How to Get More of Your Favorite Fast Food for Less (or Free)

December 16, 2015  
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fast food collection on on white backgroundBY MARY HUNT

In these days of rising food prices it’s fun to keep a bevy of money-saving tips and tricks up your sleeve. You won’t need a coupon, a code or even a private word with the manager to take advantage of these little-known hacks — all perfectly legal and ethical, too. As for the quality, nutritional value and taste for what follows? That’s where you’re on your own.

CHIPOTLE. As fast food goes, it’s hard to beat Chipotle Mexican Grill. The food is fresh and quite tasty. Now boasting 1,142 locations throughout the U.S. and one (so far) in Canada, Chipotle is, in the opinion of your humble columnist, as good as it gets. Here are a couple of ways to make it even better.

Nachos. It’s not on the menu, but it’s easy to get nachos at Chipotle. Just order a burrito bowl and then ask if you can get chips instead of rice at the bottom. No extra charge.

Double-wrap. If you want a sturdier burrito, ask for two tortilla shells when you give your burrito order. Fans of this method say it keeps the burrito from bursting, which can be a problem with a well-packed Chipotle burrito. No additional charge.

More for free. Here’s a great way to order for one but have more than enough delicious Chipotle fare for two (and even then you’ll have a hard time eating all of it). Order a bowl, which right there gets you more than if you order the burrito. Next, order half chicken and half steak. The way they portion it out, you’ll get at least 50 percent more meat. Ask for both types of rice and beans. Again, they’ll pile it on higher than if you’d selected a single option. Next add fajita veggies and corn salsa. To finish it off, order two tortillas on the side — all this for no additional cost.

–Single taco. If you’re on a diet or budget, you can get a taco loaded with all your favorite toppings for about $2.25.



Quesadillas and burritos. Prefer yours crispy? Ask them to double-grill your quesadillas and burritos, for no extra charge. They’ll come out extra hot and very crispy.

Lava sauce. The spicy cheese “lava sauce” is featured on several Taco Bell items. If you’re a fan, you can add it to virtually any item for free. But you have to ask for it.



Grilled cheese. You won’t see it on the menu, but McDonald’s grilled cheese sandwich is a bun with cheese in the middle. This is a great option for kids, light appetites or vegetarians. To get your grilled cheese sandwich at McDonald’s, do these two things: 1) Order a grilled cheese, and 2) Say you want the buns grilled. Now the cheese will melt and give you the maximum toasty flavor. At last check, this item costs around $1.

Mini Big Mac. McDonald’s Big Macs typically cost around $4.79. If this price is steep for you but you love the flavor, it’s easy to get something similar. Just order a McDouble without ketchup, then add lettuce and Big Mac sauce. You’ll have all the taste of a Big Mac for about $1.49.

Tasty fries. Ask for Big Mac Sauce with your next order of fries. No additional cost, and a fun new taste experience.


How to Beef Up Home Security on the Cheap

December 15, 2015  
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Home Security System being Tested



As a kid, I lived in a house with security that rivaled Fort Knox. Every exterior opening was fitted with an old-fashioned hook-and-eye latch, which my mother would latch from the inside each and every time someone left the house.

As one who would leave from time to time, I can report that it wasn’t easy to get back in. I would have to knock and wait for her to come to the door to unlatch it and let me in; then she would re-latch the door behind me. While my mother’s security system was never breeched, it made for an annoying way to grow up.

Thankfully, these days, there are much better ways to make our homes safe and secure — that are also friendly to all who live therein.

While it’s impossible to put a price on the value of protecting your home and family, there are inexpensive yet highly effective ways to beef up security to create a strong defense against intruders.

Door Stopper. Very much like The Club that millions use to keep their cars secure, The Club Door Stopper secures any exterior door in your home so that it will resist more than two tons of force. That’s a lot of security for less than $25. This device is easy to install, a cinch to engage and offers tremendous peace of mind.

