TIME Saving & Spending

This 1 Mistake Could Cost You Hundreds of Dollars

istock

Read the fine print—or pay

Everybody hates bank fees, but what’s even more worse is not knowing when or why you’re getting dinged with those charges.

In a new study, the website WalletHub.com finds the average checking account has 30 different fees that can ding you, and banks aren’t always transparent about the details. “Some banks disclose their fees only after a customer has opened an account,” the site warns. “Others disclose their fees in inconspicuous sections of their websites.”

In particular, those $35 overdraft fees that can be triggered by buying something as small as a cup of coffee can really pack a wallop, yet many of us don’t bother paying attention to the fine print that spells out the details of how financial institutions process transactions. We should, though — a new interactive tool from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows how seemingly insignificant differences in transaction-processing practices can make the difference between having enough money in your account to tide you over until your next payday or getting socked with more than $100 in fees.

Pew looks at three different variables: Letting people overdraw their balances when they make purchases or ATM withdrawals versus declining these attempts, processing transactions in the order they happen versus in order of highest-to-lowest dollar amount and offering a $5 “grace period” threshold before an overdraft fee kicks in versus no threshold.

In a trio of scenarios, Pew follows three hypothetical customers in a scenario many Americans are all too familiar with: navigating the demands of daily expenses with less than $200 until the next paycheck comes. In each case, everything is identical for the variable under scrutiny.

The differences are huge. For instance, a customer whose bank processes transactions in the order they happen winds up getting hit with a single $35 fee — while her alter ego who banks with an institution that practices high-to-low transaction ordering gets nailed for FOUR $35 fees when conducting the exact same transactions.

The other two examples show a similar disparity. For many of us, the difference between ending the month 10 bucks in the black versus more than $80 in the red is huge, especially if our spending habits are such that this happens frequently.

Consumer advocates criticize banks for their overdraft practices, pointing out that the customers who pay the bulk of these charges tend to be younger, minority customers who are poorer to begin with and often don’t have the financial education to know a raw deal when they see one. Fewer than 10 percent of bank customers are responsible for three-quarters of overdraft charges, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “[This] is especially pertinent as the CFPB continues to study overdraft and will release new rules based on these studies in 2015,” Pew says.

The CFPB says it’s still looking at how these fees impact bank customers. “We need to determine whether current overdraft practices are causing the kind of consumer harm that the federal consumer protection laws are designed to prevent,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said in a statement last month, saying the agency’s most recent research “compound[s] our concerns” about whether overdraft practices leave vulnerable customers at risk.

Until the CFPB acts, it’s buyer-beware out there, so don’t forget to read the fine print.

MONEY College

12 Things We Wish We’d Known When We Were 18

Girl moving off to college
Eric Raptosh Photography—Corbis

Suze Orman and other experts share their financial advice for the Class of 2018. Follow these tips to keep your college experience from becoming a major money mistake.

Prepping for freshman year at college typically includes activities like shopping for dorm essentials, reviewing orientation packets, and Googling your new roommate.

Most students don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they’ll manage their money in this new phase of their lives.

And yet, what you do in those first few years of parental emancipation can affect you for years—or decades—to come. Students graduated last year with an average $35,200 in college-related debt, including federal, state and private loans, as well as debt owed to family and accumulated via credit cards, according to a Fidelity study. Half of those students said they were surprised by just how much debt they’d accumulated.

To make sure the class of 2018 gets off on the right foot, MONEY gathered sage advice from top financial experts about the lessons they wish they, their kids, or their friends had known before starting school.

1. Limit your loans. “Do not take out more in student loans than what you are projected to earn in your first year after college. If you only expect to make $40,000, you better not take out more than $40,000. The chances of you being able to pay it back is close to nil. If you need to take a private loan, you’re going to a college you can’t afford. Remember, going to an expensive school doesn’t guarantee success. The school never makes you, you make the school.” —Suze Orman, host of The Suze Orman Show and author of The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke

2. Finish in four. “Many kids are finishing school in five or six years. But every extra year is potentially an extra $30,000 to 40,000 in expenses. Map out your coursework and figure out exactly what you’ll need to do each semester. Be vigilant about sticking to your plan. Try to catch up on any credits by taking classes at a community college over the summer.” —Farnoosh Torabi, author of You’re So Money

