Happy holidays! After today, the blog will be dark until Tuesday. I’m taking a few days off to relax. I’m done my shopping, baking, and wrapping, but here are a few quick tips if you’ve still got work to do:

When shopping for last-minute gifts, remember your budget!

Need a last-minute gift and don’t want to shop? Try these quick gift ideas.

Suddenly in the mood to bake? Try these cookie recipes.

Now put down the wallet and eat, drink, and be merry.

It’s the holiday season, which means my husband and I have already come into possession of several gift cards. We don’t want to let them go to waste, so I’m creating a gift card log and keeping it in my notebook so I can keep track of the cards as I spend them, and remember which cards I still have.

How to Make a Gift Card Log
Making the log is simple. All you need is a piece of paper that you can keep with your cards or in your wallet. Make three columns (four if you live in a state where gift cards expire)
Store
Value
Remaining balance
Expiration Date

For example, mine would look like:
Best Buy $50 $50
Coffee Bean $20 $20

Then as I use each card, I’ll cross out the old remaining balance and enter a new one.

To start, gather all your cards in one place. Spread them out on the table and list them in alphabetical order.

Pool Your Gift Cards
If you have several gift cards for one store and bank gift card or mall gift card, pool them to get the most bang for your buck. For example, one year my husband and I both received $50 Best Buy cards. We then bought new cell phones, so we got two $30 rebate cards (good anywhere.) We used all of them at once to buy a Wii.

Use Credit Card Gift Cards for Groceries and Gas
You have to be careful with credit card gift cards because they do expire and they start running down the balance with nasty maintenance fees. If you can’t pool your cards together for a big purchase, then use bank gift cards quickly. I like to use them at the grocery store because their machines are good at taking split payments. Then, if I want to get myself something nice, I just take the gift card’s value from my grocery budget and put it into another line item’s budget.

Use Store Cards Quickly, Too
If you can, try to use all of your store cards in January, or even at the late December after-Christmas sales. Some of these stores may have been hanging on long enough to get through the holiday season, but may close in 2010. If they close, your gift card is worthless. So, if you’ve got a card for a chain or independent store that seems like it might be in trouble, use your gift card pronto!

Trade Unwanted Cards
It happens every year. People are given cards for stores where they simply don’t shop (example: coffee gift cards for people who don’t drink coffee.) But you don’t have to get stuck. Talk to your friends and co-workers and offer an exchange – their unwanted gift card of an equal value (or value plus cash if there’s a difference) in exchange for yours. That way you both get something you can use. You can also do this online, but most of those sites charge a fee. My way is free.

This year we’re ready to use our cards in a jiffy (except that darn coffee card). We’ve already lined up our stores and made a list of movies we want to see (we got a lot of movie cards this year). January 2010 is looking to be a good month!

So your holiday season is chugging along merrily, and then you get thrown for a curveball. You might get invited to a last-minute gift exchange, or realize that you’re supposed to bring a gift to a party you were invited to long ago. But you don’t have any extra gifts lying around. You can come up with something in a flash with some things you have around the house or in the kitchen.

Toffee
Homemade toffee is fast, easy, and delicious. If you don’t know what to give, cook a batch and then break it up into a tin, or even a square gift box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. Trust me, it will all get eaten.

Print out this easy toffee recipe just to have it handy. You might want to mix a batch up for no reason at all.

Peppermint Bark
You can find tins of peppermint bark all over the place. Williams-Sonoma sells it for $28 a pound! And while I’ll admit that their peppermint bark is nothing short of bliss, that’s pretty steep for candy. So, make your own, either for yourself or for a last-minute gift. As with the toffee, package it in a tin or a box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. If you want to get real fancy and have the time, mix toffee and peppermint bark in the same box. Try this recipe from Epicurious. If you don’t have peppermint extract and can’t find it, one commenter suggests using mint chocolate chips. You can also skip the peppermint extract, for a slightly less full flavor. You can also substitute different types of chocolate. I like dark chocolate, so I’d use that instead of bittersweet.