Patio Doors. We recently installed Ideal Security Patio Door Security bars (about $18 each) on the three sets of sliders in our home. This system works like a dream, and the installation was easy, too. We can open a slider just enough to provide ventilation while it is in the fully locked position. The bar easily swings up and out of the way when we want to leave the door open all the way.

Window Locks. These days, local police typically advise homeowners to install secondary locks so windows cannot be opened by force. Good advice. The type of lock that qualifies is one with a metal clamp that attaches to the frame of the window above the sash. For about $8 per window, Prime-Line Window Lock more than meets the minimum standard. The lock is adjustable to fit up to one-half-inch thick rails. And you can lock it in “ventilating position” which allow the window to be slightly ajar, while completely secure against forced entry.

Firearm Safe. If you own firearms, safety should be your top priority. For the money (as low as $40), the Stack-On Drawer Safe with Electronic Lock is a great choice. It comes pre-drilled with the hardware required to bolt it to the bottom of a drawer. Now you can stack things on top of it and no one will be the wiser. The hinges are even concealed so no giveaways there. This compact safe is a winner in both functionality and price point.

Fake TV. One of the cheapest ways to make it appear that you’re home, even though you may be on a two-week Caribbean cruise, is to leave a television on. The flickering light is a dead giveaway yours is a house burglars don’t want to mess with. But here’s the problem with that: TVs consume a lot of power! A much better idea is to invest $30 in a FakeTV. It turns itself on at dusk and off at dawn. It consumes the power of a nightlight while filling a room with light just like a TV. It accurately simulates scene changes, and fades on-screen motion in thousands of colors just like a real TV. This gadget gives the impression that you’re home even when you’re away.

Spotlight Motion Detector. Install this light on the outside of your house to kick your home security efforts up a notch. At less than $20, Mr Beams Wireless LED Spotlight turns on in the presence of any kind of motion, and will do more than just keep your home more secure. It will automatically light the way when you need to empty the trash or take the dog out. The LED light is extremely bright and fully weatherproof. Installation is totally wireless and the light gives 350 square feet of coverage. Awesome.

Home Security System Package. If rather than piecemeal your home’s security you prefer a complete system complete with optional monitoring, take a look at Simplisafe2 Wireless Home Security System and service offered by SimpliSafe. This is a wireless system that you order and install yourself in minutes. All the sensors arrive pre-programmed and ready to be mounted. No tools required, no wires and no hassles.

This system does not use phone wires that burglars can easily cut to disarm the house. The system offers monitoring plans starting at $14.99 a month with no contract, and there’s no phone line required. The system uses smart technology, including motion detectors, a panic button, carbon monoxide detection, wireless keypads and a keychain remote. You’ll even get a couple of window decals alerting all who might intrude that they need to get out — and fast!

For more information about the products mentioned above please visit .



Questions About Down Comforters and Inexpensive Vacuums

December 14, 2015  
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down comforterBY MARY HUNT


Dear Mary: I love your articles, and I have learned so much from you about which products to purchase. I don’t know if you have ever written anything about down comforters, but I am looking for one that is machine washable, not too expensive, can be used year round and has a lot of loft. — Jackie

Dear Jackie: I’m humbled by your trust in meato make a recommendation for an excellent down comforter. The first thing you need to know is how to rate “down.” Down is the layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers of ducks or geese. It’s the good stuff! A down-filled comforter is, not surprisingly, filled with down and quite luxurious. Down is a very lightweight insulator against cold and also against heat. It is a natural wonder and makes for a fantastic blanket, year round.

Some “down” comforters are filled with a combination of down and feathers, while others are only feathers, which can be stiff and “pokey,” albeit less expensive because they are of a lower quality.

Then comes a new version known as “down alternative” comforters. These are filled with polyester and have no down or feathers in them at all. And as you would expect, the prices of these alternative models are considerably less. Make sure you keep your eyes open for that word “alternative.”

Given your requirements, I recommend that you go for a true down comforter that is duck-down filled. Provided you stick with real down, a comforter with up to 750 fill power (this refers to the amount of down inside the comforter) will be wonderful year round as it will be lightweight, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in winter.

