Paperwork: A Blessing And A Curse

Paperwork…arghI have been under the pressure of a deadline lately. One of the most important deadlines, in fact: filing my taxes.

Normally I’d have my taxes done by now but this year is different.

In the old house I had a desk and an office area where I kept most of our recent paperwork organized. As we approached the move, I let my paperwork build up and bills ended up in “to be filed” grocery bags.

All that paperwork (in addition to the older stuff) ended up in multiple boxes, which then ended up in multiple rooms of the new house. I’m finding myself pretty disorganized when it comes to paperwork right now and with taxes due, I have to kick it into high gear.

To make matters worse, all the old paperwork (2005 and earlier) that hadn’t been filed properly to begin with got thrown the mix. I’ve been avoiding that mess since before we got married but it appears I can avoid it no longer.

My original plan of attack involved organizing only 2008 and 2007 paperwork then putting the older paperwork in bags separated by year. I figured the only reason I’d have to access the old stuff would be for an audit or to dispute a bill. Why waste my time organizing ancient bills for something as unlikely as an audit? If it happens I’ll just sort through the bags then.

On the other hand, why not just file that old paperwork into general categories (utilities, credit cards) while I’m already sorting it? It’s going to have to pass through my hands to be examined for date anyway; I might as well put it in some sort of order, right?

Good thinking, but that could lead to a slippery slope where I find myself wasting time and resources on paperwork that I’ll never need to look at again.

So, my plan is this:

I will properly file the 2007 and 2008 paperwork in the file cabinet. Those years are the most relevant and I need the 2007s accessible right now for taxes.

I will “lightly” organize the paperwork from 2006 and 2005. I bought accordion-style organizer boxes for the task. The boxes already have general categories labeled on the dividers so it should be easy to lightly organize those years as I sort them. I can also store the paperwork in those boxes for easy access.

Paperwork from 2001-2004 will be placed into bags labeled with the year. I didn’t want to give up on those years but I have to draw the line somewhere or I’ll be at this for weeks. It’s like I’m declaring paperwork bankruptcy for those years. I think the best plan at this point is to make a clean start going forward.

I have also made a promise that, from now on, all new paperwork will be organized into folders in the file cabinet, then stored in file boxes until shredder time.

I know paperwork isn’t fun but its life. Now I’m off to tackle some serious filing.

Do you have a method for organizing old paperwork? How far back to do you keep records?

Image Source: Librarian Avenger

Maybe Gift Cards Aren’t So Great

Gift cards a plenty!Gifts cards are a hot gift item these days. I think part of the reason they have grown in popularity is because it relieves the gift buyer from having to guess what the recipient wants. It’s an easy option that guarantees that the recipient will like what they get, mainly because they get to choose the gift themselves. What a great gift idea; especially if you don’t know the person well.

However, those little gift cards aren’t without their faults.

You would think gift cards can be used just like cash, and for the most part they can. But unlike actual cash, gift cards can lose their monetary amount over time or even immediately in certain situations.

Eric and I found a gift card from the wedding that we forgot to use. Stuck in the depths his wallet was an American Express gift card that was worth $100. But when the cashier ran the card it only had $94 on it.

$6 had magically disappeared in the 15 months we had the card in our possession. How could that be? How could this gift of “cash” devalue?

Fees, starting on the 366th day after the card was purchased for us, ate into the amount of the gift card.

If you don’t spend the entire balance within a year, it can lose a set amount (often $2 or $3 a month) until the balance is $0. They call these penalties “maintenance” or “dormancy” fees. You tend to see them more on “open loop” cards (cards that can be used anywhere that credit card is accepted, like Visa or Mastercard gift cards) but they can also be found on some store-specific gift cards.

Some cards can even expire, meaning you can lose the entire value of the card if you don’t use it by a certain time. Many retailers have dropped their expiration date policies to be more customer-friendly, but not all of them have.

Many states have passed laws preventing gift cards from expiring but it usually only applies to local retailers rather than national chains. I guess if your gift card has an expiration date and you fail to use it in time, that well intentioned gift turns into a donation to that store on your behalf. Lovely.

What if you have gift cards from a company that runs into financial trouble? Unfortunately, they have the potential to become worthless. That is exactly what happened to people holding Sharper Image gift cards recently.

