It’s official. I can’t watch TV commercials anymore. Actually, I nitpick the shows, too, but these days a lot of commercials are ticking me off.  Some commercials are pretty funny, but the rest I could do without. Especially the commercials that make things sound better than they are, or claim that they’ve started doing something when really it’s always been that way.

“Farm-Raised Ingredients”
Last night I saw a commercial for frozen lasagna. I don’t recall which brand, but they highlighted the fact that their tomatoes, cheese, and pasta grains come from the farm. This was their major selling point. As if somehow tomatoes, milk, and grain haven’t always come from farms. Just announcing the ingredients are grown on farms doesn’t automatically make the product any healthier than before they slapped a new label on the box. The “new” ingredients could be GMO, or grown from hybridized seeds that ultimately damage the environment (I’m looking at you Monsanto), or raised on corporate farms that kill our small farms. This company is trying to use the trend toward whole foods and knowing where your food comes from to promote a product that is just as packaged and processed as before.

“No Chemical Leaveners”
This one I saw in a pizza commercial that claims its frozen pizza is the only “all-natural” one on the market. One of their claims is that it doesn’t contain “chemical leaveners.” Perhaps they mean that it doesn’t contain a chemical not traditionally used in cooking, but it ignores the fact that baking soda and baking powder are both chemical leaveners, and neither is considered a scary, unnatural thing that should be avoided. This pizza has yeast rather than baking soda or powder, but it also has artificial flavors, which are by definition not natural.

“One Model Year Newer”
An auto insurance company is advertising that they’ll give you the money to replace your totaled car with one that is one model year newer and has 15,000 fewer miles. If you think about it, that’s only a benefit if you replace your car every 2-3 years. If you, like me, keep your car for much longer, then the insurance company is getting a deal. Imagine if my 13-year-old Corolla with 140,000 miles had been totaled. They’d give me the money to replace it it with a 12-year-0ld Corolla with 125,000 miles. Um, yay? Unless your car is less than a few years old, the benefit may only amount to a couple hundred dollars more than you would have received as the cash value of your old car. I’d rather save money on my policy and put the savings into my emergency fund.

“Tell Us on Facebook”
It seems like every company wants me to like them on Facebook. Fine, I will, if you’re offering me something free, like a coupon or sample. If you just want to be able to promote to me on my Facebook newsfeed, then no thanks. I’ve liked a few select companies. They gave me a coupons, miles, or a free sample. And they’re companies I already like. Don’t air a TV commercial asking me to like your company just because. I’m not going to. If I want to give you feedback, I don’t need to do that on Facebook.

And those are just the commercials I remember from this week. I don’t actually see many commercials – we always seem to tune in a few minutes late or pause the show, and then fast forward to catch up. I think I need to keep doing that. It’s hard enough to watch TV when the shows themselves are filled with ridiculous premises (House, I’m looking at you).

What do you think?  Do you find most of the commercials you see irritating?

I spoke too soon! Shortly after I prepared my taxes, H&R Block offered me a copy of their online software to review. They also offered me five Premium edition  codes to give away. This will allow you to file a free Federal online return using the Premium version of the software, a $55 value including sales tax. State returns are an additional fee. I haven’t been paid for this review and all opinions are my own. Please read the  end to find out how to enter the giveaway. I will be choosing a winner at 6 PM PDT, Tuesday, March 22.

H&R Block Overview
Just like last year, I found the interface very user friendly. It’s almost comforting the way it guides you through the process. It starts with a series of check boxes concerning life events. Each section also has additional introductory check boxes that cover items in each of them.

Because I used the boxed software last year, and the online edition this year, I couldn’t import last year’s information, but that wasn’t a huge deal. I will say that you should choose one software version and provider and then stick with it every year. That will save you time on the initial name and address fields. In addition, it imports your employer and deduction data, so you can usually just update the fields.

The Navigation
I went back to correct the charity section, and it started to walk me through the rest of the deductions, too. Like TaxAct, I couldn’t just go directly into the one subtopic I wanted and then leave when that one subtopic was complete. I’m not sure which software allowed me to do that in past, but I liked it. Note to developers – allow quick drop-ins and offer easy outs!

Charity Calculator
Some things I like better about the charity calculator, some I don’t. It asked me if I wanted to use the DeductionPro tool, so I opted yes. It took me to another domain where I filled everything out. But then the online software couldn’t import it. I entered my deductions directly into the software, and the screens turned out to be exactly the same. I wasn’t sure the DeductionPro tool was at all necessary.