3. Study money 101. “Sign up for an economics or personal finance course. This way, when you graduate, you’ll be better equipped to manage money for the rest of your life.” —Brittney Castro, CEO of Financially Wise Women

4. Leave the car at home. “Everyone feels like they need a car, but with the combination of sharing services like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and public transport, that isn’t always the case. If you’re living in a major metropolitan center or on campus, consider leaving your car behind. It’s much cheaper to use one of these car services than it is to pay for insurance, gas, parking, car maintenance and car payments.” —Daniel Solin, author of The Smartest Money Book You’ll Ever Read

5. Lead rather than follow. “Especially in college, you’re going to be surrounded by people doing dumb things financially. You’ll see people financing their lifestyle with student loans or their parents’ money. Don’t feel bad if you can’t afford the same things as others. I knew a student who was financing his whole college experience with debt and he was always asking people to go shopping with him. If I’d tried to keep pace, I’d have ended up in the same debt-ridden place as him.”—Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U

6. Find free fun. “You can still do fun things at school, without spending a lot of money. You’re paying an activity fee in your tuition, so you ought to make sure you’re taking full advantage of whatever the school offers for free—be it concerts, trips, lectures. The school I went to provided grants to help students travel abroad and offered free plays and trips through different clubs.” —Farnoosh Torabi

7. Be purposeful with plastic. “The idea that you need to build credit in college is wildly overrated. It’s not a bad idea to build credit, but having built up a bad credit history will hurt you more than having no credit history. You don’t need to feel pressure to get a credit card. You can get by just fine with cash and a debit card; no one is expecting you to have a ton of borrowing history when you’re getting your first apartment anyway.” —Zac Bissonnette

8. Put your budget on autopilot. “Keep track of the money you’re getting in from loans and your parents, as well as your expenses. Use an app like Mint.com, which lets you link your debit and credit cards to your online account to track your spending and easily help you keep on budget.” —Daniel Solin

9. Enlist Mom and Dad. “Check in with your parents once a month and review your spending with them. Talking about this will help you to avoid what I call ‘budget creep,’ where all of a sudden you’re spending $30 a day on food and entertainment. All those little extras add up and you could be spending over a hundred a week… on what?”—Neale Godfrey, chairwoman of Children’s Financial Inc.

10. Protect your stuff. “College students may not think they have a lot of valuable possessions. But think about the value of electronic devices alone, not to mention textbooks, clothes, even that ratty futon. The good news is that renters insurance is typically inexpensive and can protect you from fires, theft and other incidents. The even better news is that students’ stuff may be covered by their parents’ homeowners insurance. Check the policy prior to hitting the books.”—Kara McGuire, author of The Teen Money Manual

11. Establish rules with roomies. “If you’re renting an apartment with friends, be sure everyone and their parents sign the lease. Try to have everyone’s name on the utilities bills as well. Kids will take advantage of other kids, and you don’t want to be the one who is stuck being responsible for everything. If you can’t attach everyone’s names to all the bills, have them prepay. Also, make sure everyone chips in for general expenses like cleaning supplies and toilet paper, so you don’t end up paying for all of that as well.” —Neale Godfrey

12. Share with discretion. “Social networks are a public record. Your future employers will look you up on your social sites and judge you based on what they see. So something that you thought was cute in college could keep you from getting the job. Know that every move you make on those sites could have a direct consequence on your ability to land a job.” —Suze Orman

 

MONEY Kids & Money

Why the $245,000 Cost of Raising a Child Shouldn’t Stop You From Having One

Baby drinking milk bottle filled with cash
Mike Kemp—Getty Images

A new USDA report will send shivers down the spine of any person of child-bearing age. But these five steps can help you make room in your budget for baby—and prevent financial freak out.

Even if you’ve got baby fever, new data out today from the U.S. Department of Agriculture could have you reaching for the prophylactics.

For a middle income family (before tax $61,530 to $106,540), a child adds an average $14,970 in annual expenses to the bottom line. And to raise that kiddo born in 2013 to age 18 will cost on average $245,340 in total—up 1.8% from last year.

Yikes.

But before you go telling your honey you have a headache, keep in mind that four million babies are born in the U.S. each year, and most of their parents adjust just fine to the new costs. And if you wait until you feel completely financially ready, you may never realize that bundle of joy.

“Having a child is an exciting but scary step, and money can be a big part of that worry,” says financial planner Matt Becker, father of two and founder of the blog Mom and Dad Money. “I wouldn’t dive in without considering the financial consequences, but I also wouldn’t let them scare you off.”