Last, you should pay attention to the quality and thread-count of the comforter’s cover. This should be 100 percent cotton for its breathability and the fact that cotton launders well, with at least 200 thread count, to assure a soft and inviting touch.

As for it being machine washable, all down comforters that are made with cotton covers are washable, provided you follow the steps to do this correctly.

Given all of this information, I don’t think you could go wrong with comforters by Royal Hotel. For example, as I write this column you can get Royal Hotel’s very best queen-size Siberian goose down comforter online, with 100 percent Egyptian cotton, 500 thread count cover and 750 fill power in solid white for less than $200. This is a comforter that, when cared for well and always kept in a duvet cover, will last a lifetime.

Another option would be a comforter from the Pacific Coast Co., made in the USA with imported materials. By way of comparison, as I write, a Pacific Coast queen-size comforter filled with Pyrenees down, 650 fill power in a 420 thread count Egyptian cotton cover is the very same price as the Royal Hotel comforter mentioned above –about $200.

There is no doubt that a good down comforter is a luxury. However, if you make a wise purchase and care for it diligently, you will never have to replace it. And that’s what will make it a very smart purchase. Now that you know what to look for, give yourself time to find just the right comforter. You might even find it on sale. Then treat it with all of the respect and care you would give any highly valued possession.

I wish you well in making your decision.


Dear Mary: I have read a couple of times about your love for Shark Navigator Pro Lift-Away vacuum. My home has all bare surface flooring. Is it just as good for these kinds of floors as for carpet, or do you recommend another vacuum? — Shirley

Dear Shirley: My Shark Navigator Lift-Away Pro is like Houdini! It transforms itself from a vacuum for carpet to one for drapes, stairs and also hard surface floors — almost like magic. The hard surface floor attachment uses a microfiber pad that takes care of even the smallest dust particles. I just love that feature. Given that the machine has anti-allergen HEPA technology, I think you and your floors will be very happy with it. You can just leave it in hard surface mode, knowing that should you opt for area rugs in the future you’ll be all set.


Dear Mary: Two or three years ago, based on your high praise, I bought a Shark Navigator vacuum. I’ve been so pleased with it that I bought one for my daughter-in-law, too. I did have one issue in that my vacuum would not stand upright. We called Shark, described the problem, and they said they would send a new part at no charge. We expected a little plastic ring but instead received an entire new lower head. Such great service!

Subsequently, we were silly enough to buy a $1,800 new vacuum from a door-to-door salesman. But after vacuuming with it and then doing a follow-up with my Shark, we realized we were getting as much dust and debris with the Shark as we did with the expensive one. We returned the new one and are again happy with the Shark. I love your column. Thanks! — Sandy

Dear Sandy: Happy you’re happy with your “Sharky,” Sandy. I am not at all surprised that it won the competition against that pricey vacuum cleaner (which I’m going to bet starts with the letter K) — and at one tenth the cost! I love my Shark, too!



Seven Ways to Stay Below Your Cap on Smartphone Data Usage

December 10, 2015  
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Unlimited data plans for smartphones are nearly a thing of the past. Even if you’ve managed to hang on to your unlimited data plan, there’s a good chance it’s not truly unlimited. Your carrier probably throttles your data speeds if you exceed a certain amount of downloaded data in a given billing period.

Data usage per smartphone is growing like crazy, which is prompting the typical smartphone user to buy bigger data allowances as they sign up for shared data plans and add other devices, especially tablets. Ka-ching!

There are things that you, as a socially connected, tech-savvy person with a smartphone and a limited data plan can do to stay below your limited data plan cap. Follow these tips to cut back on your data habit, track and monitor your usage, and stretch your data plan — so you never have to pay overage charges again.

CONNECT TO WI-FI. This might seem like a no-brainer, but all of us need a good reminder from time to time: Being connected to Wi-Fi (as opposed to using your service provider’s cellular network to access the Internet) does not require and therefore eat up your data plan. If the places you frequent most — home, work, friends’ places, bus stops, train stations, cafes, coffee shops — have open connections, use them.

