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#882 Halloween Savings: Don’t Let That Pumpkin Go To Waste

21 Oct

jack o lanternAfter carving up your Halloween jack o’ lantern, do you:

A. Let it rot on your lawn or doorstep until it is a disgusting heap of orange and black moldy goo.

B. Throw it away.

C. Compost it.

D. Roast it for pumpkin puree.

I pick D.

So this money-saving idea may be bordering on cheap, but I like to think of it as Native American resourceful. As in nothing goes to waste. I thought my mom was seriously cheap and weird when she did this, but then I moved to Europe where they don’t have pumpkin puree in a can. But they do sell pumpkin slices in the grocery store. That’s when I started to roast my own pumpkin, and my mom’s crazy ways seemed a little less crazy.

Please note: Pumpkins go moldy very quickly so this has to be done within 24 hours of carving to be safe. This means, don’t carve the Halloween pumpkin until the day of or day before Halloween. Who really uses a jack o’ lantern for more than Halloween night anyways?

Step 1: Discard the top with the stem and cut the pumpkin in half.
halloween pumpkin and top

halloween pumpkin cut in half

Step 2: Cut the pumpkin into even-sized cubes and trim the dried-out layer. Don’t worry about trimming the rind off, leave it during roasting.

halloween pumpkin cubes
Step 3: Place the cubes on a cookie tray, rind side down, and brush or spray with canola oil. Roast at 350 degrees until a skewer inserts easily into the cubes, about 40 minutes.

halloween pumpkin roasted
Step 4: Allow to cool for 5 minutes and then trim off the rind with a butter knife and place soft cubes in a bowl. Mash to desired consistency. Or place in food processor for a smoother finish.

mashed halloween pumpkin
Alternatives: Steam on the stove top or cook in a pressure cooker (the rind should be removed for these methods). The end result will be more watery. I like the drier finish of roasting, plus it adds a nice flavor.

Step 5: Measure into 1 or 2 cup servings and freeze what is not used right away.

halloween pumkpin puree

How this Halloween money-saving tip actually saves you money: From one average-priced $6 pumpkin, you can get roasted pumpkin seeds (isn’t that the best part of carving a pumpkin), a Halloween decoration and pumpkin puree. A small pumpkin (that in my case was actually $4.50)  yielded exactly 7 cups of pumpkin puree. libby's pumpkin pureeOne can of premium brand puree is $1.98. Generic brands are $0.99 – $1.20 per can. One can of pumpkin puree is 2 cups. That means my 7 cups is equal to 3 1/2 cans of store-bought puree or $6.93 worth of premium brand or $3.37 – $4.20 worth of generic brand puree. The premium brand canned pumpkin puree cost is more than the original cost of the pumpkin. The generic brand cost is slightly less than the original cost of the pumpkin. And that’s not factoring in that this would be the third use of the single purchase of a pumpkin.

Additional benefits of turning your jack o’ lantern into pumpkin puree:

  • No concerns about BPA in canned goods
  • Pumpkins are packed with nutrients namely beta-carotene just like orange carrots. The fresher the pumpkin, the better the nutrients so making your own means it’s fresh and hasn’t been sitting around, exposed to extreme temps to kill bacteria during manufacture and other practices that kills food nutrients.

Your regular jack o’ lanterns might not be the best flavor choice, but there are a huge variety of pumpkins. If you get one from a farm stand or farmer’s market, the grower may be able to tell you more about the richer-flavored pumpkins to choose from.

What to do with all this roasted pumpkin?
If you’re Euro, you’ll go savory with pumpkin soup, pumpkin ravioli or pumpkin risotto.
If you’re American, you’ll go sweet with pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread or pumpkin muffins. I once made killer pumpkin cheese cake and pumpkin creme brulee.

The best part is that Thanksgiving is just around the corner and you’ll be able to wow the guests with tales of home-roasted pumpkin pie.

#897 Make Your Own Envelopes For Fun Invites And Appreciation Notes

7 May

With Mother’s Day around the corner, there’s nothing like a unique handmade card to say thanks. And why not catch your mom’s attention with a handmade envelope? You know those magazines you hate to get rid of because of the beautiful photos? Turn them into eye-catching envelopes that will spice up any thank you note or invite you send.

