? – Uber Blog.

    The math doesn’t lie. In a city with with a fast, practical (and cool) alternative like Uber, it would very much be worth your time to crunch the numbers and see how much you’re really spending on your gas, parking, maintenance, etc. and how much time you spend doing those things. Because having your own personal driver pick you up in a slick car each and every day is a hell of an appealing alternative.

  • Uber vs Car Ownership – Sam Altman.

    Taking uberX everywhere is now cheaper for me than owning a car (I have an expensive car, so it’s not a super fair comparison, but I still think it’s interesting).

Of course “the math” depends on where you live and how you drive, but even small to medium cities will be affected. Uber now has UberFamily (car seats) and UberPool (multiple passengers heading the same direction). Now look at self-driving car technology. If I buy a self-driving car, that’s really just another convenience/luxury that costs me more money. But what happens when Uber and Lyft don’t have to pay drivers? (Robots taking jobs again!) Fares will drop even further.

Early Retirement Lesson #4: How Much Car Can I Afford?

Pretty Jaguar F-TypeHere’s another installment of what I would tell my kids about pursuing financial freedom. Read all of my early retirement lessons here. I’ve already covered housing, so the next big expense that comes to mind is cars. This is a revised version of a older post.

If you want to achieve early retirement, my rule of thumb is that you should only pay CASH for cars. By cash I don’t mean retirement savings in an IRA, I’m talking about actual cash sitting in the bank while otherwise still making timely progress towards your other financial goals. I’ve never had a car loan. When I buy a car, I write a check or hand over a wad of cash.

Don’t you like cars? I’ve been a Car and Driver subscriber off and on for 20 years now. I wanted to become an ASE-certified mechanic and even applied to automotive school, but settled on being a mechanical engineering major. But I also know that cars are the biggest area where the price paid vs. utility derived (i.e. value) can get completely out of whack. While a BMW M3 is a beautiful example of precision German engineering, unless your commute involves an unrestricted Autobahn it won’t get you to work any faster than my old 2001 Pontiac.

I’m also a proponent of individual choice according to personal priorities. Great cars are beautiful manmade creations, just like great buildings and great bridges. (Top Gear reference!) You may derive an obscene amount of personal joy out of your car. Okay, so buy it with cash saved up after you put 15%+ of your pay aside for retirement. An old classmate drove a 12-year-old Porsche 944 that he worked on himself.

So I can never buy a new car? Again, if you have the cash knock yourself out. My parents are the buy-new-and-drive-for-a-decade type, and they’ve done well with that philosophy. Not everyone enjoys haggling for a used car, and buying new with cash and driving it into the ground is good enough.

Reliable car sweet spot? The “true cost” of a car is the sum of depreciation, maintenance costs, gas, and insurance. New cars hurt you on the depreciation front. Going too cheap may result in high maintenance costs overwhelming the low depreciation. Any fuel-efficient car between 3 and 7 years old with good maintenance records seems like a reasonable choice to me. Buy it from a private party on AutoTrader or Craigslist, get it checked out by a trusted mechanic, use one of the many pricing guides available. Modern cars can easily go past 10 years and 100,000 miles now with proper maintenance.

I personally like the idea of a used GM, Ford, or Mazda model. This is because I bought a Pontiac Grand Prix for under $9,000 at 3 years old and 35,000 miles (company car went off-lease). Even though this was the base model of a struggling-and-now-defunct domestic brand, it ran for another 9 years with the only major repairs being broken power window motors. Essentially, I now believe that the used car pricing market adjusts adequately for reliability. Hondas and Toyotas are certainly more reliable but there is no way I could get a 3-year-old Camry for $9,000.

What if I only have 50 bucks and need a car for work? My first advice would be to try harder to find alternatives. Public transportation may be uncool, but I dislike the idea of working past 65 even more. Can you vanpool or carpool? Could you (gasp) bike or walk?

If you absolutely have to finance a car, buy used and bring your own financing from a credit union like PenFed or Hanscom FCU, which currently offers used car loans starting at 1.49% APR. Negotiate only on price, not monthly payments. Make the loan term 3 years or less.

