Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Creating Fresh Air Inside Your Home

Did you know that the inside of your house can be more polluted than the outside? With modern innovations and people spending more and more time indoors, it's important to reassess how you keep your home clean to be sure you and your family are as healthy as you can be. There are a few easy and eco-friendly ways to do this. Here's how.

Chemical Cleansers
Cleansers you use on yourself, your countertops and floors can leave traces of harmful inhalants behind, and can even release chemicals into the air when you're not using them. Eliminate the chemicals you use on yourself and in your home. Most cleaning jobs can be completed as well as or better than standard cleaners with castille soap, vinegar and baking soda. If you like nice fresh scents, you can add a few drops of essential oils like eucalyptus, peppermint or lemon balm to the mix. Check out our previous posts on homemade cleansers and recipes for simple cleansers here, here, and here.

Air Purifiers
This is probably the most straightforward way to clean up the air quality in your home. Make sure you use a high quality air filter on your air vents inside your home and change the filter once every 3 months. Air purifiers filter out mold, microbes, dust, dust mites, smoke, pollen and chemicals from the air. Even if you're not using your air conditioner or heater, having the fan on to keep air moving through your house can prevent stale air and moisture buildup which can lead to mold in your home. If you don't have central air in your home, consider getting a tower fan that holds an air filter.

Paints and Plastics
Paints and plastic products like electronics, office supplies, toys, shower curtains and water bottles can release compounds into the air and into your body that are harmful for your health. Try to use natural materials, like plant-based fabrics, wood, ceramic and glass as much as possible. Low-toxicity and low-VOC paints are available at most craft and home improvement stores. Look into BPA's (Bisphenol-A) and VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds) to learn more.

Moisture Buildup
Whether you cook a lot or just love hot showers, regular condensation in your house can be a real concern for air quality. Germs and insects love damp places, so to prevent too much moisture in at-risk areas of your house like the kitchen or bathroom, be sure to use proper ventilation. Open a window or use your oven hood's fan while cooking and turn on the ventilation fan in the bathroom when you shower. Be sure to check regularly for signs of moisture buildup. If you see discolored spots on your ceiling or walls or sagging plaster, you may want to get your walls checked out by a professional for mold.

NASA recently released a popular study on houseplants and their effect on indoor air quality. Houseplants are a great way to reduce carbon dioxide, increase oxygen and filter out toxins from your house. Some plants can even absorb and negate the chemicals released from plastics and paints in your home! Check out the list and add a plant to each of your rooms.

Follow these tips and you're on your way to a healthier, allergen-free home! Until next time, keep it clean!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Smart Budgeting

While we're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, many of us have taken a beating financially from the recent economic crisis. Job losses, underemployment, student debt and credit card debt undertaken from investing in what would hopefully eventually be beneficial are crushing millions of us. But there's plenty we can do to make the day-to-day easier. We're all already familiar with cutting back. Here are a few tips on using your budget to get the most from your paycheck for your future.

Keep Investing
Paying off debt or keeping afloat may be your highest priority. However, if you can afford it, keep putting aside a percentage of your paycheck towards investments and retirement, especially if your employer offers a matching investments. Spending one year not putting aside money can result in spending hundreds more a month later down the road to make up for it.

Pay More than the Minimum
Paying the minimum balance on credit cards and loans is a good way to barely keep your head above water. There are plenty of online calculators to determine how much your monthly payment needs to be to pay off your cards completely in your chosen number of years. Try to aim for paying off your debts in 5 years or less. Balance your payments by how large the debt is. Let's say you have $200 a month you can put towards credit cards, and you have one card with a balance of $1000 and another with a balance of $3000. 25% of your debt is on the lower card. So pay $50 (25% of your monthly payment budget) to the lower card and $150 to the higher card. It will get paid down a lot faster and you can avoid hefty interest fees by paying more. Of course, the higher the interest, the faster you want to try to pay down that card.

Make Smart Purchases
This may seem obvious, but be discerning when allocating your money to extra expenditures. You may be able to live with a beat up old couch. But a leaky drain can turn into a flooded house, and a toothache can turn into a root canal. If you must spend extra money, be sure you're investing in something you really need. And especially spend on things that can turn into a problem later. It's better to nip it in the bud.

