If the recent news of financial disasters leaves you wondering how this happened, or makes you want to crawl into a fallout shelter for the next 50 years, you should read these six books right now. Some will inform you on how we got here, and some will help you ensure that your life doesn’t collapse along with the financial markets.

Finance Books to Explain How the Financial Crisis Happened
If you want to know more about how this happened, read these two books. They don’t offer a lot of solutions, but at least you’ll understand we got here.

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown – It’s a brief (very brief) and easy to read exploration about the recent history of the financial markets. Charles Morris explains how even more recent deregulation allowed the big investment banks and mortgage companies to spin out of control. His predictions are dire, but given the bloodbath we’re currently witnessing, he doesn’t seem that far out of reach.

Supercapitalism – Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains how lobbying and corporate power have resulted in a decline of regulation and an increase in the risk we all face due to corporate shenanigans. He doesn’t offer many solutions, but it’s a sobering look at the how our political and business systems became so broken.

Books to Help You Recover Your Finances
There’s nothing you can do to stop a bank or investment firm from collapsing (unless you’ve got a few million dollars to spare), but you can take steps now to ensure that your personal finances don’t collapse, too.

The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom – If you’re not in debt, but don’t yet have your financial house in order, read this one. Suze Orman explains the basics about affordable mortgages, retirement accounts, wills and trusts, and insurance.

The Total Money Makeover – If you’re deep in debt and can’t seem to find your way out if it, read Dave Ramsey’s book to get on the path to debt freedom. His step-by-step instructions are hard work, but simply explained. In this economy, getting out of debt is the best thing you can do to secure your future.

Your Money or Your Life – Read this book if you’re not yet in debt, but are trying to maintain a lifestyle you can no longer truly afford, are wondering where all your money went, or are in debt due to overspending on consumer goods. Although it does offer debt relief advice, the true value of the book is the way it helps you figure out how you value money, and how that’s reflected in your spending.

A Book to Teach You Frugality
Getting out of debt and living within your means usually leads people to embrace frugality. Here’s my favorite book to help you discover how to be more frugal.

America’s Cheapest Family – Despite the name, I don’t consider this family to be overly cheap. What they are is frugal. You don’t have to adopt all of their advice, but they do have some great tips that will help you find ways to cut back on your own spending without suffering.

I could list more books, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. The news does enough of that, already. Although the first two books will scare and depress you, the other four will inspire you to do what you can to rescue yourself from financial collapse. It’s never too late to start.

What are you favorite personal finance reads?

Although it doesn’t have its own catchphrase like “CVSing,” Walgreens is a good alternative for those of you who need to buy a lot of personal care products and don’t live in a CVS region. The Walgreens system sounds more complicated than CVS, but you can still get good deals via their coupons, rebates, and Register Rewards.

Finding Walgreens Coupons
The first thing you need to do is assemble your coupons. Walgreens offers three coupon sources: manufacturer coupons from the regular newspaper inserts/online sources, Register Rewards, and store and manufacturer coupons in their monthly EasySaver Catalog. Pick one up on your next visit to see the deal possibilities. The EasySaver Catalog is also lists several rebates, which you can send in to receive money back once a month.

Preparing Your Deals
Now watch the weekly newspaper circular and sites like Money Saving Mom to determine when to use your Walgreens coupons. Often an item that has a coupon or rebate will go on sale one week during the coupon period.

Stack Store/Manufacturer Coupons
You can combine a store coupon and a manufacturer coupon for each item, if available, however you can’t have more coupons than items, so make sure you count your items before you head to the register. Register Rewards count as coupons. If you have more coupons than items, add a cheap thing to fill out your order so you can use all of your coupons.

Use Register Rewards
Similar to the CVS with their Extra Care Bucks, Walgreens offers their own coupons called Register Rewards. These print from a separate machine like at the grocery store. You can then use them like cash on your next purchase, although there may be restrictions. Make sure you don’t repeat a deal and pay for it with the last set of rewards you earned from the same deal. Instead, use the Register Rewards you received from a deal on an unrelated product. For example, use Pantene-generated Register Rewards to buy Garnier and vice-versa.