I did like that I only had to enter one address for my charitable goods donation. For my cash/credit donations, I simply listed the charity name. TaxAct made me list more addresses, which was irritating.

The State Form
The state form was easier to use than TaxAct’s version. They had more detailed answers about a couple of the confusing items. The adjustments that TaxAct asked me about either weren’t there or were in a list of items the H&R Block software said it didn’t think I had to worry about.

I did have one odd thing happen, and this is just a rounding difference, but it did result in a tax difference. For this year only, my husband and I qualified for the student loan interest deduction, but we didn’t qualify for all of it, just some of it. H&R Block calculated our deduction at $1 less than TaxAct. That $1 difference resulted in a $12 tax difference, because it put us into a different bracket on the tax table! That’s a problem with the tax code, not the software, but it’s ridiculous nonetheless. These days, all taxes should be calculated by percentage, not tables.

As I said before, I highly recommend H&R Block for first time homeowners or other people who have a big life change that requires extra support. If you  have a simple 1040 EZ, the additional cost isn’t worth it, but I felt much better using the more expensive software my first year itemizing.

How to Enter the Giveaway
To enter the giveaway, simply comment on this post by 6PM PDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. I will email the five winners individually to connect you to the PR rep at H&R Block. She will provide your code. The drawing has ended. Lisa, Cregan, Jessica, Richard, and Daniel won. Happy tax filing!

Japan was the first disaster I made a donation for this year. Somehow New Zealand completely slipped my mind. Perhaps because it wasn’t in the news much.

As usual, I made my donation to the Red Cross’s disaster-specific fund. They will use the funds for the response to the earthquake, except in the rare case where they receive more than they need. If that’s the case, they’ll apply it to the next disaster.

You can text a Red Cross donation to 90999 and the $10 charge will appear on your phone bill. I prefer to give more, so I visited the Red Cross  website.  I had to make an extra click to reach the donation selection page.  You can also donate through their Facebook page, your iTunes account, or on Amazon.

Initially, Doctors without Borders was not involved in the crisis, but they now have people on the ground operating small clinics in the hardest-hit area.  At this time, they’re not taking Japan-specific donations, but you can always donate to this worthy cause in support of their ongoing campaigns for international health crises.

Facebook provides links to several organizations through Network for Good.

It’s easy to think that a wealthy nation like Japan doesn’t need our help, but no nation is fully prepared for a disaster of this scale. These non-profit organizations often provide the short-term food, shelter, and medical needs that local police and rescue personnel can’t supply.

When donating, please give cash rather than goods. It’s much cheaper and more efficient for these organizations to buy their own food, blankets, and other supplies, often from suppliers close to the disaster region. Blankets and food collected here would have to be shipped at great expense and may not arrive in time to serve immediate needs.

On a personal note, anyone who lives in a disaster region should once again take this opportunity to check batteries and restock food, water, and pet supplies. If you have a car, keep a little food and a pair of walking shoes and socks in the trunk. I heard a newscaster say, “You hear about this, but you never expect it to happen.” To that I say, yes, you do if you live in a disaster-prone region.  If you don’t, you should. Be prepared.

I’m not the type of hoarder you see on those TV shows. That would be way too unfrugal for me! But there are a few things I hoard, and many times those things have proved useful. So here are the things I hoard:

Nails, Screws, and Bolts
Really, it’s all manner of fastening things. If I buy a box of nails, obviously I save the rest. However, I also save all those allen wrenches and extra screws that come with furniture from Ikea and Cost Plus. Often there will be one or two extra pieces in the box and I toss them in my toolbox with the rest of my screw hoard. Then, when I need just one screw or nail, I can go into the toolbox and find exactly what I need. I rarely need to go to the hardware store if I just need something simple and don’t need a lot of it.

The key is to check the box at the start of a project to make sure I don’t already have what I might need. If I don’t, then I head to Ace for a few screws. Those allen wrenches come in handy when the legs on a piece of furniture need tightening, because anything you build yourself will eventually need tightening.

I don’t, however, save six of the same sized allen wrenches. Just one will do. And I don’t save screws that are broken or in poor condition, because they’re not useful anymore.