Buy Secondhand and Fix What You Have
You can get tons of good quality items if you give yourself a little extra time and keep a discerning eye out. We didn't have anywhere to sit in our living room and were in the market for a couch. We had the option of buying a new discount couch for $800 at a wholesale warehouse, but didn't really have the budget for it. We found a nice worn-in leather couch at a second-hand store for $300 and spent $100 and a few hours of elbow grease to restore the leather. That's half the price for a nicer couch! Same principle applies to clothes. Nice quality slacks and jeans that may just need to be dry-cleaned, dyed, patched or hemmed get dropped off at Goodwill because the last person didn't want to bother with it. Look for consignment shops in nicer neighborhoods for the best quality deals. Keep an open mind and see what you can find. If something you already have is wearing out and you don't know how to fix it, take it to a tailor or a dry cleaner to get it like new again for just a few bucks.

Keep an Eye on Your Credit Score
Make sure you always pay your bills on time, and if you can't, call and see what kind of deals you can make. Many loans and credit cards offer deferred payment programs, especially if you're unemployed. Try to avoid opening any new accounts and if you must have a card, keep the one you've had the longest for the most positive effect on your credit. If you can, pay your full debt instead of negotiating down. A chargeoff can really hurt your credit and be much worse for you in the future than just being in debt.

It's OK to Rent!
A lot of people think that purchasing is the soundest decision you can make, but purchasing an item new can devalue it instantly, just like driving a new car off the lot. That's a big dent in your investment. An even bigger dent comes from maintenance. Avoid the headaches of repairs by letting someone else do the work for you. Azuma covers all maintenance and installation at no charge for refrigerator and washer and dryer rentals, giving you one less thing to worry about.

Don't Get Caught Up in the Little Things
Oftentimes financial advisers will tell you to cut back on little stuff, like the fancy coffees or basic cable. It's true that these things add up, however sometimes that cup of coffee is the only thing keeping you sane through your workday. You know what you spend the most money on. Eating at home, using a prepaid phone instead of a smartphone and re-watching a DVD instead of going out to the theater are all things we already know save money. You still have to live your life, so don't tear your hair out over the small stuff. Sometimes having that small reward that you earned at the end of the week, like a cup of coffee, is what reminds you that you're working towards long term goals and are still doing okay.

Hopefully these tips will help you all continue to be wise with your money. Until next time, keep it clean!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Quick One-Pot Ratatouille

This recipe is an old stand-by for me. Though it's entirely fruit and veggie, it's incredibly filling and satisfying. I use it on nights that I'm not really in the mood for cooking but we all need a really good meal. This can either be made on the stovetop or baked in the oven if you're not partial to watching the pot.

Quick Ratatouille
1 eggplant
1 large onion
2 red peppers
1 yellow squash
1 zucchini
1 large can of diced tomatoes
1 to 2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup red wine (optional)
1 cup cheese for baking (optional)
2 tablespoons spicy pasta seasoning
(I use a mix of red pepper, oregano, bay leaves, basil and garlic)
Dash salt
Coconut oil for sauteeing

If baking as a casserole, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a large stock pot, heat about a tablespoon of coconut oil on medium-high. Throw in roughly-chopped onion and salt and give it a quick stir. Let the oil and onion sit in the pot for 3-5 minutes to caramelize. While onions are caramelizing, cut the eggplant, peppers,
zucchini and yellow squash into cubes. Throw veggies into the pot with the can of diced tomatoes and stir to mix. Add spices and mix again. At this point, you can either transfer the mixture to a large casserole dish or leave in the pot. Once the mixture is in your preferred container, add wine and just enough vegetable broth to cover. If baking, sprinkle cheese on top if preferred and pop in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until the top is bubbly and browned. If leaving in the stock pot, cover and lower heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

This recipe freezes great too if you're into making meals in advance. It pairs great with a big caesar salad and a glass of red wine! Until next time, keep it clean!