Sunday, May 30, 2010

DIY interlude: ghee

Two years ago I was turned on to the excellent cooking properties of ghee, sometimes called clarified butter (though there is an argument that they are different which we'll leave aside for now). Suffice to say, it's excellent for frying eggs, it's an essential ingredient in Indian pastry, and it can pretty much be used anywhere vegetable oil is called for. It's a natural product (made from cow's milk), unlike vegetable oil which is made from the laborious chemical extraction of the inedible parts of corn and soy, and it tolerates high heat very well without smoking.

However, it's not that cheap to purchase. Here's a table of various outlets and their prices.
Organic ghee at King Arthur Flour $14.95/13oz
Organic ghee at Country Sun Palo Alto $22.99/16oz
Non-organic ghee at Vic's Berkeley $5.99/14oz

I can buy organic unsalted butter at Trader Joes for $4.79/16oz. In one hour and fifteen minutes, I can convert that to 13oz of ghee using the instructions at this YouTube video by David Bruce Hughes.

Since one hour and fifteen minutes fits just inside Viola's afternoon nap schedule, I made ghee the other day from 48oz of butter. It resulted it 40oz of ghee, and the leftover 8oz of milk solids are great additions to any soup where fat is called for (pork fat, duck fat, baby fat, no j/k on the last one, I hope). Freeze the milk solids, don't refrigerate. Learned that one by experience. Ghee can be refrigerated indefinitely.

And it's easy! If you don't have time to watch the video (it's a funny video, a topless white fat man with vedic bling making ghee in Santiago, Chile. He's great!), here's the run down:

Need:
16-N oz. of organic unsalted butter
Two pots, each large enough to hold your butter
laddle
wooden spoon with a flat edge
sieve
enough mason jars to hold your ghee and solids

Do:
1) Put your unsalted organic butter in a pot and slowly melt it over low/medium heat, stirring occasionally.
2) Once it's melted, turn the heat up to medium so that butter simmers (don't let it rapid boil! Slow boil OK). White bits will start coming out of solution and float to the top. When enough collect, skim them with a laddle and put them in their own jar. These are the solids.
3) Eventually, very few solids will come out of solution, and the butter will start to clear up (it happens quite quickly, but if the heat is low enough, you won't burn the butter if you miss it). Lower the heat and transfer the butter through the sieve into the second pot. The sieve will collect a few of the larger solids.
4) Put the the second pot on medium heat. While it comes up to temperature, quickly clean the first pot and the sieve. Dry them well, and keep them at the ready.
5) The butter will start to "boil". That is, the water in the butter evaporates off. You want to get all the water out. You'll know when the water is all gone when a) the butter starts to smell like burnt nuts, and b) when you dip your wooden spoon in, it boils and the butter does not.
6) Before you burn the butter, quickly pour it back through the sieve into the first pot. Wash and dry the sieve one more time, then pour the ghee through the sieve into the clean jars.
7) Do not refrigerate until the ghee solidifies. It will be liquid on your counter for some time, even when it feels cool to the touch.
8) Refrigerate the ghee. If you're like me, you've just made 40oz of the stuff and that will last me many months. If you're not going to bake with the solids right away, put them in the freezer.

As a bonus, your kitchen will smell yummy for a couple of hours :-)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Banks: not your friend

Way back in my third post I spoke of the the zeroeth law of banks: they are not your friends. Maybe at one time in the mythical past, banks were trustworthy institutions that gave out lollipops and kept your doubloons secure in an airtight vault. No longer. Many banks are now borderline evil.

Then there are things our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as banks. CitiGroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual. These mighty financial institutions appear to operate like banks. Make deposits, earn interest, withdrawal funds and apply for loans, but banks they are not. They are extra-legal cartels whose sole function is to steal your money--legally, ha--and convert your tax dollars not into supertrains but into more creative ways to steal your money.

Competition is cannibalistic. Our Treasury Secretary used to work at Goldman, so of course they got tons of TARP money. But Lehmans and WaMu were given the shaft, and put in the feeding pool so the other sharks could devour them.

