washingtonpost.com
Color of Money Book Club

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, September 27, 2007 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted an online discussion with Deborah McNaughton and Melinda Weinstein, authors of "Rich and Thin: Slim Down, Shrink Debt and Turn Calories Into Cash" (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) on Thursday, Sept. 27 at Noon ET.

In her column from Sept. 2, Michelle writes, "many people consume too many calories and their unhealthful eating is costing them a piece of prosperity."

The transcript follows.

Read Michelle's past Color of Money columns.

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Michelle Singletary: Welcome. Sorry for the delay. Technical difficulties. But let's get started.

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NY, NY: Wow- I love this idea that I could save money and lose weight! Since I have both extra weight and extra debt- I'd love to know more. What do you think the biggest pitfalls are for people trying to do this?

Michelle Singletary: The biggest buster of people's budget and the reason behing their big bellies or wider hips is eating out.

When I sit down with folks and go over their budget they almost ALWAYS underestimate how much they are eating out and much of that food is unhealthy or in the case of sit-down restaurants the portions are too large.

I won't lie, I've guilty myself of overeating at times. But when I cut back eating out both my hips go down and the money in my savings go up.

So one of the first places I tell people to look to find money to pay down debt is eating out -- and this includes the too frequent trips to the grocery store.

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Mt. Rainier, Md.: Hi, Michelle, Thanks so much for your column this morning - it was spot on! I'd like to add one more consideration, particularly for folks in the DC area. It's also important to look at what the different states require insurers to provide. Maryland, for example, is one of the VERY few states that requires insurers to cover infertility treatment - everything from simple male infertility to IVF (which, I've been researching, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars!). I work in MD and hubby works in DC. That's the main reason we're switching to my employer's insurance this season, even though it's slightly more expensive per month. I'm so glad I caught this! If there are particular procedures you know you might want/need, it's very important to examine all of the fine print.

Michelle Singletary: Very good point. It's a pain to read thu all those documents we receive but so important to make sure you sign up for the right benefits for what suits your family right now.

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Oakland, Calif.: Thanks for the great columns and advice! In today's column you mentioned the growing number of companies offering financial incentives for employees joining wellness programs. My company offered this last year, and I didn't participate because I'm leery of giving my employer any health information. (I'm in good health, but I think it's none of their business as long as I do my job). Am I crazy to be sensitive about having that information "out there" and missing out on extra cash in my pocket? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: An Early Look at Open Enrollment

Michelle Singletary: I don't think you are paranoid for wanting to keep as much of your private information private. But I'm not sure when you do the health surveys your employer has a right to look at the information.

For me, I try to participate in such things because in the end they help me health-wise and financial wise. When employees are healthier as a group, it does bring down the costs for everyone.

But to be sure about your privacy why don't you just check with your benefits office to see if any of your health information will be shared with your employer. If so, don't do it. If not, get PAID!

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Maplewood, N.J.: We should all eat healthier, organic foods...

But if you read ingredients in packaged and frozen foods, the fewer the number, the more expensive the product. Why does leaving out things (like nitrates and nitrites) increase the cost?

Melinda Weinstein: Even though buying healthy food is more expensive - if you are buying at a grocery store and preparing at home, you are still saving money in comparison to eating out. You can make the food you purchase and prepare go farther (and make your dollars) stretch than if you were to stop by your favorite restaurant or fast food chain. Look for sales at the grocery store or shop at warehouse chains where you can buy food in bulk.

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Bethesda, Md.: An interesting topic. How can I apply your tactics to my everyday being? I find time very hard to spare, and so much food is 'convenient' nowadays. I am a single parent with a very active 7 year old boy. I work 15 miles away from home, but spend at least an hour in traffic each way. I drop my son at his private school at 6:45 a.m., and pick him up at 6:30 p.m., only to turn around and go to his karate/choir or my gym class. On the weekends, it's the same, boy scouts for him, gym for me. Sunday is church, and sleep (and HW projects). When do you find the time to slim down financially? I just realized at least $600 of my bi-wkly check goes to taxes, and insurance, and I have the minimums. What should I do to get started?

Deborah McNaughton: Sounds like you are on a fast track. You might consider packing lunches and snacks rather than driving through. Keep a journal with you on how much you are spending and even the calories from our Rich and Thin book.

After you see the cost, you will more than likely see how much to cut back, not to mention the calories.