You’ll just need to make room for in your budget for baby. These five steps can help you feel secure enough to add to your family.

1. Assess your current expenses. First step, get a handle on how you are currently allocating your income. Mint.com can help you track your spending.

2. Estimate future income. Then consider how your income might change after the baby, says San Diego financial planner Andrew Russell, who’s also a dad of two. For example, will you or your partner stay home part time or full time? Will you take any unpaid parental leave?

3. Estimate future expenses. Once you know what your post-baby income will look like, get a rough estimate of the new expenses you will be footing, both one-time (like maternity clothes, hospital costs, car seat, crib) and ongoing (childcare, food and diapers). Becker recommends using Babycenter’s child cost calculator.

You’ll also want to factor in the cost of basic protections like life and disability insurance, which can help ensure your child will still be provided for if a parent dies prematurely or is seriously injured. “These will add to your monthly budget, but are well worth the cost for the financial security they provide,” says Becker.

4. Cut costs. You may find through this exercise that your future expenses with baby exceed your income. If so, look for any fat in your budget to cut out—particularly recurring expenses that require a one-time effort to change like switching to a cheaper cell phone plan, cutting cable, or moving to an area with less expensive rents. Keep in mind that while some of your costs will go up, your entertainment costs—like bar tabs and restaurant bills—will likely go down in the first few years.

And what if, like a lot of Millennials, you have some $20,000 in student loan debts standing in your way? See if you qualify for any loan forgiveness programs. If not, dial back to the minimums. “Obviously this is a big life goal with a certain time frame, and if there is not that much room to cut back on spending, then you need to minimize the amount you pay back on loans,” says Russell. “If the debt is too large for you to take a good chunk out of it in the next few years, you’re going to have to move forward with it.”

While the lower payment will add to your interest over time, the federal tax deduction on student loan interest—if you qualify—will offset some of the cost. Plus, every time you and/or your partner receive pay raises and bonuses, you can funnel that additional income toward the debt.

5. Practice your new budget. Once you’ve figured out your post-baby budget, start living on it—even before you get pregnant, Becker advises. And put the money you would be spending into a savings account.

Besides helping you see if you can handle the budget, “this helps you build up a savings cushion that will relieve a lot of the financial anxiety that can come with a growing family,” says Becker. You will need to plump that cushion before the baby’s arrival anyway: With the general rule being to have cash reserves equaling six months of living expenses, you’ll need to make sure your emergency fund now reflects all the new costs you’ll be covering.

In the end, you might be surprised at how easy it is to adjust your spending. especially when the prize is so sweet.

Related:

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Tell if You Can Afford to Have a Baby

Pregnancy test with dollar sign
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—William Andrew/Getty Images

Q: “I’m a 38-year-old female, who has been focused on paying down student loans, currently at about $58,000 (my initial amount was $98,000). Minimum monthly payments are about $650, but I pay about $1,000 a month. I’ve paid down my loans by living very modestly, and at the expense of saving for retirement or planning a family. But now I’m afraid that if I don’t start having children now, I won’t be able to. Can I afford to start a family?” ‑ S.C., Brooklyn, N.Y.

A: “Having a child is an exciting but scary step, and money can be a big part of that worry,” says financial planner Matt Becker, father of two and founder of the blog Mom and Dad Money. “I wouldn’t dive in without considering the financial consequences, but I also wouldn’t let them scare you off.”

Considering the average cost for a middle-income couple to raise a child for 18 years comes in at just under a quarter of a million dollars, excluding college costs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you may never feel like having a baby is in the budget. But keep in mind that four million babies are born in the U.S. each year, and most of their parents adjust just fine to the new costs.

Even with your student loan debt, starting a family should be do-able for you, says Becker. You’ll just need to make room for in your budget for baby.

First step, get a handle on how you are currently allocating your income. (Mint.com can help you track your spending.) Then consider how your income might change after the baby, says San Diego financial planner Andrew Russell, who’s also a dad of two. For example, will you or your partner stay home part time or full time? Will you take any unpaid parental leave?

Once you know what your post-baby income will look like, get a rough estimate of the new expenses you will be footing, both one-time (like maternity clothes, hospital costs, car seat, crib) and ongoing (childcare, food and diapers). Becker recommends using Babycenter’s child cost calculator.

