Desiree Stennett - The Penny Hoarder

When you’re on a tight budget but you have children to feed, eating fresh food — which often expires quickly and comes with a hefty price tag — often takes a backseat to longer-lasting and cheaper processed food.

But the drop in price tends to come with an equally steep drop in nutritional value.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, can mean the difference between feeding your family a healthy dinner and going to bed hungry.

But SNAP benefits were never designed to fund a family’s full food budget.

A family of four could qualify for up to $649 per month under SNAP, but that amount only goes to families that have no monthly income. Most of the 48 million people who qualify for SNAP bring in some form of income, so they get less than the maximum amount.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that examines government spending, the average allotment for families that use SNAP is closer to $255.

And if you’re a family of three that brings in just over $26,000 a year? You don’t qualify for SNAP benefits.

Regardless of whether you get SNAP benefits, stretching your monthly grocery budget to make sure there is enough to feed your whole family takes skill.

How to Stretch Your Tiny Food Budget

Of course, with limited budgets, low-income families have to get creative if they want to eat healthy, fresh food.

We compiled a few tips from entrepreneur and mom Rachel Bolden-Kramer, author of the upcoming “My Food Stamps Cookbook,” and nutrition advocate Cooking Matters to show you — whether you qualify for SNAP benefits or are just on a budget — how to get a little more with less.

While you can use some of these tips in grocery stores, the more involved you are in your community, the more you can benefit.

1. Join a Community-Supported Agriculture Cooperative

Community-supported agriculture allows community members to pay weekly, monthly or seasonal fees to support local farmers. In exchange for the periodic payments, community members can pick up a heaping box of fresh produce each week.

LocalHarvest.org keeps an extensive list of CSA programs nationwide. Just in St. Petersburg, Florida, where our office is located, and surrounding counties, there are 32 CSA programs.

Prices vary, and not all CSAs accept food stamps, so it might take some legwork to figure out what program is right for you. But once you find the right one, the weekly boxes could cut down your spending at grocery stores.

Even if you don’t use food stamps, joining a CSA could be a solid money-saving trick.

As a bonus, joining a CSA also gives you a chance to learn about the farmers who grow your food and their practices — all while getting your children more excited about eating vegetables.

2. Score Free Food From Neighborhood Gardens

Community or neighborhood gardens are different from CSAs. While full-time farmers generally run CSAs, neighbors donate their time and money to maintain most community gardens.

According to Bolden-Kramer, it’s possible to buy discounted produce from neighborhood farms, and some also give community members who use food stamps free greens and herbs to help them stretch their budgets and elevate meals.

3. Seek Out Dollar-Matching Programs at Your Local Farmers Markets

We’ve already got a slew of tips on how you can stretch your dollars at your local farmers market, even if you don’t quality for food stamps.

If you do qualify, many states offer programs that help low-income families get more produce for their dollar. In California, where Bolden-Kramer lives, the program is called Market Match.

Through this program, for each dollar a SNAP beneficiary spends at a participating farmers market, they get another dollar they can spend at the farmers market.

A quick Google search will tell you if your state has a similar program. For example, in our home state of Florida, the program is called Fresh Access Bucks.

4. If You’re at a Traditional Grocery Store, Shop Smart

Of course, there will be times when you need something you can’t find at a farmers market, CSA or community garden. That’s when you’ll have to head to a traditional grocery store.

Cooking Matters, an organization dedicated to teaching families how to stretch small food budgets, has some ideas on how to better navigate a grocery store and keep your budget intact.

The organization suggests opting for frozen vegetables when fresh produce feels out of reach, meal planning to cut down on food waste and comparing unit prices so you can pay the least amount of money for the best food options.

5. Try Amazon Prime at a Discount

We already wrote about Amazon’s recent decision to lower the cost of its monthly Prime membership for people on government assistance.

Instead of paying $10.99 a month for membership, you would pay $5.99 each month as long as you have a valid Electronic Benefit Transfer card.

While you can’t use your EBT card to make purchases through Amazon, you do get free shipping on items you purchase through the site. This could save you money on transportation costs if you don’t have access to a reliable car but need to purchase large or heavy items.

The Prime discount is only available for monthly memberships, and you can cancel it any time.

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

Takata, the Japanese company responsible for the faulty airbags linked to the deaths of 11 people in the U.S. and more worldwide, has filed for bankruptcy.