Send In Your Rebates
Note the due dates on your rebates, then send in the form per their instructions once a month. You can request a check or a gift card. Get the gift card – you’ll get an extra 10% and can then use the card to avoid spending additional cash at the store.

Issues with Walgreens Coupons
Some users have reported problems with using the Walgreens system. Money Saving Mom suggested handing the cashier your coupons in batches. First, the RR, then the manufacturer coupons, then the store coupons.

Apparently some Walgreens employees are less willing to deal with coupons, so try to find helpful people and check out at their registers.

Some stores run out of items quickly, so shop early and often if there’s a deal you really want to do.

There may also be delays in receiving your rebates. Some people report that the gift cards take longer, while others report that checks take longer. Just make sure you have room in your budget to cover the initial outlay. Once you start rolling your deals, you may never have to pay cash again.

I haven’t used Walgreens because there aren’t any in my area, but my uncle, the master of frugality, has scored numerous great deals there. If you shop at Walgreens, let me know how it worked for you in the comments.

If you’ve enjoyed saving money and higher quality food by shopping at farmer’s markets and produce stands all summer, you might in for a shock this winter when the market closes. My Los Angeles farmer’s market is open year-round, so I don’t need to worry about finding affordable local produce in the dead of winter. I’ve heard that produce stands and markets in other regions do close in the winter, though. If you live in one of those areas, a little forward planning and hard work now will keep you in affordable produce through the whole winter. Here’s how to do it:

Make a List of the Items You Need
Write down whatever you like that is still in season in your region. Tomatoes should be available in most markets, so you can make a lot of tomato sauce now to get you through winter. Peaches are heading out of season, but you buy some to can and then enjoy them in the dead of winter. The same goes for other popular summer fruits.

Figure out about how much you eat, and then review a canning guide or recipe book to figure out much produce you need to buy, as well as the number of jars, lids, and seals.

Set Aside a Weekend for Each Major Project
Start with produce that will disappear from the market first, like summer fruits. Set aside a weekend to stock up and then can it. When it’s time for tomatoes, can them as sauce, diced, halved, and peeled whole to give you options throughout the winter.

Consider Pickling Cucumbers and Similar Items
Although fruit can usually be canned with just syrup, cucumbers and some other types of vegetables require pickling before canning.

Organize Your Jars
Label and organize your jars in the cabinet or cellar so you always know what you have on hand. That will simplify recipe planning and make it easier to determine what you made too much of and what to make more of next fall.

Create a Root Cellar
If you have a cellar or it gets cold enough outside to build one in your yard, you can build a root cellar for storing potatoes, onions, garlic, and other vegetables for months. Avoid keeping fruits like apples down there because the gas they release will cause other produce to ripen faster.

Find New Winter Recipes
If you love a food that can’t be canned or pickled, and won’t store well in the cellar, you’ll have to learn to do without it. Instead, see what’s affordable at the store (vs. the overpriced, imported options) and then either figure out how to substitute them into your current recipes or find new recipes. You don’t have to serve mango chutney in December. Instead, make an apple chutney or serve oranges and tangerines.

You don’t have to go through winter with just apples and cabbage. If you plan for the dead of winter now, you’ll be enjoying warm peaches with butter and nutmeg while your neighbors grimace at another night of potatoes and frozen green beans. You’ll also enjoy the savings, while your neighbors are spending extra for an imported produce.

What do you like to preserve for winter? Tell me in the comments.

Last February, I showed you our monthly household budget and our cash-flow budget. Our cash flow budget is updated monthly, and sometimes more than once a month, but we haven’t updated our spending breakdown since February. Given the drastic changes in our debt load, and rising costs for gas and food, I decided to see how we’re doing seven months later.

A Tale of Two Household Budgets
This was our February budget:

Sample Monthly Budget by Category

This is our September budget:

Household Budget

In comparing them, I see several big differences:

1. A steep drop in our student loan debt from $1700 to just under $1200. We hope to have that closer to $1100 by spring.

2. Our monthly fuel expenses have nearly doubled, and our auto insurance has also increased, although we didn’t change the policy or vehicles. It might be time to shop for a new policy.

