Tag: Life hacks

How To Hack Hello Fresh

This is part of a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, plus tips and tricks on how to get these subscriptions shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedSave Big on Blue Apron, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

Hello Fresh

Cost:  Regular list price for the three meal per week plan is $59.94.  I scored $25 off through MrRebates.com by using the coupon code FRESHNEW50HF, which is advertised as $50 off your first two orders but still worked for this single purchase.  After my coupon redemption and a $5.94 cash back rebate, my adjusted total cost was $29 or less than $4.84 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Meal choices:  For two people, Hello Fresh offers plans that include three, four or five meals per week.  (Families of four only have the option of three meals per week.)  There are six meal options from which to choose every week and you are given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.

Hello Fresh menu options

Packaging and ingredients:  An insulated liner and several large ice packs helped keep the Hello Fresh box contents cold.  The proteins were located at the bottom of the box.  Separated from the meat by an ice pack, the produce, spices, starches and other ingredients were divided by meal into separate boxes.  I appreciated this help to keep my fridge tidy (ha!), as well as not needing to hunt for each night’s ingredients.

Organized!

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Crispy Shrimp Tacos, Cherry-Drizzled Pork Chops and Quick Sausage Bolognese.   In addition to the recipe cards for the three meals selected, Hello Fresh provides a booklet that includes all six of the week’s recipes with ingredient lists and step-by-step instructions with photos.

Another added value was the portion size.  While we polished off all the shrimp, I had enough tangy red cabbage and carrot slaw, tortillas and sour cream for lunch the next day.  And the same was said for the Bolognese.  Bonus points to Hello Fresh for enough leftovers for two extra meals!

Level of difficulty:  All three of the meals were relatively easy (thanks in large part to the chopping attachment that came with my Cuisinart Smart Stick, which is pretty much the best kitchen tool in my arsenal), and delicious.  I’d never in a million years considered making my own pasta sauce, but after being introduced to Bolognese (a great way to sneak veggies into my carnivore of a husband’s diet), I could easily replicate it.  And the slaw for the tacos… better than any restaurant.

Again, the only negative was my lack of non-stick cookware.  My stainless-steel skillet left most of the crispy from the shrimp stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Nonetheless, they were still devour-able.

Bolognese before
Bolognese after

Ease of cancelation:  You can modify, pause or cancel your delivery before midnight five business days before your next delivery.  I appreciated this information being clearly stated in my order confirmation, and had no problem logging-in to my online account and stopping any additional shipments.   Shortly after deactivating my account, I received a confirmation indicating my subscription had been cancelled.  Five days later, I received an email offering me a $5 incentive to give Hello Fresh another go.

Overall impression:  Compared to several of the other meal delivery services I tried during this experiment, I seemed to get a little more with Hello Fresh.  They provided more upfront options, extra delivery days, better packaging, additional recipes, and two brown bag lunches.  Hopefully, they’ll send me a coupon for more than $5, so I can justify a second order!  If they do, I’ll let you know.

Save Big on Blue Apron

We struggle with getting healthy, balanced meals on the table for dinner every night.  After long days in the office, it’s hard to come home to more work in the kitchen.  To make meals more exciting, regain some semblance of portion control, and introduce vegetables into my husband’s meat and potatoes diet, I challenged myself to see how cheaply I could get a week’s worth of dinner from four of the most popular meal delivery services.  Here’s how I did:

Blue Apron

Cost:  Regular price is $59.94 for the two person, three meals per week plan.  Through Ebates I was able to redeem a $30 off coupon and a $7.50 cash back rebate, for an adjusted total cost of $22.44 or incredible $3.74 per meal.

Delivery dates available:  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday (residential only)

Meal choices:  Blue Apron’s two-person plan includes three meals per week.  (For a family of four, you have the choice of receiving two or four meals per week.)  There are six meal options from which to choose every week when on the two-person plan.  However, you aren’t given complete freedom when it comes to choosing your menu.  Based on your initial selection some options may be blocked, which I assume is to keep the customer from choosing the three meals with the costliest ingredients.