MIND THE STREAMING. Streaming video is the worst culprit when it comes to burning through your monthly data allotment. A five-minute YouTube video sucks up 5-10 megabytes. A single 22-minute TV episode on Netflix blows through at least 100-megabytes; movies, even more. Don’t do it. Wait to watch those cat videos until you have a Wi-Fi connection.

MUSIC CHOICES. The music you listen to when you’re not on Wi-Fi can make a huge difference in how much data you’re using. If you’re listening to Pandora or Spotify while connected to your cellular network, an hour of music will eat up 50-70 megabytes of data. But you have a better option. Save music to your phone by downloading albums so you can listen locally. You’ll enjoy better quality without ripping through tons of data, saving services like Pandora for when you’re on Wi-Fi.

BE SOCIAL, BUT JUDICIOUSLY. If you’ve become a habitual social network checker, stop and think: Am I on Wi-Fi or data plan? What seems like a fairly lightweight activity like running through Facebook or Twitter can actually consume 5 to 10 megabytes of data each time you check — especially if you’re clicking on links and photos. Do that a few times a day over a 3G or LTE data network, you could be wasting a couple of gigs of data on this alone. Constant use of multiple social networks or even high volume of emails may slowly and steadily put data use at dangerous levels.

DISABLE “WI-FI ASSIST.” With iOS 9, Apple introduced a new feature, Wi-Fi Assist. It’s actually very cool, but could cost you hundreds of dollars if you are not aware of what it is and how it works. This feature arrived in the “enable” position when you upgraded your iPhone 5. It tells your iPhone to automatically seek a cellphone network if you are connected to a weak Wi-Fi signal. Here are the steps to disable Wi-Fi Assist: Go to “Settings” then click on “Cellular.” Scroll all the way to the bottom — past all of your apps — and you’ll find “Wi-Fi Assist.” Turn it to the off position.

READ, SNAP AND SEND LATER. When you’re on your cellular data connection and you come across a link that you don’t have to read that second, bookmark it or favorite it for later and you’ll save a few megabytes. Same goes for photos if at all possible. Uploading photos and videos to social sites or — even email in real time — while not connected to Wi-Fi can use up tens of megabytes! Stop it. Acquire this new habit: Snap now, upload later.

MONITOR YOURSELF. Monthly data limits are every smartphone user’s enemy. A small download at the wrong time may send your bill skyrocketing. Your iPhone has built-in tools that allow you to track your data usage, although free reports from your carrier give you a more accurate picture. To track on your iPhone, go to “Settings” then “Cellular,” and look for Cellular Data Usage. On your Android smartphone go to “Settings” and tap “Data Usage.” To change the cycle date to match the start date of your monthly plan, check the “Set Mobile Data Limit” box (or “Limit Mobile Data” on some phones) if you want your phone to block you from using any mobile data after you exceed your limit

If you follow most of these tips, chances are good that you can cut your monthly data use in half. For sure this will cripple the full potential of your smartphone while not connected to a Wi-Fi network, but given the high cost of going over on data usage — and the potential for rates to increase in the near future — that sounds like a great idea to me.


How to Cut the Cost of Owning a Pet

December 9, 2015  
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Neapolitan Mastiff dogBY MARY HUNT


No one was more surprised than I when my first granddog, Sir Boddington, nuzzled a place in my heart. I knew I was smitten the day I loaded up on toys, milk bones and other doggie delights. I blame it on “Boddie” that I so willingly became a member of the U.S. population that spent $58 billion in 2014 on food, supplies, services such as grooming and boarding, and medical care for their 358 million pets.

So how can you afford to care for your furry friend — in sickness and in health? Make prevention maintenance your top priority as a pet owner and you’ll save later on.

RESTRAIN. A fence or some other reasonable restraint is the best way to avoid big vet bills, says David T. Roen, D.V.M., board-certified veterinarian and owner of the Clarkston Veterinary Clinic in Clarkston, Washington. “I see more dogs in my office because of injuries sustained while unrestrained than for any other reason. Dogs should always be leashed, fenced or supervised.”