Wrapped Candle
Most people have lots of candles around. I have many that I received as gifts, but never opened. So dig into your closet to find a wrapped candle, or at least a candle that hasn’t been burned and isn’t dusty. Wrap with ribbon or cellophane and you’re good to go.

Cookies
Have you baked several batches of cookies already? Assemble some in a box or bag and you’ve got a ready-made gift.

Mix in a Jar
These are always popular. Start by figuring out what you already have on hand, then visit this page to find a mix that will go with what you have.  Layer it all into a mason jar, add a label with instructions, and tie with a bow.

Truffles
As I’ve said before, truffles are my go-to gift. They’re easy to assemble, but most people think you did tons of work and are nothing short of amazed.

Most people will happily receive any of these gifts and never realize it was a last-minute gift. One caveat if you know people with food allergies: make sure you give them something they can eat. If you give cookies to a person who can’t have wheat (unless they’re wheat-free), they’ll know you weren’t thinking of them when you made the gift.

Christmas is next week, which means many bakers will be pulling out their pans and getting to work this weekend. If you’re a holiday baker/candy maker, here are a few tips to help make your holiday bake-a-thon go a little smoother.

Gather Your Recipes Now
If you have them online, consider printing them. If you have them in a binder, pull them all out. If you have them in various cookbooks, put Post-Its on the pages. If you have them in your head, I envy you.

Pull Out All Your Ingredients Now
The last thing you want to do is get everything laid out, reach into the cupboard for that one last thing, and realize you’ve run out. For example, I just pulled my last two pounds of butter out of the freezer. I don’t know how I managed to use four pounds of butter in two weeks, but clearly I need to restock. (No, I take that back. I realize now that Thanksgiving ate all my butter.)

Organize your ingredients, then compare them to the recipes. Make sure you have enough for everything you need to bake. If you don’t, make a quick run to the store. Even if you go couponless and don’t visit the cheapest store, do it now. This is about convenience!

Pull Out the Pots and Pans
If you need several containers for storing, mixing, or baking, pull everything out and put it in one place.

Make a Schedule
Now go through your recipes. Figure out which need to be refrigerated overnight, which have a long resting period, which require precise timing, etc. Now decide which pans you’ll need for each. If you need the same pan for two different dishes, you’ll need to space them out. List everything you need to bake in the order you need to prepare it. If you’ve got a dish with a long resting period, slot another item (or lunch) into that space.

Choose a Start Time
Unless you want to be baking until midnight, choose a start time for this endeavor. Since everything will take longer than you expect, you’ll have a nice pad to still get done relatively on time.

Bake the Easiest Things Last
Put the simplest or quickest item last on your list. That way you’ll be able to whip it up in no time at the very end, or pull it together after dinner one night next week if you run out of time this weekend.

Forget Perfection
No one cares if your cookies are a bit dented or your truffles are oddly-shaped. They still taste good and they’ll still be impressed that you made them yourself. In fact, you might like the “homemade” look a little better. For example, the first time I made sea salt truffles, I didn’t temper the milk chocolate coating. The truffles started to melt and became Frankentruffles. They tasted amazing. This time I tempered the coating and perfectly applied it. They looked great, but I preferred the taste of the Frankentruffles. The flavors were better balanced, despite their ugliness (although, let’s be honest, chocolate can never truly be ugly.)

What’s the best part about making a plan? Getting everything done without collapsing into a pile of goo afterwards. That’s what Christmas is all about.

We’re ramping up to the holidays, so who has time to read blogs? My feeds overrunneth!

So I’ll keep this short and sweet and tell you how to get free stuff!

Win One of 10 Flip Video Cameras
First, make sure you enter AskMrCreditCard’s content to win one of 10 Flip video cameras from the good people at Amex (we love Amex.) To enter, you have to subscribe to his newsletter and post a comment on the contest page explaining “What is the savviest way you’ve made your money work harder for you this holiday season?” He’ll announce the winner on 12/21. It could be an early Christmas gift you get for yourself!

