Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Choosing Between a 401(k) and IRA

With the demise of traditional pension plans and the future of Social Security in doubt there has never been a more important time for individuals to seize the initiative of saving for their retirement. But with many different options to choose from, it is imperative that retirement money be invested wisely and with as many tax advantages as possible. 

Both 401(k) accounts and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) are important vehicles to save for retirement, but which to choose from? Here are some of the attributes of both 401(k) accounts and IRA's and how each can help you meet your retirement savings goals. 

Funding your 401(k) account through your employer is the perhaps the most important investment step that you can make. Not only do many companies offer to match your contributions to these accounts, but 401(k) accounts have the important characteristic of being tax deferred, meaning that all interest and growth of principal is not taxed until the monies are withdrawn. In addition, all contributions used to fund the account are made with pre-tax dollars.
Matching contributions typically are a percentage of the amount the employee contributes (for example 25%) or a percentage of annual salary (for example 3% of your annual salary is contributed to your account) with a cap at a certain amount (say $5,000). Meaning that if the employee contributes $10,000 to their 401(k) account for the year, the company will contribute $2,500 to the account as well. Or if your yearly income is $50,000, the company will contribute 3% of your salary, or $1,500. Read your companies' retirement plan carefully, as typically the company contribution will vest over several years of service. 

Contributions to a 401(k) are made with pre tax dollars, meaning that all monies are made before they are subject to federal, state, unemployment, and disability taxes. That means that you are able to contribute a higher amount because your gross earnings have not yet been taxed. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Vegetarian and Gluten Free Sloppy Joe Recipe

At our vegetarian and gluten free homestead we're always craving recipes that have a couple of common characteristics, namely that they're simple and new. My significant other is a vegetarian and has Celiac disease, and is thus forced to eat gluten free. Since I never want food boredom to set in for her, I'm always on the lookout for a new recipe. This particular recipe came partly from a cookbook and partly from kitchen experimentation.

This happens to be a fun recipe too since it's for sloppy Joe's, a food that for most people reminds them of childhood days eating sloppy Joe's at home or in the elementary school cafeteria. Please bear in mind though that this recipe should be much better for you than the mystery stuff that was in those sloppy Joe's we all ate as kids.
Ingredients you'll need:
  • 1/2 an onion, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup of cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup of cooked beans of your choice (I prefer pinto or navy beans, but you can use just about any kind)
  • 1/2 pound of firm or extra firm tofu, diced up into fairly small pieces (you can use just about any firm tofu, tempeh, or "fake" ground beef here if you're not concerned about it being gluten-free).
  • 1/2 cup of BBQ sauce (I use my homemade BBQ sauce) or more to taste
  • moderate sprinklings of oregano, basil, and cumin
Now take your ingredients and:
  • Saute the onion and garlic in 1-2 tbsp of oil of your choice over medium heat for several minutes until onion is translucent. Flavor with oregano, basil, and cumin (I personally go heavier on the cumin) and add the tofu.
  • Add the rice and beans. If you're using homemade beans, include some of the cooking liquid that you cooked the beans in. If you want even more of a shortcut, you can just use a whole can of beans, undrained. The extra liquid gives the sloppy Joe's an extra sloppy touch.
  • Add the BBQ sauce and heat through. Salt and pepper to taste, and they're ready to serve. I like to throw the mixture on top of a slice of freshly baked gluten free bread (I'm a big fan of the Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Gluten Free Bread) and top with a generous helping of cheese, use soy or almond cheese instead of regular cheese to make the recipe vegan.
This is by no means the most intricate recipe in the world. If you happen to have some leftover rice and a can of beans, you can make this in 10 to 15 minutes. There's also a virtually endless amount of adaptations you can make to incorporate other ingredients (tomatoes, peppers, spinach? turnips?) of your choice, or just about any leftover you have sitting in your fridge. I also like to double or triple the recipe above and have three to four two-person leftover servings in the freezer, ready for a quick thaw out and a fast meal.

As I mentioned, this isn't the most complicated or unique recipe out there, and you may already have something like this in your standard dinner rotation. But if you don't already, give it a try, it's fast, easy, different, and can make lots of leftovers for efficient meal preparation down the road.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Homemade Blueberry Currant Jam Recipe

What better way to savor the flavor of summer berries than to capture the essence of blueberries and currants at their mid summer peak. Blueberry currant jam is sweet and tart and tangy all at the same time, and both blueberries and currants are nutritionally dynamic foods that should be a part of a well balanced diet. This easy jam recipe will ensure that you have the fresh picked flavor of summer at your fingertips all year long.