CHOOSE THE RIGHT FOOD. Dr. Roen advises pet owners to skip all the fancy premium foods sold by vets. Use name-brand pet food from the supermarket labeled “complete and balanced.” Or look for the seal of approval of AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials). Stick with the same brand. Switching abruptly can cause health issues for some animals. And less is better, as slightly underweight pets have fewer health problems.

SPAY AND NEUTER. Reproductive issues aside, spayed and neutered dogs have fewer health and behavioral problems.

MAKE WELLNESS ROUTINE. Some pet supply stores offer in-store clinics and special events. Humane societies and veterinary schools offer low-cost clinics where inoculations and wellness exams are administered by professionals. Keep good records of the inoculations and treatments your pet has.

FORGET HEALTH INSURANCE. Pet insurance will probably cost more money than it saves, says Dr. Roen. But you should anticipate future medical bills. “Instead of sending premiums to an insurance company, put the amount you’d pay in premiums into a savings account.”

GET SECOND OPINIONS. Even if it’s an emergency, if the estimate is for more than a few hundred dollars, get a second opinion. If the estimate is for $800 and you can only afford $400, speak up, says Dr. Roen. There may be less aggressive and cheaper alternative treatments.

SHOP AROUND FOR MEDICATIONS. Ask your vet for prescription drug samples to get started. Then call around to retailers such as Wal-Mart or Costco pharmacies (many meds are the same for humans and animals) to compare prices. Search websites like or, too.

CREATE AN ACCOUNT. Seriously, you need to establish a savings account just for your pet’s care, into which you regularly deposit money. Even $10 a week will turn into $520 in one year. Earmark that account for pet emergencies only, then congratulate yourself on being a responsible pet owner. Woof!



The Gentle Art of Gift-Giving

December 8, 2015  
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As Christmas draws near, it’s important to remember that not every relationship requires a gift. Sometimes a card or letter in which you write a thoughtful sentiment is an excellent way to go. Caring enough to pick out the right card and then taking the time and effort to write in it can say “I care!” even better than a gift could.

Being a responsible gift-giver will help you to be an excellent recipient as well. Knowing that it’s the thought that went into the gift that counts — not the price tag — will help you to be genuinely grateful. You cannot be too grateful. But you can fail to express your gratitude, and that’s always a bad thing.

If you don’t know what to give someone, ask this simple question: What really matters to him or her?

Let’s say your grandmother really loves animals. In fact, she volunteers at the shelter two days a week. She is passionate about animal rights. Donating any amount of money (or a few hours of your time) in her name to the animal shelter would probably make her break down and cry. She would be touched that you cared enough to figure out what really matters to her.

GIVE SOMETHING YOU MADE. Whether it’s something from your kitchen, craft room, woodworking shop or computer, there’s nothing like a homemade gift. A tree ornament, plate of cookies, box of fudge, note cards — these are just some of the homemade gifts that have universal appeal.

GIVE THE GIFT OF COMPASSION. Appeal to your recipient’s passion. Is this person passionate about medical research? Become a bone marrow donor. An environmentalist? Donate to an organization that reforests, and plant a tree in his or her name. Find something this person will find meaningful, and then do it in his or her honor.

Write a description of your experience and give it to your recipient.

GIVE WHAT YOU DO BEST. Often the most meaningful gifts and the most difficult ones to give are those that cost no money at all. A gift from the heart is a gift of time and talent. What do you do well? Cook, clean, babysit, garden, sew, drive, shop? Whatever it is, create a unique gift certificate and make what you do the gift that you give: a weekend of babysitting, a day of housecleaning, six hours of errand running.

Follow up within just a few days to set the exact time your certificate will be redeemed. Your recipient may be too embarrassed to remind you to make good on the gift.

GIVE IT WRITING. Worried that your gifts 00 homemade or otherwise — are too cheap or not exactly right? All of your doubts will vanish when you include a short note with the gifts telling the recipients what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life.