Free Shipping Day is Today, December 17!
It’s finally Free Shipping Day. As of this writing (4 hours before it starts), 712 websites were participating. Some have restrictions or minimums for Free Shipping Day, but at least half offer free shipping today, with guaranteed delivery by Christmas, with no restrictions. If you’ve got gifts left to buy, make sure you check the Free Shipping Day website to get in on the promotion.

Today we have another guest post from Bradd Libby. His post discusses reducing oil consumption by driving slightly less each year, but you could also extend it to reducing spending without suffering. Just spend 2% less each year. Total up ALL your spending, including necessary expenses, and then aim to spend just 2% less in 2010. For example, if you spend $100,000 a year, reduce that by $2,000. It sounds huge as one big number, but it’s really just $5.60 a day. You can do that with relatively small changes like scaling back your cable bill, eating dinner out one less time a month, skipping night at the movies a month, packing your lunch three times a week, etc. Take that savings and put it in a savings account to watch your money grow.

Small Reductions Add Up
Back in the mid-1990′s I attended a presentation by a NASA astronaut who had flown on the Space Shuttle to grow particular kinds of silicon-oxygen-aluminum crystals that are commonly used in oil refining. Due to inefficiencies in the refining process, most of the crude oil that gets used to make gasoline never actually becomes gasoline. The purpose of the trip to space was to grow the largest, most-perfect crystals possible so that we could better study back on Earth how they work. Even if we could only find a way to reduce the waste by 1%, the astronaut explained, the benefit to humanity would be worth the billions of dollars in research effort.

I’ve never run the numbers, but I’m sure he’s right. People currently use about 80 million barrels of oil a day, about 1/4 of which is used in the U.S. and about half of American consumption is to power vehicles, so any small percentage change is large in absolute numbers. And there’s no question that, one way or another, those figures must decrease in the long run. Even President George W. Bush, in his 2007 State of the Union address, halfheartedly called for the U.S. to reduce its gas consumption by 20% over the next 10 years. So, billions are also being spent for research on (and purchasing of) hybrid cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

All of this concern with researching new technologies had me wondering if there’s an easier way to reduce gasoline consumption – one that could use presently existing technologies and one that work to reduce demand, so that it could be used even if the research efforts don’t pan out. And if they do pan out, all the better.

Drive Just a Little Less Each Year
So, I’ve come up with this billion-dollar business idea which I’m throwing out for free to anyone willing to try: have each vehicle drive 2% fewer miles per year. Develop a website in which vehicle owners can sign up and pay a yearly fee to be a member. Like TerraPass, they’d get a sticker to put on their car showing that they’re part of ‘The 2% Solution’. They’d also get an allotment of 15,000 miles that they’d be allowed to drive. They simply enter the mileage on their car at the start of the year and then agree to not drive more than their allotment each year. (How this would be enforced I’m not certain – maybe from your car’s inspection report each time it has an emissions test, or maybe just from the honor system.)

The next year, the allotment would drop by 2%. So, 15,000 miles the first year and about 14,700 the next year. 14,406 the next year and 14,117 the next year, and so forth. It’s as simple as that. One interesting thing about this idea is that it’s not very hard to achieve. If the average person commutes to work 250 days a year, then they could comply with a 2% reduction in driving just by carpooling, biking, or other forms of not-driving only 5 work days.

A person whose round-trip commute is about 40 miles (about 10,000 miles per year just to get to work and back) who telecommuted only every other day and made no other changes to their lifestyle would reduce their annual driving enough to comply with their driving allotment for the next 20 years.

Another interesting aspect of this scheme is that it actually gets easier to comply as time goes on. In the first year, you’d have to reduce your driving by about 300 miles (or one 5-hour car trip), but in the second year, you’d only have to reduce by 2% of 14,700, not 2% of 15,000. So, by the 20th year, you’d only have to cut out 200 additional miles, and in the 35th year, only 150 additional miles.