The company has already racked up more than $9 billion in costs and fines as it tries to replace airbags that can shoot dangerous shrapnel when deployed during a crash, according to CNN Money.

If you’re one of the 14 million people included in the $553 million settlement reached in May — eight years after the first recall — you may be a little wary. Will your payout of up to $500 if you drive an affected Toyota, BMW, Subaru or Mazda be affected by this bankruptcy?

Since the automakers, not Takata, agreed to that multimillion-dollar settlement, you will likely still see a payout once a judge approves it. And that is just for people who had or still have the dangerous airbags but were not injured.

Takata has already agreed to pay a $1 billion fine after pleading guilty to submitting false tests to automakers to conceal the faulty airbags. A portion of that money will go to people the airbags injured and the families of those killed.

Takata’s airbag scandal may have wrecked a portion of its business, but the company still has some value. Key Safety Systems, Takata’s Chinese rival, purchased the company for $1.6 billion.

"Although Takata has been impacted by the global airbag recall, the underlying strength of its skilled employee base, geographic reach, and exceptional steering wheels, seat belts and other safety products has not diminished," Key Safety Systems CEO Jason Luo told CNN Money.

In the bankruptcy, the company’s shareholders will not make off with cash following the sale. Instead, that money will cover the costs associated with the recall, according to CNN Money.

Desiree Stennett is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

The first student loan borrowers whose remaining debt will disappear thanks to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program are nearing the end of their decade long commitment.

As of 2016, more than 500,000 people were signed up for the program, and 62% earned less than $50,000 a year working public service jobs. That means many depend on the program to ease the burden of their student loans.

But many borrowers who thought their debt obligations would soon be gone could end up owing thousands more than they expected because of problems with their loan servicers, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report.

How Public Service Loan Forgiveness was Supposed to Work

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program began in 2007 to encourage college graduates to consider careers in public service, which tend to pay less than private sector jobs.

It allows students to finance the education required to work in public service fields like teaching, law enforcement or public health without worrying about mountains of debt.

Borrowers agree to work in public service or for a nonprofit for at least 10 years while making income-driven payments. After those 10 years, their remaining federal student debt will be forgiven. For the first class of enrollees, that decade ends in October.

Those who are already on track for loan forgiveness still qualify to have the slates wiped clean, although the new budget proposed by the Trump administration could put the program on the chopping block for future graduates.

But as graduates enrolled in the program come closer to eliminating their remaining debt, they are running into problems, according to the CFPB.

3 Common Complaints About the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

Between March 2016 and February 2017, the CFPB received about 7,500 complaints about private student loans and another 2,200 complaints about debt collection on private and federal student loans.

The CFPB mined those complaints for the most pressing concerns about the companies servicing loans enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Here are the three most common issues the CFPB highlighted:

1. False or Incomplete Information From Servicers About Loan Forgiveness Eligibility

Borrowers told the CFPB they routinely received incomplete or inaccurate information regarding their eligibility for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

That lack of reliable information can mean years of additional payments for some borrowers.

“For example, one borrower reported that his servicer failed to tell him he needed to consolidate his loans to be on track for loan forgiveness until after he left the military, which meant that none of his military service would count,” according to the CFPB.

2. Delays and Errors Force Borrowers to Miss Out on Qualifying Payments

To participate in income-driven repayment, borrowers enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program must submit updated income and household information each year.

Despite submitting the necessary paperwork on time, borrowers reported processing delays and errors that resulted in their servicers putting them in forbearance — which then prevents them from making the payments that will eventually qualify them for forgiveness.

3. Unexplained Job Certification Problems

Finally, borrowers told the CFPB that servicers denied the certification paperwork necessary to prove they are working in a public service field without explanation, even when the borrower was working in a field that should have qualified.

On paper, that denial makes it look like those borrowers are not living up to the required 10 years of public service. Any payments submitted in that time won’t count toward the 120 on-time payments needed before loans can be forgiven.

“Some borrowers reported they believe they are fulfilling the program’s requirements, yet wrongly receive denials from servicers when trying to track their progress,” the CFPB reported. “Borrowers also complain that they do not know how to take action to correct a mistake because their servicer does not explain the denial.”

What You Need to Do if This is Happening to You

The CFPB also listed some tips to help borrowers navigate the process, even when their servicers drop the ball.

First, the CFPB suggests making sure you have the right types of loans. Only federal direct loans qualify for forgiveness. If you have any other loan type, you may be able to consolidate your loans.