Again, this rule of thumb is targeted at those folks to want to escape the rat race early. You can still have the $40,000 luxury vehicle, but you’ll have to plan ahead and save for it. Then, when you’re staring at a nice $40,000 balance on your bank statement, it becomes much easier to weigh clearly the value of the car vs. writing a huge check.

As a final note, never buy anything based on monthly payments – that’s the same logic that encourages just making the minimum payment on credit card debt and spawned rent-to-own furniture! Don’t fool yourself into believing you can afford a car just because the monthly lease payment seems manageable. Did you know that over 70% of Mercedes-Benz C-classes are leased? There are many people who spend big chunks of their income every year on cars when they could have a paid-off mortgage instead.

Dinner Boot Camp: Free Family Meal Planning for a Week

dinnerplaybookThe New York Times Motherlode blog is running Dinner: The Boot Camp next week with Jenny Rosenstrach, author of the new book Dinner: The Playbook “A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal”.

Here is the free shopping list and weekly dinner meal plan [pdf] for Sunday night 9/7 through Thursday night 9/12 (you get to go out on Friday). Just shop once on Saturday/Sunday, and the meals are meant to be easy-to-make and tasty. Check in the day after each meal on the Motherlode blog to share experiences.

Inspired by Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’ve been trying to shift our eating our habits to the theory that as long as you make it yourself from scratch, it’s healthy enough and cheap enough. Think of “processing” as the middleman that shaves off quality (and replaces with salt and sugar) while increasing cost (have to make a profit, right?). Cut out the middleman.

Our overall goal is to cook ourselves using raw materials 5 days a week, eat “food-in-a-box” dinner once a week, and eat out (or take-out) from a restaurant once per week.

Baby Gear Reviews: Car Seats, Strollers, and Feeding Pillows (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of my series on baby gear, organized in the order of Amazon’s Baby Registry. Here is Part 1. The entire series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. This week is car seats, strollers, and feeding pillows.

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Car Seats

babystuff_carseatI’ll start with car seats, as we decided that first before picking a stroller. We chose the Chicco Keyfit 30 Infant Car Seat with Base (plus an extra base for the other car). It was #1 rated by Consumer Reports, well-rated by various other sources including the popular Baby Bargains book, and was recommended by all our friends who had it. You don’t want to go used with a car seat.

After owning it through two different infants, we found it is easy to use, relatively lightweight, durable, easy to take apart, and easy to clean. It’s rated up to 30 lbs, which is more than you’ll probably need. We like that if the baby is sleeping, we can just take the entire seat in and out of the car without waking her up. Our kid often napped in the car seat at home. This also meant we only needed one car seat (and two bases) for two cars.

I haven’t used any other infant car seat so I am unable to provide a good comparison test, but we really have no complaints. A good friend generously bought us ours, and I bought my sister one. The only catch is that it is not the cheapest option. I have seen the Britax B-Safe and it looks similar and is slightly cheaper.

After our first kiddo outgrew the car seat, we bought a pair of Britax Marathon G4 Convertible car seats. Britax seemed to have a good safety history and the chair itself felt very over-engineered and beefy. Honestly, I don’t know the differences between the 26 different Britax models. Ours was on sale. The basic model runs $130 and seems fine to me, it lacks a few conveniences and maybe some comfort padding. The new Chicco Nextfit convertible seat is also highly rated but is closer to $300.

  • Verdict: Buy new. We highly recommend the Chicco Keyfit 30 and have nothing negative to say about it. It currently costs ~$190 but will last through two kids and probably another if we have temporary insanity and try for a third kid. When you outgrow that, we like our beefy Britax convertible seats. Just keep moving up the price range (starts at ~$125) until your budget protests.

Strollers

babystuff_strollerBuying a stroller is like buying a car. There is basic transportation, and then there a million luxury and fashion features for the “outdoorsy” and the “hip urban” set. Strollers can also be bought used in barely-used condition at a significant discount.