We have a new Money Calorie counter slider just released for tracking. Visit our website at www.richandthinliving.com

Michelle Singletary: I so know what you mean. I have THREE rugrats, a hubby and about 10 jobs. But my husband and I made a decision to really cut back on drive-by dining.

So that means I have to plan my meals. I often try to make something that can last two meals. And I find things I can cook quick. Like fish. Doesn't take much time in the oven. Heck, sometimes less time then to get thru a fast-food drive-in.

And I have a lot of stuff to grab before we go out to our various club meetings, sport events etc. I take 100 percent juice boxes (but not too many, still lots of calories) and fruit etc. That way the kids aren't nagging me to hit up the vending machines. It does take a great deal of effort but worth the savings in calories and costs.

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McLean, Va.: Is this "slimming down body and debt" idea supposed to work in the short term or the long term or both? Because organic foods are higher priced that most conventional foods, and fresh produce is expensive and it doesn't last as long as it would if it was preserved. I agree with the health-care cost idea, but there are plenty of people who have healthy body weights, but have some sort of condition that requires them to see specialists. So this sounds more like a "it was a good idea in theory" thing to me.

Melinda Weinstein: The idea is to cut back on your eating out and everyday wasteful spending. Of course you have to eat and if you have a special diet, it's important that you follow it. Just be aware of what you are spending your money on. Maybe you don't struggle with food - maybe you have another purchase addiction where you are purchasing items excessively (music CD's, handbags, shoes).

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Friend from Wash., D.C.: Michelle et al - the book sounds great and I look forward to picking it up. I am trying to help a dear friend who is struggling to deal with major credit card and medical debt. He's a Katrina evacuee, now in D.C., who's succeeded in finding a job, home, schools for kids, here (amazing - so proud of him) but due to loss of wages, apt in New Orleans etc., is struggling with major debt. As calls from collectors increase, he needs someone to help him craft and implement plan to get out from under this. I've worked to identify such a person/firm - I'd pay for their services if necessary - but can't seem to find such. Please, any suggestions?

Deborah McNaughton: Nothing is more stressful then a financial crisis. Have your friend review the Fair Debt Collection Practice act...www.ftc.gov. Many times the collection companies are violating the laws.

If he is short on income, SURVIVAL is the key. Always pay first: housing, food, utilities, medical. With whatever is left you can pay creditors. Contact my office at:888-838-4768 and we will put you in contact with a debt management company.

Michelle Singletary: You might also direct your friend to www.debtadvice.org.

It's the main site for consumer credit counseloring.

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Harrisburg, Penn.: I am at work eating my lunch and reading this on my work hour. I am eating my healthy $7 salad. As I was paying for it, the person behind me said "being healthy costs too much" as he was waiting in line to pay for his $3 cheeseburger. How do we save calories and save money when workplace cafeterias charge so much more for the healthy food?

Melinda Weinstein: Bring your lunch to work a couple days a week and still order your healthy lunch when you do need to purchase food at the cafeteria. We are not saying that you can never eat out, but what we are recommending is that you cut back. When you are buying your lunch at work, order water or bring your own beverage. That will save some money.

Michelle Singletary: Here's how you make cheapsake lemonaide.

Get a cup of free water. Then get some lemons and squeeze into the cup.

Don't add sugar.

You just saved youself $1.20 or probably about 150 calories.

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Anonymous: I agree, eating out is never very effective for the wallet or the hips. However, I often find it challenging to eat healthy foods, with a tight budget. Even steering clear of marketing techniques (organic! fat-free! etc) fresh fruits, vegetables, etc. are just more expensive than unhealthy frozen dinners or fast food. Any thoughts on how to cook healthy food on a strict budget?

Melinda Weinstein: Bring your lunch to work, split meals, look for sales and cook at home. These are some of the things you can do in order to cut back on your restaurant expenses. When cooking at home, buy food items in bulk to save you money. Preparing your food at home not only gives you control on how many calories you are consuming but also allows you to monitor how much you are spending per meal.

Michelle Singletary: And I might challenge the notion that eating better is more expensive. Yes, fruit can be more than say fruit snacks. But in the end if you have to pay more for health insurance or life insurance or you have to continually buy bigger clothes -- that extra money for that apple doesn't seem so much.

I have a family of five so you know I have a huge grocery bill. But we cut back other places to make up for the extra it takes to get fresh salmon instead of cheaply produced burgers. We aren't perfect and certainly we do eat some junk food. But if you decided to cut back even a little it can make a huge difference.