It's a scam. It's legal. And they're in charge, regardless of which political party is in power. e.g. our current Vice President (while a Senator) wrote the new bankruptcy law that was supposed to make it harder for regular Janes to file for bankruptcy. It backfired spectacularly, and now people just walk away from their debt (houses, credit cards, etc. They can't confiscate what they already own, hehehe). So the banks again went crying to Uncle Sam to give them relief, and the Bush administration gave them shittons of money because they got their fee-fees hurt. Waa.

Where does that leave us? We're not born into banking, or have Ivy League degrees (Trivia! can you name the last President not to graduate from an Ivy League school?) We were born into the class of people who do all the work and pay their taxes so that maybe our kids can go to a decent public school if there's money left after the bank bailouts and B-52 bombers.

The banks are not your friend. Don't treat them like one, and you won't be disappointed when they try to steal your money.

1) Bank local. Find a credit union. Smaller is better. You don't have to keep all your money with your CU, but don't hesitate to use their checking and savings for keeping a lot of your money safe. Their rates are better, and when you call them up on the phone with a problem, you're talking to your neighbor, not a call center in Georgia. Obviously, FDIC insured banks only. If you can't join a credit union, marry someone who can.

I follow a blog that watches what banks get 'eated' by the FDIC on Friday (and it's always on a Friday). Credit Unions come up rarely. Regional banks come up often and never the big banks. For a great story of how the FDIC takes over a bank, I recommend act two of this This American Life episode.

2) No fees. Ever. You do not need to pay your bank for the privilege of keeping your money safe. If any account requires a fee, don't open it. Interest should acrue, even at a low value. They should pay you for the privilege of being able to squander your money on high-risk mortgage derivative products.

3) Do not let them sucker you into buying identity theft protection. They are required by law to do it anyway, so don't give them $12.99/mo. to do what they already have to do. When fraud is found against your account, call them, explain the fraud, tell them to reverse the charges, and when they say "would you like fraud protection insurance so this doesn't happen again?", tell them, "no, you authorized a transaction in my name without verification, that's your problem, not mine."

4) CDs can be fun! But in today's market, interest rates are so low you might need to take out a one year CD to make it work your while. If you can sock $1k away (or more) for a year, try a CD. I've pulled money out early from a CD, and the penalty was about half of my interest, so I didn't lose any money, and it was readily available when I needed it.

I don't want to endorse any specific bank, but I like how ING Direct handles their CDs. Interest is paid into my regular savings account and is available for immediate withdrawal. For balance, let me say that their rates used to be better, and I've found CDs at Bank of America with competitive, shorter terms rates. However, at Bank of America the whole sum was locked up tight until the CD matures. My CU has lousy rates right now (and too many fees) so I'm sticking to the bigger banks until my CU wises up.

5) Money market rates are in the toilet right now. I'm barely earning any interest on mine. I should move it to a CD.

6) I've always found the best car loan rates at my CU. It doesn't come up often, but don't take out a loan where there are penalties for early payments. That's just stupid and I have no idea how it's legal to tell people that they can't pay off their debts ahead of schedule. If you have a little extra to pay off your loans, do it. Every time I've bought a car, I've taken out a four year loan and repaid it in half that time.

7) Bank online if you bank supports it. Stop paying for stamps and don't feel bad for the post office, as other than my local carrier, I despise USPS personnel. I DO NOT WANT STAMPS OR 2-DAY DELIVERY! WEREN'T YOU LISTENING?! JUST MAIL THE FRIGGIN' PACKAGE. NO, I STILL DON'T WANT STAMPS! ARGH! Breathe, Vincent, breathe...

Sign up for as many ebills as your utilities allow to reduce the amount of paper that you later have to recycle. Seriously, unless there is a dispute, are you going to read the bill? Online is archived forever. Banking can be green. Kill bits, not trees.

8) Dispute all fees. As with credit cards, the fee or finance charge should be fought to the bitter end. This came up recently with a discussion with a friend of mine. It can be time consuming to fight every fee (I'm going to wall over $15. You'd think I had better things to do with my time). But every time you let a bank charge you, a fairy loses its wings. And is then eaten by a banker. If the bank won't reverse the charge, tell them to liquidate the account immediately, send the check to you, and then you can go open up a new account at your local CU.

Now that we've saved all this money, what to do with it? Save it! Next up: How to buy less stuff!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Advanced budgeting

My first post was on budgeting, but how far have you really gone to get a handle on your budget since then? It's not enough to decide how much to spend on rent, food, entertainment, and miscellany, though those are a good start. There's a few major targets that I've identified for better budgeting.

