MONEY First-Time Dad

Read This Before Taking a Road Trip With a Baby

Luke Tepper

A few holiday travel tips from the battle-tested Taylor Tepper, MONEY’s first-time dad.

Many new parents are about to hit the road for the holidays, on drives and flights, short and long, with infant children in tow. Which means you’ll be moving at high speeds with a ticking time bomb.

If this thought terrifies you, good. The prospect of trying to reconcile your desire to relax on a rare vacation with soothing an inconsolable 20-pound tyrant should terrify you. It terrified me the last time we tried it, on Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day, Mrs. Tepper and I drove with our son Luke up to Rhode Island to visit friends for the holiday. Willfully trapping oneself in a 3,000-pound metal cage with an infant captured us at our most masochistic.

Still, we survived. Sorta. And if you’re hitting the road this Christmas, you can too. By giving yourself ample time before departure to ready the ship and dividing up chores and other domestic responsibilities between you and your spouse, a true vacation can be attained.

The key is communication. So I’m sharing my travel diary below. May my successes fortify your spirit and my failures illuminate. Godspeed and happy holidays.

4:33 am: Luke wakes up screaming. Rising before sunrise is, sadly, nothing new for Luke. But the screaming is. Foreshadowing. Anyway, he eventually falls back asleep, and so do we. But it’s that kind of half-sleep where consciousness exists just below the surface.

5:58 am: Luke wakes up again—this time hungry instead of angry—and Mrs. Tepper feeds him briefly, while I fumble around assembling his bottle. Our bottles, by the way, have five pieces and require measuring one scoop per two ounces of water, which is much more complicated than it sounds when it’s 6 o’clock in the morning and you can’t remember how to use your hands.

6:34 am: After feeding, Luke plays for a half-hour. I read him Shel Silverstein’s poem “Point of View,” a kind of vegetarian morality play, which pinged my own guilty conscience for all of the meat I was going to scarf down in nine hours. So it goes.

6:40 am: Mom has just reawakened and exits the bedroom to find her son’s hands gouging the eyes of her prostrate husband. She walks to the bathroom and brushes her teeth.

6:53 am: Chloe, our ancient dachshund and now somewhat marginalized pet, needs to be let outside. Chloe won’t be joining us for Thanksgiving. Luke, meanwhile, walks into the bathroom, fixes himself between my wife’s feet and rages at the baby-proofed cabinet with pounding fists and fierce yawps.

6:55 am: While I’m outside with Cujo, Mrs. Tepper turns on the water for a shower. Before she can hop in, Luke belly-flops over the side of the tub. He’s now in love with water. Panic shoots through Mrs. Tepper’s limbs.

6:58 am: Chloe leads me into the apartment, where we see my relieved wife holding my damp, nonplussed son aloft.

7:10 am: Mom packs up Luke’s things for our two-night, three-day stay. I laid them out for her an hour earlier. Brownie points for me. His wardrobe included three onesies, three pairs of pants, three full-body pajamas, a couple of shirts, a sweater, hoodie, bear suit, jacket, hats, gloves, and three pairs of socks. Meanwhile Luke sits besides me, very interested in my glass of water. He eventually puts the rim of the glass to his mouth and spills the water down the front of his shirt.

7:15 am: Mom rushes over and extricates Luke from his soaked outfit. In doing so, she also removes his wet diaper. By the time she lifts Luke to the changing table, he pees on the floor and howls maniacally at his achievement.

7:26 am: Dry, diapered, and clothed, Luke crawls around the apartment, eventually sidling up to Chloe, who barks at her new master because he tried to swat her flappy ear. She also gets nervous around suitcases. Sanity starts to wear thin at the Teppers’.

7:34 am: Mrs. Tepper packs up Chloe’s food, puppy pads, organic calming medicine (she has separation anxiety), down jacket, and leash and I drop it, along with the dog, at the home of a friend who miraculously loves the dog as much as my wife does.

7:42 am: I’m now outside pulling old coffee cups and pizza boxes out of our car. At some point, we’ll be the type of adults who keep a spotless vehicle, but that day isn’t today.

7:51 am: I am outside again, but this time with the first wave of bags. (It will take me three trips.) Nestled in among our large suitcase and Luke’s stroller are three hampers’ worth of dirty laundry. If nothing else, we’re getting our damn laundry done this weekend.