3. Our entertainment budget more than doubled, which is odd since we don’t go out very often. I’ll have to investigate where that extra spending came from and see if we can cut it.

4. Groceries went up $40, but household spending came down $65, so we’re actually $25 ahead of where we were seven months ago, despite switching to pastured beef. I attribute it to our switch to the farmer’s market and my discovery of CVSing, which I only did once, but we haven’t had to buy many household goods since then.

5. Our utilities went up $30, which I attribute to across-the-board increases in energy costs. Even though our utility company is one of the cheapest around, it still costs more to make energy than it did a few months ago.

6. Our dining out expenses nearly tripled, and that’s not from the two of us eating out. Looks like my husband has been eating lunch out way more often since he took the new job. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical for him to take a lunch, but he’s working on it.

How to Create a Household Budget
We track our spending in Quicken, so creating this breakdown was as simple as clicking a few buttons. If you don’t use Quicken, check out something like Yodlee, which is free. If you want to make a one-time budget, pull out all your receipts and credit card statements for the last few months. You should also track your cash spending for a month.

Now create your spending categories. You’ll at least need the following:

  • Food (Groceries and Dining Out)
  • Entertainment
  • Transportation
  • Medical
  • Gifts
  • Clothing
  • Housing
  • Utilities
  • Insurance

Many people will also need to include Childcare and Education expenses. Break the larger categories down into subcategories as needed so you can really see where you spend.

Total your spending for a few months and then divide by that number of months to get a monthly average.

That’s your budget. If your expenses change during the course of the year, for example you move, add a child, or send a child off to college, update your budget as needed. You should also update it periodically just to see if any of your spending has ballooned so you can find the cause and resolve it.

How often do you update your budget? How do you use it? Tell me in the comments.

This week we’ve got four carnivals in the line-up, so I’ll just dive right into them.

First, the Carnival of Personal Finance #169 hosted by BankerGirl. In addition to my post about how couples should talk about money, Money Smart Life launches into the debate about joint vs. individual checking accounts. I fall into the joint camp – it’s a joint marriage, and your money is joint, too.

Next, the Carnival of Money Stories #76 hosted by The Copyeditor’s Desk. In addition to my post on my August debt reduction progress, you might also like Gather Little by Little’s story about the dumbest thing he ever spent money on, and the debt it created.

Third, the Money Hacks Carnival #29 at Living Almost Large. In addition to my post about open enrollment periods, check out Fix My Personal Finance’s list of ridiculous types of insurance. I will argue with him about wedding insurance, though. We live in earthquake country. It cost only $250 for the piece of mind that our expenses would be covered if the wedding had to be delayed or cancelled due to a natural disaster.

Fourth, the Festival of Frugality #142 at Frugal Babe. In addition to my post about planning Thanksgiving travel early, Not Made of Money discusses starting to save for Christmas now.

When I’m at the grocery store, “buy generic” is my typical mantra. Nearly everything at Trader Joe’s is store-labeled anyway. At Ralph’s, I see no reason to send an extra $2 for name-brand sugar. But there are other items I will never buy generic. Maybe these are just my prejudices, but in my experience some things are better with the brand name.

Canned Tomatoes
I tried using generic canned tomatoes a few times, but I found there was a lot more water in the can than in name-brand tomatoes. More water means thinner sauce. Rather than buy another can to thicken up the sauce, I spend a few cents more for the name brand product and produce a thick, hearty sauce I can truly enjoy.

Vitamins and Medications (If You Have Food Intolerances or Religious Restrictions)
Although generic vitamins and medications are safe and effective for most people, those of us with food intolerances have to be careful. Often the fillers in generic version contain allergens. Gluten fillers are especially popular, but dairy or gelatin-based filler are also common. You can still buy some generics, but check with the manufacturer first.