First you need a visually appealing photo. I usually use magazines, but you can use old books, maps or anything else headed for recycling land. I got these magazines from the library free give away pile. You can also dumpster dive the recycle bin.

magazine envelope

envelope 4
Next you’ll need a template. I printed one out from this site or you can use another envelope that has been deconstructed.

envelope template

Tape the template to the magazine page you’ve selected and cut the envelope out.

 envelope 10

Fold each side with your “nice” side out. Make crisp folds that come together neatly like a real envelope. Tape or glue stick the envelope sides. I like glue sticks as tape looks less professional.

magazine envelope

Then you’re done! You can cut a piece of card stock for your notes or use cards you already have. Get creative with what’s inside as well. You can use sticky address labels if you are mailing the envelopes or cut out and glue a neat rectangle of paper to address the envelopes. I love using gold or silver pens to write the address right on the envelope. Whoever receives it will be so excited to not only get a card, but to open this pretty package as well.

envelope 9

The time to cut out and assemble two envelopes took me less than 10  minutes. If you have a lot of notes, like wedding thank yous, you can pre-cut all your envelope templates before assembling. Depending on the occasion great magazines to use would be bridal magazines (to use up that stack you bought during planning), home and garden magazines, fashion and decor magazines or photography magazines. Don’t panic if you haven’t gotten Mom anything yet. Pull out a garden magazine and make her a unique envelope with a heartfelt note, and she’ll be touched.

#905 Thrifty Baby: Get Rid Of Baby Wipes

9 Apr

stack of washcloths

Our pediatrician told us to only use a washcloth and warm water to ease our daughter’s diaper rash. Photo via flickr by Steve A Johnson.

Pediatrician recommended: toss the baby wipes in favor of a washcloth and warm water. Not only will the switch get rid of the baby wipes expense, but it will also reduce the chances of diaper rash.

At our one-month appointment for our daughter, we were changing her diaper from the inevitable poop (or two) whenever we left the house in the first three months. We were putting on all sorts of stuff to soothe an rash when the pediatrician walked in and recommended clearing up the rash by not using baby wipes. “I used a washcloth and warm water for all my children,” she said. “It’s the best thing to do.”

pampers baby wipes

Even “sensitive” wipes have too many irritants for baby skin. Warm water is all that is needed.

We were using the “sensitive” nothing-in-them wipes, so it was surprising to us that the doctor indicated they were the most likely source of irritation. Even the most natural of baby wipes have too many soaps and additives that irritate a baby’s skin, she said. Baby skin does not need soap, and is often over-dried or irritated with soap products. Warm water is sufficient. I was in favor of not churning through packs of wipes. While it’s a relatively small expense, why not save $5 to $10 a pop?

At first it seemed like a challenge to switch. We were programmed to think that it’s the easiest thing to do to pull out a wipe and toss it. But immediately, it was clear that not only was a washcloth with warm water just as convenient as baby wipes, but the diaper rash disappeared and never came back again. The doctor had given us some great advice. And I realized, it’s only recently that baby wipes have become the norm for baby butt care. In the past it was always a little warm water and a washcloth. Everyone has at least one washcloth at home, which means there is no extra expense.

If you’re using packaged baby wipes, make the switch to a washcloth immediately. You’ll see how easy it is.

When you’re at home, just turn on the faucet to get the hot water going, and wet the washcloth when it’s a good temperature. Wring it out, and you’re ready to go. My baby hated cold wipes. I thought about a baby wipe warmer. How silly, when now I can always have a warm, soothing cloth without an extra gadget. For pee, I wash out and wring the washcloth to use again. It’s in the designated baby washcloth spot to use only for diaper changes. For poop, I toss the washcloth in the laundry after a quick rinse.

For poops I even got in the habit of doing a “baby bidet” where I stuck her poopy butt under the running tub facet while I gave her a good scrub with the washcloth. This was great during the breast milk, non-solid, often-explosive, many-times-a-day poop phase. I can’t imagine trying to wrangle that poop with a ton of wipes when I could wash it away quickly.

sink faucet drip

If you have access to a sink, you can refresh the washcloth when out of the house. Photo via flickr by Angelo Gonzalez.

If you’re out and about, put an already-wet or dry washcloth (depending on your optimism about facilities) in a zip lock bag. If you have a bathroom with a sink, you can wet the wash cloth with fresh, warm water there and proceed as normal. Zip the wet washcloth back up in the zip lock bag to take home with you after the change. Getting worried about poops when you’re running errands gets easier once your baby enters a once-a-day, predictable poop pattern. At this point they’re also much less of a mess to clean up.