Packaging and ingredients:  All the meat and produce received was fresh and delicious.  It was kept cold thanks to an insulated liner inside the box and two large ice packs.  The proteins were located on the bottom of the box and the produce, “knick knacks” like sauces, spices and starches for all three of the dishes were intermingled but separated from the meat by one of the two ice packs.

The box is recyclable, but I kept the insulated bag for summer Costco trips and put the ice packs in my deep freeze for future road trips and tailgates.  Knowing the shrimp should be the first to be used, I made that dish the same evening the box arrived.  When I went to cook them, the shrimp were still somewhat frozen.

Shipping container and insulation
Loose ingredients
Heavy duty ice-packs separating the meat from the produce
Entire contents of the box

Recipes and instructions:  The choices I made for the week were Spicy Shrimp and Korean Rice Cakes, Guacamole Burgers, and Seared Chicken and Couscous.  All were delicious and the recipe instructions easy to follow.  Even my husband, who during the course of our marriage has refused to eat anything containing chlorophyll, ate and enjoyed the shrimp dish which contained a healthy amount of cabbage and several other ingredients he considers “exotic.”

Recipe card
Delicious!

Level of difficulty:  All three of the meals were quick to prepare and easy to make.  They would have been even easier if I had a non-stick skillet.  Using the stainless-steel cookware set I bought just after college meant I had to keep a closer eye on the temperature and amount of oil in the pan.  While I made do with a standard cheese grater, another tool I wished I had was a zester, as I’ve encountered multiple meal delivery service dishes during this challenge that call for lemon zest.

Ease of cancellation:  I was very easily able to stop any additional shipments by logging-in to my Blue Apron online account the day after my first box was received.  Shortly after adjusting my account settings, I received an email confirmation indicating my subscription had been cancelled with a link to restart my deliveries should I choose.

Overall impression:  I was very pleased with the introductory cost, which was one of the lowest I encountered, as well as the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the simplicity of preparation, and the ease of cancellation.  Compared to several of the other meal delivery services I tried during this challenge, I would have appreciated more meal choices and options on the date of delivery (I get why Monday is out, but Tuesday would be better than Wednesday).

Follow-up:  Shortly after cancellation, I received an email coupon offering me $30 off if I reactivated my Blue Apron account.  I elected to redeem that great deal, taking a gamble by signing-up through Ebates again to try and redeem that stellar $7.50 rebate.  It’s yet to post, but once it does – or doesn’t – I’ll report back to confirm whether it’s only available for first time orders.  Otherwise, you could try for 550 Southwest Rapid Reward or 400 United miles.

This is the first post in a series offering reviews of the top meal delivery services, and tips and tricks on how to get these shipped straight to your kitchen for a fraction of the advertised price.  Other posts include A Low Price for PlatedHow to Hack Hello Fresh, and Home Chef Coupons and Cash Back.

The Top 7 Tax Deductions to Maximize Your Return in 2017

The daughter of a CPA, my memories of tax season growing-up weren’t great – my dad spent most nights and weekends at the office, and was stressed from New Year’s Day to Tax Day.  I’m not kidding when I say April 16 was celebrated as a holiday in our home.

Which is why, as an adult, it’s a wonder I actually enjoy preparing our annual return.  Seriously… every year I eagerly anticipate the receipt of each form and ritualistically on January 1st, I start compiling a file of all our other paperwork.  I get giddy over completing our yearly 1040 form for the same reason that points, miles and portals get me excited: I enjoy seeing how my savvy can save or make us money.

Investing time into preparing for and compiling the necessary documents well before visiting your tax professional or logging-in to your online software of choice will help you get a larger refund or owe less, depending on your situation.  If you’re one of the millions of Americans who benefit from itemizing qualifying expenses on their return (versus taking the standard deduction), here are a few common deductions to consider:

Mortgage interest, insurance and points – Interest paid on your primary owner-inhabited residence is  typically deductible.  Points paid during refinancing can be deductible.  And in limited instances, if you pay private mortgage insurance (PMI), that expense may also be deductible.

Student loan interest – You can deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on some types of student loans.  This is claimed as an adjustment to income, so you don’t even need to itemize to benefit.  However, the amount of your deduction is reduced if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is between $65,000 and $80,000 as a single person, or between $130,000 and $160,000 if filing jointly.  Singles with a MAGI of $80,000 and married couples with a MAGI of $160,000 no longer qualify for this benefit.

