I love creating these wacky title! It’s one of the best parts of my week (I do realize what that says about my week.) This week, I’ve got three carnivals to share, and away we go.

The Carnival of Personal Finance hosted by Free Money Finance. In addition to my post about first-time homebuyer panic, I also recommend Moolanomy’s analysis of whether or not you should pay off your mortgage early.

The Festival of Frugality #167 hosted by Green Panda Treehouse.  In addition to my post about reconsidering your subscriptions to save money, I also recommend My Life ROI’s tips for saving $4,000 a year. Hint: it includes subscriptions.

The Money Hacks Carnival hosted by the Penny Daily. In addition to my post about tax software costs, I recommend Christian Personal Finance’s advice to deduct the expenses related to volunteer work.

Babies are expensive, so the baby shower was invented with one goal in mind: supply the parents-to-be with most of the stuff they’ll need to welcome their new arrival into the world. Yes, it’s also a day to celebrate the mom entering the new phase of her life, but really, it’s about the gifts. Use these baby shower ideas to keep the costs down and make it fun for everyone.

Choose a Free Location
Most of the baby showers I’ve attended have been held in private homes. I’ve heard of restaurant showers, but that will quickly get expensive. A friend or relative’s house is free, and allows you to cook the food yourself. If you don’t have access to a house, then consider a public park. Just arrive a few hours early to stake out a couple of tables. Make sure you’re near the bathrooms, though. Also keep in mind that many of the gifts are bulky, so choose a spot near the parking lot.

Recruit a Co-Host
In the past, there was a taboo about moms hosting wedding showers for their daughters. That seems to be waning, but some people are still picky about it. That doesn’t hold true of baby showers, though. The shower can also be hosted by a sister, friend, or other relative. If you’re hosting a baby shower, consider recruiting another friend or relative to help share the costs and divide the labor.

Keep the Guest List Short
A baby shower doesn’t need to be huge. Although I’ve been to 20 or 30 person showers, I’ve also been to 10 person showers (second baby.) It seems like more than 20 is overkill, unless it’s a co-ed baby shower. You certainly don’t need to get into the range of 50 like you do for some wedding showers.

Serve a Simple Buffet
When planning the baby shower menu, keep in mind the long, long list of foods that the mom-to-be probably isn’t allowed to eat. That includes most soft cheeses, uncooked fish, high-mercury fish, raw eggs, and raw egg products. If you stick with chicken, beef, charcuterie, or pasta you should be safe. There are many ways to cook those basics that can appear fancy, but are actually be simple to prepare. Cake seems to be the dessert of choice, but cupcakes are also fun and easy to make yourself.

It’s not necessary to serve a sit-down meal. Most showers seem to be buffet affairs where people can mingle. If you have a small group, you could all sit around the table together, but it becomes unmanageable with more than ten people or so.

Limit the Beverage Options
Some baby showers include alcohol, others don’t. It really depends on your crowd and the mom-to-be. Ask her whether she’ll be offended if other people drink. For a women-only shower, serve wine or champagne punch at the most. You may also need beer for a co-ed baby shower. This is not the time for mixed cocktails.

Skip the Theme
The baby is the theme. Simply hang a few streamers in appropriate pastel colors and you’re good to go. There’s no need to hang diapers and bibs all over the place or come up with a new color scheme for the baby shower.

Skip the Baby Shower Favors
If you must do favors, stick to simple items like votive candles or a bundle of candy wrapped in tulle. Most baby shower favors wind up in the trash, so don’t go overboard.

Use Affordable Invitations
An Evite might not be quite appropriate, but you can go to your nearest stationery shop to buy printable invitations you can complete on your computer. Or you could handwrite them. There’s no need to order engraved invitations.

Skip the Baby Shower Games
I said this in the bridal shower post and I’ll say it again: shower games are boring. No one wants to guess how much a toy costs or how many jelly beans fill a baby bottle. Definitely do not humiliate the mom by asking people to cut string to the estimated width of her belly. Please, just let people talk, eat, and watch the presents be opened. Everything else is just silly filler.

These baby shower ideas are simple, but they won’t make the shower seem cheap. Instead, you’ll have an elegant baby shower that everyone will enjoy and will pass quickly.