You’ll also want to make sure you have the right student loan repayment program. While extended repayment plans don’t qualify, income-driven repayment plans do. Additionally, income-driven plans could make your payments are low as $0 a month.

Finally, the CFPB reminds borrowers to submit an employer certification form to prove you are working at an eligible job and keep every bit of paperwork you submit. It would be a mistake to trust your servicer to keep track of that for you.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

The Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers about a scam that’s pretty ingenious and might just trick even some of the more skeptical internet users.

According to the FTC, people across the country have reported getting an email from a woman named Maureen Ohlhausen. In the email, she asks for personal banking information and says she needs it so the government can send you your portion of a payout from a settlement between the FTC and Western Union.

This scam has the potential to be effective because the scammers have woven just enough truth into their lies.

As it turns out, Ohlhausen really does work for the FTC. She’s the acting chairman. But she is not sending out any emails asking for your banking information.

Also, the FTC really is in the middle of a global settlement with Western Union. The company agreed to repay $586 million to consumers who were tricked into sending money to scammers using its money-wiring service.

However, the FTC is not handling the refund process. The Department of Justice is managing that, and it has not opened the door to claims and refunds just yet. It is still waiting for Western Union to pay up.

Got Burned in a Western Union Scam? Here’s What You Need to Know

For those of you who are expecting money from the Western Union settlement, the FTC says this is what you need to know:

  • Later this year, after Western Union has paid all the settlement money to the DOJ, the government will begin the “Petition for Remission” process, which allows you to make claims.
  • Anyone who lost money to a scammer between Jan. 1, 2004 and Jan. 19, 2017 could qualify for a refund. It’s not yet clear if victims will get the full amount they lost. The amount victims receive will depend on how much they lost, how many people ask for refunds and how much money people lost in total.
  • Although victims can file claims this year, the DOJ will do its due diligence to make sure all claims are valid before paying them out. That means it could take up to a year to get your money back.

While you wait to file a claim, the FTC and DOJ suggest holding on to any paperwork that proves you were a victim of a Western Union scam. They also warn against paying anyone who promises to get money back on your behalf.

If you get one of the scam emails, forward it to the FTC at spam@uce.gov.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

When Karen Schmauss first starting buying clothing from LuLaRoe retailers, it was like an adrenaline rush.

She was a hunter, and her prey of choice were leggings and dresses and skirts with wild patterns she saw during live online sales. It was possible for dozens and sometimes hundreds of other people watch live sales broadcasts showing the newest patterns, but only the first person to type “SOLD” could purchase items.

“It was fun at first,” Schmauss said. “Thrill of the hunt, looking for pretty patterns, being first to type ‘sold.’ Now, not so much.”

That’s because after spending thousands of dollars, she had a pile of clothing she couldn’t wear.

She ended up with six pairs of defective leggings. Some ripped or developed small holes. Others were several inches smaller than others, even though the tags all said the same size.

And that wasn’t all.

Two of Schmauss’ T-shirts were fading and pilling -- developing tiny balls of fluff on the surface of the fabric -- and unfinished seams on a cardigan, a kimono and a skirt were all unravelling.

Schmauss was one of the customers who participated in LuLaRoe’s “Make Good” program, a return policy put in place shortly after a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of customers who were dissatisfied with the quality of the clothing and the inconsistent return policy.

She has received a check for $212 and is expecting another check for more soon.

How LuLaRoe is “Making Good”

Schmauss was not the only person having problems with the clothing sold by the multilevel marketing company.

That’s why the Make Good program was created in the first place.

The program promised that customers would be able to get their money back if poor craftsmanship -- not normal wear -- was behind their wardrobe malfunctions.

At first, it sounded great to us -- that was, until we saw the details.

LuLaRoe wanted receipts or bank statement screenshots -- some more than a year old -- to prove your purchase. It wanted customers to track down the original retailer who sold them the items or find a new retailer if the original had since quit the business. It even asked customers to send back old clothing so employees could inspect it for damage and determine if the problem was truly poor manufacturing. (How would they determine this? We have no idea.)

And even still, that didn’t guarantee that the company would approve the return and grant a refund.

The full process was so cumbersome that one of our Penny Hoarding employees said she didn’t even want to try to make a return. The possibility of getting $25 back just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Making the “Make Good” Process as Painless as Possible

We don’t want you to be like our coworker. We want you to get rid of crap clothing and get the cash you deserve.