I did carry around some repackaged wipes in a zip lock bag as a “safety” when I was out, but one pack of baby wipes lasted me more than a year. I mostly used the baby wipes to clean dirty hands and face, not dirty butts. Now I don’t even think about baby wipes. What a relief to eliminate one more thing off the list of baby stuff that is just as easy to do without.

#907 Thrifty Baby: Breastfeeding Is Best…And It’s Free

5 Apr

breastfeeding baby

Yup, breasts are for feeding babies for free. Photo via flickr by Mothering Touch.

I was really looking forward to the last month of eating blueberry pancakes at midnight during my pregnancy. Then my daughter decided she didn’t want to wait any longer to say hello to the world. I was briefly disappointed by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy extra calories with impunity until I found out that breastfeeding took as many extra calories per day as pregnancy.

The extra calories needed for both pregnancy and breastfeeding is typically between 300 and 500 calories a day, so it’s really not license to gorge yourself and the food should be healthy, but I was excited that breastfeeding meant I could still snack freely throughout the day.

pile of avocados

My healthy snack of choice. Photo via flickr by ollesvensson.

Breastfeeding provides a unique blend of exactly-right that is made just for your baby. It protects against illness and helps development like no formula can. Formula also costs anywhere from $60 to $100 a month. Breastfeeding is free. Breastfeeding is by far the best thing for baby and the cheapest option for mom. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for the first six months, but their statistics show that less than 40 percent of  infants are exclusively breastfeed until six months.

la leche league logoMost women start out with the intention to breastfeed, but how do 85 percent of new moms who intend to breastfeed fall to less than 40 percent of infants who are breastfeeding at six months or even three months. A lot of women get discouraged or feel at a loss or abandoned when in the hospital or upon return home. Women get overwhelmed and abandon breastfeeding. It’s too bad the overwhelming number of women who want to breastfeed then don’t get the support and education they need to succeed. Here are some challenges and ways to succeed:

  • “It seems like it should be natural and easy, and it isn’t.” Not every baby takes right to breastfeeding like a champ. Not every mom knows what to do. The best thing to do is to educate and prepare before hand so that when challenges come up, getting discouraged and quitting is less likely. Some good resources to find support are La Leche League, which is an international organization to support mothers and breastfeeding. They are far reaching and have local chapters that meet for support. It’s a great idea to connect with the group or the organizer of the group while pregnant. Going to a few get togethers beforehand allows for getting to know other moms, and it’s more comfortable to seek help once help is needed. It’s harder to ask for help from a stranger. Especially about breastfeeding. La Leche League is free, so if a lactation consultant isn’t covered by insurance, there are other resources. Another great resource is KellyMom, which has lots of great information. Don’t rely on nurses at the hospital to be knowledgeable, encouraging or helpful.
  • “It hurts.” In theory, it’s not supposed to hurt. The best thing I learned is that if it hurts, then something is going on that is incorrect. That’s not to say there isn’t some adjustment. Some raw or chapped nipples happen, but it should clear up within a few days after correcting anything. The best thing to do is make sure everything is right and then deal with any pain or adjustment that should go away quickly.
  • “I don’t want saggy boobs.”
    pushup bra

    The right bra will have the girls perky and pretty again. Photo via flickr by angel with horns.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I watched some episodes of “16 and Pregnant.” One girl didn’t want to breastfeed because she didn’t want to make her boobs saggy. The doctor answered, “Pregnancy makes your boobs saggy.” So really, pregnancy and age make breasts a little less than perky. Not to mention, your whole body is different post-baby. Most women actually have more body image issues with c-section scars or their stomachs than their breasts. There’s nothing a sexy pushup or under-wire bra can’t fix.

  • “I have to work.” If you’re a stay-at-home-mom or work from home, breastfeeding without pumping should be relatively easy. Working might pose some challenges, but don’t stop because of work. I was lucky to live in a country that if I returned to work, I would have a legal right to breastfeed or pump at work and the employers followed the law without question. It’s sad to read about women who quit breastfeeding because they couldn’t pump at work. In the U.S., protecting mothers in the workplace is woefully behind other countries. But with the new health care provisions in 2010, every woman is allowed time and a private place to pump. Fight for your right to do so if you get resistance, it’s federally protected. You’re fighting for your baby, other women and yourself. Women are underpaid significantly compared to men. Mostly because they don’t fight for their worth. You are worthy, you are valuable, you deserve and have a right to be able to pump at work.
  • “I’m supposed to love it, and I don’t.” It’s fine not to be totally in love with breastfeeding. Most moms absolutely hate pumping that’s for sure. I didn’t totally love breastfeeding, but it was best for baby. When I look back, I know I’ll look on it fondly even though, I might not have been crazy about it all the time.