CNN picked up on this story from the Associated Press:

The Sharper Image announced late last month that it was suspending the acceptance of gift cards, at least temporarily. It urged shoppers to check the company Web site later this month for an update. That is typical of businesses that reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which treats gift cards as a loan to the company, not as cash.

Refusing to honor gift cards is a public relations nightmare, because people will feel like their money was stolen from them, and rightfully so. Both the buyers and recipients of gift cards are hurt when the cards become worthless pieces of plastic. I can’t imagine any company that refuses to honor gift cards would ever regain consumer confidence, and without a customer base the company has no real future.

According to the article, consumers should never assume that if a company files for bankruptcy but continues to do business that they have to keep taking the gifts cards. That’s scary, especially in our economic climate, where the number of retail bankruptcies this year is expected to reach levels not seen since the 1991 recession.

Overall, I still think gift cards are good gifts as long as everyone is aware of the fine print and potential risks associated with them.

Recommendations for gift card buyers:

Recommendations for gift card recipients:

Image Source: buba69

Reducipe: Southwestern Falafels with Guacamole

Southwestern FalafelsWith rising food costs, I think everyone could use a few reducipes that use beans as the main protein instead of meat. Beans are not only a cheap substitute, they are really tasty and versatile. And they are good for you, too!

This isn’t your average falafel. It has southwestern style ingredients (like pinto beans and mexican spices) to make a truly unique version. These flavors are very “me”.

This recipe is yet another staple of mine and was even featured at my last catering event in bite size form. Hmmm, maybe I should stop giving away all my secrets. Just kidding!

I haven’t tried this dish out on kids (I don’t have children yet) but I bet they would like it. It’s like a hamburger in a different form. The crunch and hands-on “eatability” is fun. If guacamole freaks them out try a little ranch dressing instead.

Southwestern Falafels are one of our all time favorite dinners and I’m tickled pink that it happens to be so economical, too.

I just had to share this one with you all. I hope you like it!

Southwestern Falafels with Guacamole

1 (15oz) can of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1/4 cup tortilla chips, finely crushed
2 tablespoons green onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Cayenne, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup panko crumbs
Canola oil
Guacamole, recipe follows
Pita bread

To prepare patties, place pinto beans in medium bowl and partially mash them with a fork. Add the cheese, mayo, tortilla chips, green onions, cilantro, spices, and egg and mix well. Form into 4 patties, about 1/2″ thick, and dredge in the panko crumbs. Set aside.

Heat about 1-2 tablespoons canola oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the patties and pan fry them until they are golden brown and crispy on both sides.

Serve with guacamole and fresh pita. Serves 4 (or 6 if you make smaller patties).

1 avocado, peeled, cubed, and lightly mashed
1/4 cup pico de gallo
Garlic salt, to taste
1/2 lime, juiced

Mix the avocado, pico de gallo, garlic salt, and a drizzle of lime juice together in a small bowl. Pour the remaining lime juice over the surface (to help delay browning). Refrigerate, with a layer of plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the guacamole to help keep it fresh and green.

Look for panko crumbs in the Asian Foods section of your market. If you can’t find it you can just omit it; they are very tasty even without that added crunch. I don’t think regular bread crumbs would do it justice, though.

If you can’t make or buy fresh pita bread, you can substitute flour tortillas. Tortillas aren’t as good as pita because the dish loses some of its chewy-ness but they aren’t bad. Just make sure to warm up the tortillas over a flame to get them nice and soft. Toasting them a bit will also make store-bought tortillas taste better.

Ingredients for Southwestern Falafels

If you want to make the patties ahead of time, don’t roll them in the panko. Wait to dredge the patties in the panko until right before cooking so the crumbs stay nice and crisp.

On a diet? No problem! Use low-fat mayo, baked tortilla chips, omit the panko coating, and cook them in very little oil. You can easily make this meal lighter by following those steps.

Let’s see the damage!

Ingredient Cost Ingredient Cost
Pinto Beans $0.50 Egg $0.16
Cheese $0.54 Panko Crumbs $0.25
Mayo $0.02 Canola Oil $0.15
Tortilla Chips $0.05 Avocado $1.79
Green Onions $0.09 Pico De Gallo $0.29
Cilantro $0.05 Limes $0.08
Spices N/A Total $3.97 or $0.99 a serving

Do you see that total? Wow. That’s really cheap!

