Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sherryl's tips for saving money in the new year

Yesterday I wrote about new year's resolutions, but one I didn't mention was the good intention we all have to save a few more dollars. With the economy uncertain, gas prices rising and all those holiday bills rolling in, now's the perfect time to think about your own personal savings plan for 2008.

But how on earth do you save anything with routine costs mounting? It's not easy, but I think back to when I was a kid. Both of my parents worked. As I recall, my mother was paid weekly, my father every two weeks. What I do remember clearly were the envelopes -- plain, old-fashioned white ones. Each of them was labeled for rent, phone, food, whatever. When checks were cashed, money went into the appropriate envelopes, assuring that the cash was there when the bills were due. As far as I know, no one ever slipped money out of those envelopes for other purposes.

That system seems antiquated today, when paychecks are often direct-deposited into checking accounts, but in reality it assured that money was set aside for necessities. Once it's in the general pot of a checking account, it's much easier to spend it on other things and suddenly come up short when the rent or mortgage payment is due.

I was reminded of my mom's system not too long ago when talking with a friend, who uses a similar system, not for paying the regular bills, but to save for special items. She has cans hidden away in her house with cash designated for the annual family vacation, new carpeting and, last year, for a surprise birthday party for her husband. Each week she stuffs a bit of cash into each of those cans. It's whatever she has leftover from her household spending money. Sometimes it's a set amount, sometimes loose change, sometimes it's the amount equal to what she spent for cigarettes before she quit smoking. For her it's somewhere between a game she plays with herself and a quest to build up those dollars. However she motivates herself, I do know she's been paying for a trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks each year for some time now by using this system. Her husband's party was a huge, catered backyard barbeque, all paid for by money saved in a can. And that new carpet has been installed without busting the family's monthly budget.

So, if there's something you've been longing to do, but can't seem to find the money to do it or if there's a decorating project you'd like to do, a new big-screen TV you've been wanting, think about getting a couple of special piggy banks, cans or envelopes and tucking a few dollars each week or even each day into those. Make sure your kids have no idea those secret stashes exist or at least hide them where they're not readily accessible. I seem to recall a couple of episodes on "7th Heaven" when the kids got into mom's savings in the kitchen cupboard or their baby brothers' piggy banks.

Obviously these savings plans won't make up for not saving something on a regular basis for retirement or college or a rainy day, but they do work for the little things you really want, but have always assumed you couldn't afford. Even if you begin with the loose change that's been tossed on the dresser at night or been dumped into the bottom of your purse, it will eventually add up.

Get your kids started saving for their special desires, too. Nothing will help them to understand the value of money quicker than having to save up before they get that expensive toy or video game. If they receive an allowance or earn money cutting grass for the neighbors, encourage them to put a little aside so they can buy something they've been begging you to buy for them. Don't give in -- at least not always -- to the desire to make life better for your kids than you had it. The lessons you learned if you had to struggle a bit probably made you a better, more responsible adult when it comes to financial matters.

The bottom line as you head into the new year, though, is to resolve to save for the future. Maybe it will only be a bit of loose change at first, but when you see how that can add up to buy something special down the road, I bet you'll catch the savings "fever" and start stashing those little cans all over your house, too.

If you have a savings system that you swear by, please share it with us. Or if you have a story about how a secret stash bailed you out of a financial tight spot, let us know about that as well.

Sherryl Woods

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

This year I resolve . . . oh, why bother?

We've all done it. We've dutifully sat down with pen and paper, or maybe just made a mental note that when the clock strikes midnight on new year's eve we're going to change. Dieting is one of the most common resolutions and statistics suggest that it lasts about as long as it takes for someone to pass around the chips during a football bowl game on new year's day. I'm no better than any of the rest of you about this.

So, this year I'm here to offer a new approach. This year I resolve to be more AWARE of what I'm doing when it comes to diet and exercise, to be more ATTUNED to it when I let my tone turn judgmental. Those are the areas I most want to change in myself.