Coffee (If You’re a Coffee Lover)
I don’t drink coffee, but people at work tell me that generic coffee is subpar if you truly love the stuff. I would imagine this is because the coffee companies reserve the best beans for their higher-cost brands and use lower quality beans in cheap coffee, but I can’t say for sure.

If you’re painting your home, spring for brand name paint. Generic paint is often thinner and won’t coat as evenly. You may have to apply additional coats, or the paint may chip and fade more quickly. You don’t paint your walls or the exterior of your house often, so spend the few extra bucks on good quality paint.

Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract lasts a long time, so spend a little more on a high quality pure extract, rather than a generic version. Generics often contain more alcohol and less vanilla, which will alter the taste.

Anti-Aging Beauty Products
You’ll often see generic versions of popular anti-aging creams in the drugstore, but you should stick with the name brand. Generics often contain less of the active ingredient, so you either won’t see the same effect, or will have to use more to get the same effect as the name brand version. Again, spend a few dollars more to get the better quality version.

One Item I’m Undecided About: Saline Solution
I’m very careful with my eyes and only buy Renu saline solution. Bausch & Lomb clearly states on the bottle that it is not sold under any other name. I feel that name brand contact solutions are safer, but Renu has been the subject of one recall and Complete is the subject of another recall. So are name brands safer in this case? I don’t know, but I’d rather stick with the brand I’ve used and trust than take the risk on a generic.

Most of the time, generics are just as good, but sometimes you have to spend a little extra to get the best quality. Are there products you refuse to buy generic? Tell me in the comments.

If you plan to take a winter vacation and haven’t already booked the trip, start planning the trip now. The longer you wait, the more it will cost, especially if you want to go skiing or visit a popular warm-weather destination like Hawaii or Cancun. Use these tips to get a jump on the planning.

Choose Your Dates Now
Winter vacations can occur anytime between Thanksgiving and April, so you have a lot of flexibility, but you should check your children’s school schedules and your office conference schedule now to rule out date conflicts and find a few possible vacation windows.

If you can, avoid the major holidays like President’s Day, New Year’s, MLK Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. These are the most popular winter vacation times, and prices rise just for those occasions. My husband and I chose the second week of December, which is a nice shoulder week when most places are empty.

Research Winter Vacation Locations
Hawaii and ski resorts are the two most popular winter destinations. They’re also the most expensive options. If you want to go skiing, either look for something close to home to cut down on fuel costs and travel time, or look for a smaller resort that isn’t as popular.

If you want something tropical, consider one of the smaller Caribbean islands, Mexico, or parts of Central America like Belize and Costa Rica. Although you do need a passport, your dollar will stretch further. In some countries, you don’t even need to change your money. Due to cruise ship traffic, the dollar is often preferred to the local currency.

Check travel sites like Luxury Link and Priceline for package deals to both cold and warm winter locales. Often the savings is considerable. Check Craigslist for vacation rentals. Book now to ensure the most date flexibility and a wider range of affordable options.

Set a Budget
Once you’ve got some ideas, look at your finances and figure out what you can afford. “Afford” means without raiding your emergency fund, reducing your retirement or college funding, or running of credit card debt. One bonus to planning now is that you have time to save up the money for the trip, or can pay it over time by buying the plane tickets one month, paying the deposit on the rental another month, etc.

With your budget in mind, book the trip. Remember, food and entertainment also have to come out of that budget, so don’t blow the whole thing on travel and lodging.

Request the Time Off
If you have kids, request the time off from work as soon as possible. The popular dates will also be popular with other parents. Even better, go on a vacation without the kids. You’ll save money, have more date flexibility, and it will do wonders for your relationship.

Whether you bring the kids or not, make sure you get approval before booking anything.

You may think that September is too early to be thinking about a January vacation, but now is exactly when you need to start planning to ensure you get the best deals on the best spots. What are your top winter destinations.

Gluten-Free Girl posted complete instructions for arepas a few months ago. This was the first I’d heard of them, but they’re South American corn cakes. They’re super-easy to make, very filling, and very cheap.