Those are some challenges. If a women is determined to stick with it, then it should work out. And here are some awesome things about breastfeeding:

  • It’s free. Ok, that is the whole point of the post, but really, who would pay for something you can get for free? Another great thing I learned was that you don’t need all the special equipment that everyone adds on nowadays. I didn’t have a special pillow, pump or bra. It’s possible to manually pump. You can use pillows you have already. A special bra makes it easier but isn’t absolutely necessary. I had a couple of bottles for occasions when I did leave some with dad. If you’re going to pump significantly for a work scenario than equipment for storage is good. You can rent a pump from a hospital for the best pumps.
  • Your kid will get sick A LOT less. The stats show that breastfeed babies are sick significantly less and for a shorter period of time than formula fed babies. Any breastfeeding mom will tell you her kid is sick a lot less than babies who are formula fed. My daughter first got sick after she turned one. She had the usual doses of traveling, public places and day care, so I was amazed that she never got sick until after she was a year.
  • Your pregnancy weight will be sucked right off. This varies by woman and depends on the calories consumed, but breastfeeding does show evidence of helping moms lose weight. Statistically breastfeeding moms lose pregnancy weight faster and are less likely to be obese than formula feeding moms. I got back to a weight I was in high school, which I never thought was possible. It happened quickly without any diet restrictions on my part. I have room to bounce back a few pounds and still fit my pre-pregnancy clothes.
  • It’s convenient. Always the right temperature and immediately available to a hungry baby. No fumbling with hot water, powder, bottles, ect. Even pumped milk in a bottle doesn’t have to be heated up. Some babies will drink cold breast milk. Travel is easy with a breastfeeding baby because there is no need to haul extra stuff and the baby is happy anywhere with the breast.
  • Babies love the boob. Nothing comforts baby like mom and the boob. Babies all love the boob because it’s natural. It makes you feel special that only you can provide this comfort and food source for the baby.

#920 Travel Savings: Sleep On Someone’s Couch

4 Mar

The couchsurfing host's cat greets the author in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The Couchsurfing host’s cat greets the author in Reykjavik, Iceland.

I have a weakness for plane tickets. Not the type of purchase I should make regularly, especially when I’m a student. At the same time, wanderlust is in my blood and most of the time, the expensive part of travel is not the plane ticket itself. The part that adds up is the nights of hotels and hostels and eating out in restaurants. My philosophy has become: If I can get myself there, I’ll live on bread and water and sleep on someone’s couch. What matters is that I’m there.

Couch? Who’s couch? I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone in Budapest and that’s not going to make it easy to find a willing couch. The good news is that it is easy to find a couch, anywhere you go in the world.

A Couchsurf turns into a birthday picnic in Rome.

A Couchsurf turns into a birthday picnic in Rome.

I started using in 2009 when I was studying abroad in Paris. Since my first stay with a Couchsurfing host in Rome, I have become a convert. I have Couchsurfed in six countries with ten different hosts with an estimated total of over fifty days of traveling over several years. However, most people raise an eyebrow when they find out that I, a single female, have traveled alone and stayed in “unknown” people’s homes in foreign countries… The thought is sketchy, and if you let your imagination run away with you, it’s enough to dissuade you from trying it.

Fear not! I am here to explain the concept, give some tips, dispel some myths and tell some stories about Couchsurfing.

Couch-Finding Strategies or How to Get Hosted!

Additional naps may occur when out touring the Roman countryside with your Couchsurf host.

Additional naps may occur when out touring the Roman countryside with your Couchsurf host.

The Honor System: Couchsurfing operates on an honor system. Once you create a profile, you need to get people to write you a recommendation verifying that you are a real and good person. No one will host you if you do not have recommendations. In addition, recommendations cannot be deleted, so if you ever get a negative review, you can kiss your Couchsurfing career goodbye. Only the person who wrote it can change that recommendation. It is in your best interest to be a good guest and in your host’s best interest to be a good host in order for everyone to continue to participate in the community.

Finding a good host entails reading profiles extensively and thoroughly. It takes much more time than booking a hotel to sift through profiles, reading them and writing personalized messages to hosts, but it is well worth the time. Hosts are in high demand and do not like receiving generic messages that show you clearly did not take the time to read their profile. If you do take the time, you can find some gems of people!