7:58 am: While I’m acting out Tetris in our car’s trunk, my wife cleans the kitchen. Luke meanwhile grabs the railings on the baby gate, swinging it wildly, as if he’s a freedom-starved prisoner of war.

8:00 am: Luke attempts another sip of water, but Mom captures the cup from his hand midpour. She gives him a Baby Mum Mum—a rice biscuit—instead.

8:04 am: I schlep the last bit of luggage (mostly shoes and electronic equipment) outside, while my wife crawls on hands and knees in search of Luke’s Elmo toy cell phone. Luke watches the domestic choreography with glee.

8:10 am: With Luke in arms, we give the house one last look around. Little do we know we’ll be back the next day.

8:20 am: We fasten Luke into his car seat. He immediately squirms.

8:30 am: Mrs. Tepper runs into a neighborhood organic grocery store to pick up a food pouch, and then jets into Starbucks for coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

8:50 am: Mom returns to the car to sounds of Luke crying and me praying behind the wheel.

8:55 am: Only 55 minutes behind schedule we are finally on the road, and there’s no traffic.We give thanks.

8:59 am: Mom gives Luke a fresh bottle.

9:08 am: Thanks to the car’s heating system and his bottle, Luke enters a trance and falls asleep a mere three hours after he woke up. Mom fights the urge to clean a spot of milk from his chin, lest the baby open his eyes.

9:10 am: Parents happy.

Epilogue: We arrived in Rhode Island in record time and had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. All marveled at Luke’s development. Trouble, though, ensued at 1 am Friday morning, when Luke awoke screaming in his crib. Over the next 9 hours, Mrs. Tepper and I slept a combined 300 minutes as the little guy tossed and turned and yelled and fought against sleep’s embrace. I eventually took him for a drive at four in the morning in hopes of calming him down. We decided to return home the next night, so he’d hopefully sleep in the car for the ride back to Brooklyn. All went according to plan until our car ran out of coolant in Westbrook, Conn., and would have cooked the engine if not for the generous help of a standup Mobil employee. Thanks and praise unto him. After that 45-minute pit stop, we were back on our way and returned home an hour before midnight.

Which is all to say that new parents may want to mentally ready themselves for Murphy’s Law. By preparing for the worst, you can be delightfully surprised when your car doesn’t billow smoke hundreds of miles from home or you don’t return to work on Monday desperately more exhausted than before.

More From the First-Time Dad:

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You Should Spend $0 on Baby’s First Christmas

141223_FF_TEPPERBLOG

...And why my wife and I will ignore this advice.

The act of parenting often requires accepting the absurd.

For instance, my son Luke hates lying on his back. He squirms and rotates and flops around like a fish on dry land whenever he’s forced into prostration. All of which puts me in the ridiculous position of begging/bribing my child to remain still while I clean his rear-end.

Mrs. Tepper and I have found ourselves willing to sacrifice anything to make our guy happy. Sometimes that sacrifice is our integrity: To mollify instances of restlessness or crankiness when we’re out, for example, we find ourselves surprisingly okay with giving him whatever he wants (including—gasp!—our smartphones) so long as the show of good faith shuts him up.

Sometimes the sacrifice is also financial—like ordering no less than three outfits and one homeopathic amber bead anklet from Amazon in hopes of improving his sleep. For the record, nothing will make you feel sillier faster than lassoing your child’s leg with a homeopathic anklet.

The end of December presents my wife and I with another seemingly absurd proposition: Should we buy our 10-and-a-half-month old son a Christmas present?

I Say: Call Off Santa

When you reflect on the question, you soon realize that your answer reveals quite a bit about your sense of value and, perhaps, your morality. This is a deep philosophical, maybe ontological, quandary that new parents who give presents on Christmas cannot avoid.

Knowing that parenting dilemmas are often most easily solved by asking those more veteran than ourselves, I tapped blogger Elissha Park, founder of the blog The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything, for her thoughts.

“I didn’t get anything for my son his first Christmas,” she told me. “We had tons of stuff for him from the grandparents, and we were as usual, financially strapped.”

She added that she wouldn’t recommend we get Luke anything major.

Music to my ears! We too are financially strapped, and meanwhile our son has grandparents who have already told us they plan to buy shelves and shelves worth of new clothes and toys for the little guy.