Buttons
As any woman can tell you, our clothes often come with extra stuff. Little bags or envelopes that contain an extra button, sequins, beads, or thread should we lose one. I save both the buttons and the tiny safety pins that attach them to the clothing. The safety pins are great for holding a wrap dress or sweater closed at a safe-for-work level, and the blend in well.

I buy most of my clothes from the same store, which means I’ve now amassed quite a collection of identical buttons one at a time. I now have an assortment of black or silver buttons when I need to sew something. Interestingly, I’ve never actually had one of their buttons fall off, so I guess the extras aren’t necessary, but I keep them for other sewing projects.

Pads and Pens
If there’s a place giving away free pads or pens, I take them home with me. Hotel rooms are great for this, as are conventions. I store them in the closet and then I always have a phone pad handy when the old one runs out. Why buy pads when so many places will give them to you, free?

Of course, free pens aren’t always good pens, so I’m quick to throw out a free pen if it doesn’t work. I’ve got plenty more where that one came from.

Plastic Grocery Bags
I actually usually use canvas or tulle bags when shopping at the store or farmer’s market, but things like lettuce store better in plastic bags. I then those bags for kitty litter disposal. I hoard them in a special bag I made just for that purpose. When I run out, which I finally did recently, I switch to plastic for a few weeks at the grocery store.

Shipping Boxes
I don’t actually hoard shipping boxes year round, but I do when it gets close to Christmas. Then I use them to ship gifts to family members rather than buying boxes. I don’t ship many things the rest of the year, so I only save boxes that will probably find a use. After Christmas, I purge my stash until the following year.

That’s it, all the things I hoard. As you can see, there’s a fine line between hoarding and prudently saving useful things. I’m pretty sure my husband will tell me if I go overboard, but I doubt that day is coming.

Is there anything you hoard?

I prepared my taxes a couple weeks ago using my favorite tax software: TaxAct. I threw caution to the wind and only prepared my taxes with one type of software! I ended up getting a larger refund than I expected. As I’ve said before, I try to avoid owing taxes when I file or getting a refund, but because my husband was on disability for four months, we ended up majorly over-withholding.

TaxAct had a few new features that I appreciated, although I did long for the easier H&R Block navigation from last year. Maybe I just couldn’t find it, but in order to review a single tax question, I had to review the entire section.

Still, it got the job done in less than an hour, and was certainly cheap at $17.95 for Federal and State – Deluxe addition.

The Interface
The interface has been prettied up a bit since I first start using TaxAct several years ago. It’s got a bit of color and more of a “Web 2.0” feel. There are also videos that walk you through several sections. It offers more help than ever for first timers, but some aspects can still be confusing if you don’t know what you’re doing.

The life features section was more robust than last year, and allowed me to review several sections where I needed to pay closer attention.

There are step-by-step questions for W-2s and other forms, but I preferred to use the quick data entry method.

The State Form
I did have a challenge with the state form. Maybe I should have used secondary software as a check, but I didn’t. I’m not sure this is a software problem, so much as a “my state writes terrible instructions” problem. I tried to read the California instructions, which TaxAct provides, for adjustments to Federal deductions, but they were very unclear. Most of the items I’d never heard of, and the instructions provided no insight! Hopefully other states are better than mine at writing their forms.

Filing
Filing was super-easy, but that’s true of any software. I did spot one thing that I found annoying. I’m not sure if other companies do the same thing, but I suspect they do. I was given the option of paying by credit card, or of having the fee deducted from my refund. The tax software fee was $17.95. The fee to have the fee deducted from my refund was $16.95! Obviously, I chose the credit card. That’s almost a 100% mark-up!

As usual, I don’t recommend TaxAct for a first-time filer or if you have a complicated tax situation. I was grateful for the H&R Block Online handholding when I itemized for the first time last year. But if your return is relatively the same as last year, or you’ve itemized many times, I don’t see a strong reason to pay more for the same thing.

What I’m Doing with My Refund
The answer is simple: saving it. It replaces the funds we couldn’t save while my husband was on disability. If I’d adjusted our withholding, we would have saved the money earlier in the year. We didn’t even put the money into our budget.

Many people view the refund as a windfall, but remember – it’s your money. If you received a refund and didn’t do anything special this year that would result in a big refund (such as the home buyer tax credit from last year), adjust your withholding to get more of your money during the year. Rather than using a big refund to pay off a big chunk of credit card debt, you can pay it off slower throughout the year, and save interest in the process! The government certainly won’t pay interest on your tax refund.

Current Accounts



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