1.) Taxes
We pay property taxes twice a year, and as an independent contractor, I have to pay estimated federal income taxes four times a year. These are six potentially budget-busting expenditures and I don't want to have to dip into my savings to pay them.

Fortunately, I discovered on Mint.com that they have a budget feature that lets me budget an expense that is paid once. I've added a budget called "Property Tax" put in the total amount due in November, and now Mint is setting aside a bit each month.

2.) Emergency Funds
This is synonymous with your savings. I'm reminded of Allison's first post at We the Savers. When her husband was laid of, her scant emergency savings was wiped out pretty quickly. She's having to take on more jobs just to make ends meet (and put her husband through college!). I empathize, as I put Tammy through Stanford while our company was implementing austerity measures.

If I hadn't started augmenting our savings really aggressively many years ago, we'd still be dipping into our savings right now. And when I got laid off (November 8th, 2008) that buffer was all the more important, especially because I abhor using my CC as an instant loan machine (as should you). Tammy took six months off from work to be with the baby, and is only working 4/5th time right now. Hence the urgent need to spend less when I only get sporadic contract work right now.

While we had to dip into our savings during her maternity leave, we've returned to to 2008 levels. We're not growing like we did before (Tree, why did thee need a trim?!), but savings are rising, thanks to our own austerity measures like eating in most of the time and only buying what we absolutely need, used if possible. (While you may not need a hydrometer, a webcam, and gardening sheers, we have immediate uses for all :-)

Few of my current readership are starting out their careers, but for both you, start puting money into savings now. The kind of savings is almost irrelevant, but a savings account at a local credit union with some non-zero interest would do you well. Invest local, accrue interest local. Build up your savings, aka your emergency funds? Why?

3) Unanticipated family expenditures
Tammy and I were not among the fortunate seventy-five percent of the coupled population who conceive easily in the first year. It took us almost four years to have a child, and one of those was spent paying for expensive medical interventions. We were both employed when we needed to pay out (not covered by insurance, not that insurance covers anything anymore), but it was still a budget buster. The operative word here is "unanticipated", which is why emergency savings can be life savers.

4) Vacations
I hate saying it, because I'm not much of a long-term planner, but plan out your vacations, add them to your Mint budget as a long-term expentiture, and try to stay in budget while on vacation. This is a post in itself, but I wanted to get you thinking about it. It's important to live our lives, not just trudge and toil. Vacations are an important part of what fuels our sense of liveliness and purpose.

5) What are you paying for that you don't need?
Cable TV comes to mind. An extreme data plan on your phone. The wine club. I'm not saying to pinch pennies (Later, I promise I'll give you all the tricks). I'm suggesting that you pay for only the things that you need and are using.

6) Plan out your meals
If you have time, sit down Sunday night and make a menu for the week. Reference your existing staples. Then make a grocery list of what you don't have. When Viola and I go shopping on Monday, we buy what's on the list, and I don't have t to think on the fly about family meals. While it's always nice to occasionally be spontaneous, as a tired stay-at-home dad, not having to worry about meal planning while changing diapers or corralling a kid is a big relief.

If you have any budgeting techniques, please share them!

Next up, a topic that has constantly come up here, the banks. I'll be talking about the myriad ways they aren't your friend.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Credit cards: got my money back

So sorry for the lack of posts lately. The whole family has been sick, and it's hard to just get out of bed, much less take care of Viola and myself for a whole day.

Good news: I got my $15 interest payment refunded from the CC bank. I had them mail me a copy of my contract with them, and it clearly stated that I had at least a 25 day grace period. Document in hand, I called the bank for a third time and told the rep that they were in error and I'd be expecting my money back.

He agreed that there was a grace period... except when there was a late payment posted to the account, then the grace period reset to 0 for three billing cycles... wait, it wasn't late, there was fraud on the account and I wasn't liable for that payment (you told us that already? Oops, so sorry) they'll post a fix to my account shortly, would I like to sign up for our extended fraud protection for only $12.99 a month? NO, unless it protects me against fraud from my own bank!

For a bank that took $15 billion in TARP funds, you'd think they wouldn't need to grovel for $15. I'm searching for a new credit card. Recommendations welcome.