Parks made another point that rang true. Her son wouldn’t have known who the presents were from anyway, and he certainly “had no idea about Santa.”

He’d probably enjoy simply opening the boxes more anyway.

Also, it occurred to me that any funds we save from not buying presents could go toward paying our nanny’s Christmas bonus—or even, gasp, to us having a rare date night. Happy parents equal a happy kid, and it wasn’t like ours would be deprived with the grandparents were already in spoiling mode.

My Wife Says: Cue the Elves!

Going giftless sounds great to me, except the part where I’d have to convince my wife.

Mrs. Tepper derives great joy from buying Luke things—whether that’s a toggled sweater vest she knows he can’t yet say no to or a big loud plastic red firetruck.

It doesn’t matter to her that Luke won’t know who these are from. She’ll know.

And to be fair to Mrs. Tepper, there’s ample research to support the belief that spending money improves the spenders happiness, even more so than if that same person spent the money on him or herself.

Take this one experiment by Harvard researchers from 2008: They went up to random people in the morning in public places and gave them either $5 or $20 and told them they could either spend the money on themselves or on others by day’s end. The researchers took the participants’ baseline happiness levels, and then in the evening registered the change in happiness for each of the four groups.

Their findings reinforced the spirit of Christmas: Those asked to spend their windfall on others were happier at the end of the day than those who bought for themselves.

And I do so like when Mrs. Tepper is happy…

We Say: Open the Flue Partway

So, what does this mean for Luke?

I think my wife and I will strike something of a happy medium.

To satisfy Mrs. Tepper’s gift-giving instinct, we’ve decided to start saving up for him to get a Kindle Fire Kids Edition ($149).

Still, even I would be really forlorn if Luke didn’t have anything to open from us on Christmas. We’re a family now, and families give each other gifts.

But I’m thinking the boxes we’ll give him will be filled with…tissue paper. The crinkling noise when he pulls it out of the box will give Luke undeniable pleasure.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY credit cards

The Best Credit Cards for Holiday Shopping

credit card purchase of holiday present
Lucas Lenci Photo—Getty Images

'Tis the season to spend! These cards can help take some of the pain out of your purchases by giving you cash back, protection against price drops and extended warranties.

The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time for you to open your wallet.

The average American expects to spend $781 on presents this year, according to Gallup—the most since 2007. Use the right plastic, though, and you can shave some off that bill, or at least get more for your money.

Below you’ll find the best cards for rewards, price protection and extended warranties. They should make your holiday a little more merry. Ho, ho, ho.

Best for Holiday Rewards

Two no-fee cards—the Discover It and Chase Freedom—are offering Christmas shoppers fat cash back.

From October through December, Discover It cardholders can receive 5% back—on purchases up to $1,500—at online retailers that include Amazon and Zappos, and department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Sears.

Discover also has a robust online shopping portal—ShopDiscover—where its customers can earn additional cash back simply by using the online mall. So combining ShopDiscover’s 10% back from Acehardware.com with the 5% back that the card gives you normally, and you’ll reap $15 on a $100 purchase.

Over the same time period, Chase Freedom also offers shoppers a chance to earn 5% back on up to $1,500 of their holiday gift list.

The Freedom limits online discounts to Amazon and Zappos, but has a varied department store list that includes JCPenney, Kohl’s and Nordstrom. Also, Freedom cardholders usually receive a $100 sign-up bonus—although that’s been bumped up to $200 for a limited time—if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening the card. And you can receive $25 for adding an authorized user and making a purchase within 90 days. So you have the possibility of earning up to $300 by year’s end.

Best For Price Protection

Some issuers and networks offer price protection on certain purchases, meaning they will reimburse you the difference when the price of an item you’ve bought drops within a specific period of time.

“Having managed benefits for an issuer in the past, I can tell you that very few consumers are aware of the coverage they may have,” says Ben Woolsey of CreditCardForum.com. “I would be amazed if one in 100,000 consumers ever makes a claim.”

Not every item is covered (generally not cars or event tickets or anything off eBay), and refund maximums are limited per item and per year. But you can still save yourself some significant dough—not to mention fits of rage—when you see an expensive television you bought at full price go on sale a few days later. Plus, the price protection windows tend to be long enough that if you buy now you’ll be able to take advantage of steep after-holiday discounts.