You’ll also want to factor in the cost of basic protections like life and disability insurance, which can help ensure your child will still be provided for if a parent dies prematurely or is seriously injured. “These will add to your monthly budget, but are well worth the cost for the financial security they provide,” says Becker.

With your big student loan payments, you may find through this exercise that your future expenses with baby exceed your income. So what next? See if you qualify for any loan forgiveness programs. Also, look for any fat in your budget to cut out—particularly recurring expenses that require a one-time effort to change like switching to a cheaper cell phone plan, cutting cable, or moving to an area with less expensive rents.

“Obviously this is a big life goal with a certain time frame, and if there is not that much room to cut back on spending, then you need to minimize the amount you pay back on loans,” says Russell, who adds that it’s okay for you to dial back to the minimum payment. “The debt is too large for you to take a good chunk out of it in the next few years, so you’re going to have to move forward with it.”

While the lower payment will add to your interest over time, the federal tax deduction on student loan interest—if you qualify—will offset some of the cost. Plus, every time you and/or your partner receive pay raises and bonuses, you can funnel that additional income toward the debt.

Once you’ve figured out your post-baby budget, start living on it—even before you get pregnant, Becker advises. And put the money you would be spending into a savings account. Besides helping you see if you can handle the budget, “this helps you build up a savings cushion that will relieve a lot of the financial anxiety that can come with a growing family,” says Becker. You will need to plump that cushion before the baby’s arrival anyway: With the general rule being to have cash reserves equaling six months of living expenses, you’ll need to make sure your emergency fund now reflects all the new costs you’ll be covering.

Related:

TIME Budget

Lower Health Care Costs Brighten America’s Debt Outlook

Senate Deal on U.S. Debt Limit Emerging as Time Runs Short
A police officer rides a motorcycle past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Fiscal doom will be delayed thanks to lower health care inflation in recent years. But will Congress take notice?

For years, America’s health care costs grew at an unsustainable rate. That was the main reason America’s long-term fiscal position looked unsustainable as well; Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs were spiraling out of control. But our health care cost inflation is no longer unsustainable. That’s huge news, because it means our long-term deficits should be manageable, too.

Louise Sheiner and Brendan Mochoruck of the Brookings Institution compared the Congressional Budget Office’s latest fiscal outlook with its projections from five years ago, and the shift is striking. In 2009, the CBO expected Medicare spending to skyrocket from 3% to 6% of GDP by 2030; it now expects much more modest growth to less than 4% of GDP. Overall, former CBO director Peter Orszag, President Obama’s first budget director, calculated the projected savings in federal health spending since the 2009 report at $7.9 trillion.

Those numbers, like all long-term budget estimates, could change radically. And while Obamacare’s cost controls contributed to the cost slowdown, it’s not clear how much they contributed. Policy wonks and political hacks will have plenty of time to argue about why the cost curve is bending. But the trend itself, as Orszag argues, is the most important trend in fiscal policy in decades. It’s the difference between a deficit crisis and a phantom deficit crisis. In 2009, graphs of projected federal health spending looked like ski slopes; graphs of all other spending looked like sidewalks. The long-term deficit problem was basically a medical problem.

Now it’s not such a problem. The question is whether Washington will notice.

Republicans have spent the last five-and-a-half years griping about the budget deficit, and most of their gripes have been absurd. They were wrong to accuse President Obama of creating a record trillion-dollar deficit, which he actually inherited from President Bush. They were wrong to criticize Obama for increasing the deficit with his 2009 stimulus bill, which was an amazingly effective Keynesian response to an economic crisis; the budget-balancing austerity approach the GOP was advocating led to much slower recoveries and double-dip recessions in Europe. And they were wrong to accuse Obama of turning the U.S. into Greece; the deficit has shrunk by more than half during his presidency, dropping from 10 percent of GDP to less than 4 percent as the recovery has progressed.

We still have a big national debt, and the CBO expects it to grow from 74% of GDP today to 106% in 25 years. We’ll spend trillions of dollars servicing that debt, and we should remember how Bush squandered President Clinton’s surpluses with unpaid-for tax cuts and unpaid-for wars every time we cut the check. But we are not Greece. Our finances are looking better in every way.

