Just when I thought we were finally making progress on that whole TARP debacle. Another bank paid back the money, and taxpayers were informed that we really hadn’t lost all the much money on the bailouts. I thought “Yay, we finally catch a break.”

Enter Congress, stage left. The audience heaves a great sigh. I get stabby again.

TARP Redistribution Is Not a Good Plan
Call me cynical, but I wonder how much of this plan is designed to shore up Democrats running for re-election in 2011. And I say that as a Democrat and a supporter of Barack Obama.

I don’t disagree that Main Street is ailing. I don’t disagree that small businesses are suffering. I don’t disagree that we need to create jobs.

I do disagree that redistributing excess or repaid TARP funds are the way to do that. Mostly because I never supported TARP in the first place. The only portion of the stimulus I supported was infrastructure improvements, which creates jobs, which enlarges the tax base. Even with the TARP redistribution only includes a puny portion for infrastructure.

Small businesses do need help. They need it in the form of the small business loans that banks still aren’t issuing. I don’t know how the government can force banks to start lending again, but loans are what businesses need. Loans and customers. Customers will come when they have jobs, but the businesses need the loans so they can hire people in order to produce the things that the customers will want. It’s a vicious cycle, and none of the current initiatives will fix it.

Let’s Pay Down the Debt
My first thought was that we should pay back the loans that the TARP money came from, but it turns out the money came from Treasury Bills. Those have a fixed maturity date, so we can’t just repay them now. We can, however, pay other debts. So why don’t we do that? No, it won’t affect Main Street, but it will be good for the economy and good for our grandchildren, who will be stuck paying the bill for our sins through their higher taxes.

So, rather than borrowing more money to pay this year’s interest on our debt, why don’t we use the TARP money? The interest on our debt is $383 billion. The TARP money is just over two years’ of interest. That’s $700 billion less that we have to borrow to cover our debt. The debt is currently $12 trillion. Not borrowing $700 billion wouldn’t make a huge dent, but it’s still 5%. I think many people would be happy to reduce their debt by 5% without doing anything.

Am I crazy for thinking this way? Am I not seeing something? I just don’t see how spending more money on tax credits is better than paying down debt that will saddle all of us with higher taxes down the road. We can’t just keep kicking this can down the road. It’s time to pick it up and put it in the trash.

 Today features another guest post from Bradd. This time he encourages us to think about the true cost of goods we buy. It may have you thinking twice before you pick up that sale item this holiday season.

With the end of the year and the Christmas shopping season coming up, I’ve been thinking recently about taxes and the prices of goods.  And a new coat. Maybe I’m looking to buy a $100 coat and I want to know, “How much does it cost?”

That sounds like a trick question: a $100 coat costs $100, right?  Well, OK, plus sales tax, a $100 coat costs about $107. So let me put it this way instead: How much money do I have to earn to be able to give the cashier $107 so that I can buy that coat?

Taxes: The Forgotten Expense

The Tax Foundation estimates that in 2009 in the U.S. the average combined personal income and Social Security tax burden amounts to about 28.2% after you take deductions and everything into account.

So, to get $107 the average person needs to earn about $147. That is, a coat with a price tag of $100 actually costs about 50% more than that.

In Europe, income and sales taxes tend to be a bit higher than in the U.S.  It’s not unusual for Europeans to pay 20% in sales taxes and 45% or more in income, pension and health taxes.  So, even someone earned the same in Europe as in the U.S. and the price of the coat was exactly the same ($100), because of the sales tax they would need about $120 to buy the coat and would have to earn about $218 to get the $120.

What Does It Mean For You?

So when you’re running around holiday shopping this year, or if you’re on vacation abroad sometime this winter, and find yourself at a store remarking on how cheap things seem this year due to all the recession sales, try to remember that the price tag is just the beginning.  In reality, most things are much more expensive than they seem.

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

‘Tis the season of the Christmas cookie basket. That delicious treat that features sinful treats you probably don’t get the rest of the year. If you’re a master baker, put this on your gift list for an easy, fun treat no one will dislike. If you have kids, this is an affordable gift they can make for teachers and relatives alike. It’s the one thing I can guarantee no one will want to return to the store.

Cookie Basket Supplies
To make a proper cookie basket, you’ll need a few things:
Baskets or tins
Cellophane wrap
Decorative ribbon
Colored Saran or plastic wrap
Cookies and fudge

Visit a dollar store or Michael’s to stock up on the non-baking items. You can find cute, cheap baskets that aren’t decorated for Christmas, but no one will notice once they’re filled with cookies. If you need to make smaller gifts, pick up festive mugs at the dollar store.