I love coupons. Because of my food allergies, I can’t use a lot of grocery coupons, but I do make heavy use of coupons for personal goods like shampoo. I don’t think I’ve paid full price for a bottle in a decade. Grocery stores and manufacturers are getting stingier with their coupon policies, so you have to try a little harder to the best deal. If you’re new to coupons, check out this list of my favorite coupon sites:

Sunday Newspaper
Although SmartSource and Red Plum are making forays onto the internet, they still offer their best coupons in the Sunday inserts. If you don’t currently get the paper, the coupons alone will probably cover the cost, so it could be worth it. Right now, the coupons are the only reason I still subscribe to the ever-shrinking Los Angeles Times.

Hot Coupon World
This site not only offers a great forum, but it has a searchable coupon database so you can figure out which insert offers which coupon, or hunt down printable coupons from manufacturer sites.

Organic Grocery Deals
If you like to shop organic, visit this site for the latest organic deals.

Shortcuts
Shortcuts is not a printable coupon site. Instead they offer a limited range of local coupons that are loaded directly onto your grocery club card. No more wasting paper on printables!

SmartSource
They now offer some coupons on their website that you can print.

Red Plum
They’ve also put some of their coupons online.

Maunfacturer Sites
Visit the websites for major manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble to print coupons for their products. You may also have to visit brand sites to find the coupons.

CoolSavings
A lot of these coupons seem similar to the coupons you find at Red Plum or Smart Source, but most will only allow you to print a coupon one time from each site. Since you can usually use multiple coupons if you buy multiples of the product (3 coupons for 3 boxes of cereal), try visiting several sites to get multiple coupons. Note: I haven’t tried this, so you might have to clear your cache or cookies before you can print the coupon again, even at another site.

Coupons.com
Go here for another set of printable coupons.

CouponMom
More printable coupons from a variety of sources.

Coupon Cabin
Great for online coupon codes and printable store coupons.

Coupon Mountain
More online coupon codes.

Retail Me Not
More online coupon codes.

Ebates
Not coupons (mostly), but rebates for online purchases.

Fat Wallet
Another source for rebates. Some merchants give different rebates through the different sites, so it pays to compare.

Remember, coupons aren’t limited to grocery stores and online stores. They’re also accepted at CVS, Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and other big box stores. If you combine coupons with CVSing, you can score some mega deals. Also, make sure to compare prices after deducting for the coupon and any doubling by the store. Sometimes a coupon makes it cheaper, but sometimes it doesn’t. If another brand is just as good, and cheaper without a coupon, then it’s the better deal.

Even if you only save $5 a week with coupons, that’s $5 less than you currently spend. They don’t take much time or effort, so why not give it a shot?

In addition to the new car tax credit I attempted to explain yesterday, the economic stimulus package also includes a new homebuyer tax credit. The credit has several restrictions, but it could save you a lot of money on your taxes if you haven’t owned a home in the last three years. Here’s how the first-time homebuyer tax credit works.

New Homebuyer Tax Credit Eligibility Dates
The credit applies to homes purchased between January 1, 2009 and December 1, 2009. That means the sale has closed, regardless of the date you actually moved in. If your sale closes on December 2, 2009, you don’t qualify. Likewise if it closed before December 31, 2008.

Qualifying Home
Only principal residences in the United States qualify. It can be a condo, a townhome, or a single family home, but it must be the home you live in more than 50% of the time. Vacation homes and investment properties are not eligible. You may not purchase the home from a relative.

Qualifying Buyers
The bill carefully defines first-time homebuyers as anyone who hasn’t owned a home in the last three years. So, if you sold your last home on May 15, 2006, you will qualify as a first-time homebuyer if you buy a new home on May 16, 2009. You or your spouse can’t have owned a home in the meantime.

Qualifying Income
Unlike the new car credit, the income restrictions are much lower. The full credit applies to individuals with an adjusted gross income up to $75,000 and married couples earning up to $150,000. The credit then phases out for incomes up to $95,000 and $170,000, respectively. Once you exceed those limits, you don’t qualify for the credit.

Homebuyer Credit Amount
The credit is for 10% of the purchase price or $8,000, whichever is lower. If you buy a home worth $60,000, you’re only eligible for a $6,000 credit. If you buy a home for $250,000, the maximum credit is still $8,000.

Repayment Rules
Unlike the $7,500 credit offered to homebuyers until December 31, 2008, this credit does not need to be repaid unless you sell the home within 36 months of the purchase.

Refundable Rules
The credit is refundable. That means that you can receive a refund in excess of the tax you owe on your income. So, if you owe $5,000 in taxes for the year and buy an $80,000 home, then you would receive $3,000 from the IRS after filing your return.

