Uncrustables and the Many Degrees of Frugality

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At the recommendation of reader from one of my Cost of Convenience posts, I have been reading the book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In it, Reese does many similar cooking experiments where she decides whether it is better to make it yourself or buy it. I was surprised that she put a “make it” recommendation on things like hot dog buns (while hot dogs themselves are “buy it”), lard, and goat cheese. I’d never even considered making any of those things myself.

Was I wrong? Is there right or wrong? Take the example of Smucker’s Uncrustables, which is a factory-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts removed (and extra oil, sugar, and preservatives added). There are many articles out there ranting about how this invention must be a sign of the apocalypse. How hard can it be to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Can’t we do anything for ourselves now? I find myself nodding in agreement.

But wait.

A generation or two ago, someone “making” a peanut butter and jelly sandwich actually baked the bread from flour, shelled, roasted, ground up raw peanuts, and preserved excess fresh fruits via canning. Doing all of these things is actually not that hard. Okay, so maybe you bake your own bread, but do you grow the wheat? In the 1930s, 25% of Americans lived on a farm before widespread monoculture, and thus probably grew the flour, peanuts, and fruits on their own land.

So my takeaway was really that we should be open to the possibilities, consider the options carefully, and then each draw our own lines between D-I-Y and B-U-Y. There will always be someone more or less DIY/frugal/green than you. We all have to balance our own time, energy, and beliefs. This book has inspired me to at least try making a few things once. I wonder how my Eggs Benedict with homemade English muffins and hollandaise sauce with turn out.

Ooma Telo Phone Service Discounts + Long Term Review

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Updated, now only $99 with free shipping via referral below. The Ooma Telo is a VoIP system that creates a home phone service through your broadband internet. Just plug in your regular landline phones and go. Features include unlimited domestic long distance, 911 service, caller ID, voicemail, and call waiting. In addition to the one-time purchase price, new customers must pay a share of government taxes and regulatory fees that works out to around $5 a month. Consumer Reports rated it their #1 home phone service in their June 2012 issue. Here is the Consumer Reports “Claim Check” video:

My Long-Term Review

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Straight Talk SIM Card + Any iPhone 4 or 5 = $45 Unlimited Prepaid Plan

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October 2013 Update: “Unlimited” has been clarified to mean 3G/4G data speeds for 2.5 GB per month, throttled to 2G data speed after that. Both AT&T and T-Mobile SIM cards are now available, with the newer ones allowing 4G / LTE speeds if you bring your own 4G HSPA+ / LTE-compatible phone. Price dropped to $6.99 with free shipping. See screenshot below.

You can also now buy the iPhone 4 ($200 refurb) and iPhone 5 ($400 refurb) directly from StraightTalk now at reasonable prices. iPhones sold by Straight Talk are CDMA and work on Verizon networks and their wider coverage. Note that the CDMA iPhone 5 comes factory GSM unlocked as well, so you can even switch to AT&T with the SIM cards above. Remember these come with no contract and also go with the $45 unlimited plan. Details below.

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FreedomPop FREE Cell Phone Plan Review

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Cell phone service seems to get cheaper each year. I still remember when a great deal was $40 a month for 1,000 minutes with no text and no data. So what about FREE cellular service? Well, it’s here, but with a few important catches…

FreedomPop just rolled out a new cell phone service on a freemium model. That means they have a free option, in the hopes that enough people will pay up for various upgrades to make a profit. You may know the name from their 4G data hotspots that offered 500mb a month of data for free. I bought one, but ended up returning it as it didn’t fit my needs (and like other folks was charged about $15 in unexplained fees). Here are the details of this new venture:

  • Phone. The only phone currently available is an HTC EVO Design 4G for $99. Pretty basic Android phone. Older model, came out in late 2011/early 2012. Online reviews state that it’s pretty thick in size, 4″ screen is pretty good, battery life is below average.
  • Service. Everything works using cellular data only using VoIP software. Primary is Sprint/Clearwire WiMax 4G data coverage, backup is Sprint 3G data coverage. Your coverage may be very limited. See coverage maps here and here. Voice quality over 3G may be spotty.
  • Free Plan Details. For $0 a month, you’ll get 200 minutes, 500 texts, and 500 mb of 3G/4G data. Additional use past that is charged as data, at 2.5 cents per MB ($25 per GB). Voicemail is $2.50 per month extra.
  • “Unlimited Plan” Details. For $10.99 a month, you’ll get unlimited voice minutes, unlimited texts, and 500 mb of 3G/4G data. Additional data costs 2.5 cents per MB ($25 per GB). Voicemail is $2.50 per month extra.

(click to enlarge)

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PO Boxes Now Offer Real Street Addresses, Accept UPS and FedEx Packages

For a few years, I had a UPS store private mailbox for my small business address instead of a Post Office box because of a couple of factors:

  • Private carriers like UPS and FedEx didn’t deliver to PO Boxes.
  • PO Boxes were not “real” street addresses, and thus I had to provide alternate addresses anyway with credit cards and other business accounts.

I recently discovered that both of these issues had been fixed some time in 2012 for many PO Boxes (but not all) with the introduction of “Street Addressing”. Taken directly from a USPS.gov webpage:

[...] with Street Addressing, a customer’s mailing address may be either the street address for the Post Office where their PO Box is located, followed by # and the box number, or PO Box followed by the box number. Some merchants do not allow shipping to a PO Box address. The Street Addressing option enables customers to receive packages and deliveries from private carriers who require a street address for delivery, such as UPS and FedEx.

Using their examples, instead of:

PO Box 3094
Collierville TN 38027

You can ask for mail to be sent to:

131 S Center St #3094
Collierville TN 38027

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Tips on Reducing Your Food Waste Impact

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I hate wasting food, but it still happens to me with fresh fruits and vegetables. I will eat leftovers even if it means eating little bits of four different meals at once. Globally, 1/3rd of the food supply is wasted and uneaten, with the rate even higher at 40% in the US. This is bad all over – financially, hunger-wise, and environmentally. At lot of this involves farming, food processing, supermarkets, and restaurants – but it includes us as well. Here are some good tips about how to reduce our food waste by not throwing it away unless necessary.

Marianne Gravely of the USDA Blog writes about double-checking before tossing food from the freezer or pantry:

Food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat. Foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.

What about the foods in your pantry? Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. You’ll know when you open the package if the food has lost quality. Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety.

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US Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Stats 1978-2012

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The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2012 annual report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States. A good recap of the data can be found via the charts in this slide presentation [pdf]. Below is my even-briefer summary.

The US median household income (inflation-adjusted) was roughly $51,000 in 2012. This number has decreased or remained stagnant each year since 2007, and is actually about the same as in 1989.

The 2012 official poverty rate was 15.0 percent, and roughly the same amount of the population was without health insurance coverage, 15.4%.

I think this report provides some perspective about the realities of many families today. As a household that earns more than average, this reminds us that it is quite possible to spend less, as many others already do out of necessity. I am not one of those money gurus that tells everyone that they can get rich and retire early; it will always be very difficult for most people. I want to take advantage of my current situation, save money and use it to create future income and financial freedom, and then hopefully that will enable me to help more people down the road.

Cheapest iPhone Plan with Unlimited Data? Virgin Mobile $30 a Month

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Price drop! You can now buy an 8GB iPhone 4 for only $199.99 from Virgin Mobile. Even after learning about the new iPhone 5S, in my opinion the iPhone 4 is still not that outdated and still works fine with nearly every app out there.

Their Beyond Talk plans at just $30 a month will get you 300 voice minutes, unlimited text messages, and unlimited data (throttled after 2.5 GB each month). To get the $5 discount, you must sign up for automatic monthly payment with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. No contract.

Virgin Mobile is a Sprint MVNO which means your coverage is coming from Sprint towers. Compared to a regular Sprint plan, paying $200 + $30 a month can save you more than $500 dollars over a 2-year contract when compared with paying even $0 for the phone and $60+ a month for service.