TIME Congress

Compromise Disrupts the Daily Vitriol in Washington, D.C.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (C) reacts after signing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with (from left to right) Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Congressman George Miller, Republican Congressman John Kline, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, and Democratic Congressman Ruben Hinojosa in the Speaker's Conference Room in the US Capitol in Washington on July 11, 2014.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (C) reacts after signing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with (from left to right) Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Congressman George Miller, Republican Congressman John Kline, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, and Democratic Congressman Ruben Hinojosa in the Speaker's Conference Room in the US Capitol in Washington on July 11, 2014. Jim Lo Scalzo—EPA

The political war of words hasn't stopped, but Republicans and Democrats are proving they can still get stuff done together

The rhetoric in Washington Tuesday was as poisonous as ever, with President Barack Obama lashing out again at House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner returning the favor. “The American people have to demand that folks in Washington do their job, do something,” Obama said, in an attack. “Giving speeches about a long-term highway bill, it’s frankly just more rhetoric,” Boehner responded in kind.

But under the hood, things did not look quite so dire. With little fanfare, the tiny sounds of compromise on infrastructure funding and immigration policy echoed through the marbled halls of Washington. House Republican leadership decided to break with their conservative flank to support a ten-month highway funding bill that the White House endorsed. Then House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said Democrats would also support the measure, just a week after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized it.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans found themselves echoing the rhetoric of the White House as they push for a legal change that will allow for the quicker deportation of Central American children who cross the border illegally, a move that has infuriated liberals. “This would be done in a humane and responsible way,” said a Republican aide close to the House working group working on immigration, echoing the White House talking points on the proposal.

Despite the hesitant cooperation, both sides tried to use the potential for agreement as a way score political points. “Breaking news,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said, dryly after he was asked about the transportation deal. “Maybe the presidential rhetoric is having an effect.” Republicans, similarly, tried to cast the fleeting agreement as a victory. “The point is there are ways to get things done—they rarely included campaign speeches by the President,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To be sure, many areas of disagreement remain, and the limited cooperation with 10 legislative days before Labor Day is more a function of clearing the docket of urgent business before the long midterm-election-year recess than a genuine breakthrough. The GOP remains divided over the $3.7 billion budget request from the White House to deal with the border fix, and there is no sign of a larger deal on immigration reform. The historic standoff over deficit spending levels remains unresolved. And in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid has rejected proposal by Republican Whip John Cornyn to change deportation process for Central American minors.

But the week’s work proves that even in a city riven by division and broken trust, work still gets done on occasion, even if neither party shows any interest in ending the daily onslaught of recriminations over the coming months. “Now that President Obama has endorsed the House highway bill, we hope he will urge Senate Democrats to pass some of the nearly 50 House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner. “The American people are still asking, where are the jobs? And it’s time for the president to fight the Senate gridlock from his own political party.”

At the White House, Earnest said the temporary bipartisanship wouldn’t change the president’s summer plans to continue on offense. “Republicans have put their political ambitions ahead of the interests of middle-class families so many times, but like I said, I’m willing to give credit where it’s due,” he said of the highway agreement. “But it’s not going to stop this administration from continuing to advocate for the kind of long-term highway reauthorization that’s in the best interests of the American economy.”

Additional reporting by Alex Rogers/Washington

MONEY Food & Drink

Cook Healthy, Tasty Meals on $4 a Day–Help the Poor Too

"Banana Pancakes" from Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown.
Short on cash? You can make this short stack for $0.70 per serving. Leanne Brown

Yes, it is possible. A crowdfunded cookbook could change the way you shop, cook, and eat--and what you think about food stamps

More than 4,000 people have contributed to a Kickstarter campaign created, of all reasons, to print a cookbook. The project’s original goal, $10,000, has been left in the dust, with more than $110,000 raised as of Wednesday, and the campaign doesn’t end until Sunday, July 13. (That total beats the viral potato salad recipe, at least so far.)

Most curious of all, the cookbook in question is one that can be downloaded for free. What gives?

The cookbook, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, serves up recipes that can be made, as the title indicates, on a bare-bones budget of just $4 daily. Author Leanne Brown designed the book while a graduate student at NYU as a resource for families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. (The average food stamp benefit per person per day is $4.) Brown posted Good and Cheap online as a free PDF in April, and there were 100,000 downloads in the first two weeks. The total has since topped 200,000 free downloads.

It’s been a huge hit. “I was getting all these notes from people saying how useful it was to them,” says Brown.

But something bothered her: not every family on food stamps has access to a computer and internet service.