Citi Price Rewind offers a max refund of $300 per purchase and $1,200 per year, and gives you 60 days to receive the lower price. Unlike Discover and MasterCard Price Protection, you don’t have to keep track of your own purchases, notice if the price drops and submit a claim. Instead you register the item on the Price Rewind site and it notifies you if the price has dropped.

Of the three major protection programs, Discover has the most generous refunds ($500 per claim and $2,500 per year) and the longest time to submit a claim (90 days). MasterCard, meanwhile, gives you 60 days and limits your refunds to $250 per item and four claims a year. For more details on these three major programs, see NerdWallet’s roundup.

A great no-fee rewards card that includes this insurance is MONEY Best Credit Card winner Citi DoubleCash. You’ll receive an unlimited 2% cash back on everything—1% when you swipe the card and 1% when you pay your bill—in addition to a price protection program that requires the least amount of work on your end.

Best for Extended Warranties

Are you among the 31% of consumers who buy extended warranty programs each year? Well, skip that expensive insurance—MONEY generally doesn’t think the plans are worth the price they go for anyway—and use the right piece of plastic.

Credit card networks (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover) typically offer a similar type of protection.

CardHub.com recently released a report on which network offers the best extended warranty, and selected Amex as the winner. All Amex cards are eligible for extended warranty, and unlike Discover or MasterCard, the program covers refurbished items as well as failure due to wear and tear.

If you’re in the market for a new card and want this kind of protection, your best bet would be MONEY Best Credit Card winner Blue Cash Preferred. You’ll receive 6% on groceries on your first $6,000 spent, and an unlimited 3% back on gas. Moreover, you’ll receive a $150 sign-up bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, which more than makes up for the $75 annual fee.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

The One Book All New Parents Really Need to Read

Luke and The Giving Tree

Fifty years from its first publication date, The Giving Tree remains a relevant allegory for modern parenting, says first-time dad and MONEY reporter Taylor Tepper.

I try to read one book a day to my son, Luke—which works slightly better in theory than practice.

Luke’s a restless infant, who is as eager to sit still in my lap for 10 minutes as he is to fall asleep. So I spend as much time reading as I do extending the pages beyond his grasp. Often he simply bores of the exercise, and I’m left talking out loud to no one in particular.

One of my favorite stories to read on these occasions is The Giving Tree.

The tiny book—which turned 50 this year—is perhaps the most important book in my life. I’ve loved it ever since I was a boy.

I recently discovered, though, that my adoration of Shel Silverstein’s classic is not universally shared.

What the Book Is About

For those unfamiliar, The Giving Tree is the story of a relationship between a tree and a boy the tree loves. At first, the boy and the tree engage in what everyone would consider to be a healthy relationship. He plays on her limbs, eats her apples, and sleeps in her shade—all of which makes the tree happy.

Nothing stays perfect forever, though, and as “time went by,” their encounters changed. The boy started to grow up and wanted new things.

Rather than playing in her branches, he wanted money and a house and a boat to escape his life. The tree gives up her apples and branches and trunk for the boy’s sake, rendering herself nothing but a stump.

Through it all, the tree is forever happy when the boy returns for his next request and willing to give anything she has. In the end, the boy uses her stump to sit on “and the tree was happy.”

Why It’s So Hated

When I told friends of my affection for the book, they were incredulous: How could I find meaning in a story where one character repeatedly and unrepentantly takes and takes from the other? Was I some kind of martyr?

My friends were not alone in their hatred for the book. In doing a bit of research for this column, I found that many academics and authors, liberals and conservatives alike, find its supposed commentary on parenting distasteful, amoral and depressing.

Dr. Lisa Rowe Fraustino of Eastern Connecticut State University is among the haters. In an essay titled “The Rights and Wrongs of Anthropomorphism in Picture Books,” she writes:

“Representing the symbolic mother as a literal tree may be what makes so many readers blind to the conceptual metaphor staring us in the face: GIVING TREE IS WOMAN. Even if it’s true that patriarchal culture has traditionally cut woman down and used her up, assigning her to the role of mother with her only happiness being with her son, is that an underlying moral we want to keep imparting to young children? Is it ethical?”

A post in The American Conservative says:

“Human love simply doesn’t leave its subjects ‘spent’ in this way; there is death, to be sure, but that’s not a consequence of love in the way that the tree’s destruction follows upon the boy’s exploitation of it.”