Since we picked the Chicco Keyfit, our first thought was to buy the Chicco Cortina, which is basically a regular toddler stroller that can also hold your car seat. Sounds smart right? One stroller, two uses. But at 26 lbs for just the stroller, it was heavy. We ended up just buying a lightweight 14 lb universal frame stroller for $50 which just has one purpose: to hold an infant car seat. 12 lbs difference is a big deal when it comes to both pushing and repeatedly lugging it in and out of a car. If you want your seat to “click in” rather than use a strap, then you have to buy the Chicco-branded one for $100.

For strollers after that, my frugal advice is to find a used baby gear shop and try out their strollers in person. There is so much variation, you just never know until you actually try it. Plus they cost half as much as new. The height could be wrong, you might kick the back wheels when you push, your kid might be too big/small/wide/narrow, etc. The main factors for me are (1) is it lightweight, (2) is the kid comfortable, and (3) are the wheels compatible with the terrain you’ll be one. We often take walks on uneven, thick grass so small wheels get stuck very easily. We have a small, lightweight “mall” stroller (Combi Cosmo) and a heavier “SUV” stroller (Baby Jogger City Mini). I’m not absolutely in love with either one, but they are good enough. The City Mini is fashionable yet has sturdy construction. I think the one-handed collapse feature is rather overrated.

  • Verdict: If you buy a removable infant car seat, just buy a lightweight stroller frame starting at $50 new (or find one used for half). You’ll be good for the first year or so. Always try out a stroller in person. If putting on a baby registry, at least test the usability (fold up, put in car, take out of car, unfold, several times in a row). If buying yourself, just wait until the kid is old enough and buy one used. A good stroller can cost safely under $200 and last a long time.

Feeding Pillows

babystuff_pillowWhen we had our first baby, I think Boppys were trendy or something because we got a few of them as gifts. We used both and liked the Boppy but preferred the My Brest Friend feeding pillow even though we’d never heard of it before (still not a fan of the name). I just noticed that the Brest Friend is the #1 best-selling feeding pillow on Amazon right now, so I guess we were not alone. Allows a comfortable position both for breastfeeding directly and bottle-feeding.

  • Verdict: We preferred the My Brest Friend over the Boppy. Used daily for feeding, totally worth it at ~$40 if you breastfeed. If formula-fed, it is nice but not essential as you have other options like a bed, chair, or car seat.

Baby Gear Reviews: Playards, Swings, and Baby Carriers (Part 1)

As a father of a 2-year-old and 2-month-old, I am now an unquestionable expert on all things parenting (that’s how it works, right?). Funny how parents can come off that way when in reality we live in constant fear of messing up our kids permanently.

Since a few readers have asked to write about baby-related things, here is a multi-part series on baby gear organized according to Amazon’s Baby Registry system. I realize this only applies to a certain subsection of readers so I’ll space the posts out. This is part 1; the entire series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. The first three items on Amazon’s checklist are all items that will ideally occupy your baby while you do all the things you used to take for granted: eat, sleep, shower, use the restroom, and basic personal hygiene.

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Playards / Travel Cribs / Playpens

babystuff_pnpThe most popular brand is the Graco Pack N Play, they are like the Kleenex of playards. We received one Pack N Play (PNP) as a gift, and another as a hand-me-down. We’ve also had to use several of them in various hotel rooms that we’ve stayed at. They are very easy to set up and take down once you get some practice. Since they are used as travel cribs, really they can function as everyday cribs until your kid physically grows out of it (manual says up to 30 lbs on the bottom, 15 lbs on the raised mesh level).

I had a fantasy of my kids happily playing in them while I did work on the computer, so I set one up in my home office. That did NOT happen. When they are crawling it serves as a handy pen to keep them safe while you’re doing something briefly. But our kid never spent more than 15 minutes (awake and happy) in one. These days it serves as a nap area or toy storage bin. The other PNP went to the grandparents’ house and mostly serves as a diaper changing table.

  • Verdict: We got the basic ~$70 Graco Pack n Play playard and it did come in handy. Basically a portable crib. I would say it is more of a convenience than a necessity (unless you use it as a primary crib). I did not miss the extra add-ons like nap stations, changing tables, rocking seats, etc.