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Washington, D.C.: My husband and I have no kids and often work long hours, so there's usually no cooking dinner by the time I get home and we find ourselves eating out a lot or ordering carryout (usually Chinese food). When I do go shopping for grocery to try to have food on hand for a quick meal, I find that I wind up wasting a lot of stuff because it usually spoils by the time I get around to cooking it. In this case, does it pay to just eat out/carry out? It seems like we're spending the same amount of money either way.

Melinda Weinstein: Try splitting meals when you eat out with your husband. The ideal is to make some meals at home. Purchase things that you can throw in your freezer so the food won't spoil. If you have a slow cooker, you can always throw a roast in before you leave for work and have a great homemade meal when you get home!

Michelle Singletary: Also for the Chinese food here's a tip. When you order have them to HOLD the sauce, which is typically source of a lot of the calories. So in order words have them just steam the veggies and meat. With the sauce on the side you can control how much is put on your food if any.

And try every other time to skip the white rice.

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Rockville, Md.: Eating out?

My wife are starting (slowly) to try something many did when we were children - order one meal and two plates. We find this is just about exactly what each of us wants to eat. We then tip as if we had bought two meals. So far no problems and the waiters seem to like it.

What is your take?

Melinda Weinstein: That is a great way to save money and is what you usually suggest when people are eating out. The portions are generally large enough for two people, plus you are saving money.

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Albany, N.Y.: Thanks for taking my question. I'm a 23 year old graduate student living with my boyfriend. We sit down together every night for dinner, which is great. Currently, I cook for the two of us 5 nights/week (and brunch on the weekends) and he takes me out the other 2 nights/week (one night fast food, one night sit down dinner). However, my boyfriend thinks that I am overworked in cooking and that we need to eat out more. I am concerned that this will hurt both our relatively healthy at home eating habits as well as the pocketbook. Aside from him cooking (we've tried that before...), any ideas on how to not be stressed from cooking? Mind you, this is pre-real world job, pre kids....thanks.

Melinda Weinstein: Keep cooking at home. That is a great habit that you are in. Avoid the fancy home cooked meals that take a lot of time. Cook meals that do not require many ingredients or time to prepare. There are a lot of cookbooks out there and recipes you can find online that can be prepared quickly. I know this personally because I am not the best cook (even though I prepare most of our meals) and I have had to locate easy recipes that don't require a lot of my time or skill.

Michelle Singletary: I'll resist saying anything about your shacking up and how that ends up costing lots of couples unnecessary money and grief.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Michelle,

I'm interested in becoming a financial planner, but frankly, my interest is not in helping the rich get richer and working at a firm that talks about "wealth management" -- that is too often code for "We only help people with 7-figure net worth." What I'd really like to do is help people who, say, want to figure out if they should pay off their credit cards first or start an IRA, or to rent or buy, etc. I have no interest in sales, earning big bucks, or joining the old boys' network, I just like helping people make the most of the money they have, and explaining how things work in layman's terms. But I'm not seeing a lot of ways to make a living doing that. Any general career advice for this field? Thanks!

Deborah McNaughton: We have programs available for people to start their own credit consulting business or add to their current business. We have 2 Credit and Financial Strategies programs. One for consulting and the other for seminars. Visit our website at www.financialvictory.com to receive information.

With current events and more financial crisis, people are going to need help managing their credit and finances.

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Arlington, Va.: Emergency savings vs. paying off car. I am a 20 something single female. I have $11,000 in emergency savings. Enough for 4 months if anything were to happen. I have a $6,000 car loan. I would like to pay off the car loan with the savings I have. This would leave me with 1 and half months emergency savings. By paying off the loan I would be able to save more aggressively and not have it hanging over my head. I have no other consumer debt. And have over $15,000 in 401K. Is this a wise/safe move for me?

Melinda Weinstein: We recommend that you have 3 to 6 months of your living expenses saved (3 months if you are married and 6 months if you are single). Once you reach this amount, then start paying extra money toward your car loan.

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Apple Valley, Minn.: Hi Michelle! I love your column, newsletter and tv show! I usually budget $25/week (which is really low in Downtown Minneapolis) for breakfast/lunch at work. Usually, I eat a bowl of cereal (from home) at my desk, and skip lunch. However, when the weekend comes, or I'm too overstimulated to prepare dinner when I get home, the 'savings' still end up at the pizza parlor, chicken place or burger joint. Any suggestions on how to quell that? Thanks!