That’s why we reached out to Schmauss and two other women who successfully completed the process and got their money back. We want you to know exactly what the process was like and what corners you can cut to make it as easy as possible to get your money.

You’ve only got six weeks left to file. So here we go.

1. Don’t Go Through Your Retailer If You Don’t Want To

The directions on the Make Good page on LuLaRoe’s website really want you to go through your original retailer. If that person has shut down their store or can’t be reached, LuLaRoe would really love it if you would let them find a new retailer to help you.

This was the part of the process that gave us the most pause, so we’re happy to say that you can totally ignore that and just file your return directly through the company.

Schmauss and the two other women we spoke with -- Jessi Mae Benkelman, who got back $298 so far, and Shelby Lee Terebesi, who received $147 -- all skipped the retailers and filed directly with the company.

If your retailer is your bestie, I guess you can go through them if you want. But you definitely don’t have to.

2. Don’t Send Your Items Back Until You Get Your Money

Benkelman chose this option.

She returned one dress with a zipper that was falling apart before she could take the tags off. A skirt she bought made it only from her bedroom to her living room before her floor was covered in sequins. Other items were full of threads that were pulling and bunching, and of course, she too was a victim of leggings that were ripping and developing tiny holes on the first wear.

She said she printed her shipping labels and sent back her clothing only after she got her checks in the mail to make sure she actually got paid before sending anything back.

She sent back most of her items, but the company still owes her a $50 check for two pairs of leggings. She’ll send them off once the check arrives.

3. Filed For a Return But Haven’t Heard Back? Try Complaining on Twitter

This is what Terebesi did after filing for a return on May 9 and hearing nothing back for almost two weeks although other people had already gotten checks.

She tweeted the company to ask how long it would take to get her money back. LuLaRoe responded within a couple of days, and, after a bit of back and forth, the company approved her claim. Her check arrived on June 5.

If you’ve filed a claim and haven’t heard back, try prodding them on Twitter. No one likes bad publicity.

4. Grab a Glass of Wine and Settle In -- This Could Take a While

The time it will take to file your return really just depends on the kind of person you were before now.

For Benkelman, who says she is generally pretty organized, it only took a few minutes because she already had all the receipts she needed in a LuLaRoe folder in her email inbox.

If you’re less organized (like me) it could take hours to dig up all the information you need. If that’s you, grab a glass of wine and think about all the extra cash you could get back with just an hour or two of searching and picture-taking.

Hopefully those tips cut down on the annoyance of the return process and help you get some cash in your pockets soon. Remember, you have to file your claim by July 31 to qualify for the Make Good program.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. For the disorganized among us, Desiree would suggest heading to Trader Joe’s and picking up a bottle of Malbec. You’ll be able to afford it with your LuLaWoe cash.

This school year in Rhode Island, countless hot lunches were taken from the hands of children and thrown away.

The trashed midday meals were usually replaced by two pieces of bread and a cold slice of cheese along with fruit, vegetables and a carton of milk while the child’s friends and classmates looked on.

The show of throwing the hot meals away in exchange for cold cheese sandwiches served a clear purpose: It forced parents to pay their child’s low or negative balance on their lunch tabs.

As this was happening in Rhode Island, a cafeteria worker at a Pennsylvania elementary school quit her job over similar practices. She told The Washington Post that she couldn’t bear to look into the eyes of another hungry little boy as she took his lunch away because he didn’t have money to pay for it.

And those states aren’t alone. In Alabama, children are sent home with stamps that say “I Need Lunch Money” on their arms. In 2013, then-Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, proposed forcing low-income children who would otherwise get free lunch at school to “maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria” to teach them there is “no such thing as a free lunch.”

School districts all over the country have different policies for getting parents to keep up with payments on students’ lunch tabs. Opponents of the practices call it “lunch shaming.”

Why Schools Lunch Shame

[caption id="attachment_59079" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Zion Britt takes a bite of pizza before checking out in the lunch line at Woodlawn Elementary School. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

It’s clear that embarrassing the children is the inevitable outcome of these practices. But in most cases, the schools that engage in lunch shaming don’t mean to hurt the children, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents school nutrition professionals nationwide.

Instead, the goal is simply to keep their annual budgets balanced.

While the government pays for the meals of children enrolled in free lunch programs, federal funds are not allocated to cover the tab for children who do not qualify for free lunch but whose parents still can’t afford to pay. School officials must find ways to cover that cost.