I’m thinking that there could be a ‘mile exchange’ board – sort of a voluntary cap-and-trade system – so that if you hit your allotment and needed to drive more, you could buy extra miles. If you drove a less than your allotment some month or year, you could offer to sell miles and make a tidy profit.

For some people, it would be like a game. A scoreboard could show which members reduced their driving the most. Monthly and annual lotteries could be held with prizes given away for the top travel-reducers. (For people who ditched their cars entirely, well, they could be entered in the lotteries for free.) For others, continuous improvement in one’s environmental habits would just become a new lifestyle. No need to replace America’s fleet of cars. No need for hydrogen-powered cars. Just drive 2% less each year. Part contest. Part game. Part exhange board. Part environmental lifestyle. All for a good cause. The 2% Solution.

Expand the 2% Solution to the Rest of Your Life
And this idea could be applied to all sorts of areas of life beyond driving. Your monthly electricity consumption. Pounds of trash you produce per year. Percentage of food products that are locally grown, etc. After a few years, you could write a book about the website (“The 2% Solution: How I Started a Website that Solved America’s Energy Crisis, Made a Fortune and Saved the Earth from Global Warming”) and get millions of dollars from a publisher. Just be sure to give me proper credit…and feel free to send me some of the money.

Bradd sells traditional-style birth announcement cards at OMGbabycards.com.

‘Tis the season of holiday travel delays. From closed roads to cancelled flights, it can be challenging to travel anywhere during the winter holidays, but millions of us will do it anyway. I’ve posted several times about planning for holiday travel, but this post is more specific: how to plan for nearly inevitable holiday travel delays.

Preparing for Road Delays
A freak winter storm, heavy fog, a rockslide, an avalanche, icy conditions, or an accident can all result in closed roads. If you have to drive this holiday, take these few precautions.

Research Backroads in Advance
You don’t want to take a last-minute mountain pass that you’ve never driven before in the dead of winter. Research your roads carefully in advance. Look for alternates that are near the main highway and avoid passes through high elevations. If your map says “closed during winter,” strike it from your list. If you’re not sure about a road’s status, call the highway service to confirm before you leave.

Monitor the Weather
Check the weather daily before your trip. If a storm develops, consider leaving a day early or a day late to avoid the middle of the storm. If you must drive on a stormy day, leave early enough to make sure you get through the worst part while it’s still daylight. Once it’s dark and temperatures drop further, even major roads could close.

Pack Snacks and Blankets
You never know when you might get stuck in an hours-long backup. If it gets bad enough, you might have to turn off the car to avoid running out of gas on the highway. So, bring snacks, car games, and blankets with you in the car. If you don’t use them, they’ll at least make nice pillows so the passengers can close their eyes for a few minutes.

Avoid Eating or Drinking Too Much
You don’t want to get dehydrated, but avoid eating or drinking heavily just in case you get stuck in a backup between bathrooms. If traffic is truly snarled, it could be hours before you can get out of the car again.

Keep Your Cell Phone Charged
Keep your cell phone charger in the car and make sure your phone is charged so you can call for help in a worst-case scenario. Also bring a list of hotels along the route in case the road is so bad you have to pull off for the night. Call ahead to book a room as soon as you know you’ll be stranded. Don’t wait until you get there or they might be sold out.

Preparing for Air Delays
On top of the usual spate of winter storms closing airports and delaying flights, now British Airways has announced a holiday strike. While I don’t expect there will be additional strikes, you should be prepared for other possibilities.

Bring Your Cell Phone and a List of Numbers
If your flight is cancelled, don’t get in that long line of people waiting to rebook. Instead, call the airline’s reservations number (which you should have with you) from your cell phone. They can probably arrange new flights faster than you’d get to the front of the line. If all flights will be cancelled for days, call hotels, car rental companies, or Amtrak from your cell phone rather than waiting in line. You’ll have much better luck. True, you might not get a free voucher, but it’s better than sleeping on the airport floor if they run out of vouchers before you reach the front of the line.