The best gift is one that delivers a message of love and joy that remains with the recipient long after the gift has been consumed, used, or put away!


How to Use Just the Right Amount of Laundry Detergent

December 7, 2015  
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Dear Mary: I love all of your washing machine tips, but can you guide us on how to use the correct amount of detergent? I know you say small amounts, but can one tell by feeling the water? I hate to do a load with too little or too much, and it feels like a guessing game. I tried googling this, but the info was not helpful. You are such an expert on these things that I thought you might have some additional tips – if you can bear the thought of another post about laundry, that is! Hugs to you for such fantastic work. — Your Anonymous Fan

Dear A.F.: Great question. And yes, flattery did get your letter to the top of the pile so good job on that!

Most of us use way too much laundry detergent, which can present all kinds of problems like skin irritation, grayish looking whites and stiff scratchy clothes and linens. Whatever amount of detergent you use, it must be completely rinsed away for the results to be beautifully clean, whiter-than-white, brighter-than-bright colors, soft clothes and linens.

Generally, (and I say that word because there are so many variables, which I’ll touch on shortly) if you have soft water use 1 tablespoon (1/16 cup) of HE (high-efficiency) detergent per wash load. If you have hard water, use 2 tablespoons (1/8 cup), which begs the question “How do I know if my water is hard or soft?”

Call your water company or go to its website to learn the grains of hardness per gallon (expressed as “gpg”) in your local water supply. According to the Water Quality Association, soft water: 0 – 3.5 grains per gallon (gpg); moderate: 3.5-7.0 gpg; hard: 7.0-10.5 gpg, and very hard: over 10.5 gpg. If your water is moderately hard and you want to be very precise, use 1.5 tablespoons of HE detergent per load.

Another variable will be washing machine capacity. If it’s a super-duper-jumbo size machine, you need to adjust the amount of detergent accordingly. Check the owner manual.

Also, you may need to use more or less detergent if you’re running a heavily soiled load (more) or a very small load (less).

Above all, the most important thing to consider when it comes to laundry detergent is whether or not the detergent gets completely rinsed away before that load of laundry is finished. I always add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the last rinse (I pour it into the liquid softener compartment so it gets released at the proper time). Vinegar helps to get rid of all of the detergent, leaving items soft and fluffy without the need of any softening products, which can present allergic-like rashes, skin irritations and even respiratory reactions in some people.

The next time that you do a load of wash, take a washcloth out of the dryer when finished and put it in a warm dish of water. If the water remains clean, you have not used too much detergent. If water turns even slightly cloudy, it means that all of the detergent has not been removed; you’re using too much detergent,

If your whites have turned gray, that’s a good indication that your washing method has resulted in a build-up of left-in laundry detergent. If your towel comes out stiff and scratchy — you guessed it — too much detergent.

Finding the exact amount of laundry detergent you need — given the hardness of your water, the size of your washing machine and the size of the laundry load — may take experimentation. But once you discover what’s right for you — and you are getting all of that detergent out of the clothes, too — I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the fantastic results.

I don’t think you’ll find a better (or cheaper!) HE laundry detergent than our homemade HE laundry detergent. It is concentrated, and 2 tablespoons (or less) per load produces fantastic results!

Thanks for your kind words. They made my day.


Make Your Kitchen Look Like New for $300 and Some Sweat

December 4, 2015  
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550px-Clean-Grease-Buildup-from-Kitchen-Cabinets-with-Greased-Lightning-Step-3BY MARY HUNT

Recently I walked into Amy and Justin’s kitchen and my jaw dropped. It was like I’d stumbled into the wrong house. The gorgeous new cabinets and countertops made it look brand new. You could have knocked me over with a feather when these friends told us they weren’t new cabinets and counters at all. They’d refinished them themselves — all for about $300.

You may think that kitchen projects need to be left to the professionals, which of course is fine provided you’ve got thousands of dollars to work with. But if your budget is slightly under that — and you’re willing to contribute some sweat to the project — new products and methods now available can bring do-it-yourself options to any kitchen.