How to Make Arepas
For complete instructions, see the GFG post with pictures. Here’s a quick rundown:

2 cups harina P.A.N. or masarepa (not masa harina)
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 ½ cups lukewarm water

Mix the oil, water, and salt, then add the harina and work it with one hand until the lumps are smoothed out. Roll the dough into balls about the size of a baseball, then flatten into ½ inch disks.

Place the arepas on a hot griddle and cook over medium heat for about ten minutes (or until browned). Flip them and cook another ten minutes or so.

Slide the pan into a 325 degree oven and bake 20-25 minutes, or until they make a hollow sound when thumped and the insides are slightly doughy.

To reheat later, wrap them in a paper towel and microwave 15-30 seconds.

How to Serve Arepas
Arepas can be served in a variety of ways. They’re traditionally stuffed with cheese. I served them as a side with butter or covered in guacamole. I’ve filled them with blackberry jam for breakfast, too. I imagine they’d be delicious filled with ham and cheese for lunch.

Basically, anything you can think to do with them, they’ll fill in well.

Average Cost
I found a two-pound bag of Harina P.A.N. (a brand name from Venezuela) on the Latin American aisle of Food for Less for $2.17. You can also find it in Latin American grocery stores. I’ve made two batches and used about two-thirds of the bag, so I think you can make three batches per two-pound bag. That works out to about 72 cents per batch.

Each batch makes 4-6, depending on how big you make them. Mine are about 4 inches across and half an inch thick. Assuming 5, the total cost per arepa is 14.4 cents. That’s pretty darn cheap.

Arepas are my new favorite food. I plan to eat them year-round, but am especially looking forward to warm arepas on a crisp fall morning.

Some people don’t believe Los Angeles has seasons, but we do. They’re just not as pronounced, and they don’t arrive on the traditional schedule, or always in the proper order. Nevertheless, my body seems to follow the traditional seasonal cycle, so I start craving fall foods when the calendar rolls to September, even if it’s 80 degrees outside.This weekend, with the air-conditioning blasting, I got to thinking about the fall foods I’d like to make. If your temperatures are dipping or you’re just craving a good meal that warms you up on the inside, here are some ideas.

Beef Stroganoff
Not from a box, from scratch. It’s probably as cheap, if not cheaper, than a box of Hamburger Helper. All you need is ground beef or tenderloin strips, onion, beef broth, sour cream, and noodles. In a pinch, you can sub in chicken broth for the beef, but beef will taste better. Rather than using a recipe designed for ground beef, I use the tenderloin version.

Chicken Pot Pie
I posted the full recipe in my winter comfort foods post, but have an update to the freezing method. The second time around, I cut the crust to size and froze it flat between sheets of plastic wrap. I put the filling in a freezer Ziploc that I froze flat. When both were frozen, I slipped them into a larger Ziploc. Defrosting the filling was a snap in the microwave, then I put the filling into tins and baked them until the crust had browned and the filling bubbled.

Roast Chicken
Roast a chicken in the oven, bake a couple of potatoes and root veggies, and prep some green beans and butter and you’ve got a dinner guaranteed to fill your tummy.

Chicken Soup
Got a chicken carcass or leftover chicken? Make your own chicken stock, then brew up a batch of chicken soup. All you need is onions, chicken, broth, and whatever else you like in your favorite version.

Turkey and Bean Soup
Last Thansgiving, my Mom sent me this recipe for fabulous turkey, tomato, and bean soup. It’s simply the best. I didn’t have cocoa powder, but I did have dark chocolate. A few shavings were all I needed. The recipe also calls for deli turkey, but I think it’s best with leftover roasted turkey. This Thanksgiving, cook up a huge batch and freeze it in several bags for quick meals all winter long.

Red Beans and Rice
This another one that cooks up fast. I pre-cook dried beans and freeze them in bags so I can easily make a fresh bean meal in minutes, without using high-sodium canned beans. I enjoy the version found in the 40th edition of the Joy of Cooking (minus the ham hock).

Clam Chowder
I’m still trying to find a great thick clam chowder recipe to rival the version found in San Francisco (not New England, which prefers a thinner chowder), but even a can of Progresso (original, not the healthy version) is soul-satisfying. It’s best in a bread bowl. I can’t do that, so I bake my own bread to dip into the hearty soup.