Bring Snacks and Entertainment
Most airlines don’t serve free food anymore, so you probably already packed some snacks, but pack extras for winter travel. My family was once stranded at the Philadelphia airport on a wintry Sunday for ten hours. The airport actually ran out of food. My dad bought the last pizza, and sold our extra slices to other passengers (for less than the airport’s price). Pack books or games to help pass the time between those long delays, too. Save your DVDs for the flight where you’ll be able to access a plug. Don’t bet on snagging one of the few airport plugs if flights are delayed.

Bring Your Patience
Flight delays are the worst, but there’s really nothing you can do except roll with it. Don’t snap at the workers or other passengers. You’re all in this together and it’s the holidays. Try to be pleasant and hopefully others will do the same.

Pack Essentials in Your Carry-on
Between delayed flights and crowded planes, the likelihood of losing your bags increases. So, pack a change of clothes, medications, and a few other essentials in your carry-on just in case. It’s not like you won’t use them at some point on your trip.

Everyone hopes for a smooth trip, but it’s better to be prepared than to be surprised. I’ve never regretted taking those few extra steps when preparing for my annual trek over the mountain pass or down to the airport.

This time of year, and frankly all year long if you’ve donated anything to any charity ever, you’re likely bombarded with requests for donations. You might be tempted to spread your money around to several different charities. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not the best way to make the most of your donations, or a benefit to the charities.

Choose Your Charities Carefully
One year I received an inheritance after my aunt died of breast cancer. I sent a large check to a breast cancer charity, then decided to give $50 a month to charity. I chose 12 charities. Then I realized that each of those charities had put me on their list and were now sending me address labels and other goodies to try to get me to give more. They then sold my name to more charities who sent me stuff. By the time I moved out of my house, I had over 1,000 address labels sitting on a shelf. The charities had probably spent far more than my initial donation trying to get me to give more.

So, rather than donating to multiple charities, get together with your family and make a list of the causes that are truly important to you. Decide how much you’ll give, and then narrow your list down to 2-3 charities. Divide the money between them, then make a commitment to keep giving year-after-year so the charity doesn’t needlessly pursue you.

Making One-Time Donations
That’s not to say that you can’t give one-time donations. I‘ve given one-time donations to two friends doing different walks-for-the-cure. I donated online, specified that it was for the walk, and checked the box instructing them not to contact me. They got their money, and they didn’t waste money asking me for more.

My husband and I also usually give one-time donations when major natural disasters strike. Once again, we donate online and mark the box asking not to be contacted again (or uncheck the box, depending on the charity.)

If you’re making a one-time donation outside of a disaster or fundraising walk, include a note with your donation asking that you NOT be put on their list and that your name NOT be sold. If you receive solicitations again, call them and ask to be removed. It sounds heartless, but charities would rather not waste money going after donations they won’t get.

Investigating Charities
Chances are you know of several reputable charities. If you’re familiar with them, you don’t need to spend a lot of time researching them. However, you have to careful when adding new charities to your list or when making a donation after a natural disaster because scammers abound, and some legitimate charities aren’t actually that good at spending their donations.

Before you give one penny, visit the charity’s website. Don’t give if it looks cheap or has misspellings. However, a flashy website isn’t a sign of honesty. Your next step is to visit one of the charity vetting sites: Charity Navigator, Guidestar, Charity Guide, the American Institute of Philanthropy, or the Better Business Bureau. Not all charities will be listed with any one site, so you also have trust your gut somewhat. For disaster relief, stick with the well-known charities.

Donate Throughout the Year
Many people give at Christmas, but you should consider spacing out your donations throughout the year. That not only helps you plan your budget, but gives the charities a boost during their low season.

Take Advantage of Matching Funds
Matching funds are corporate donations triggered by personal donations. You can contribute matching funds in a couple ways:

Pledge Drives: Some charities hold pledge drives. Corporations will agree to sponsor a certain period or match a set dollar amount. If you give during this time, your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar. If the charity doesn’t get enough during the period, they won’t get the full amount. So watch for these and donate during the matching period to make sure they get the full match.