Deborah McNaughton: LOOK AT THE CALORIES and cost: An order of Chicken Fingers cost may be $3.59. That equates to 640 calories per serving. Based on our book, 5 days a week, that would equal spending of $933.40 per year, and 48 pounds. Take that money and put in an account (mutual fund) and you will have earned $6,023.31 in 5 yrs., $15,993.53 in 10 yrs.........$59,066.24 in 20 years.

That should make you think twice about "saving" money and calories. Rich and Thin gives you all the calculations.

Michelle Singletary: Something else you may do is write down your goals -- owning a home, paying off credit card debt, paying off student loans or a car loan. What is is that you want to do with your money in the future.

Write this down on note cards and carry it with you. Everytime you go out to eat and it's not in your budget before you buy pull out those cards. Let them be a reminder of why you are trying to save.

Remember priorities lead to prosperity.

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Falls Church, Va.: Organic food is expensive? Think about the money you spend on new clothes when you outgrow the old ones? Think about medical bills from high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.

Michelle Singletary: That's what we have been saying. But it doesn't hurt to have it said again.

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Sacramento, Calif. : Hi Michelle - You're so right about eating healthy by cooking rather than eating out. I am lucky, I love to cook. But then I see ads from fast food restaurants advertising their "dollar menu" and another that advertises its buckets of fried food as a virtuous substitute for a homecooked meal for the family. How do you counter those multi-million dollar ad campaigns?

Michelle Singletary: Turn off the TV!!!!!

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re: So one of the first places I tell people to look to find money to pay down debt is eating out -- : so true. And not only will you save $ and calories as you mention, but when you cook at home you usually cut your salt and bad cholesterol consumption significantly, reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol significantly and increasing your heart health.

Deborah McNaughton: It's all about awareness on what you are spending and calories consumed. That's why we wrote "Rich and Thin"

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Maryland: I am so happy this is being discussed! For years I believed I was saving money by eating out, until I found myself penniless and 40 pounds heavier.

I decided my bank account and body needed a change, so I started working out and cooking at home. I've lost all the weight and have an extra $500-$800 extra in my bank account every month which is going straight towards paying off my student loans. One last thing, the key is to not only cook at home, but to watch portion sizes as well. A large chicken breast, for instance, will give you two meals! The pounds will come off and your bank account will go up. I learned this first hand!

Deborah McNaughton: Great comment and advice.

To make it easy for people, we designed a "Money Calorie Counter" slider. People can carry with them when eating out to see cost and calories.

Its Free....visit. www.richandthinliving.com

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St. Andrews, Scotland: Is it possible that overweight and overspending are two addictions that have the same roots in childhood issues?

Deborah McNaughton: I believe so. Many times kids will duplicate or clone what their parents do in the home.

Low self esteem..........spending and eating make you feel good.

If parents were constantly denying their kids things, when the child becomes an adult they will over-compensate with spending and eating. Why, because they are now in control. It becomes power for them.

Michelle Singletary: I definitely have issues because of stuff that happened to me in my childhood. Thankfully part of what saved me was my Big Mama. She was truly my Savings Grace, literally.

She saved me from foster care and showed me how to manage my money well.

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re: we find ourselves eating out a lot or ordering carryout : How 'bout replacing some of those meals with a trip to a salad bar?

Deborah McNaughton: The salad bar is still costing you money and calories. Dressing are also high in calories.

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Arlington, Va.: Regarding your article re athletes and lower priced shoes -- Do you really think that NBA players are doing a public service by endorsing cheaper shoes? I'd guess that they are trying to maximize their own paychecks and publicity by targeting a niche of the market. While there's nothing wrong with capitalism, I wouldn't glorify these individuals, who (other than Durant) probably would not interest the major shoe companies. Marbury, in particular, has defended Michael Vick, been involved with a team intern in a truck, used inappropriate language to a senior female executive, just within the last few months.

Michelle Singletary: I hear what you are saying and generally I stay away from most brand name anything --except UTZ chips. The best chips in the world. Oops, wrong forum to say that.

Melinda and Deborah I have cut back on the chips.

Anyway, I wrote that column because at some point you have to give a little with what your kid wants that their peers have. I just thought it was better that some sports figures are trying to make money but providing clothing and shoes that are more affordable and that kids may actually wear.