How are those resolutions any different from just resolving to lose 20 pounds or resolving to be nicer and more open-minded to my friends? I hope they're less likely to set me up for immediate failure. And we all know what happens once we've eaten that first forbidden slice of cheesecake or skipped a day at the gym. It gets a whole lot easier to do it again and again, until there's no longer any pretense of dieting or exercising.

My way, in theory, simply means that I'll pay closer attention to my food choices and try harder to make the right ones. I'll work in a bit more exercise every single day, not make promises I'll never keep. If I hear that judgmental tone creeping into my conversation -- or even into my head -- I'll remind myself to shut it down.

In theory, if this goes according to plan, I will lose weight -- maybe not at breakneck speed -- but the scale will tip down, not up. Bit by bit I'll become more fit by making the kind of small changes that are managable, not intimidating. For example, now that I have a brand new pedometer, hopefully I will add a few more steps into my everyday routine. By the end of 2008 that should add up to a lot more steps per day. I will climb a few more stairs, lift free weights more regularly than I currently do.

Why do we even bother with resolutions when they're so often doomed to failure? Because the start of a new year is a fresh beginning, a chance to become a little better than we were in whatever way we deem necessary.

Tell us your new year's resolutions, the ones you've made, the ones you've stuck to and the ones you haven't. If something's helped you stick to your resolutions, share that with us. Successes, failures, put them all on the table here. Maybe if we compare notes, we can make 2008 the year we all do just a little better.

Meantime, I hope 2008 is very good to you.

Sherryl Woods

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Have yourself a politically-correct Christmas!

I'm very much afraid the world has developed a serious case of politically-correct madness. Just the other day I was told that in some mall in some city (okay, so details and accuracy were pretty much sacrificed in the telling)the Santas on staff were no longer allowed to say ho-ho-ho because it might have an offensive interpretation in "street" language. Now, really! What is going on when we're censoring Santa's vocabulary in such a ridiculous way? "Ho-ho-ho, merry Christmas!" was a cheery greeting from Santa Claus long before it had any other interpretation that I'm aware of. I'm hereby re-claiming it for its originally-intended meaning.

This incident, assuming it actually did happen as reported, is just the latest in an attempt to tone down the holiday season in a way that makes it almost unrecognizable from what it was when I was a kid. Back then -- w-a-y back then -- we still had Christmas pageants in school. We sang carols. I'm pretty sure we had plenty of kids from other faiths who did not celebrate Christmas, but who enjoyed the traditions as much as the rest of us. Was it insensitive? Perhaps just a bit. Is it right that we've toned it down in our schools? More than likely. But I can't help thinking that we've lost something in our desire not to offend anyone at anytime.

Why can't we, instead, celebrate all traditions in our schools and in our communities? Isn't that the perfect way to teach understanding and tolerance of all religions and beliefs? No one is a greater defender of the separation of church and state than I am. Nor does anyone believe more strongly that religious freedom is one of the most basic tenets of our society. Doesn't that mean that we should learn about other faiths, respect them and especially teach tolerance of them to our children? My church youth group, w-a-y back when, studied other religions. We went to services in other churches. We were taught to embrace the similarities and to understand the differences. Isn't that the real lesson our kids should be taught, rather than stripping away all mention of religion and faith in our schools? Children have such open minds and hearts. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we worried less about being politically-correct and more about instilling values and respect for others and their beliefs and traditions? Perhaps, then, there'd be fewer hate crimes based on religious differences.

This seems like the ideal season to dream of such things. And I'll do it with carols playing. I'll wish people happy holidays or merry Christmas, as appropriate. And, by heaven, I'll expect all the Santas whose paths I cross to bellow cheerfully, "Ho-ho-ho, merry Christmas!"

In the meantime, I wish all of you joy, the happiest of holiday seasons and, for those of you who share my faith, a very merry Christmas.