How to Claim the New Homebuyer Tax Credit
The credit is only available after you buy the home, so it won’t help you with the down payment. The credit does, however, reduce your tax due dollar-for-dollar. If you owe $8,000 in taxes, buy a home for $80,000, and have an AGI below $150,000 (if married), then your tax is completely eliminated.

Once the sale closes you have four options for claiming the credit:

  • Close the sale before April 15, 2008 to claim it on your 2008 tax return due on April 15
  • File for an extension, then close the sale before October 15, 2008 to claim it on your 2008 tax return
  • File your return now, then file an amended return to claim it on your 2008 return
  • Claim the credit on your 2009 return, due April 15, 2010.

If your income was higher than the cap in 2008, but you expect to fall below the cap for 2009, then you should wait to claim the credit. However, if you expect your AGI to exceed the cap in 2009 and didn’t exceed it in 2008, then claim it on this year’s tax return.

The Bottom Line
Here’s the bottom line: if you were already planning to buy a home, then this is a nice bonus. However, it doesn’t make the home cheaper since it doesn’t help with the down payment. Instead, buy a home you can afford with a mortgage you qualify for and the largest down payment you can provide. Make the best deal you can for the home. Don’t add $8,000 to your maximum price because you know you’ll get the credit. Unless you send that $8,000 to the lender as soon as you receive it, you’ll have to pay interest on it for the next 30 years.

If you can’t afford to buy a home this year, then you still can’t even with the credit.

If you were considering buying a home in early 2010, then it may be worthwhile to buy this year. Again, that’s only if you can afford it this year. If you expect home prices to fall significantly in your area and don’t expect to stay in the home more than five years, then continuing to wait will save you more than the credit in the long run.

The new car tax credit was included on the 2009 stimulus package, and it’s causing a lot of confusion for a lot of people. I’ve studied the brief IRS explanation and several other sources to figure out how the credit works.

New Car Credit Eligibility Dates
The credit applies to new cars purchased between February 17, 2009 and December 31, 2009. That means the purchase must be completed, not that you’re working on a deal on December 31. If you completed the deal on February 16, you’re out of luck.

Qualifying Vehicles
New cars, light trucks, motor homes, and motorcycles qualify. Used or pre-owned cars do not, even if it’s “new to you.”

Qualifying Purchase Price
Here’s the tricky part. The credit is limited to the taxes on vehicles with a purchase price up to $49,500. You can buy a more expensive car than that, but you can only deduct the taxes on $49,500 of it. That’s still a pretty penny if you live in a high sales tax state.

Qualifying Income
The income limit is high enough that nearly everyone will qualify. The credit starts to phase out at $125,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Once you reach $135,000 and $260,000, respectively, you no longer qualify.

Eligible Taxes
Although there was initial talk of including loan interest, the credit is limited to the sales, local, and excise taxes associated with the purchase. The IRS estimates that will be about $1500 on a $25000 car, but it does depend on the prevailing tax rate in your state and city. See the first comment for a better explanation of the actual value of the credit.

As of June, 2009, the IRS has clarified that fees collected by states that don’t collect sales taxes will qualify for the credit.  These states include Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon. Please consult the IRS to find out precisely which fees are eligible in those states.

How to Claim the New Car Tax Credit
You don’t receive the credit when you buy the car, so you should still bargain for the best deal you can get. You’ll receive the credit when you file your 2009 taxes, which are due on April 15, 2010. The credit is considered an “above the line” credit, so you don’t need to itemize to receive it. It also reduces your taxable income, rather than the tax due. That means your total savings will be more than less than the credit itself. If you itemize your taxes, include the sales tax on schedule A. If you don’t, complete 1040 Schedule L to determine your deduction. Note: there are two Schedule L’s. You want the one associated with form 1040 (linked above), not the one associated with form 990.

The Bottom Line
Here’s the bottom line: the credit may or may not be worthwhile to you. If you were considering a late model used car, then you need to compare the difference in price of the used car and the new car, as well as the taxes on the new car. If the used car is significantly cheaper than the new car, the credit may not actually save you money. However, if the difference in price is about the same as the tax on a new car, then the credit could ultimately make the new car a better deal. With the new car, you’d not only receive the credit, but you’d avoid major maintenance and repair costs for longer. However, you do need to factor in higher loan payments, registration fees, and insurance costs.

My best advice is to shop for a car as you normally would, and then see if the credit is a deciding factor after all other factors are considered.