I wasn't endorsing Marbury (and his lifestyle). Just saying beats paying $100 plus for shoes.

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Bethesda, Md.: I cannot believe how many people are complaining about the "cost" of eating healthy foods. So do we really believe that it makes more sense to eat food that is empty of nutrients and dietary value because it's "cheap"? How "cheap" is it to be sick with a body that cannot heal and repair itself? We only have one life and one body. Yes, it can be more difficult and time consuming but we're worth it. Our health cannot be replaced and protecting and improving it is more than worth the effort.

Michelle Singletary: A little touchy but you still get an Amen.

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Springfield, Ill.: Excellent article today. I think it would be very eye opening for most people if they looked at the potential "costs" of unhealthy lifestyles along with the excess weight they carry around. Diabetes is a good example because the farther it progresses the more expensive it becomes to manage whereas if you cut the unhealthy weight your management costs can come down!

Michelle Singletary: You are so right!

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Dear Michelle: This is the first time I've written but I've been reading the column for a few months and it is so helpful. Thank you.

I'm sending my question/comment to the authors in advance as I have a noon meeting.

I totally agree with McNaughton and Weinstein and my question is 'why can't money put in flexible spending accounts be spent on gym memberships? I just find it ironic that I spend it on diet pills but not on preventative health measures.

Melinda Weinstein: The flexible spending account is designed for qualified medical expenses. It allows money to be taken from an employee's paycheck pre-tax. I agree that it would be nice if we could pay our gym memberships with a flexible spending account.

A suggestion would be to have a special savings (or "luxury bucket") set aside for your gym membership dues. Our book, Rich and Thin, discusses how to save for your "luxury" items.

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Reston, Va.: With regards to saving money and slimming down, I have been able to save money on food by checking the flier for my regular grocery store, and making it a point to buy only what's on sale. I have to have a good justification for buying a non-sale item, and once I have a list, I do my absolute best to stick to it.

It also helps to learn the cycles of sales at your local grocery - if oatmeal is on sale every month, buy enough to get you through the month, so you don't need it until it's on sale again. Only buy frozen meals on sale.

Bring lunch to work - you save a TON of money that way!

Reston

Deborah McNaughton: Also the food you buy at the grocery store goes further than a quick fast food run.

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Southern Maryland: I finally understand what my parents meant when they said that "we have food at home." Eating out was a treat and not a convenience.

Traveling with a child I never left the house without snacks, water, and often packed a lunch with a towel to cover laps. Years later our child (teen) rarely eats fast food and makes sure she packs some food when she leaves for an event.

Michelle Singletary: Now that's called parenting.

Good for you.

And you know my husband is always fussing when we get in the car because I have plastic bags full of food to take to whatever event or outing we are taking. But he sure is glad when the kids starting yelling that they are hungry that I can grab better foods from my bag then we can get on the road.

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$7 salad and drive-thru dining: On Sunday go to the store, buy salad in a bag and a roast chicken. On Monday morning put some salad in a tupperware and put some chicken on top. Repeat Tues-Friday. Or save that end of leftover steak to cut up on top of the salad, grill a few extra shrimp or use sliced ham.

If weekends aren't too crazy cook then. A pot of homemade soup is good for many lunches during the week. Potroast or meatloaf leftovers are great sandwiches.

Chicken can be fast and cooked dozens of different ways - get boneless breasts and brown in a skillet. Dump in a can of your favorite sauce and simmer 30-40min, serve with rice or pasta.

There's a lot of satisfaction (at least for me) in cooking your own food.

Melinda Weinstein: Great suggestions! These are wonderful ways to stretch your food budget.

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Richmond, Va.: Hypertension is such a killer in our community: you can really reduce the risk by cutting out the fast food, the fat, the sodium, the calories.

Michelle Singletary: Sure can. Thanks.

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Alexandria, Va.: Haven't had a chance to check out today's column, but this topic is so on time. I take nearly a half dozen meds and if I just lost weight I could get rid of all of them except one. Darn allergies. I have started eating better and once I'm in a healthy range I will be able to save on the meds and my life insurance. Little things add up. Thank you, Michelle for all that you say and do.

Deborah McNaughton: Try tracking your spending and calorie intake on fast foods, gourmet coffee stops, and eating out. Most people have no idea how many calories they are consuming not to mention the money.