For every American mom, there is a meatloaf recipe and everyone likes their mom’s version best. I will say that mine has bacon on top, which seems to be the key ingredient. Of course, it must be served with a baked potato smothered in butter.

In a pinch, a can of Hormel will do, but it’s much better to take the time to cook your own. There are approximately 1 billion recipes for chili, so search until you find one you like. Serve with tortilla chips or thick bread and cheese.

Pork Pie (Tourtiere)
This French Canadian dish is guaranteed to satisfy a crowd, but it also serves a crowd. A pork pie is just what it sounds like: beef and pork in a pie crust. As with all traditional recipes, there are hundreds of versions. Use the one above or find another you like. Some include potatoes. If you use this one and can’t find the herb savory, substitute thyme or thyme and sage.

I’m sure you’ve got other ideas for frugal fall foods. Most of these can be cooked up quickly for less than $2 a serving, but will keep you full and satisfied. What are your favorite fall dishes? Tell me in the comments.

christmas ornamentsSo last week we set our Thanksgiving budgets and made Thanksgiving travel arrangements. Today it’s time to spend a few minutes thinking about Christmas. In case you doubt that the holiday season is upon us, a few stores have already set out their Christmas displays. No, it’s not time to go tree shopping, but you should set a budget, make a list of gift recipients, and look into travel arrangements, especially if you need to make any vacation requests.

Set Your Christmas Budget
Since we’re still in early September, you can set a budget unemotionally now. If you wait until later, you might start thinking about all the things you could do if you just go a little over budget, instead of what you can actually afford now. To make your budget, look at what you spent last year. Now see when you actually paid off all the expenses. If you didn’t pay off your statement in full the first month it came, then you can’t afford to spend that much. Look at the amount you could actually pay that first month. There’s your budget.

Of course, a few factors may have changed your budget. If you used a bonus to pay for your expenses, are you confident you’ll receive that same bonus this year? If you can, plan your budget without it. Do you have any additional children or family members straining your budget? Is your salary higher or lower?

When making the budget include all of the following:

  • Travel costs (hotel, airfare, car rental or gas)
  • Gifts, wrap, and cards
  • Postage/shipping
  • Food (if you host any of the festivities)
  • Decorations (tree, lights, ornaments)

Make Your Gift Recipient List
Once you know how much you can spend, make a list of all the people you give gifts. Can you cut that list? I’ve chopped a couple friends off my list because we weren’t able to find meaningful gifts anymore. Instead, we have dinner. Remember to include secretaries, teachers, and employees on that list. Include a couple hostess gifts, too.

Set a Gift Budget
With your total spending in mind, divide the gift portion of the budget among the individuals on your list. You don’t have to list actual gifts now, but set a maximum price now before you start seeing all the cool things you could buy them that are out of your budget.

Consider Alternative Gift Sources
If you traveled outside the contiguous 48 states this year, you hopefully stocked up on Christmas gifts. You can often find unique, affordable items your friends and relatives won’t find locally, and that mean a lot more than a waffle iron from Target. The year my husband and I honeymooned in Ireland, we brought back holiday gifts for several people. Since the Euro was 15% lower than the dollar, we saved money on them, too. This year, I’ve got a list of gifts to buy in Belize, where the dollar is very strong and we can find handmade, local gifts.

Look Into Travel Arrangements
You don’t have to book anything now, but figure out your dates and start monitoring airline prices. If you have to request vacation time, at least notify your boss now and put in the request once your ticket is booked. You should also look into hotels if you need one.

Set a Party Budget
If you’re in charge of one of the holiday parties, set a budget for it. It’s another potluck kind of day, but you should provide the main dish and some alcohol, so factor that into your budget.

And that’s it for now. With your budget in mind, you can be on the lookout for gifts in your budget or start stocking up on supplies. You’ll avoid going over budget and start the new year on a better financial foot if you start your planning before the holiday spirit kicks in.

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