Choosing Your Cookies
First, determine how many cookie baskets you’ll need. I usually like to put 2 dozen assorted cookies in each basket. Multiply 24 times the number of baskets you need to get the total number of cookies. Now choose five different holiday cookie recipes. I usually like to make snickerdoodles, candy cane cookies, stained glass cookies, chocolate thumbprints, and fudge.

Most cookie recipes make 2-4 dozen cookies, so five recipes is enough for 5-10 baskets. If you have kids, make figuring out how many batches of each recipe you need to bake to get enough cookies into a fun math challenge.

Shop for Supplies
If you didn’t stock up on baking items during Thanksgiving, you still can. Create a shopping list from your recipes, then visit the store with the best sale on baking supplies for everything you need.

Set Aside a Weekend to Bake
If you’re working alone, you can probably blast it out in one day, but if you don’t want to kill yourself, spend a few hours each weekend day baking. Then package them up in the evening. Start with the most complicated recipe and work down to the simplest. If you’re making a recipe with nuts and someone with a nut allergy is on your list, make it last to avoid contamination. Always keep those completely separate from the other cookies.

Package the Cookies
This is the last step. First, put a few layers of tissue paper on the bottom of the basket or tin as a cushion. Line the basket with colorful plastic wrap. Add about 5 of each type of cookie. Consider dropping in a couple candy canes or chocolate kisses for color and variety. Fold the plastic wrap over the top, then fold the tissue over it. If you’re using a tin, put the cover on. If you’re using a basket, set it on the center of a large sheet of cellophane. Pull the cellophane up over the sides so the corners meet. Gather the corners together and tie a bow around the bundle.

Freezer Tip
If you’ll be distributing the baskets over a couple weeks, freeze the cookies instead of packaging them all up at once. Lay the baked cookies flat on cookie sheets and put the sheets in the freezer for about 90 minutes. Then arrange the frozen cookies in large freezer bags or boxes. Label each one with the recipient’s name. Take a bag out of the freezer the night before you need to wrap it. Then just arrange the contents in the basket or tin and wrap it nicely. They’ll be as fresh and tasty as they were the day you made them.

Freezer cooking is all the rage right now. If you’re unfamiliar, you shop the circulars and coupons to find the best deals, stock up on sale items, and then make a month-long menu plan (with some repeat items.) Then, you spend one or two days doing all the cooking for one whole month and put it in the freezer. In theory, you then only need to buy produce and beverages for the rest of the month. That’s a lot of work, though, and you have to spend a whole weekend on it. I’ve come up with a simpler way to do freezer cooking. It reduces prep time and gives each freezer meal a fresher taste.

Stock Up and Make the Menu
For this method, you should still stock up on sale meats and filler items when the stores have sales. Put them in the freezer and then defrost before making each freezer meal. You may not want to plan each dinner for the whole month, but at least find the recipes for meals you can make multiples of or use the same components in.

Do All Your Veggie Prep in One Day
To save time, chop all your veggies for the whole week in one day. Make a big container of chopped onions that you can dip into as you go.

Make a Double or Triple Batch with Each Meal
If the veggies are cooked, then it’s not that hard to make a double or triple batch of each meal when you’re doing your regular cooking. For example, if you’re making beef stroganoff, double the recipe. Serve half for dinner and put half in a Ziploc bag destined for the freezer. It will take slightly longer to brown that much beef, but not a huge amount of time. The same goes for soups and chili – double the recipe. Eat what you can, then divide the rest into portioned bags. I put enough for one meal in each bag.

Don’t Freeze the Pasta or Rice
If the meal is served over pasta or rice, don’t cook it now. Obviously, you need to cook the pasta ahead for a layered dish like lasagna, but something like beef stroganoff doesn’t need to be frozen with its pasta or rice. It will taste a fresher if you cook the pasta or rice that day you serve it. Simply cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than it requires. Put it back in the pot with the defrosted topping. Heat them in the pot for a few minutes. That will heat the topping and finish cooking the pasta.

Don’t Freeze Your Fresh Sides
I usually have a bag of taco meat in my freezer. Basically, I mix the marinade, slice the meat, and let them marinate overnight. Then I divide into bags. When it comes time to serve, I use fresh-cut lettuce, fresh-grated cheese, and fresh tomatoes rather than frozen versions.

Make Another Menu Plan
If you haven’t already planned each meal for the month, sit down each week with your freezer inventory. Plan your menu to use up part of your stash, along with fresh sides. Then make your grocery list for the fresh items and stock-up items for your next freezer cooking day. You may also want to plan a few completely fresh meals. For example, I keep frozen raw fish and shrimp in my freezer at all times and always make those meals fresh because I find that cooked frozen fish just doesn’t hold up well when reheated. Chicken and beef, on the other hand, reheat beautifully.