CABINETS. Our friends refinished their existing cabinets (the doors and face frames) with the Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations Kit, which costs about $75 and covers 100 square feet.

The thing that gave Amy and Justin the courage and confidence to tackle this project themselves was the Rust-Oleum promise of no stripping, no sanding, no priming and no special skills required. While their cabinets are made of wood, this product will also transform melamine, metal and laminate cabinetry.

Of the three colors offered (white, espresso and cabernet), they chose espresso. There is no way anyone would look at these cabinets and say this looks like a DIY project done by novices who must have gotten in over their heads (what the average person would worry about, I’m sure).

A less expensive option would be to spruce up shabby cabinets with a coat of paint. For the price, quality and durability you really can’t beat Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin Enamel, $39 per gallon at Home Depot.

HARDWARE. Replacing the cabinet hardware can completely transform the look of cabinets — even if you do not refinish them first. Cosmas makes a great oil-rubbed bronze cabinet round knob for as little as $1.15 per knob in a pack of 25.

COUNTERS. Newly finished cabinets could enliven the countertops, but it’s more likely they will make them look tired and worn by comparison. Not to worry! You may have some great options.

The folks at Rust-Oleum also manufacturer a counter Transformations Kit that will give old laminate countertops the beautiful look of natural stone (about $165 to cover 50 square feet or 20 linear feet). This Rust-Oleum product is durable, made to last for many years.

Another option to consider is the Giani Granite Paint Kit that will transform cultured marble, ceramic tile and laminate countertops into the beauty of granite (about $80 to cover 35 square feet). This water-based product promises automotive-grade durability, too.

Once you have your cabinets and countertops looking good, you may decide to tackle the floor. Should you opt for something like Armstrong Coastal Living L3051 White Wash Walnut laminate flooring, expect to pay about $3.50 per square foot. The “lock and load” floating method of installation makes this kind of flooring another easy DIY project.

Whether you opt to transform your kitchen all at once or take it one project at a time, you’ll never regret paying as you go. For more information about the specific products mentioned above please visit


Join a CSA for Your Health and Wealth

December 3, 2015  
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Being a savvy consumer can mean a lot of things. It can refer to a person who knows how to get the lowest price on whatever he or she is buying. It can also mean finding the best value — the highest quality product — for the most reasonable price. Or it can refer to someone who shops ethically, according to his or her values.

However you define “savvy consumer,” becoming one requires research and education about the products that you buy according to your individual priorities. When it comes to shopping for food, today’s savvy consumers know where their food comes from, and, if they do things right, they save money, too.

While stories of contaminated goods permeate the news, the locally grown food movement has been gaining momentum. At the same time, the high cost of food is challenging all of us to find new ways to cut costs without sacrificing healthy eating.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are popping up all over the country. Through a CSA, consumers can choose to buy shares in a local farm and then receive portions of the farm’s produce once it is harvested. In some areas, CSAs have become so popular that there are waiting lists to join.

GOING LOCAL. Food tastes better when it has not been genetically altered, harvested prematurely and infused with chemicals to be able to withstand a 1,000-mile (or longer) journey from the farm to your table. Members of CSAs tend to eat seasonally. And they eat very fresh produce, which has been proven to be much more nutritious.

HOW IT WORKS. Members of CSAs pay dues, which buy shares of a farm. These dues go directly to pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment and labor. Then, the harvest is divided between shareholders. Cost to produce can vary widely from one CSA to another, depending on regional location and other factors.

COST VERSUS BENEFIT. Undoubtedly, it is cheaper to grow your own fruits and vegetables than to buy them at the grocery store. For example, one expert estimates that it costs about $3 for a tomato transplant that will produce up to 25 pounds of the summertime fruit favorite.

It doesn’t get more local than growing produce in your backyard, but not everyone has the skills, expertise or resources to start a farm out back. Home gardening is not the only option for someone who wants to reap the benefits of eating locally produced food. Participating in a CSA can be a great solution.