Paycheck Matches: Some large corporations allow employees to donate to charity through payroll deductions. They may also match the employee’s donation dollar-for-dollar or 50%. If your company offers such a program, take advantage of it. It’s a great way to give your charity a little boost without any extra effort on your part once the donation is set up.

When you’re bombarded by requests for charity, you might feel heartless ignoring some of the requests, but it really is best to stick to a few charities and make the most of your donations.

Just one carnival to share today, so let’s get right to it: Suburban Dollar hosted the Carnival of Personal Finance #234, which included by post about increasing your home value. I also recommend The Personal Financier’s analysis of the dangers of crossing the line from frugal to obsessive. I completely agree. I was obsessive while we were paying down debt and getting ready to buy the house, but now my frugality has eased up and I’m enjoying what we’ve sowed.

When I was talking to my dad about how much life insurance to buy, he commented that they’d never bought it for my mom because she didn’t work. He viewed it as income replacement. I’ve read, however, that you should consider buying life insurance for a stay-at-home mom because she performs tasks that would cost a lot of money if you had to hire other people to do them.

The Housewife’s “Salary”
It’s been calculated that a housewife’s salary would be anywhere between $117,000 and $134,000 if she were compensated for all the household and childcare tasks she performs.

Reasons to Buy Stay-at-Home Mom Life Insurance
Many couples forgo life insurance for a SAHM because they assume that the surviving husband will be able to perform all the duties once performed by the stay-at-home mom. But will he?

Let’s think about her major duties:
Child care
Laundry
Grocery shopping
Cooking
Cleaning
Errand service
Tutoring
Household bookkeeping

In addition to assuming all of these duties, the husband would still have to work a full-time job to maintain the family income. He may even want to take some time off work to grieve and spend time with his grieving children.

Unless a grandparent or helpful relative is available to move into the house and take over some of these tasks, the husband will have to hire people to handle at least some of them, especially child care. He may also need to find someone to help with housekeeping and cooking until the family develops a new routine.

Reasons Not to Buy Stay-at-Home Life Insurance
Buying life insurance for a SAHM may not be financially feasible if the family is already stretched thin. In addition, neighbors, friends, and relatives do typically rally around a family that has suffered the loss of a parent. They provide meals, household help, and childcare for free. The help may last long enough for the surviving parent to readjust the budget to afford additional costs and develop a new household routine.

How Much Insurance to Buy
If you do choose to buy life insurance for a SAHM, research the going rate for the needed household services. Multiply that by the number of years until your youngest child reaches an age you feel confident he or she would be safe home along after school. For many parents, that’s 11 or 12 years old.

For example, if a nanny in your area costs $700 a week, you would need at least $36,400 a year. If you opt for daycare that costs $1000 a month, you may also need a housekeeper to come in once a week at $70 per visit for the first year. The amount you choose depends on the care/services you believe are best for your children.

Once you calculate these costs, add a pad of about 20% to cover funeral costs, medical bills, unanticipated costs, inflation, etc.

What Type of Insurance to Buy
Regardless of the amount of insurance you choose, opt for term life insurance, which has better rates and conditions than whole life insurance.

The tricky part is determining the term. Insurance is typically available in 10, 20, and 30 year terms. Since my husband and I both work and have roughly 30 years until we retire/the mortgage is paid off, we opted for 30-year-terms to lock-in low rates now. You may only need a 10 or 20 year term for a SAHM because the kids will be grown by then. You might consider buying a term that will cover her until the youngest child is 12, or simply canceling it when the youngest child is 12 (make sure your policy doesn’t have surrender or cancellation penalties.)

A $200,000 10-year policy for a healthy young mom could be as low as $12 a month. If you can only afford life insurance for one parent, then the income-earning parent is the obvious choice. However, if you can make room in your budget for a policy for the stay-at-home mom, too, it’s worth it.

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