An entry in the New York Times’s Motherlode blog writes,

“Parenting should not strip and denude, but rather jointly fulfill. The parasitic part is supposed to end with pregnancy. After that the point is to teach a child to make his own way in the world.”

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel.com, wrote,

“Of course, maybe we’re just projecting, but to those who would say that Silverstein’s book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I’d say, learn better parenting skills.

Others claim that the book teaches kids to become narcissists—that the world is built for their taking, that they’ll never have to grow up.

Shel himself simplified the book to its essence, but warned readers from thinking the book has a happy ending.

“It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes,” he’s quoted as having said.

In any case, apparently you’re a naive sentimentalist if you enjoy the thing.

Why It Should be Loved

Like most times in life, I think I’m right and those that disagree with me are wrong. Those critics that see a dark tale are misunderstanding something fundamental to the nature of parenting.

The infantilization of “emerging adults” is a hot topic these days, as more Millennials decide to return home after college due to a difficult job market, historic levels of student loans and soaring housing prices.

MONEY recently published a long feature on the stress parents face supporting their kids into their mid-20’s and on: Nearly three quarters of parents aged 40 to 59 said they’d helped support an adult son or daughter in the prior year. Half said they provided their child’s primary means of support.

No parent wants to be a stump.

But with all due respect to the critics who say this is a book about kids taking advantage, I think they are missing the point. At the same time, those who say The Giving Tree exemplifies unconditional love undersell its depth.

When Luke was first born, my wife and I were scared. We weren’t scared because we were now charged with caring for a human life (an alien experience to both of us), nor were we terrified that our lives would change forever (though they have.)

The scary thing was that we, of our own will, introduced something into the world that we loved so much. And that newborn would soon be an infant, then a boy, then a teenager and on and on.

Just as we’ve struggled to find ourselves, to carve out our own little piece of happiness in our nearly 30 years, so he would too.

When you consider the weight of that decision, when you realize that you’ve suddenly foisted the world’s beauty and ugliness onto this tiny thing, that he’ll have to reconcile it just as you did, you become scared. (And then he has a dirty diaper, and you move on.)

To me, the Tree does not represent mom or dad, so much as it symbolizes an aspect of parenthood. Parents are obviously more than stumps for their children: We have lives, hopes, dreams, disappointments completely separate and apart from the goings-on of our progeny.

But when it comes to them, when they must grow up and face the world head on as adults, we want to be there to give them apples and branches and anything else we have to make their struggle a little easier.

“The Giving Tree” is beautiful because it lets kids know they’re never alone. I think that’s why I loved it so much as a child.

And that’s why I think all new parents should read the book. It will help you put the task before you in perspective.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

 

MONEY

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY Jobs

Don’t Count on Raises Despite Friday’s Jobs Report

Person popping balloon
Getty Images—Getty Images

Despite more Americans finding employment, workers shouldn't expect any big changes in their paychecks just yet.

Workers can be forgiven if they don’t rejoice in Friday’s jobs report.

Employers added 214,000 jobs in October, pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.8%. This is another sign the U.S. economy is starting to get on a roll.

Businesses have added an average of around 230,000 jobs a month since January, when the unemployment started off at 6.6%. Stocks have been hitting all-time highs. And the Federal Reserve just announced that it was ending the third round of its stimulative bond-buying program thanks in part to the fact that the labor market has been improving.

Despite these positive trends, though, there still remains significant slack in the labor market. Millions of discouraged workers who want a job have given up looking — or are working part-time when they prefer full-time employment.

Moreover, the long-term unemployed are still much less likely to find a job now compared to before the 2007-2009 recession, and employees still don’t feel confident enough about their situation to quit their job in search of a high paying one. Meanwhile the unemployment rate lags the pre-recession low by more than a percentage point.

This might help to explain why Americans are still so pessimistic about their personal finances.

Almost three in four Americans think the economy was permanently damaged by the Great Recession, according to research by Rutgers University, which is actually more pessimistic than right after the recession. Moreover, only 37% say their finances are good or excellent shape, per recent Pew Research Center data.