If you don’t want to pre-cook, but have a packed freezer, check out my post from last year detailing my freezer week where I used up everything in it. I didn’t have time to shop this weekend, so this week has been another freezer week.

My husband and I didn’t have time to buy a dining room table before hosting Thanksgiving this year. Fortunately, we found a creative solution for this conundrum: the patio table. Had we had the 11 people we originally expected, rather than the 6 we had, we would have used the patio table plus our kitchen table.

The Art of Doing with Less
Obviously, I didn’t want to eat outside in November, and I also didn’t want my guests to feel like we were at a patio table. To protect my floors, I put dollar store baby mittens on the feet of the table. I used kitchen chairs and two folding chairs rather than patio chairs. Then, I laid a nice tablecloth over the top. We dressed it up with my wedding candleholders and a few fresh flowers. I even brought out my nice white napkins I received for my wedding. It looked and felt fancy, even if we were eating at a patio table.

The key to getting by with less is to dress up what you do have so that it looks nice. If you only have a small tree, dress it up with the nicest of your ornaments. If you only have a few holiday candles, put out an assortment of candleholders in different sizes and shapes, but similar colors. A trio usually looks beautiful. If you have extra ornaments, fill a glass vase or bowl with colored balls. Hang large wooden ornaments from doorknobs.

Focus On Being Festive
Just because you don’t have a house full of ornaments or can’t afford a major gourmet feast, you can still entertain with less. Instead of buying expensive candles and favors, put your budget into the food. Plan your menu around sale items. Serve finger foods rather than a full meal. Make it a cocktail party rather than a dinner. Bake cookies, fix appetizers based on bacon, meatballs, and cheese, and serve eggnog, brandy, and wine. Then crank up the holiday tunes and get ready to have fun. Your guests won’t notice the lack of gourmet fare if you don’t point it out.

Raid Your Leftover Christmas Cards
This year I scored 75 cards for $6.99 via a timely Woot sale, but for the past several years I’ve simply raided my stash of leftover cards. If you regularly send out cards, you should have a few left from each season. You may also have received cards from various charities you’ve donated to in the past. Match all those up to envelopes and then all you need to buy are stamps. Trust me, no one will remember if they receive the same holiday card two years in a row.

Give Group Gifts
Your gift budget goes further when you give a group gift. For example, my husband and I are joining forces to give my sister and her husband something they really want, but that is more than the individual budgets we’ve set aside for them. My sister and I have merged our money to get a better gift for my mom or dad in the past. My sister, my mom, and I also go in together on group gifts for my cousins, who would otherwise receive three small gifts. Now they get one gift they really want. We all spend affordably, but no one feels like they got gypped.

Remember the Reason for the Season
Amidst the shopping frenzy of years’ past, the reason for the season seems to have gotten lost. The true meaning of the holiday season is slightly different for everyone, but in general it means gathering with family and friends in a joyful atmosphere. So next time you’re stressed for a gift, just remember what the Beatles said: All you need is love.

First there was Black Friday, which has been around for a long time, but wasn’t a huge epic world’s bestest ever deal until about a decade ago. Then came the internet, and three years ago Cyber Monday was born. This year it’s been expanded to Cyber Week. You guessed it: that makes me stabby.

Let’s Stop the Fake Hype
I get it. Retailers are desperate. They got used to people buying too much stuff and spending too much and going into too much debt. Now we’ve stopped cold turkey and retailers don’t know what to do with themselves. So, the deals they are a comin’.

But why do we have to put a fake name on it? Why call it “cyber week,” which might as well mean, “Hey, it’s December, with three weeks to go before Christmas and you have presents to buy. Can we entice you with a sale?” But that’s too long and clunky, so they make up this fake story that this is the week when everyone is shopping and every store is offering deals, and you should be taking them up on it.

The truth is Cyber Monday isn’t the busiest online shopping day of the year. Green Monday is (the first Monday in December.)

But, Yes, You Can Find Good Deals on Cyber Days
Yes, you can find good deals on these “cyber days.” We didn’t take advantage of any Black Friday deals because we value our lives, but we did snap up a $400 laptop to replace our 7-year-old laptop at a Sunday “pre-Cyber-Monday” sale. That same laptop was still on sale for the same price yesterday. I also took advantage of a Cyber Monday deals to snag discounts and free shipping on gifts people wanted, as well as on necessary software for that new laptop at more than 50% off. I didn’t, however, go on an online shopping binge or spend more than I budgeted to take advantage of the deals. And I still only bought the items on my Christmas list and household needs list, but for less than I would have in the store.

The Trick is That the Deals Go On
The Free Shipping offer is already good for the whole month. True, the hottest items won’t be marked down, and the markdowns may be smaller as the season progresses. On the other hand, the hot items were never marked down and you shouldn’t be buying something just because it’s marked down. Cyber Monday has been extended to Cyber Week to bring you new deals every day. Next year it will probably be all month long.