And the problem of unpaid tabs is an expensive one.

According to the SNA, about 75% of schools across the country reported that they ended the 2015-16 school year with students’ unpaid lunch debt. That was up from the previous school year, when 70.8% of schools reported unpaid student meal debt.

“Unfortunately, for under-funded school meal programs, unpaid school meal debt can become a critical problem that can impact the quality of meals for all students,” the SNA said in the public statement earlier this year.

The SNA says it’s up to parents and schools to work together to find ways to reduce that debt.

To alleviate the financial burden on the school systems and the parents who can’t afford to give their children lunch money, people nationwide from Virginia to Portland have donated money and taken to crowdfunding website GoFundMe to help raise money from kids in their school districts.

Even celebrity dad John Legend recently chipped in, donating $5,000 to help cover an unpaid lunch tabs in Seattle.

Still, school districts around the country will need much more to get all the unpaid balances down to zero. That means they have to find ways to work with parents who may be able to pay.

Schools Must Manage the Debt

[caption id="attachment_59080" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Woodlawn Elementary School provides free lunch to all of their students. More than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch in Pinellas County, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

A new mandate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires schools to attempt to collect unpaid lunch debt and also says students who owe money at the end of the school year could still be responsible for that debt at the beginning of the following school year.

The USDA mandate, which allows districts the freedom to come up with exact policies that suit their students, doesn’t advocate letting children go hungry — but it does leave room for schools to implement alternative lunch policies like those in Rhode Island.

Whether a state decides to go the way of Rhode Island or chooses the path New Mexico has taken and outlaws lunch shaming, the USDA is requiring every district have a written policy in place for the start of the 2017-2018 school year.

Here in Pinellas County, Florida, where The Penny Hoarder’s headquarters is located, more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Our local school district has taken a stance closer to that of New Mexico and decided not to lunch shame children whose families can’t pay.

“The policy of Pinellas County Schools is to never take away a tray from a student if he or she does not have adequate funds to pay for their school meal,” said Lisa Wolf, spokeswoman for Pinellas County Schools. “In addition, students without adequate funds are not given a lesser meal. They are allowed to take and eat the same full meal provided to all students.”

Each school in the district has what’s called a principal’s account that is used to cover the meals when children can’t pay. The account is funded by local PTAs and other private donors.

“Students who regularly borrow from the principal’s account are politely encouraged to bring money, their parents are contacted or if needed, a free- and reduced-price meal application is submitted on the behalf of the student,” Wolf added. “Food service managers and school administrators work closely together to monitor the principal’s account and to work with parents of students who routinely cannot pay for their lunch.”

Lunch Shaming Could Have Lasting Harm

[caption id="attachment_59078" align="alignnone" width="1200"]School lunch shaming Mya Stables eats an apple during lunch at Woodlawn Elementary School. To prevent lunch shaming, an account funded by local PTAs and other private donors covers meals when children can’t pay. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

The Pinellas County district’s procedure protects students from being singled out and embarrassed, and that is what school districts should aim for, said James Spratt, a child psychologist who has worked with Florida schoolchildren for more than 20 years.

The shaming practiced in other districts could have negative effects on childhood behavior both immediately and as they age, Spratt added.

“I don’t think the kids are aware of the fact that their parents don’t have money,” Spratt said. “If they are denied lunch, (the children will think) it must be something that they did. They won’t necessarily say that the school did a bad job, the school is denying this.”

“(The child will think) it must be that I did something wrong. That’s why I’m not getting to have my lunch,” he added.

According to Spratt, who works with children and families near Orlando, while these practices can hurt young children who can’t understand why their lunches are being taken away, the impact gets worse as children get to middle and high school.

“The older the child, the more likely that they are going to feel uncomfortable,” Spratt said. “They don’t like to stand out, they don’t like to seem different from their friends, and they don’t react in the most positive ways when they are singled out.”

With continued shaming over time, underperforming or acting out for a day could become long-term behavior in a child.

Still, the USDA is leaving it up to school districts to decide how to keep their budgets balanced when families owe money to the lunch program.

That means that lunch shaming practices could go from informal policies to written rules in some districts across the country.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She grew up on the free and reduced lunch program.

Attention Walmart shoppers: This winter you’re going to see cantaloupes on Walmart shelves.