By joining a CSA, you may not get a better price dollar for dollar, but it will undoubtedly prompt you to cook more often. Members tend to eat at home more because they are getting boxes of delicious fresh produce every week.

LOCAL COMMUNITY. Another benefit of the CSA program is that by supporting local agriculture, consumers support their own community. During a time of economic hardship, where consumers choose to spend their money can make a huge impact, either positively or negatively.

FIND A CSA IN YOUR AREA. The federal government recently reported that there are 12,617 farms participating in CSAs in the U.S. The Local Harvest organization has undertaken the massive project of maintaining a database of all of them.

Keep in mind that community agriculture programs are grassroots entities, so each one is entirely unique.

To get started, go to Search their network by typing in your zip code. An Internet search may turn up more results, but don’t give up if the Internet doesn’t yield anything promising.

Go to your local farmers’ market and take note of the names of the farms that attend. Talk to their representatives (the farmer is likely to be right there sitting at the table). Sample their produce, and form relationships with the farmers you like. Get their contact information.

It is important to know that with a CSA membership comes the “shared risk” that farmers face every year. If, say, a hailstorm comes and wipes out all the peppers, there will be no peppers in your box that season.

BEFORE YOU JOIN. Learn all you can about the CSA before you join. Find out exactly what produce you can expect in your box and when. Find out, also, what happens if you are unhappy with the produce after you join. If you pay month-to-month, make sure you can cancel easily. If you pay a one-time annual membership fee, find out if it is refundable.

THOUGHTS TO PONDER. Are you now, or have you ever been, part of a CSA? Do you grow your own food? Would you encourage others to get involved in gardening and or a local CSA?


The Fine Art of the Effective Complaint

December 2, 2015  
Filed under Blogs

complaining person on phoneBY MARY HUNT

Are you ever frustrated with customer service? Have you been ripped off, taken to the cleaners and hung out to dry by a store or service provider? To claim the title of savvy consumer you need know-how and confidence to make sure that, no matter what, no one ever gets your hard-earned money without your permission. It’s all about the fine art of complaining.

START EASY. Make at least one good-faith attempt to reach a resolution for your problem at the customer service level. Don’t threaten; simply state your case and the resolution you expect. Take notes and keep a paper trail that includes the names of the people you speak with, their titles and phone numbers.

BE NICE. No matter your method of communication, do not make threats or use foul language. Wait until your anger subsides. Stay calm; keep it professional.

WRITE TO THE TOP. If you cannot reasonably resolve the issue, head straight to the top. Find the name and address of the highest-level person in the company — the president or CEO. Don’t waste your time working up the ladder.

STATE YOUR CASE. Be very clear on what the problem is, what you have done to attempt a resolution and exactly how you want this resolved. Do you want the item replaced? A refund? A re-do?

USE STRONG LANGUAGE. You want to keep your letter short, but powerful. Use words like “shocking,” “appalled,” “outraged,” and “egregious.” These are attention getters, so use them if they fairly describe your situation. Do not use vulgar language, slang or profanity. Always remain dignified.

NAME A DATE. Give a specific date that is at least two weeks hence by which you expect this matter will be resolved.

MAKE IT EASY TO RESPOND. Be sure to give the president a way to reach you. Give your name, address, phone number and the best time to call.

PROOFREAD. Some of us (yep, that would be me) cannot see our own spelling and grammatical errors. Find someone who will proof your finished letter. There’s nothing like poor grammar and typos to detract, devalue and dilute your message. Keep working on it until your letter is impeccable. Now the president will take your matter seriously.

BE BOLD. Use bold and capital letters when you add this to the lower right area of the envelope: “FOR IMMEDIATE AND PERSONAL ATTENTION.”

Be sure to keep originals of all of your documentation, such as paid receipts, warranties, photos and other items that support your position. Make photocopies for attachments, but hang on to the originals.

One last thing. Always say thank you. Do that in advance as a way of letting the other person know you have the utmost confidence that he or she will do the right thing. Remember that it’s in their best interests as well as yours that you do not go through life with a bad taste in your mouth because of a transaction gone wrong.



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