For those of you who are subscribers, this is an update to let you know that the phrase at the bottom of the post isn’t working.

Instead, just leave a comment at this post if you want to win the free tax software:

Tax software giveaway

As most of you know, I love my freezer. It’s an awesome thing. It also goes in cycles from empty to jam-packed to empty. When my husband starts to whine about the freezer (it’s his job to organize it), I know it’s time to plan a freezer week. Here’s how I do it.

First, here’s a look at my freezer. I think if I try to fit one more thing in there, my husband will leave me.

FreezerFreezer door

Step 1: Inventory the Freezer
First, write down everything in the freezer that can be a dinner component. I didn’t include ingredients for my breakfast shake or my husband’s bagels and sandwich rolls. Here’s what I was left with:

Nuts (pretty much every kind you could need)
Chicken stock – 1 1/3 cups
Chicken broth – 3 ¾ cups
Jack cheese
Potstickers (32)
Chicken breasts – 5
Chicken thighs – 4
Marinara – 1 cup
Vegetable stock – 3 cups
White beans – 2 servings
Black beans – 2 servings
Kidney beans – 1 serving
Mascarpone
Sweet Italian turkey sausage – 3 4 oz links
Pizza crust
Turkey kielbasa – ½
Pork chops – 3
Chow fun meat – 1 serving
Chicken pot pie – 2
Snapper – ½ lb.
Bacon
Salmon – ½ lb
Ground pork – ¾ lb
Goat cheese
Flank steak – 2 ½ pound servings
Frozen corn – ½ bag
Frozen peas – ½ bag
French fries
Note: serving means 1 meal’s worth, not one person’s portion.
Wow. That’s a lot of stuff. Even if I did want to buy more stuff, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe shrimp? That seems to be the only thing missing that I usually have in the freezer. I also realize that I had chicken broth in the freezer that I could have used up instead of opening a fresh container two weeks ago. That’s why I need to clean this thing out!

Step 2: Search for Recipes for those Ingredients
If you’ve watched many cooking shows, you know that most meals are built around the “proteins.” I don’t always build a meal that way, but when it comes to freezer week, that’s a good place to start. I need to use up all those meats. I also need to keep in mind what we had recently, which means the chow fun meat and chicken pot pies won’t make it on the menu. They were recent freezer additions.

Step 3: Build a Varied Weekly Menu
As I record a meal in the weekly menu, I correct the quantity on the list. I continue this every week until the freezer has become manageable again. I also happen to have most of the ingredients for the side dishes in the cabinets already. I try to vary the dishes so we don’t repeat something more than once every 2-3 months. It’s fairly unusual for us to have pork twice in one week, but I’ve been craving the pork sausage for a couple of weeks.

In addition to the freezer, you can also check the cabinets to see which ingredients you can use to work down that stockpile, too.

Sunday: White beans, 1 turkey sausage link, and mascarpone over pasta, walnut/gorgonzola salad
Monday: Salmon with brown sugar glaze, roasted red potatoes, cranberry/pecan salad
Tuesday: Pork chops, sautéed apples, walnut/gorgonzola salad
Wednesday: Chicken breast with homemade crème fraiche (uses up some of the cream in the fridge) over pasta, cranberry/pecan salad
Thursday: Pan-seared snapper, wild rice, feta/walnut salad
Friday: Spicy peanut chicken, white rice, potstickers, mandarin orange salad
Saturday: Pork sausage with onions and fennel, fried polenta with rosemary and onions, marinara, fresh mozzarella, feta/walnut salad

Obviously, this doesn’t come anywhere close to using up everything in the freezer. But I made a solid dent. I’ve managed to use:
4 chicken breasts
1 white beans
Snapper
Salmon
Mascarpone
1 turkey sausage link
Ground pork
2 pork chops
6 potstickers
Nuts
Marinara
Chicken broth

Next week, I’ll review this list again to use up the chicken thighs and breasts, more of the beans, 1 of the flank steaks, and the marinara sauce. I will have to buy fish next week because we eat fish twice a week. I expect it will take me another week after that to use up all of the proteins and start working down the broths.

Step 3: Build Your Shopping List
Now that you have your menu and recipes, create a shopping list for the other ingredients you don’t have on hand. It should be a pretty short list, unless you also need to buy breakfast, lunch, or household items.

It takes a little extra time to do this process, but it keeps the freezer goods in rotation so you use them up before they go bad.

Do you stock up your freezer? How often do you work through it and what’s your strategy?

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