You’re going to be tempted to skip over them. Probably because you think they “look good but taste like a piece of wood,” as Shawn Baldwin, Walmart’s senior vice president of produce and global food sourcing, told Bloomberg.

But Walmart thinks you’ll be missing out if you decide to pass this winter.

That’s because the mega grocer spent the past six months choosing its top 20 picks from a variety of 100 cantaloupe seeds, and after meticulous taste testing, its employees chose one that is promised to taste as good as a summer melon in the dead of winter.

The new cantaloupes, which are not genetically modified, were chosen to be strong enough to make a long journey to American stores but still be as delicious as cantaloupes grown in season here at home.

Walmart even gave the fruits a special name — Sweet Spark — which beat out its alternative name, Winter Wonder.

But Walmart, Were the Cantaloupes Even Worth it?

The special melons, which are about 40% sweeter than Walmart’s current winter cantaloupe, will only be available at Walmart stores. The company will start selling the fruits in 200 stores with a full rollout this fall, according to Bloomberg.

It’s not clear how the pricing of this new cantaloupe will stack up against what Walmart used to sell you, but we’re not getting the impression that it will be much different for your wallet.

Still, I have a few questions:

Why put so much effort into cantaloupes?

Does anyone even like cantaloupes?

Let’s be honest. Aren’t cantaloupes just the filler fruit we all use to bulk up our fruit salads, then get annoyed with when they get in the way when we’re headed for the grapes or strawberries?

Walmart, I appreciate the work you put in so we can have sweet fruit for the winter months, but I think that effort would have been better spent making sure my pineapples were sweet year-round. Just saying.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She is willing to take a strong stance against cantaloupes and most of the melon family, even when they’re in season.

Car prices are remaining steady, but car buyers are still paying more.

According to a report by Edmunds, an auto industry information leader, car buyers are nearing a record high for down payments on new vehicles. But they aren’t putting more down to be financially responsible, pay the car off sooner and save on interest.

Instead, buyers are putting more down so that monthly payments on the too-expensive cars can feel a bit more manageable.

Last month, the average down payment on a new car was $3,801. That’s 6.5% more than it was at the same time in 2016 and 15.3% higher than most people were paying five years ago.

Despite putting more down, car buyers with new vehicles are still financing more, have higher monthly payments and are taking longer to pay off the cars.

“Buyers want pricier cars with more bells and whistles, leading to the troubling trend of trading longer loan terms for lower monthly payments," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds. "But now that interest rates are also on the rise, something has to give.”

But it’s not all bad news.

“In our increasing credit-based culture where consumers are willing to finance everything from cellphones to vacations, more money up front shows car buyers aren't completely sacrificing practicality in order to get the cars they really want," Caldwell added.

Those who buy used cars are faring a little better financially.

According to Edmunds, down payments on used car purchases are higher than they were in previous years, but buyers are financing less, signing shorter loan agreements and still have slightly lower monthly payments than they did in 2016.

How to Know if You Can Afford That New Car

Of course, there is room for car buyers to make better financial decisions.

ConsumerAffairs.com has a clear way for you to know if you can afford the car you’ve been dreaming about.

Rather than just looking at how much your monthly car payment will be, ConsumerAffiars.com suggests looking at the total cost of the vehicle relative to your income.

To help you know if you can afford it, use what experts call the 20-4-10 rule: Only buy if you can put down at least 20% upfront, pay off the loan less than four years with a monthly payment that is less than 10% of your monthly income.

Here’s the example Consumer Affairs used to break down the rule:

“If you purchased a car for $33,754, you would need to make a down payment of $6,750. Financing the balance for four years at 4% would create a monthly payment of $609. To afford the average new car or truck, you would need a monthly gross income of $6,090, or $73,080 a year.”

Of course, if your income is along the lines of the average American, you probably make a bit less than that per year. That’s a sign that you should probably skip the bells and whistles and opt for a less expensive car.

Desiree Stennett is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

Rachel Bolden-Kramer always assumed her life would turn out fine. And if you look at her now, you’d guess that she was right.

At 33, she is a full-time entrepreneur. She owns a small preschool in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her 3-year-old daughter. She is a doula and parenting coach for new moms and dads.

And after a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $27,000, her first cookbook, “My Food Stamps Cookbook,” will be published in October.

Her cookbook is filled with nutritious recipes for those who want to eat healthy foods, but have next to no financial resources. But it’s also her personal story of how she fought her way back to mental and physical health after poverty, illness and injury.