As I mentioned in a previous recipe for Raspberry Currant Jam, adding currants to a jam recipe means that you don't need to add any additional pectin to get the jam to set properly. Currants are chock full of natural pectin and the jam will set magnificently with no added pectin, using only the naturally occurring amount in the currants. Currants also have high levels of Vitamin C (four times more than oranges), are rich in anti-oxidants, and add a great tart flavor to compliment the blueberries.
Here is your ingredient line up:
  • 1 quart (4 cups) stemmed blueberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups stemmed currants
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 7 Half-pint canning jars and lids
It doesn't matter what color of currants or blueberries you use, the combination of both red currants/blueberries, or black currants/blueberries looks especially visually striking, with a deep, dark jam. Whatever color of berry you choose to use it will still taste great.

Cooking Directions:
  • Wash currants (you don't need to de-stem) and place in sauce pan with water.
  • Stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a boil.
  • Press through chinois or other strainer to get just currant juice and pulp.
  • Add the currant juice/pulp, blueberries and sugar to a large stock pot.
  • Stirring continuously, slowly bring the mixture to a boil.
  • Keep at a full rolling boil for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the jam reaches the gel stage.  This may take a little more time depending on the ripeness of your berries.  Take a small amount of the liquid, drip it onto a saucer and see if it sets in a few minutes, if it does great.  But if it’s still runny, continue cooking down the liquid. 
  • Remove from the heat and ladle into sterilized canning jars.
  • Seal jars and boil in a water bath for 10 minutes.
  • Remove from water bath and allow to come to room temperature.
This recipe can take just an hour to an hour and half to complete, it's pretty simple. In no time at all you can have jars of deep, richly red colored blueberry currant jam. There's no better way to alleviate those winter blues than by cracking open a jar of delicious blueberry currant jam to add to your favorite bread, scone, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 
If you’re looking for additional jam recipes, check out How to Make Raspberry Currant Jam. And for more DIY ideas, check out How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract and a recipe for Pickled Beets.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Five Things Your Tax Accountant Won't Tell You

As tax season rapidly approaches, it's good to dispel a few rumors, assumptions, and preconceived notions about your tax accountant or tax preparer. Here are just a few things to keep in mind as you're interacting with your tax professional this tax season. These are five statements that your tax accountant could probably make if they were being one hundred percent honest with you, as well as some ideas on how to alleviate the situation.

I didn't actually do any of the work on your tax return.
That sharply dressed professional you met with and handed over your shoebox of receipts to probably didn't do any of the work preparing your return. The work was done by an entry level accountant, the lowest person on the totem pole in the office. Hopefully this was still a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or someone with at least a four year accounting degree, but it may be someone who's not even that qualified or has a year or less of experience.

After being prepared by a low level associate, your tax return is reviewed by a more senior associate or manager, who lists all the problems to be fixed (and there's always many things to be fixed) and sends it back to the associate. After it's cleared this back and forth process, it eventually makes its way to the partners' desk, who will probably make a cursory review of the return before signing it. 

Unless you're an important client (and you're probably not) it's likely that the sharply dressed professional you met with spent no more than five or ten minutes on your return.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Homemade Pickled Beets Recipe

Every Fall we're deluged with the bounty of the garden and usually astounded by some of the late harvested veggies - kale, cabbage, onions, and beets, that seem to hang on and even thrive after a few frosts.  Between the beets that we grow and the big grocery bags full that Alycia's parents bring us every Fall, we have a ton of beets. If you've never had beets before, you should give them a try.  They can be baked, roasted, boiled, or pickled and are high in fiber and anti-oxidants. 
During the height of beet harvest, I usually make a large pot of borscht (see Beets and Borscht and Biscuits picture below), freeze some beets for later use, and invariably have a huge amount left over.  Years ago I discovered how tasty pickled beets are, so the remainder of the beets usually get pickled. If you haven't tried before, I would highly recommend you try your hand at pickling them. 
It's honestly a very easy (but moderately messy) process. The most time consuming part is letting the beets boil long enough so that they are tender, about 20-30 minutes depending on their size. Then immerse them in cold water and their skins just slide right off. The boiling and de-skinning process usually only takes about an hour. Once the beets were de-skinned, they get chopped up into approximately similar sized slices and chunks.
The processing portion of making pickled beets will get a bit messy.  Your fingers, implements, cutting board, and counter top will be red/purple beet color.
After the beets were chopped up, we hot packed them into pint jars. Then poured the following simmered brine (which was simmering on the stove) over them:
  • 2 c. water
  • 2 c. vinegar
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1 t. cloves
  • 1 t. allspice
  • 1 T. cinnamon
We then put the lids on the jars and placed the jars in the standard boiling water bath for 20 minutes and voila - pickled, canned beets!  This recipe makes enough for about 7 standard sized pint jars. 

It was a pretty easy recipe, and the beets come out darn tasty, slightly sweet, slightly tart, full of flavor and that earthy beet goodness. If you like beets and are looking for an easy way to preserve their flavor to enjoy year round, I highly recommend this recipe.