For $50 a month, you can get unlimited minutes. Here are all the plans:

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Famous Investor Benjamin Graham on Modest Living

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Benjamin Graham is considered the father of stock analysis and value investing, with his books Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor (first published in 1934 and 1939, but since revised many times) still considered must-reads today. He has many well-known disciples, Warren Buffett being the most famous one. Relatively early in his career, he experienced the Great Depression. I found this quote from his memoirs via The Biz of Life:

The Crash reaffirmed parsimonious viewpoints and habits that had been ingrained in me by the tight financial situation of my early youth but which I had overcome almost completely in the years of success.I blamed myself not so much for my failure to protect myself against the disaster I had been predicting, as for having slipped into an extravagant way of life which I hadn’t the temperament or capacity to enjoy. I quickly convinced myself that the true key to material happiness lay in a modest standard of living which could be achieved with little difficulty under almost all economic conditions.

Security analysis is all about managing risk and keeping a margin of safety. In my mind, Graham realized that a modest standard of living is part of keeping a margin of safety for your personal finances.

Citi Bike Sharing Program – New York City (Free Day Pass)

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Update: Get a free 24-Hour Access Pass to Citi Bike with any Mastercard, which will get you unlimited short bike rentals (less than 30-minutes to avoid overtime fees) within a 24-hour period. Register by 9/30/13, use by 10/31/13.

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Cost of Convenience: Costco Rotisserie Chicken vs. Homemade Whole Roast Chicken

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Ah, the famous Costco Rotisserie chicken. According to this WaPo series on supermarket rotisserie chickens, Costco sells over 50 million of them a year. You could make an entire cookbook with all the recipes online on how to stretch this bird into multiple meals… quesadillas, salads, soups, sandwiches, and more.

But can you do better on your own? I’m going to tread carefully here because I know the Costco Rotisserie Chicken is beloved by many. I’ve bought my fair share in the past, but these days we prefer to roast whole chickens ourself. Is it worth the extra effort? Does it save money? Let’s take a closer look.

Costco Seasoned Rotisserie Chicken

  • Pre-cooked weight: At least 3 lbs, according to Costco.
  • Cost: $4.99
  • Unit cost: $1.67/lb.
  • Ingredients: Whole chicken, water, seasonings (salt, sodium phosphate, modified food starch, potato dextrin, carrageenan, sugar, dextrose, spice extractives).
  • Total cooking time including prep: None.

The added ingredient list besides chicken doesn’t look too bad, with no preservatives or artificial flavors. However, I would note that these chickens are “marinated” by injecting them with a saltwater solution with phosphates. That’s how they stay so juicy and tasty inside (and high in sodium). Other supermarket chains like Wegmans don’t do this to their chickens.

Homemade Roast Chicken

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Best Value Smartphone Plan For Multiple Lines? T-Mobile Simple Choice Family Plan

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A few months ago there was a flurry of newspaper articles about families with huge $300+ cell phone bills. I don’t have to deal with this yet, but here is a value option for those of you paying for multiple lines for parents, grandparents, kids, or just roommates sharing.

The T-Mobile Simple Choice Family plan offers a smartphone plan with unlimited talk, text, and data starting at just $100 for 4 lines with no contract ($50 for the first person, $30 for the second, and $10 for each additional person). That’s just $25 per line before any discounts, taxes, and fees.

How can this unlimited plan possibly be so cheap?!

#1. “Unlimited web” is broken down into 4G “high-speed” HSPA+/LTE data and their slower 2G data networks. The base plan includes 500 MB of high-speed data for each line (not shared). After that, you get punted to slower 2G speeds (~100 kbps reportedly) unless you pay for more. I actually think this is a good compromise. If you have kids that “need” the ability to check the web for “homework” (aka Facebook or Instagram) all the time, 2G speeds may be enough. Otherwise, just tell them to use the WiFi at home. If you want more high-speed data for your line, you can pony up $10 more for 2.5 GB of 4G data or $20 for unlimited.

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