Once you see this, hopefully the weight will drop, your bank account will increase and you can get rid of some of your meds.

Visit our websit at: www.richandthinliving.com to sign up for our free newsletter

Michelle Singletary: You are so welcome.

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Single Mom idea: I heard a while ago about three single moms who would get together and cook massive amounts and split them up between them. That way they were cooking once but getting 3 meals out of the deal.

Deborah McNaughton: That's a great idea. Actually my daughter was involved with her friends with this cooking coop. The meals were terrific and she actually saved money.

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Contoocook, N.H.: I have lost 53 pounds and my sweetie has lost 35. We've kept it off for several years now. We've invested some money into this project at Weight Watchers but are each five pounds from goal, at which point we pay nothing. Many people lose much faster than we have, by the way.

I have noticed that we have saved money in the long run. We've learned to savor our food and to eat less of it so I'm now able to buy some gourmet items since I'm buying less. We eat lots less meat which saves money. Mostly I buy less. I've never been one for convenience foods, but have had to learn to use more whole grains. I can cook a larger amount of brown rice on the weekend and use it throughout the week. Tastes better, sticks to our ribs better, more versatile, greater nutrition and cheaper than Minute Rice or any of those fancy flavoured rice mixes.

My husband has learned to eat cheaply and well at fast food places. It took him quite a while, but he now orders salad instead of fries, low-fat dressing, SMALL burgers (no cheese, extra lettuce/tomatoes, no mayo) and stays well within the food and money budgets. He often orders off the dollar menu and spends very little. I lack his discipline so I pack my lunches. It's a pain, but a linchpin in my weight loss. I'm worth it.

We LOVE to eat out, but have learned to share a meal, skip appetizers and drinks (or have them at home by candlelight before we go out) and desserts. Some places charge a plating fee for sharing, but that's actually rare and still cheaper than two separate meals. Kiddy ice cream cones have become just as satisfying, but cheaper and better for us.

Well, you get the picture. The key thing for me has been being in some sort of structured program that taught me what a "normal" portion is. It's taken me five years to trust that I really -won't- starve. I'm actually rarely hungry, never felt better in my life.

Sorry to sound like such a fanatic. It's just been an unexpected benefit to save money on top of dumping all that weight.

By the way, when I find myself unable to properly plan and execute my food it's become a red flag that I'm doing too much in my life and I need to slow down and get a grip on things. When did we become a culture so busy that eating and sleeping became optional activities???

Melinda Weinstein: What a great testimony! I would encourage you to take this one step further and put the money that you have saved from cutting back on your restaurant bills and invest that amount into an interest bearing account such as a mutual fund. Our book has a lot of great ways that you can make your money work for you.

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Troy, N.Y.: What do you think is the best lunch you can prepare at home to eat at work in terms of effort, cost, and health?

Melinda Weinstein: It depends on what you enjoy. Make a list of possible food items you can prepare for lunch and look through the grocery store ads to see what is on sale. Take the money you are have saved and set it aside into an interest bearing account such as a mutual fund. That way you can make your money grow instead of your waistline!

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Washington, D.C.: I know this doesn't apply to people who are truly scraping by - but I think people eat out at restaurants quite a bit and that even a cheap meal for two out, say 20 bucks, is way more than you'd spent even at Whole Foods for one meal. I've been dieting recently and am even on one of those prepared meal plans, and I've found that just by not going out - and no alcohol - I'm saving quite a bit. That and not cruising around the grocery store hungry buying things I end up not eating completely.

Melinda Weinstein: One of our money saving tips in Rich and Thin is to avoid grocery shopping when you are hungry. Try some other things too to save money:

- Brew your own coffee at home.

- Go to matinees instead of evening movies where you pay full price.

- Avoid impulse purchases.

-Cut out a cable channel that you don't watch.

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Bethesda, Md.: Michelle -

Please remember that restaurant servers are in the business of selling food. Don't make your "free lemonade" at a sit-down establishment. Tacky, tacky, tacky. It's one thing if you're at a fast-food type place and bring your own lemons, just not a place where what the servers gets depends on how much you order. Again, this is assuming that you tip at LEAST 15%.

Michelle Singletary: Oh, so let me get this right. You think someone in the food service business is going to go broke because I choose not to order high caloric soda.

What's tacky is trying to make me feel cheap when I'm being frugal. As a family we have decided to eat out once a week after church. One of the ways I try to cut cost and calories is to order water and lemons. NOT ONE SERVER has ever given me the evil eye for ordering water.