Sherryl Woods

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grief and the holidays

With holiday music blasting away everywhere you turn, colorful lights blinking on lavish yard displays and shoppers bustling -- or shoving -- in stores, it's easy to forget that for some the holidays are a time of deep loneliness or sorrow. This was brought home to me recently when friends lost a son just as the holiday season was about to go into full swing. It was an unexpected and tragic death, which left both parents devastated. Now these two wonderful people are facing a once-favorite season without their only son. It's almost impossible to know what to say to them.

There are plenty of platitudes -- your son wouldn't want you to grieve during this season you all love so much, you have other children who need you -- but I have no idea how you do either of those things when your heart is heavy with grief. I do, however, have some ideas about what those of us who love people in such a situation may be able to do.

First, invite them to your celebrations. They may decline, but it will help them to know that you're thinking of them and that they have options.

Second, if they usually do a lot of decorating, but just don't seem to have the will to get started, offer to bring some friends together to do it for them.

Third, if they typically do a lot of baking, encourage them to come to your home and help you with your baking, instead. It may be easier in another kitchen and it could start a whole new tradition.

Fourth, if it seems appropriate, suggest other new traditions that may brighten their spirits. After my dad died, my cousin and I went to New York for a few days right before Christmas. The amazing lights, a Kenny Rogers old-fashioned Christmas show, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, all of it helped to take our mind off of our loss. We've gone back several times since then and it never fails to make the season merrier.

Fifth, if your friend has just lost a spouse, he or she may feel awkward about going places alone during the holidays. Offer to pick them up for church or for a neighborhood party.

Last and most important, do not shy away from spending time with them or making those frequent calls just to say hello. It so easy to tell ourselves we don't know what to say after tragedy strikes, when the reality is that reaching out is all that matters.

Obviously, we have to take our cues from the people who are grieving. We can't be offended or back off just because we're rebuffed. And if grief seems to be evolving into depression, don't just dismiss it as part of the process. Make sure that they get help.

If you've had to deal with a recent loss during the holidays, please share with us the things that helped you get through those difficult days. What did your friends do that helped the most? Or if you've reached out to someone in a special way, tell us what you did.

Meantime, I wish you much joy, not only during the holidays, but for the coming year.

Sherryl Woods

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Media madness

Way back when, I studied journalism at Ohio State University. In those days one of the many, many rules drilled into our heads was to keep our opinions, beliefs and personal comments out of the story. It was a good rule, but apparently it has been buried under an avalanche of "new" journalism.

I was reminded of this just recently as I watched news reports flowing out of Miami about the death of Washington Redskins defensive star Sean Taylor. Like many people I had an interest in this story because he grew up in Miami, was an amazing player at the University of Miami and because as a pro he was playing for the team I grew up with in Washington. His girlfriend, Jackie Garcia, grew up on Key Biscayne where I now live. Her dad, Rene Garcia, and uncle, actor Andy Garcia, live here as well. It's a small island. Most of us have had our Andy "sightings." In fact, just this week, the driver who took me to the airport for a business trip, had driven Andy to Sean Taylor's funeral the day before. So, in some odd way, the story of Taylor's death was personal.

As I watched some of the coverage on TV, I was appalled to see what journalism has come to -- a sea of sensationalism and speculation. One of the worst was an interview by CNN's Rick Sanchez. A product of Miami's most sensationalistic news operation, Sanchez has taken his brand of journalism to a national network. First, he "interviewed" another CNN reporter on the scene in Miami, discussing his own experiences covering the city's crime. Then in what purported to be an interview with Taylor's friend and fellow player, Clinton Portis, he asked the kind of challenging, antagonistic questions best reserved for the witness stand or maybe 60 Minutes. Portis wasn't once allowed to complete an answer, or at least he wasn't during the few minutes before I switched stations in total disgust. Not that Portis was shy about trying to answer and put Sanchez right back in his place, but this wasn't the time or situation for this kind of reporting.

Often, the worst instances of this kind of "journalism" occur during breaking news, when endless amounts of airtime must be filled whether there's one shred of solid information of not. Anchors interview reporters. Reporters try to grab an expert, who may or may not be on the scene, who may or may not have any actual knowledge about what's really going on, and the next thing you know "facts" are being spewed by people who don't have even one solid piece of credible information.