You also have to trust your instinct. If you ever get a bad feeling from a profile, move on. There are plenty of great hosts out there that you don’t need to risk staying with someone from whom you get a weird feeling. For women looking at profiles of male hosts, read their recommendation section carefully and see if there are other females traveling alone who have written them a recommendation and see what they said. A lot of times this is very telling about who is safe and trustworthy. Watch out for profiles that do not have recommendations from surfers and only from close friends of that person. Fellow surfers are the best people to rely on in terms of how good a host is.

Traveling with friends or in a couple? No problem. A lot of hosts take multiple people. You can enter in your search criteria how many people are traveling with you and hosts who take multiples will show up. Three surfers at a time staying with one host is the most I’ve seen in my surfing days. It’s best if everyone traveling with you has a profile and recommendations.

Rules and Etiquette

Want to meet locals? Couchsurf. Here the host and his daughter take the author to Icelandic National day celebrations.

Want to meet locals? Couchsurf. Here the host and his daughter take the author to Icelandic National day celebrations.

Couchsurfing hosts are not hotels. Treat a host’s home like they are just a money-saving technique, and you will quickly get booted from the community. The spirit of Couchsurfing relies on cultural exchange, meeting new people and friendship. From my travels, I have met up with three of my hosts again in other countries, maintained contact with eight of them and consider two of them life-long friends. I would not have experienced such good outcomes if I had waltzed in and acted entitled. That’s not the spirit. It’s about respecting the generosity of your host and embracing the opportunity to meet someone new. What you put into it is what you get out of it.

That being said, it is important to treat your host to a meal or bring a gift. Depending on my financial circumstances at the time, I try to always bring my hosts a gift (a bottle of wine or chocolate) or treat them to dinner one night that I am staying with them. With two hosts who then became good friends, I did not have much to share at the time so I left them each with a handwritten poem. It doesn’t have to cost money, but it should show that you care and appreciate them opening their home to you.

Couchsurfing is a great way to save money but more importantly, it is a way to find friends in every country and every city you visit. You will meet welcoming, kind and interesting people if you play your cards right, and of course, you’ll be able to travel on a very slim budget!

This guest post is brought to you by Caroline Fish who has traveled the world on a budget since she was 12 including on travel awards in high school and college for her outstanding community service and social justice work. She is a grad student studying social work and law and blogs about travel and life at

All photos are the author’s.

#929 Nature Walks

15 Feb

Autumn is a great time to be outside.

Autumn is a great time to be outside.

What do you do with seven kids on a Sunday? In my family growing up it would cost a small fortune to take us all to the movies so instead my mom marched us up the nearest mountain or hill she could find. We’d hike in state parks, national parks, on municipal trails or city greenways…pretty much if there was a trail, we’d be on it, walking like ducks in a row. Being Swiss, if it was up an incline, all the better. Being thrifty, the fact that it was free was ideal.

My mom is proud to tell us that “you were always good walkers.” What it did for us is give us a great appreciation for one of the best free activities in the world – nature walks. On Sunday afternoons, even if you don’t have kids, it’s nice to relax surrounded by nature. Not to mention the fact that if you do have kids, it tires them out completely and they’re entertained the whole time by the wonderment of the natural world. Luckily, the endless supply of beauty is free and good for you.

When it comes down to it, every healthy person is born a “good walker,” it’s just whether you have a parent who kicks you outside to play or marshals you down the nearest trail every Sunday that determines whether or not you grow up into the habit of walking. If you didn’t, don’t worry, you can start anytime. And kids naturally want to be outside and playing from the time they’re barely a year old. It’s not that Swiss-German kids have natural inclination for throwing on a backpack and tackling an Alp, it’s that their parents take them out for that activity from day one – first in a backpack and then on their own.

Nature walks by definition should not be too difficult – the goal is to have a pleasant outing – so where and what you hike should be geared toward having a good time. Here are some tips for taking advantage of a great free activity:

  • Change up where you walk. Don’t go to the same place every time. It gets boring. If you get a map of local attractions, walks and hikes, there are sure to be plenty of options with in easy driving distance. On vacation, it’s a great way to discover “undiscovered” areas of where you are visiting.
  • Incorporate a hobby. If you’re into photography, bird-watching or foraging, nature walks are a great time to have fun doing those things. If you don’t have a hobby compatible with being outdoors, pick one up to make it more enjoyable.
  • Always have water. It’s no fun to go any where without proper hydration. You’ll need it and you don’t want to cut things short because you forgot water. My mom is crazy about her water bottles. She wasn’t keen on snacks, but if you want, you can bring those too.
  • Bring the dogs.
    Dogs and kids love all weather.