If it helps you be not so mean, we often tip more than 15 percent.

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Meal planning: I do a weekly meal plan that I print and put on the refrigerator. It includes activities and where we have to be. I've been doing this so long the kids expect it and check it and complain enough in advance that changes are not impossible. It isn't set in stone, but it does help me make certain I have the right things in my pantry for what I said we were eating.

It also helps with planning ahead and buying stuff when it's on special and using coupons.

We've just had a major medical situation in our family. Money is TIGHT. Eating out is special occasion only.

We had an emergency fund--but the medical crisis meant we went through it at twice the usual rate.

Melinda Weinstein: You might look for other ways to cut back too. You mentioned that you are on a tight budget. Keep a spending journal for 30 days and write down all of your purchases. At the end of the month, review the journal to see if you can cut back. Most people are shocked to see what they are spending there money on.

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re: Any thoughts on how to cook healthy food on a strict budget?: slow cooker! Spaghetti sauce, soup, stews, lentil stew, split pea soup, chicken soup, all cooking while I'm at work and ready when I get home. I make them without salt or fat so they're healthy as well as low calorie. Make a lot at once on the weekend, freeze it for all week. Take it to work for cheap healthy lunch. Be careful about those recipes that call for cans of cream O something soup, they're high in salt. go to allrecipes.com for lots of recipes.

Deborah McNaughton: I love slow cookers! It is a great way to save calories (by watching the ingredients)

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New York, N.Y.: Since I've been reading Michelle's column, I now get most of my books at the library. But the NY City Public Library doesn't have this book! How can I read it?

My real question is related to going to the supermarket too often. It's hard to have fresh veggies in the house if you don't go. Any suggestions?

Melinda Weinstein: Visit our website at www.richandthinliving.com to find out more information about the book. We also have a new Money Calorie Counter slider available, plus a free online newsletter.

You can purchase frozen or canned vegetables instead. These items are frequently on sale at the grocery store. You can also find canned vegetables at bulk price at warehouse clubs.

Michelle Singletary: Also, ask your library if they will order the book. Show them my column so they know you may not be the only one who may want to borrow the book.

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Reston, Va.: I recently have picked up the debt/waist diet habit, and am loving it! I add up the amount I do not spend on fast food, eating out, unnecessary munchies, etc and do 2 things: save about 75 percent, then reward myself and my daughter with the rest, in non-food form. Vacations, adventures & activities outdoors, a great book or fun article of clothing. So far, have saved and lost a few lbs. But I'm also teaching my daughter good habits, hopefully, and spending time w/her cooking, which is a nice bonus!

Deborah McNaughton: Congratulations! We created the "Money Calorie Counter" to help people like you shed those pounds and get out of debt.

Teaching your daughter about money and cooking right at an early age will benefit her for adulthood.

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Ballston, Va.: I'd just like to point out that frozen vegetables are often cheaper than the fresh kind and you don't really lose much in terms of nutrition. They keep longer and cost less too!

Deborah McNaughton: Frozen vegetables go on sale too. Watch the newspapers and mail for the sales.

Michelle Singletary: And many brands offer low-sodium options to their can veggies. Look for those too.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Can you give us the link where you sign up to keep credit card companies from sending you pre-approvals.

As a regular reader of your columns, I know you have posted this several times. This time I promise to write it down and keep it in a safe place!

Melinda Weinstein: Call 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688) to remove your name from the credit reporting agencies' lists.

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Fairfax, Va.: There are so many sources for quick meals. Rachael Ray's 30 min meals, the little books you can get in the checkout line, other assorted cookbooks. And frozen veggies are just as healthy as fresh. You can also do some canned veggies (not the seasoned ones, too much sodium) and cut down on the salt by rinsing the veggies before you cook them. I just find it so hard to believe that someone has NO time to cook something quick and healthy.

Michelle Singletary: I use a lot of those little books at the check out. There are great ideas for healthy quick meals.

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Michelle Singletary: Well it is a little after 1 and time to go. Thank you all for joining me for today chats. Good, thought provoking questions and wonderful tips.

Just FYI. I have a new XM radio program. Every Sunday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.(EST) Please call in (even if you don't have XM). I may be able to answer some questions we couldn't get to today. The number is 866 801-8255

Have a wonderful day and save on purpose!

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