So Brown turned her attention to a Kickstarter campaign based on a “buy one, give one” model, reminiscent of TOMS and Warby Parker. For $25, donors receive a hard copy of Good and Cheap, and an additional copy is donated to a low-income person who needs it. Heftier donations yield extra perks.

Donors readily opened their wallets, long ago surpassing the original goal of $10,000. “It seems to have really hit a chord,” says Brown. “I think people are getting away from the purely consumerist model of the world. Buying a cookbook and making it possible for everyone to eat well is more exciting.”

The free print books that thousands of Kickstarter backers are donating will be distributed by organizations that work with low-income families on food stamps. They have yet to be selected, but more than 240 organizations from all over the country have applied to become distributors, including food pantries, farmers’ markets and nutritional education organizations.

Beyond families on food stamps, Good and Cheap has found fans of many different stripes. Brown’s inbox has flooded with thank-yous from students, single parents, families saving to buy a home, and general foodies and chowhounds who appreciate that she’s busting up the myth that eating healthfully entails spending a ton of money.

Many of the meals in Good and Cheap cost less than 75¢ cents per serving to make: the 132-page book features recipes for 65¢ vegetable jambalaya, 60¢ lentil soup, and 70¢ banana pancakes. You don’t need Bobby Flay’s kitchen prowess or an arsenal of fancy cooking utensils to prepare the recipes, either. Most require short lists of ingredients and minimal advance preparation, making the recipes feasible even for absolute rookies in the kitchen.

Brown became interested in the American food stamp program as she worked toward her master’s degree in Food Studies at New York University. She comes from Canada, where food stamps are not used as a form of social assistance.

“Because we don’t have a similar program I came at it with a different perspective,” she says.

When it came time to write her thesis, Brown wanted to create something that would live on outside of academia. A free cookbook, she thought, could serve as a resource to America’s 47 million SNAP recipients while meeting her thesis requirements. Thus her viral cookbook was born.

We in the Money.com test kitchen were curious about the recipes–for both journalistic and purely personal reasons–and took a stab at a couple from Good and Cheap. Our favorite was the sweet potato recipe featured on the book jacket, a dirt cheap, simple meal. The price for a sweet potato, a 16 oz. tub of sour cream, and a bunch of scallions came in at $4.30, just about lining up with the book’s total estimated cost of $4.80 (though we bought one sweet potato, not four as the recipe outlined). We had four leftover servings of sour cream and scallions, leaving the total price per serving at just over a buck, in line with the book’s estimated price tag of $1.20 per serving. The recipe doubles as a great way to use up leftovers: just pile on yesterday’s chicken, beans, tomatoes or whatever else is in the fridge, Brown suggests.

We’re not the only ones sharing our Good and Cheap cooking experiences online. Thrifty cooks around the web are posting photos of pierogi parties and blogging about learning to cook using the book.

“It feels like this has become this ‘Good and Cheap’ movement,” Brown says. “Making things from scratch sounds intimidating, but really it’s just mixing ingredients up. Cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be difficult.”

It obviously doesn’t have to be expensive either.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Hit a High for 2014—but the News Isn’t All Bad

Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Right now, prices at the pump are as expensive as they've been all year. With any luck, though, it'll be all downhill from here.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.70. That’s 13¢ higher than a year ago at this time, and it matches the previous high thus far in 2014, set in late April.

The bad news, beyond the obvious—you know, having to pay more to fill up and all—is that prices have been creeping upward just at a time the opposite was supposed to happen. The expectation was that gas prices would actually decrease in June, as they have in each of the past three years. The summer forecast from AAA called for a 10¢ to 15¢ per-gallon drop in prices at the pump this month, and predicted that the national average would remain in the vicinity of $3.55 to $3.70 through the summer. We’ve already hit the high end of the predicted price range long before anticipated—and gas prices have tended to rise toward summer’s end in recent years.

That said, prices at the pump aren’t exactly spiking. Nationally, the per-gallon price is only up a few pennies compared to a week ago, or even a month ago for that matter. Still, because everybody was expecting a significant decline this month, drivers are justified in feeling like they’re paying a lot more than they should to gas up right now. Turmoil in Iraq is being blamed for the persistently high gas prices.