Bolden-Kramer knows what it’s like to have no choice but to eat on a fixed budget — and to stretch that budget to eat the healthiest foods possible. For years, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program kept food on her table.

Harvard Diploma? Check. Job? Not Exactly...

[caption id="attachment_58448" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Food stamp budget Photo by Sunshine Velasco[/caption]

Bolden-Kramer grew up poor in San Francisco and attended what she describes as one of the lowest-performing high schools in her district. But her parents had always taught her that as long as she worked hard, she could get into a good college and everything else would fall into place.

So that’s what she did.

She got nearly perfect grades all through high school and she didn’t just go to a “good college.” Arguably, she went to the best -- Harvard University.

Bolden-Kramer was the first in her family to earn a degree. Her future was supposed to be bright.

“I heard my whole life, ‘Just do your best in school and everything will be fine,’” she said.

But two years after graduation, everything wasn’t fine.

It was 2007, and Bolden-Kramer was back in the Bay Area living with her parents. She couldn’t secure a second year of funding for a health and wellness program she started for local teenagers at risk of not graduating high school. And despite her Ivy League education, just securing a job interview was nearly impossible.

“I actually found myself struggling,” Bolden-Kramer said. “I could not find a job… (and) in my second year after school, found myself to be very low income.”

For a while, she was able to keep her head above water.

She taught yoga and wellness classes. She found freelance work. And as it turned out, parents in the neighboring school district were willing to pay top dollar for the tutoring services of a Harvard grad.

She was even able to move out of her parents’ home and get an apartment of her own. Life was not perfect, but it wasn’t so bad.

That was until an injury made it impossible for her to work full time. She had chronic pain and also experienced anxiety and depression.

“I was on disability and learned how to navigate those systems like Social Security and the county-based aid systems like food stamps,” she said. “That was not something I thought would come out of having a Harvard education, but it is the circumstances of my life.”

Getting Healthy on a Food Stamp Budget

[caption id="attachment_58450" align="aligncenter" width="1200"]Food stamp budget Photo by Sunshine Velasco[/caption]

While this period of nearly a decade could be characterized as some of her most difficult years, without it, “My Food Stamps Cookbook” likely wouldn’t exist.

That’s when food stamps, which help feed more than 42 million Americans, went from being something that supplemented her freelance income to becoming the only way she could pay for food.

To keep her intake of medication low, she was determined to use food as her medicine and eat herself healthy.

“In learning how to heal myself, I was finding all these resources like community farms that will just give you bunches and bunches of greens and herbs for free if you’re low income,” she said. “I learned that with farmers markets, you can double the value of your EBT with ‘market match’ programs. I just learned how to be more aware of how to be a savvy consumer of a tiny budget, as well as being more or less a master in understanding the (government) support systems. “

The recipes included in the book are the same ones she was eating. They feature low-cost natural ingredients and leave out common food allergens like animal proteins, gluten, dairy and soy.

She also borrows flavors from countries like Jamaica, Vietnam, Mexico and India to make sure that food never gets boring just because budgets are low.

Bolden-Kramer says the book is her way of making a difference to poor families, which are more likely to deal with a wide range of physical and mental health issues, from infant mortality and diabetes to anxiety and depression. She hopes that as they get physically and mentally healthier, they, too, will be able to overcome just about anything.

The ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ of Her Experience

The nearly 10 years Bolden-Kramer spent on food stamps helped set her on her current path. She started earning income as the primary caretaker for elderly family members. That inspired her to become a licensed child care provider and eventually made it possible to buy her first home, open a preschool and publish this book.

Those who preordered copies during the Kickstarter campaign will receive them in October. But if you missed the Kickstarter, don’t worry. You still have a chance to learn more about the book and get one at MyFoodStampsCookbook.com.

Bolden-Kramer also plans to give away free copies so the low-income families the books were meant to help will have access to them.

“I really consider this my life’s work and my passion,” she said. “It’s really the blood, sweat and tears of my whole experience as an adult… This is our opportunity for liberation. By healing our bodies through what we eat, we have more capacity to transform our lives.”

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She can’t wait to test out a few of Rachel’s recipes.

 

This summer, coffee-loving teachers have another reason to give in to the temptation of that neon “Hot Now” sign.

Krispy Kreme is giving away free coffee to every teacher who buys any item at regular price. The deal continues through the end of July.