I didn’t add in the cost of the pita bread I made but if I did it would only raise the cost by $0.04 a serving (2 pita rounds). I told Eric about how much our meal cost last night and he was astounded. Quite frankly, I am too. These falafels taste too good to be so inexpensive!

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I Buy It 1/2 Off Or You Toss It!

Now THAT’s a good chunk of Manchego!I just had to write a quick post about my grocery trip today!

I wanted to get some Manchego cheese for a Mexican bean soup I’m making this week, but specialty cheeses can be very pricey and I didn’t have room in the budget.

I chose to substitute Monterrey Jack instead, even though the spanish cheese would have been ideal for the soup. I love cheese and zesty Manchego has a wonderful nutty flavor. I enjoy snacking on shavings like I would a fine parmesan. But I digress…

When I was at the store this morning I decided to look at the Manchego anyway, to see if by chance it was reasonably priced. I was out of luck. An 8 oz chunk was over $8.50. Sigh.

I examined all of the blocks, trying to find a smaller (and cheaper) size and came across one pushed under a display. It was still 8 oz and $8.50, though. Then I noticed it said “sell by 3-14” on the label. I wanted to use it for dinner tomorrow so it would still be just fine for me.

I took note of the expiration dates on the other packages and they were all set for June. Bingo!

I called over the deli attendant and asked if they would discount the cheese for me. She looked confused, looked at the cheese, then said she would get her manager. When he came over I simply said that I’d like to buy the cheese for half off because the expiration date was in 2 days. He said that they don’t usually do that.

I said, “what are the chances that someone is going to come in here to buy this piece of Manchego in 2 days? Either I buy it half off now or you will have to throw it away.”

He looked at me, smiled, and discounted the cheese by half with a marker.

It was like a rush for me. I’ve never done that for cheese before! I got the specialty cheese I wanted for only $4.25 and they made a sale on something that would have been wasted. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Next time you are wanting something pricey and perishable, check out all the available items and see if any packages are within days of expiring. If you find one, put on your sweetest smile and ask for a discount! If the item is a speciality item that doesn’t move quickly you have an even better chance to negotiate a lower price!

Have you been able to score a deal on something expensive because it was close to expiring?

Last Chance To Use Your Flexible Savings Account!

If you have a Flexible Savings Account, or FSA, you know how complicated tracking all your medical expenses can be. If you haven’t been keeping up with the receipts it can be a real chore to get organized, especially now that there is a looming deadline.

From our employer’s website:

You have until April 30th of the current year to file claims for expenses incurred January 1st of the previous year through March 15th of the current year.

In other words, it’s now or never to spend your FSA funds and submit the expenses.

Please be aware that not all companies elected to have the same deadlines. Check with your specific employer to see when your FSA deadlines are.

It’s pretty late in the game but if you are still searching for ways to spend your remaining 2007 FSA funds, consider:

While going through my receipts, I noticed that some stores actually note which items may be eligible for FSA reimbursement. Until I saw the “H” next to the antacids and contact solution I didn’t realize I could submit them! Check your receipts and see if you missed anything. How convenient!

2008 is my first year to fund and actually use a FSA. In an effort to keep up with my paperwork I just submitted all my receipts for the past two months. Less than 3 months into the year and I’m already half way through my funds. I’ll probably run short by December and will need to increase my figure for next year.

After narrowly missing some eligible expenses I decided to spend some time looking up what is and is not eligible for reimbursement.

Here is a detailed list of eligible expenses by a human resources company I found online. I found it very helpful. The alphabetical list starts on page 3.

FSA updates for 2008:
The following expenses no longer require a physician’s note for reimbursement:

  • Orthotics, insoles, and arch supports
  • Sunscreen and sun block (awesome!)
  • Tints and coatings for prescription eyeglasses
  • Ear-wax removal products

Familiarizing myself with the list really helped me understand what expenses qualify for reimbursement. I had no idea that you could count mileage to medical appointments. I don’t plan on submitting my mileage but I suppose if your doctors were far away this could come in handy.

I also didn’t realize that vitamins wouldn’t qualify unless your doctor writes a note saying they are used to alleviate a medical condition. Taking them for health and well being isn’t enough.

Interesting expenses allowed:

Interesting expenses NOT allowed:

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