So what’s the good news here? While drivers in 41 states and Washington, D.C., are currently paying more for gas than they did at this time last year, a handful of states are starting to see price breaks. According to the gas-pricing monitoring site GasBuddy, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan drivers have all seen a per-gallon price decrease of 9¢ to 12¢ over the past week. And areas that have experienced a gas price hike lately can expect prices to flatten out going forward. “Many areas that saw gains over a nickel should see a calmer, cooler week at the pump,” a GasBuddy post on Monday explained. “So far this morning, oil prices are down 55 cents a barrel while gasoline spot prices are generally negative, a good sign for motorists.”

What’s more, the analysts generally say that it’s extremely unlikely the national average will reach $4 per gallon, or even close to $3.90 as happened in September 2012.

Then again, the analysts have been wrong before. Like when they were making predictions just a few weeks ago, for instance.

MONEY Shopping

5 Ways to Trim Your Meat Budget During Barbecue Season

140527_EM_Grilling_1
Flamed grilled steaks on a barbecue Carlos Davila—Alamy

Smart, simple ways to keep the soaring price of beef from ruining your grilling season.

Just in time for prime barbecuing season, there’s been an across-the-board rise in meat prices. Many reasons have been cited for higher prices at the supermarket—lingering drought conditions tend to be blamed the most—but farm groups point to another culprit: you.

Strong consumer demand, especially for high-quality meats, is the primary reason, according to Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Consumers are feeling better about themselves and their income situation and willing to pay up for good meat,” Young told The Atlantic recently. “I think that given the stronger demand, folks are going to find not quite the cut they want for the price they want. They might have to downmarket a bit.”

Here are five smart ways to cope without giving up your barbecue fix.

Buy in bulk. Maybe from the back of a truck. No matter if you’re at Costco, Walmart, or your local grocer, you’ll almost always pay a lower per-pound price for steaks, ground beef, and more by purchasing meats in larger packages—over 3 pounds, typically. Foodies and frugality gurus alike often recommend the strategy of buying a side of beef or an entire pig straight from a trusted farmer, though this isn’t always practical for folks who don’t have the freezer space or the desire to sharpen up their butcher’s skills.

One of the more odd and intriguing means of buying in bulk comes from a Washington-based company called Zaycon Foods, whose curious sales procedure—and terrific prices, under $2 a pound for chicken breasts—started attracting national attention more than a year ago. You won’t find the Zaycon brand at any store; instead, the company uses a no-middleman approach to business, in which customers place orders online and pick them up at a prearranged time from the back of a truck that’s waiting in, say, a church parking lot. The meat is never frozen; it’s taken from the farm and loaded onto the refrigerated trucks that wind up at pickup locations. “The products are as fresh as if you had your own farm, but without all the chores,” the Zaycon site explains. This is truly a buy-in-bulk operation, with huge packages you won’t see at the supermarket, or even Costco. An individual order of ground beef or chicken breasts is 40 pounds worth of meat.

The Seattle Times described the typical pickup scene: “The driver arrives at the designated parking lot, spreads out yellow parking cones to create a path for the customers’ cars, and hands off the boxes while checking names on an iPad.” Yet despite the quirkiness (or maybe partly because of it), Zaycon’s business has been thriving. At last check, Zaycon had roughly 1,300 drop-off locations in 48 states. Some 325,000 customers have signed up with the company around the country, up from just 84,000 registered users at the end of 2011.

Freeze now, eat later. It goes without saying that if you’re going to make use of Zaycon, or Costco’s meat section for that matter, owning a large freezer is in a must. Of course, smart grocery shoppers also stock up on meats for grilling when their favorite supermarket has a good sale, or there’s a great coupon circulating, rather than right before the July 4 weekend, when you’ll have to pay top dollar. Yet again, a good—and good-sized—freezer is in order, as is some basic knowledge about defrosting meat safely, without losing flavor.

Master of the art of leftovers. Today’s grilled steak is tomorrow’s shabu-shabu. Sure, you could simply heat up the leftovers and eat, but where’s the fun in that? If done correctly, leftovers won’t taste like leftovers, and they can be stretched out and incorporated into several days’ worth of eating. To spice things up, consult SuperCook and enter the foods and ingredients you have handy to see what new dish you can make. For leftover grilled meats, Real Simple recommends sprinkling barbecue sauce, a marinade, or just water over what you have, then wrapping it in foil and warming over indirect heat for a few minutes. Plain old reheating can dry out the meat.