    Dogs and kids love all weather.

    Your pets love this kind of stuff almost more than kids. Check whether they need to be on leashes.

  • Disconnect. As you can get a network signal almost anywhere, don’t count on not being able to get a signal to keep you disconnected from the world. Nature walks are for you to relax for a moment. If you want a phone for safety reasons, shut off the phone and put it in your backpack to use only if someone breaks a leg or falls off a cliff, which is pretty much never.
  • Have a destination. While not always possible, arriving at a waterfall or getting to the top of the mountain for the view is always the best way to go because it’s a reward for the work put in. If there is no destination, enjoy the time outside.
  • Walking through spring flowers smells like heaven.

    Walking through spring flowers smells like heaven.

    There are things to do in all four seasons. Don’t let the weather or time of year stop you. I love walking in the rain or snow. Proper gear will get you through. And nothing is more awesome than making hot chocolate after getting in from a walk totally cold and soaked through. In the spring you see the flowers blooming, in the summer you feel the shade of the trees, in the fall you see the colors change, in the winter you see deer tracks…you get the idea. I like off-seasons because lots of times, you’re the only person or party out there.

I’d write more but my almost-two-year-old is insisting on a walk-walk. She must have one every day, if not twice a day. My mom is proud that her granddaughter is a “good walker” too.

#933 Learn A Skill

1 Feb

Be your own mechanic and save money. Photo via flickr by Seattle Municipal Archives.

Be your own mechanic and save money. Photo via flickr by Seattle Municipal Archives.

You spend money because you can’t do something, you don’t know how to do something, you don’t have the space to do something, you don’t have the resources to do something…you would be perfectly capable of doing it yourself if you knew how or had the space/time/resources.

Imagine if you grew your own food, maintained your own transportation, made your own clothes, built your own house from the lumber you milled…then you’d have no bills to pay…and be Amish. While the Amish have a strong community in which they are much more self-sustaining than many of us, we can take a cue from them and acquire practical, hands-on skills that can save a lot of money.

Sewing is a great skill to save money. Photo via flickr by tsuacctnt.

Sewing is a great skill to save money. Photo via flickr by tsuacctnt.

We take our car to the garage to be fixed. We rely on “experts” to help us with taxes and real estate. And tailors to hem our pants. And farmers to provide us with food. And GPS to tell us where to go. All of which we pay for. Eliminate the need to pay someone to do the work for you or a gadget to help you by learning a skill yourself. I personally love figuring out how to do things myself. And enjoy the thrill of knowing how easy it is to do and telling others how to do it.

One of the best skills if you have a car is to learn how to maintain it yourself. Changing out headlights and taillights is straightforward. Switching out your oil is a little dirty but easy. Once you familiarize yourself with the engine, you see how the system works together, not a scary mass of confusion. If you don’t have a car and ride a bike, learn how to car for the bike yourself instead of taking it to the shop.

Replace that ugly, old sink yourself, but have the help of someone who knows the first few times. Photo via flickr by Kevin Saff.

Replace that ugly, old sink yourself, but have the help of someone who knows the first few times. Photo via flickr by Kevin Saff.

How about learning how to woodwork and make your own furniture? Or knit and made your own sweaters? Or how to rehab old furniture? Or how plumbing works? Or a bit about electricity and hang your own light fixtures? Or how to sew? I’m getting excited about learning something new just writing this. Anything you want to know more about, you can start with an enthusiast who can show your the ropes. Or your dad, grandpa, grandma or mom.

Not only does learning a skill save you money, but it adds to your bag of tricks that can seal the deal in a job interview, dating scenario or business deal. You learn skills without even trying. You just start doing something and then years later you realize you’ve become an expert cook, baker, mechanic, seamstress/tailor or all of the above.

I love that I can save money if I already know how to do something myself. And that I’m not scared to learn if I don’t know.

Warning: The I-can-do-it skill set does save you a lot of money. However, it treads easily into the dreaded “cheap” category when someone refuses to pay anyone for anything and “does it themselves” without actually ever doing it correctly or with good materials. This leads to a lifetime of headaches, fixes and damages, which actually costs more in misery and new equipment than if it was done right the first time. So make sure you are accurately judging the quality of your work and the difficulty of the task and call in someone who really knows what they’re doing when needed.