Charitable giving – If you made donations to your church or a qualifying charity, you can deduct those full amounts so long as you have a written record of the qualifying donation and no goods or services were received by you for the gift.  In addition to monetary gifts, you can also deduct in-kind donations like clothes and home goods.  Websites and apps like ItsDeductible can tell you the deductible value of these items.  And even though your time spent volunteering isn’t deductible, your mileage driving to and from volunteering is deductible.  Since 2016 was an election year, it’s important to note that campaign contributions are not deductible, neither are gifts to individuals even if they’re given through sites like Go Fund Me.

Medical, dental, vision and mental health expenses – If they exceed 10 percent of your MAGI, you can deduct your expenses associated with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injury or illness.  You can also deduct the cost of transportation, health insurance premiums, prescription drugs, and non-cosmetic procedures.

Taxes paid and tax return – Eligibility varies, but you may be able to deduct personal property taxes, such as those paid to the state for a vehicle or boat.  While you might be able to deduct this and other state taxes, federal taxes, including penalties and interest owed are not deductible.

If this cost combined with other miscellaneous deductions (several of which are mentioned below) totals more than 2 percent of your income, you can deduct the cost of tax preparation software or the fees associated with hiring a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) to prepare your annual return, provide advice on tax issues, or assist you during an audit.

Job search and moving expenses – If you are applying for positions in the same line of work as your previous job and the combined costs exceed of this and other miscellaneous deductions total 2 percent of your MAGI, you can deduct unreimbursed recruiting and employment agency fees, the cost of printing business cards, advertising and resumes, and travel and hotel expenses.  Unfortunately, the same expenses cannot be deducted if you’re new to the workforce and looking for your first job.

If you moved more than 50 miles for a new job or to start a business, you can also deduct your out-of-pocket moving expenses, including mileage, parking fees and tolls.  Obviously, if you received a relocation stipend from your employer, you are ineligible for this deduction.  You can take this deduction for your first job.

Educator expenses – Teachers can deduct up to $250 (or $500 if both spouses are eligible educators), for unreimbursed purchases like books, supplies and equipment, including computers and software, as well as the cost of relevant professional development courses.

The deadline for filing your 2016 return is April 18, so you have three extra days this year to make sure you’ve accounted for every single deduction that will benefit you.   

And if you’re filing online, don’t forget to use a portal!  Both Ebates and MrRebates.com offer cash back from H&R Block and TurboTax online or you can earn 1,000 miles by going through Southwest’s Rapid Rewards shopping portal.

Disclaimer:  Many of the deductions mentioned above may have other qualifying criteria not expressly mentioned.   I am not a tax or accounting expert, so I encourage you to seek the advice of a professional to confirm your individual eligibility for these and other deductions and credits.

Resourceful Ways to Maximize Every FSA Dollar

I am fortunate to work for an organization that provides a generous benefit package, including access to a Flexible Spending Account (FSA).  If you’re unfamiliar with FSAs, they’re an elective employer-sponsored account that allows an employee to set aside a portion of their earnings tax-free for qualified health care expenses.  (Some FSA programs even include child care among the qualified expenses.)  The downside of an FSA is at the end of the plan year, unspent funds are forfeited.

Even after several years of taking advantage of this benefit, I’ve still never mastered calculating the perfect amount to set-aside annually.  I either end up over – or under – the amount needed to cover all of my out of pocket health care costs.  But these are “use it or lose it” funds, so in those surplus years I’ve found some practical and creative ways to spend those extra dollars:

  • Medical, dental and vision co-pays and prescriptions. Of course, if you are also lucky enough to have a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Health Reimbursement Account (HRA), try to reimburse through this account first before tapping into your FSA.
  • In 2011, regulations changed to exclude over-the-counter medications, except when prescribed by a physician. No longer can you use that remaining balance to stock-up on pain reliever or allergy medicine, but items like saline nasal spray, Neti Pots and hot or cold wraps for pain, remain on the approved list.
  • In addition to eye glasses and contact lenses, contact solution is an eligible expense. I use that tax savings to justify splurging on a hydrogen peroxide based cleaning solution, which has helped me extend the life of my contacts.  And if you have a big balance close to year-end, you could consider spending it on Lasik.
  • Items specific to infants and the elderly seem to be the most universally covered. I don’t have dentures, but I do have a removable retainer, so I make sure to submit my receipts for the denture cleanser I use to sanitize that.
  • Family planning items are on the approved list, including condoms and contraceptives as well as ovulation predictor kits and pregnancy tests. And while I’ve found that not all vitamins and supplements are covered, prenatal vitamins are.  A little extra folic acid and DHA in your daily vitamin can’t hurt, even if your current lifestyle is more centered around happy hours than play groups.
  • Channel your inner survivalist or favorite Walking Dead character and order a comprehensive emergency and first aid kit for your home and smaller versions to keep in the trunk of your car and your desk at work. Another item I wouldn’t have necessarily bought otherwise was a good thermometer.
  • It may be winter now, but in preparation for those pool days ahead, go ahead and fill your medicine cabinet with sunscreen, which is covered. Occasionally, I’ve also found lip balms and acne treatments marked as FSA eligible.

Like all other purchases you make, be sure to maximize your FSA expenses by using a shopping portal to earn points, miles or cash back.   MrRebates.com and Ebates both currently feature generous rebates when shopping at Walgreens.com, which has a FSA eligible landing page and qualifying items clearly marked:

walgreens-fsa-example

And while my FSA administrator has provided me with a debit card to use for qualifying purchases, I use my personal credit card to earn even more points and miles (you know, in order use that sunscreen I just bought someplace tropical).  Just be sure before submitting your receipt or other documentation that it clearly indicates what items are eligible for reimbursement and the purchase date falls within your plan year.

A healthy body and healthy finances are symbiotic.  Invest in taking care of yourself.  It will pay dividends.  

Donate Generously, Without Spending a Dime

This season of thanksgiving gives us a dedicated time to reflect on our blessings, and give back to those in need.  Red kettles and bell ringers greet you at every store and year-end solicitations start filling your inbox and mail box.  But instead of giving them your loose change, here are a few ways you can be the change:

Gift the gift of time.  Find an organization and mission that speaks to your heart and use your talents contribute to their cause.  Cook and serve meals, teach a computer class, mentor at-risk youth, or help rebuild neighborhoods.  And don’t forget to log your mileage when driving to and from volunteering, which you can deduct on your taxes if you itemize.

Collect travel toiletries to give to a shelter or your local Ronald McDonald House for use by families away from home and in the hospital with a sick or injured child.  I never use hotel lotion, but it’s one of the items most coveted by those who are homeless and spend all four seasons out in the elements.  Shampoo, soap, conditioner, combs, cotton swabs and toothpaste are also appreciated.

Use coupons combined with sales to pay pennies for non-perishables and hygiene products to donate to food banks.  Look for deals on diapers, baby food and formula, items which are less frequently donated but are always needed.

Give blood or donate plasma.  Before I started working in health care, I thought blood transfusions were just for blood loss due to injuries or surgical procedures, but cancer patients, those with severe infections and other life-threatening ailments may also need their blood supply replenished.  And consider joining the national bone marrow registry.

If you can’t sell it on eBay or Craig’s List, donate it.  No matter the condition, there’s never a need to send your old outfits, books and home goods to the landfill.  Donated paperbacks that won’t sell or clothes no longer wearable are frequently sold to textile recyclers and eventually be resurrected as industrial products or trendy new apparel with hipster appeal.  Not only are you helping others and saving the planet, but you can also include in-kind donations among your charitable deductions when you itemize on your tax return.

Ebates and Mr. Rebates only offer cash back on Amazon purchases from select departments.  If your purchase isn’t one of those rotating departments, consider logging-on via AmazonSmile.  By using this portal, Amazon will donate 0.5% of the sale price to your charity of choice.  You can log-into AmazonSmile using your Prime membership, and don’t forget to use the MileagePlus X app to earn United miles by first buying an Amazon gift card before checking out.

There are lots of ways you can make a difference in the lives of others besides making a financial contribution.  This holiday season and all year long, do what you can to make the world a little better and a little brighter for those less fortunate.