To claim the deal, you’ll have to mention it to the cashier and show your school ID as you’re placing your order.

“It's time for teachers to celebrate a great year! Let's celebrate all summer with free coffee w/ purchase,” the donut and coffee chain wrote on Twitter.

The deal is available all day, so whenever your sweet tooth needs its fix, you’ll be able to pair that jelly donut with a piping hot cup of (free) coffee. And every Penny Hoarder knows the only thing better than caffeine is free caffeine.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She credits coffee for most of the success she’s had in life so far.

The Honest Company believes in “clean without compromise.” At least according to its website.

But a lawsuit filed against the company suggests Honest has not been honest with its customers. The suit accuses the company of using chemical ingredients it swore never to use.

The company — made famous by its co-founder, actress Jessica Alba, and its promise to stay clear of potentially harmful chemicals that are common in mainstream household products — has reached a settlement after nearly two years of litigation.

Honest will pay $1.55 million to settle the national false advertising class-action lawsuit.

According to CNN Money, customers who bought the detergent but didn’t hold on to receipts could qualify for up to $50. But those who held on to receipts that prove they spent more could be paid more.

The Dishonest Company?

Despite agreeing to the million-dollar settlement, Honest says it has, indeed, been honest. (OK, I’m done with the “Honest” puns. Honest.)

"We vigorously deny any and all allegations alleged in the lawsuit — specifically that any of our cleaning products contain SLS," spokeswoman Karen Richman said in a statement to CNN Money. "However, given the fact that continued litigation could be protracted and expensive, we have settled this lawsuit to limit further costs and distraction to our business."

Despite that denial, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal based on two independent chemical analyses of the the company’s laundry detergent found that SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) is included in its detergent.

Representatives for the company and its manufacturer told the WSJ that no SLS was added to the product and that it used sodium coco sulfate (SCS) instead. Honest says SCS is a milder alternative to SLS, which, in concentrated amounts, can cause skin irritation.

“More than a dozen scientists interviewed by the Journal said SCS, which is made from palm or coconut oil, is a mixture of various cleaning agents that includes a significant amount of SLS,” the WSJ reported.

Although Honest said the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing, it did agree to change its formula.

The settlement still needs to be approved by a judge before you can get paid. Of course, when that happens we’ll update you about how you can claim your payout.

See which products are included in this class-action lawsuit.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s doesn’t qualify for this class-action lawsuit.

You’ve probably seen the big black letters emblazoned on a gold banner on the red cartons of Horizon organic milk: “DHA OMEGA-3 Supports Brain Health.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m all about having healthier brain cells. So when the special milk costs about 30 cents more than the regular organic milk — which is already double the cost of non-organic milk in some cases — I understand.

And clearly, so do most of you. Horizon’s organic milk with DHA raked in about $250 million in sales, which accounts for 14% of all organic milk sold, according to The Washington Post.

But have you ever thought about why this milk is so much better for your brain than the average half-gallon of organic milk?

Maybe you were under the impression that a certain subset of Horizon’s organic farmers were using some special technique to do this naturally. Or maybe you accepted that there were additives but assumed that those additives were also organic.

Either way, you would be wrong.

USDA: Non-Organic Additives Just Fine in ‘Organic’ Milk

That additive that makes your brain so healthy is a synthetic oil with a faintly fishy taste. It’s brewed in huge industrial steel vats that stand five stories tall from an algae called Schizochytrium, which is found along the coast of Southern California.

According to The Washington Post, the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t doing much to stop Horizon and other companies from slapping its “USDA Organic” seal on their products despite using the factory-brewed oil, and it’s been that way for at least a decade.

Of course, while Horizon is likely happy about this, consumer advocates on the other side of the spectrum believe a product that contains synthetic ingredients should not be labeled organic.

“We do not think that [the oil] belongs in organic foods,” Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports, told The Washington Post. “When an organic milk carton says it has higher levels of beneficial nutrients, like omega-3 fats, consumers want that to be the result of good farming practices … not from additives made in a factory.”

This a huge debate because the “USDA Organic” seal tends to bring with it a pretty significant bump in pricing as well.

For now, the USDA seems to be siding with the companies, not the consumer groups, when it comes to defining what is and is not organic. That means it will be up to you to decide if the extra cost for organic Horizon milk — and other organic products — is really worth it.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She is beginning to question whether organic food is worth the extra cost.