#938 Use Free Antivirus

18 Jan

AVG logo 2Here’s more in the tech category of “don’t pay for something you can get for free.” Free antivirus programs hold up in tests against paid antivirus services. As long as you have an antivirus installed on your computer, you should be well protected. The biggest mistake computer users make is not using any antivirus software at all. While some may argue that pay services keep up better with the fast evolving world of computer viruses, free services do the job just as well. If you don’t have antivirus because you don’t want to pay for it, then download a free option today. If you want to save on a bill, cancel your paid antivirus and download a free option today.

Here’s the run down several of the free options out there that have been vetted and approved by everyone from users to computer magazines:

AVG: Like many free antivirus offers, they also have a pay service. I’ve used their free, basic antivirus for many years with great results. The free package has you covered from current malware threats. It’s one of the most popular and well-rated free antivirus downloads out there.

avira logoAvira: Another highly-rated and effective antivirus that offers a free, basic service. It has a high detection rate for current malware and works well according to users and tests.

Panda Cloud: Rounding out the top three for detection and efficacy, it’s another good option to free antivirus that has improved it’s CPU usage recently.

Avast!: Another great option, which rates highly but doesn’t do as well as the previous three on some tests.

Comodo: comodo logoIn addition to free antivirus, Comodo offers a host of other free downloads to clean up your computer like Comodo System Utilities and Comodo Cleaning Essentials. You can use the computer cleanup tools in addition to a free antivirus if you haven’t had virus protection or you want to be extra sure there is not something lingering out there or you want your computer to run more smoothly.

In addition to free antivirus, it’s a good idea have good practices to reduce your chances of getting a virus or other malware. How to avoid malware in the first place:

  • Don’t click on anything you don’t trust. Don’t click on links or downloads from websites, emails or popups that you don’t trust or are suspicious. Even if you have an inkling that it’s not right, don’t do it. Better safe than sorry. If you are unsure of receiving something from someone you know, just ask them before your open or click. Many email spams look like they’re coming from someone you know but it’s clearly weird or spam. Popups try to tell you that you’re computer is infected. It will be if you click on the popup to install anything to “clean up” your computer.
  • Use Firefox, not Internet Explorer. firefox logoI would say don’t use Windows as well, but this is pretty hard to avoid. Viruses mostly exploit Explorer and Windows, although this is changing. You’re better off using Firefox as your browser.
  • Don’t use illegal file-sharing sites. It’s the Wild West of viruses and other malware. You will get infected.
  • Only install programs from trusted sites for trusted programs. There are legitimate free downloads like the various ones I’ve talked about this week. A lot of other “free” downloads from small, unknown and untested sites contain malware. You’ll pay with a computer full of viruses. Free games and screen savers are also dangerous territory. Stick to the “if you don’t trust it, don’t download it” rule.
  • Pay attention to fake sites and updates with legitimate names. Paypal and Windows is a popular one to fake. An email tells you that you need to update or enter personal info. Legitimate companies never do things over email. If you notice, the URL and other details are not right. Report the spam to the real company to keep them up-to-date with the threats out there.
  • Use a firewall. It’s easy enough to ensure that you have the firewall working in your computer’s settings.
  • Don’t put everything out there.
    Don't be a victim of "phishing." Your personal info might make it easier to fool you. Photo via flickr by Jeff Attaway.

    Don’t be a victim of “phishing.” Your personal info might make it easier to fool you. Photo via flickr by Jeff Attaway.

    Social network sites ask a lot of information about you. Don’t make it public for scammers to use. In fact, I don’t even put my real birth date even when the info is private. I have a set fake birthday I use for the birthday requirement. I make myself younger, of course.

  • Keep everything up-to-date. It’s easiest to have updates running automatically for your computer and antivirus. Make sure it’s set to update on a regular basis to keep up with new threats and fixes to stop them, which occur daily.
  • Don’t catch an STD. The most popular thing on the internet? Porn. Despite what’s advertised as popular or trending, porn always takes the top spots. In fact, I think you have to go pretty far down the list for something not X-rated. Visiting these sites very well may give herpes to your computer.



#939 Photoshop without Photoshop (a.k.a. free)

17 Jan

GIMP screen shot 2

Messing about in the GIMP program with their mascot.

Photoshop is seriously pricey. I usually mess around a bit to crop, retouch, mashup and put text on pictures. Not anything that will win me awards or warrant the investment in the real deal. Now that I’m on my own without an employer to foot the Adobe Creative Suite bill, I do the same things that I would in Photoshop through the free downloadable program GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program).