Don’t be snobby about cheap cuts. Ground beef that’s 90% lean will be more expensive than ground chuck that’s 70% or 80% lean. And guess what? The fattier stuff offers far superior taste in a burger. Whereas burgers made with lean ground beef tend to be dense and dry, a 70% lean burger will be juicy and tasty. As a bonus, a lot of the fat drips off in the grilling process. As for grilling steaks, consider less expensive cuts like the skirt and hanger steak over the pricier strip or ribeye. When seasoned and cooked wisely, the cheap cuts won’t taste cheap.

Embrace meatless Monday. It’s an easy way to save a little cash and get a little healthier: At least once a week—it doesn’t have to be a Monday—go meatless. You can still fire up the grill. The Meatless Monday movement offers plenty of suggestions for meals planned around grilled vegetables. Quinoa and white bean burgers anyone?

TIME Opinion

Here’s What’s Behind Washington’s Strange Mars Report

The Red Planet: Don't pack yet
The Red Planet: Don't pack yet NASA& Getty Images

Washington breaks the headline-making news that the U.S. is not ready for a crewed Mars mission. Why this is all about one Senator's career

Correction appended June 5, 2014

Here’s something that will surely come as a surprise: America is not yet able to go to Mars. I know, I know, I’m disappointed too. I was sure we had the rocket on the pad, the crew selected and the quonset huts waiting on the Martian surface, ready to welcome the new American settlers.

What’s that? You didn’t think we had all that nailed down? You may then wonder why the National Research Council (NRC) just released a 286 page report making that point. The headline-making thrust of the study is this:

Pronouncements by multiple presidents of bold new ventures by Americans to the Moon, to Mars, and to an asteroid in its native orbit, have not been matched by the same commitment that accompanied President Kennedy’s now fabled 1961 speech—namely, the substantial increase in NASA funding needed to make it happen.

Stipulated. Space travel ain’t about coach seats. It costs lots of money—but that’s something most people knew without being reminded. Still, you can read the rest of the blue-ribbon NRC report here—or at least a PDF of it. A bound, paper copy, which wouldn’t keep you shackled to your computer for 286 pages, will cost you $47. This might also leave you wondering why U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raced to issue a triumphal statement the moment the report was released, announcing in its opening line that the study was the handiwork of, well “U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.” Perhaps U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson would like to front you the 47 bucks then.

Here’s what’s behind this particular bit of space kabuki. The NRC study was mandated by a piece of 2010 pro-NASA legislation that Nelson co-sponsored with former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Why the common cause between the Democrat and Republican in the first years of the hyper-partisan Obama era? Geography. He’s from Florida, she’s from Texas, the twin lode stones of the American space community. The 2010 bill provided multi-year funding for NASA at a level sufficient to keep at least a slow-walked manned program going. Under the plan, NASA would aim for deep space destinations, while private industry handled the low-Earth orbit work. The report that was just released appears to have been tucked into the act as a sort of time-released capsule that would open in a few years and remind people that if we really want to achieve all of this cool stuff the funding spigot would have to remain open. And which two states would get a lot of that money again?

In fairness, the report’s conclusion is well-taken. As recently as yesterday, I spoke to Greg Williams, a policy chief in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations division, and asked him why it’s taken so many years for NASA’s new heavy-lift manned booster to be built and why it will take so many more before it actually carries people. The Saturn V moon rocket, by contrast, took its first, unmanned flight in November 1967, and 13 months later had the Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon.

“Look at the funding curve back then,” Williams said. “It was always going up. We’ve been doing this work on what amounts to a flat budget.”

But lack of cash, plus lack of commitment is what’s always been the difference between the do-it-now ethos of the old Space Race and the do-it-eventually-(maybe) ethos of all the space endeavors that have come since. For Nelson, who, as a member of the House in 1986 leveraged himself a ride aboard the space shuttle Columbia—one mission before the Challenger crew died in an explosion during launch—this is little more than a big kiss for home state voters anxious to keep the space coast going.

A strong case can indeed be made for why we should go to Mars, both in terms of pure research and human inspiration—which counts for something. And a self-evident case can be made that if we want to do it within the lifetimes of any person on the planet today, we need to pay for it. Space isn’t cheap—never has been. But you don’t need a Senator tending his home fires to demand a book-length report telling you that’s so. “This affirms that the mission to Mars is a go,” Nelson said in his statement.

No, it doesn’t. But his 2018 re-election campaign may already be underway.

An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the PDF of the report is free.

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