Swings and Bouncers

babystuff_swingEvery parent seems to have a specific swing to recommend. That’s because when you find a swing that your kids like and will sleep for an hour or more in, you whisper a Hallelujah! (don’t wake the kid!) and weep for joy.

We got a couple different swings as gifts. Baby #1 didn’t like them. We tried some of our friends hand-me-downs. Didn’t like those either. We bought some used ones from the local kid exchange store. Nope. Our first kid was colicky and simply didn’t like swings. One day we were at Nordstroms and saw the $300 retail price Mamaroo. I couldn’t believe I was actually considering buying a swing with an LCD display and iPhone connectivity.

Baby #2 actually likes the Fisher-Price Snugabunny Swing because it swings side-to-side and not just front-to-back. Both babies actually preferred this Fisher-Price Rainforest Bouncer due to its vibration feature and colorful distractions. We ate a lot of dinners with that thing in the middle of the dining table.

  • Verdict: Swings are totally worth the money if your baby sleeps in them. Ours cost $140 but many run much less. Try one that swings side-to-side and front-to-back. Try a vibrating bouncer too.

Soft Baby Carriers

babystuff_becoThey all carry your baby on your body so that you have both hands free to do something else. It seems like many cultures from around the world have similar ways of carrying their babies, so this is definitely something to at least try.

Mrs. MMB and I both tried a few different ones on and ended up picking the Beco Gemini baby carrier (~$130). It was relatively easy to adjust and get in/out, felt sturdily built, and supported both facing-you and facing-forward positions at a wide range of weights. After using it through amusement parks, airports, and multiple washings, we found it very durable and it should last through multiple kids. Worth the extra cost in our experience.

We thought that both of us could us it, but in the end, it was a lot of trouble adjusting it for size between the both of us, and really she did most of the baby carrying. It worked well and I think both kids preferred the carrier to any car seat, stroller, or swing.

Many other brands are similar: Baby Bjorn, Ergo Baby, Infantino. The Moby Wrap ($40) looked very natural but was pretty difficult to get the baby comfortable despite many viewings of YouTube instructional videos. It’s just one big piece of fabric so I’m also not sure why it costs $40. Some people love it, however. Our friends gave us a Mei Tai Carrier ($25) which is more like a Beco/Bjorn but all cloth without plastic clips. I now use it myself to hold the baby around the house. I think the Mei Tai is a good budget version of a Beco-style carrier, although it is more convenient to have the click-in buckles than to tie knots every time.

  • Verdict: If you are cool with carrying your baby on your body, definitely get one. Starts at just $25. Mrs. MMB uses her baby carrier all the time when out shopping or running errands. Both of our kids napped in them regularly.

Costco Meal Planner Service: 20 Family Dinners For $150

I know it’s still summer, but with two kids under two I’ve been trying to cook extra on the weekends and coast on the weekdays. This past weekend I made beef stew and pulled pork sandwiches in the slow cooker, and they turned out pretty good. Today I found 5dollardinners.com (from my wife’s Pinterest or Facebook), which shows you how to make 20 slow cooker meals for $150 using Costco’s bulk food packages (this version is gluten-free too).

5dollardinners

Basically, you go to Costco and buy exactly what is on the provided shopping list (6 pack of chicken breasts, 15 lb bag of potatoes, massive tub of BBQ sauce, etc) and then chop and separate all the ingredients into 20 separate freezer bags. When you need an easy cheap meal, pop a bag into your slow cooker in the morning and you’ll have dinner ready by the time you’re done with work. You’ll need a slow cooker with a timer if you don’t work from home. You can piece together all the info on the site for free, or for $5 you get some nicely organized instructions and even bag labels.

That makes this site a cool entrepreneurial example as well. Costco is already a great place for people who don’t want to shop for extreme bargains, they just want a decent deal with no hassle. Why not extend the idea to meal planning. The creator definitely put in work to save you time, so why not compensate her for it? They also have two other Costco meal plans that are not 100% slow-cooker specific.

With every ingredient having to go into more than one recipe, you’d worry about too many similar meals but the variety of the recipes actually looks pretty good. I haven’t actually cooked any of them myself, however. If I was really motivated I would try and make something similar for my own personal tastes.