The reporting in the aftermath of Taylor's tragic murder in his own home wasn't the first time I've had cause to wonder what's happening with today's media. Every single time some TV station does one of its instant polls on a court case or some international incident, I cringe. Viewers aren't in the courtroom. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be reasonably well-informed don't know what evidence was presented in the kind of detail needed to make a judgment about whether a verdict was justified or not. This is just TV giving people a forum to speak out, whether they have one iota of factual information or not.

I've focused on TV here, because not only was this my "beat" when I covered the industry for newspapers in Ohio and Miami, this is also where some of the worst examples seem to take place. Reporters all too often become the story, rather than covering the story. It's little wonder that the public doesn't trust the media and, frankly, we're all worse off because we can't.

If you've seen TV reports that made you cringe or news stories that are more about the reporter's views than the facts of the event they're covering -- and I'm not refering to opinion page pieces, but front page stories -- tell us about them. Maybe if the media begins to understand that their vital role in society is being diminished because the lines between reporting and opinion are blurring, they'll go back to the old rule of journalism -- keeping themselves out of the story and letting the facts speak for themselves.

Sherryl Woods

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ho-Ho, Oh No!!!

I swear to you that I have not been so stuffed from Thanksgiving that I've been unable to post. Instead, I have been chained to my computer writing the proposals for three new books for 2009. I have now been freed, just in time to discover that Christmas is right around the corner. Oh, no!

Last year, my first holiday season in 10 years without owning a bookstore and gift shop, I made a particularly horrendous discovery. It is much harder to get all the Christmas shopping done when you can't do it in your own store. I actually had to go out to real stores in actual malls with mobs and mobs of people. How do you do it? I was about to tear my hair out.

Now I absolutely love the holidays. I love finding exactly the right gift for people. I even love wrapping so much that I keep trying to convince a friend of mine to ask his boss if I can come into their shop and wrap gifts for their customers this season. So far these guys, who think slapping a bow on a box will do the trick, have declined my generous offer. I also love decorating, listening to holiday music and, when I have the willpower not to eat everything coming out of the oven, I love baking. What I hate are mob scenes and traffic.

I have come up with a few tricks, which I will share. However, if you take advantage of these tricks and steal my parking space from me, there will be consequences.

First, shop in all major discount stores such as Target or Wal-Mart on weekdays and no later than 8 a.m.

Second, if you absolutely must shop in a department store in a mall, find out what time the doors open, be in the parking lot at least 15 minutes prior to that opening time, and in the door the second some jovial employee unlocks it. If possible, be out of the store again within the hour.

Third -- and this probably should be first, now that I think about it -- plan these excursions. Decide ahead of time exactly who you're shopping for that day and what you have in mind. That way you can avoid my tendency to go into Target for three things and come out with two dozen items, many for myself.

Fourth, regarding Christmas cards, buy them the very first time you come across any you like, even if it's not yet Halloween (okay, take this advice next year). Address them while watching football on Sundays, or any other time that has you stationed in front of the TV with your family watching something you don't especially care about. Get the addressing and stamps done -- the mindless part of the task, then if you like to write personalized notes, do that when you have a quiet moment on your own.(Do those ever happen this time of year?)

Fifth, and this is a new one for me, wrap as you buy. I bought a bunch of gift bags in various sizes, tissue paper, gift wrap and ribbon and have it set out. When I get home from shopping, I wrap, stuff, label or whatever then put the ready-to-go gift in whichever grouping it belongs in -- family, friends, business associates. Of course, if I were as organized as I'm pretending to be right now, I would finish shopping for each group before moving onto the next one, but alas, it hasn't worked that way. However, I am proud to say that three boxes of gifts were shipped out of here on Saturday. I'd feel better about that if there weren't another half-dozen boxes to go.

Today, my first day of freedom from writing for a few weeks, I've noticed that a department store I need to visit opens at 10 a.m. I'm on my way. Happy holidays, everyone!

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