From my long ago training on Photoshop and my mostly casual encounters since then with Adobe, I can transfer the same tech knowledge to GIMP and find my way around no problem. If I get stuck, their help guide is…well…helpful. I’m running the stable version released last year, v2.8, and haven’t had any problems with it.

The first release of GIMP yielded the Linux penguin logo when Larry Ewing used the program to create the image.

The first release of GIMP yielded the Linux penguin logo when Larry Ewing used the program to create the image.

The collaboration to create and maintain GIMP started at Berkley when a couple of students, Peter Mattis and Spencer Kimball, created it as a class project. They released it to the public in 1996. Users and other computer people ran with it, even when the original developers moved on. An enthusiastic community kept the program alive and updated. It’s been around ever since. Students and tech people continue to work out stable versions to release to the public, building on the idea of open creation and sharing of software.

While a professional would probably want the real thing, the rest of us, which means most everybody else, can do just fine with what GIMP has to offer. The Linux penguin pictured above was made with the first version, which was highly unstable and was no where near as advanced as today’s version. Which means what I do with the program is far from using the all capability that the program has to offer.

The program works on Windows and Mac. It has features like photo enhancement and retouching and supports pretty much any image file format you’d want. So, yeah, it’s Photoshop for free. Unless you want to invest in Adobe as a business decision, GIMP will do just fine and save you hundreds of dollars.

#941 Skype, Google Talk and other online phone services

15 Jan

google talk versus skypeI remember trying out Skype way back in 2003 when it first came out. “OMG! You can talk to someone for free!” It was an exciting prospect to be free from exorbitant phone charges on land lines and cell phones. Then I moved into an apartment where they couldn’t seem to find the phone line. Finally after  a week of trying to get the phone company to get me a phone number, I asked myself why I even needed a traditional land line. I had cable internet installed in no time and signed up for Vonage service. I haven’t paid a long distance charge on a phone bill since.

With the entrance of Google Talk and a bunch of other Google phone-related services, the Skype-only domain of chatting on the phone online got more interesting. There are also smaller providers like ooVoo, who offer similar services.

The nice thing about Google Talk is that domestic calls for the US and Canada to any phone are free. With Skype, you have to pay for anything that is not Skype-to-Skype. All the services offer free calls when you call someone else who is also signed onto the service as well. Signup and downloads are all free.

Baby born far away? Skype it out with the grandparents so they can see the new addition.

Baby born far away? Skype it out with the grandparents so they can see the new addition.

I love using Skype to stay in touch internationally. I finally convinced my parents to use Skype when I lived overseas, and now it’s like they never knew anything else. Video chats let them see their granddaughter in Switzerland and their daughters in the UAE and Nepal. My in-laws also have embraced Skype. This Christmas we had simultaneously present opening in the US and South Korea via Skype with my brother-in-law. It makes it feel like loved ones are a little less far away.

oovooYou can do the same video chat over Google or ooVoo as well. It’s just a matter of both parties having an account and being signed on at the same time to connect. My family sets up “Skype dates” to Skype internationally. Set a date and time (adjusted for time differences) and then sign onto Skype at that time and wait for the other person to call you or sign on as you check email, do the dishes or have a coffee. You can get fancy and get a headset for very little, but as long as you have speakers and a microphone built-in, then the audio is good to go. With tablets and laptops, you can take your Skype or Google chat just about anywhere. There are also apps for Skype and ooVoo to use on your mobile, but you use more data than a regular call.

I’ve even used Skype video conferencing for work. The free service offers video conferencing for up to 10 people. The workplace is embracing Skype, so you’re not going to look crazy or get quizzical looks like you would have not too long ago when you suggest a Skype video conference or chat with colleagues in another location. Again, Google and ooVoo offer the same, I’m just most familiar with using Skype because that’s what I started out using originally.

If you do have to make an international call that is not Skype-to-Skype or over Google or ooVoo, all the companies offer ridiculously low rates. Just buy some credit and make your calls for a fraction of the cost that a land line or cell phone would offer. Between cell phones and online phone services, I’m surprised land lines haven’t died more quickly, but there is no reason to pay for a land line anymore if you can get high speed internet cable instead of DSL. I still have a land line to get DSL as the cost of DSL without a land line is the same as having the land line and DSL, but the cheapest, most basic land line plan is all you need. Long distance and international calls can all be taken care of through Skype or Google.

So if you’re still paying long-distance rates on your phone bill, stop! Use an alternative like Skype, Google or ooVoo to save.