The Best Holiday Shopping Strategy
Find the right gift, find the best price you can during the time you’ve chosen to shop, and then stop. Don’t go back to the mall or back to the online stores hunting for more, better deals. You got the right gift, the recipient will like it, you’re done. I’ve bought roughly a third of my gifts already. I’m just waiting on a few gift lists, and should be able to complete my shopping online the next day. I aim to be done by December 13.

Did you get sucked in by Black Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Did you log on and shop on Cyber Monday, Cyber Tuesday or Cyber Every Other Day of the Week? Don’t you wish we could just go back to calling it the “holiday shopping season” and forget the hype? Really, do the retailers make more money with these huge deals and the push to shop early? I stop shopping when I’m done, but maybe other people return to the stores for more deals.

This weekend I embarked on a simple home improvement project that was as cheap as it was easy. I made swags to go over my kitchen windows. It didn’t require any sewing, and depending on the price of the fabric, costs as little as $30 per window. You don’t have to sew, but you will need some power tools.

No-Sew Window Swag Materials (in order)
Measuring tape
Fabric: 54-inch-wide decorator fabric (it should drape well). You’ll need a length that is 2.5 times the width of the window
1 x 2 pine board
Table, jig, or circular saw
Scissors
3/4-inch stitch witchery (iron-on hemming adhesive)
Iron
Damp cloth
Ironing board
Heavy-duty staple gun
Staples
Drill
A helper
Drywall screws
Cordless screwdriver
Level
Pushpins (optional)

No-Sew Window Swag Instructions
If you can cut, iron, and drill you can make these. If you don’t have a saw, have the mounting board cut to the right length at the hardware store. Most will make 1 or 2 cuts for free.

Step 1: Measure your windows. Buy your fabric. My fabric was $3 a yard, but I have access to the Los Angeles fabric district. You should expect to spend $5-10 a yard for a medium-weight cotton. I brought a swatch of my paint with me to match the fabric to my kitchen.

Step 2: If you have a window frame, cut the mounting board 6 inches shorter than the width of the frame. If you don’t have a frame, cut the mounting board the exact width of the window.

cut-your-fabric.jpg

Step 3: Iron the fabric to remove major folds and wrinkles. Lay it flat on your cutting surface. Normally, you’d use a sewing mat on your dining room table. I don’t have one yet, so I used my empty dining room floor and my sewing mat.

Step 4: Cut the fabric in half lengthwise. This is enough for two windows. Cut each length to 2 ½ times the width of the window. A46-inch wide window would require 115 inches (3.25 yards).

no-sew hemming

the-hemmed-fabric.jpg

Step 5: Lay the fabric wrong side up on your ironing board. Lay Stitch Witchery or another iron-on hemming adhesive about ¾ of an inch in from the edge of the fabric. Fold the fabric over so the adhesive is completely covered and flush against the edge of the fold. Heat the iron as instructed on the Stitch Witchery package. Lay a damp towel over the hem. Lay the iron on top of that and let sit for ten seconds. Lift up the iron. Do not slide it. Set it down on the next section. I found it easiest to lay a whole section of towel flat over a long section of hem so I could work through several sections at once. You need to hem all four edges. After the hem is complete, iron out any large wrinkles in the curtains.

staple-the-fabric-to-the-board.jpg

Step 6: Lay the fabric on your cutting mat right side up. Fold it to find the exact center and mark it on the hem. Find the exact center of the narrow side of your mounting board and mark it. Unfold the fabric and lay the marked center over the center of the narrow side of your mounting board. Staple the edge of the fabric to the edge of the board so it covers one side. Pull taut and staple each end. Staple several places in between.

drill-a-hole-through-the-board.jpg

Step 7: Drill two small holes about three inches from the end of each board. Poke the nail through the holes to make holes in the fabric that will be against the wall.

Step 8: Place the mounting board on the wall about 1 ½ inches above a frameless window, or at the top of the frame. Mark the spots where the holes go. Have someone hold the board in place with the stapled side at the bottom and a wide side against the wall. Drape the fabric over the top and front of the board. Use a cordless screwdriver to screw the drywall screw through the board and wall. You may need someone to hold the drape out of the way. Don’t tighten the screw completely yet.

level-the-swag.jpg

Step 9: Place a level on top of the board. Adjust it until it’s completely straight. Drive the other screw tightly into the wall, then tighten the first one.

Step 10: Tie loose knots at either end of the window. If the knot droops more than you’d like, poke pushpins through the insides to hold them in place.

Ta da! No sew curtains that you can make in an afternoon.

no-sew-window-swag.jpg

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