Workers also understand that whatever raises they do get probably won’t outpace inflation. Take the Employment Cost Index, which measures workers salaries and benefits. Before the recession, the ECI rose at a year-over-year rate of more than 3% for about two years. Since 2009, though, the ECI hasn’t jumped above 2.2% (which, to be fair, was last quarter.)

fredgraph

And while the Fed did decide to end its bond-buying — otherwise known as quantitative easing — short-term interest rates remain essentially at zero, with expectations of a small hike potentially put off until well into 2015. By keeping rates so low for so long, the Fed is essentially signaling that consumer demand just isn’t there. Yet consumer demand is an essential ingredient in the recipe for gaining raises.

“We didn’t hear anything that causes us to reconsider our outlook that the Fed will follow a ‘lower for longer’ course when it comes to interest rates,” wrote USAA’s John Toohey in a recent note. “The U.S. recovery from the 2008–09 financial crisis has been slow and at times fragile, so our thinking is that the Fed will not want to risk a setback by raising rates too quickly. What is ending now is the third round of QE since late 2008; after the first two wrapped up, economic gains soon stalled. The Fed has not forgotten this.”

This jobs report seems to be another brick in the slow rebuild of the U.S. economy following the disaster of six years ago. It is encouraging that the Fed feels the economy is strong enough to chug along without it pumping billions of dollars into the financial system each month.

But workers should remember how big a hole we’ve needed to climb out of. Millions are still struggling to get by, or even get a job. And without strong bargaining power, or full employment, workers shouldn’t expect a raise anytime soon.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You’re Better Off With a Hard-Working Child than a Smart One

Luke Tepper
Luke's drive is more important than his intellect. And look at him drive!

I wanted my son to be born a genius. Turns out I should have been hoping for something else.

My son took his first steps the other day.

Not yet nine months old, Luke stumbled forward two paces as Mrs. Tepper prepared his evening bath. The next day, like a revved up toy racecar, the tyke zoomed five strides after I relocated him from the Jumperoo to the floor.

This achievement is a great source of pride in the Tepper household.

According to Babycenter.com, babies usually begin walking between 9 and 12 months. Luke was only 8 1/2 months—so he’s obviously smarter than the average bear and destined for riches and glory.

Ever since, my wife and I have indulged in a series of daydreams featuring Luke passing milestones well before other tiny mortals. Reading by age 2, dunking a basketball by 10 and garnering a Nobel Prize before he’s legally allowed to consume alcohol.

Of course we know we’re being ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun of parenting an infant—widely projecting all the things that he might accomplish that you never will. In so doing, we imagine a super-smart older version of Luke wowing the world with his intellect.

It turns out, though, we have it all wrong. Intelligence is valuable, obviously, but the more powerful skill parents should be instilling in their children doesn’t have anything to do with brainpower.

If we want him to maximize his earnings—and we do—studies show that we’re much better off emphasizing hard work and gumption.

What the Research Says

The Brookings Institute recently came out with a report that summarizes the research into the debate of character versus intelligence. Therein lay a panoply of statistics that illuminate importance of grit and drive.

For instance, high school grade point average is a better predictor of whether a student will complete college in six years than SAT/ACT scores. Grade point averages are all about grit: You have to come to class every day, turn in your homework, and perform well on tests and papers in order to earn a high grade. A standardized exam, like the SAT, mostly measures your cognitive abilities.

Another study Brookings referenced followed 1,000 children starting at ages 3 to 11 in New Zealand and found that later in life those who possessed more self control “were healthier, richer, less likely to be single parents, and less likely to be convicted of a crime as adults, controlling for childhood social class and IQ.”

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

I asked Jessica Lahey, a teacher who writes a biweekly parenting column for the New York Times, for her perspective.

She said the research jibes with her experience. “Kids who are raised by parents with good impulse control—the ability to plan for long-term goals and stick to those goals—are more successful than kids raised by parents who model impulsive, disorganized, chaotic thinking and actions,” she says.

And what about smarts?

“A kid who has no ability to delay gratification, has no patience with momentary confusion or frustration, or simply never develops the frontal lobe function he needs in order to organize and plan his behavior is never going to be as successful as one who can,” she says. “I don’t care how brilliant or talented he is.”

Why That Terrifies Me

For a parent, this is a little bit scary.

The idea that my son would be born with a particular IQ took the pressure off of me. However he comes out was how he was meant to come out; I couldn’t really mess him up.

But now, I need to instill a work ethic and character in him that I’m sure I don’t always live up to. My wife and I are only 28 years old and we’ve only just begun our careers; how are we supposed to have the authority to mold Luke into driven student and worker?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

But then I remember how far we’ve come since we found out Mrs. Tepper was pregnant.

We comparison shopped hospitals and doctors, and coordinated with health insurers and human resource departments. We’re following a kind of food progression chart so that he takes in as many different kinds of tastes as possible. We nurse him when he’s sick and hold him when he cries, and we do it every day no matter how little sleep we had the night before.

The act of raising a child (and we’re only in year one) absolutely filled us with fear before we had one. But like a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, we’ve adapted. We’ve found a way to weave Luke into our life.

Teaching him stick-to-itiveness, then, will just be another challenge we’ll (hopefully) slowly overcome with our infinite small decisions.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

Read next: Injuries. Stress. Divided Attention. Are Coaches Damaging Our Kids?

MONEY The Economy

The Stock Market Loses a Big Crutch as the Fed Ends ‘Quantitative Easing’

The Fed has concluded its asset-purchasing program thanks to an improving labor market. Here's what QE3 has meant to investors and the economy.

After spending trillions of dollars on bond purchases since the end of the Great Recession — to keep interest rates low to boost spending, lending, and investments — the Federal Reserve ended its stimulus program known as quantitative easing.

The central bank’s decision to stop buying billions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-related bonds each month comes as the U.S. economy has shown signs of recent improvement.

U.S. gross domestic product grew an impressive 4.6% last quarter. And while growth dropped at the start of this year, thanks to an unusually bad winter, the economy expanded at annual pace of 4.5% and 3.5% in the second half of 2013.

Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 227,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate rests at a post-recession low of 5.9%. It was at 7.8% in September 2012, when this round of quantitative easing, known as QE3, began.

What this means for interest rates
Even with QE over, the Fed is unlikely to start raising short-term interest rates until next year, at the earliest.

In part due to the strengthening dollar and weakening foreign economies, inflation has failed to pick up despite the Fed’s unprecedented easy monetary policy.

And there remains a decent bit of slack in the labor market. For instance, there are still a large number of Americans who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (almost 3 million), and the labor-force participation rate has continued its decade long decline. Even the participation rate of those between 25 to 54 is lower than it was pre-recession.

What this means for investors
For investors, this marks the end of a wild ride that saw equity prices rise, bond yields remain muted, and hand wringing over inflation expectations that never materialized.

S&P 500:
Equities enjoyed an impressive run up after then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced the start of a third round of bond buying in September 2012. Of course the last two times the Fed ended quantitative easing, equities faced sell-offs. From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 rose 35% during QE1 (Dec. 2008 through March 2010), gained 10% during QE2 (Nov. 2010 through June 2011) and has gained about 30% during QE3 (from Sept. 2012 through this month), according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Three months after QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell 12%. And three months after QE2 concluded, the S&P 500 was down 14%.

 

Stocks

10-year Treasury yields:

As has been the case for much of the post-recession recovery, U.S. borrowing costs have remained low thanks to a lack of strong consumer demand — and the Fed’s bond buying. Many investors paid dearly for betting incorrectly on Treasuries, including the Bill Gross who recently left his perch at Pimco for Janus.

Bonds

10-year breakeven inflation rate:

A sign that inflation failed to take hold despite unconventionally accommodative monetary policy is the so-called 10-year breakeven rate, which measures the difference between the yield on 10-year Treasuries and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The higher the gap, the higher the market’s expectation for inflation. As you can see, no such expectation really materialized.

BreakEven

Inflation:

Despite concern that the Fed’s policy would lead to run-away inflation, we remain mired in a low-inflation environment.

fredgraph

Unemployment Rate:

The falling unemployment rate has been a real a bright spot for the economy. If you look at a broader measure of employment, one which takes into account those who’ve just given up looking for a job and part-time workers who want to work full-time, unemployment is elevated, but declining.

unemployment rate

Compared to the economic plight of other developed economies, the U.S. looks to be in reasonable shape. That in part is thanks to bold monetary policy at a time of stagnant growth.

Indeed, many economists now argue that the European Central Bank, faced with an economy that’s teetering on another recession, ought to take a page from the Fed’s playbook and try its own brand of quantitative easing.

MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

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