Tech guru and efficiency enthusiast David Pogue shares his 20 best hacks that are about to change your family's world.
Peanut Butter Illustration
Credit: Greg Mably

I have a character flaw. I cannot stand things in life that are inefficient, sluggish, or poorly designed. My brain spends its spare cycles silently finding loopholes, shortcuts, and better ways in every corner of life.

On the one hand, this trait subjects me to the mockery of my wife and kids, who call me Mr. Shortcut. When I lament, for example, the fact that we're still fastening our sneakers using the ancient and clumsy tying-shoelaces method, my kids roll their eyes. That is, until I strike gold—which even my family admits I do every now and then.

I pick up life hacks the way a normal dad would memorize baseball stats. And like my sports obsessed counterparts, I also enjoy imparting this knowledge to anyone who will listen. You're next! I promise that these 20 family-focused tips will make your world better, more organized, and less expensive. Who couldn't use more of that?

1. Flip Your Favorite Peanut Butter

Some people consider natural peanut butter tastier and healthier than its counterpart. Unfortunately, when you open the jar, there's a pool of peanut oil sitting on top that you have to stir back into the peanut cream, which is tricky and messy.

But not if you store the jar upside down! In this case, the oil rises to the bottom of the jar. You'll be able to stir it much more easily—without any oil mess at all.

2. Get Cash For a Gift Card You'll Never Use

Gift cards are quite a racket, and an estimated $973 billion worth of them have gone untapped. If you've been given a card that you doubt you'll spend, visit a gift-card exchange like,,, or GiftCard These sites will buy your gift card for a percentage of its value.

3. Cool a Mouth on Fire

When you take a bite that's too spicy, don't gulp water or soda. In fact, that's the worst thing you can do. The burning comes from a compound in hot peppers called capsaicin; water just carries it to new places in your mouth.

For relief, eat something with fat (whole milk, ice cream, yogurt, or even butter or olive oil); it binds with capsaicin and washes it away.

4. Get Free Cell Phone Service For Your Tween

If she's bugging you for a phone, consider an iPod Touch. It's basically an iPhone without the monthly bill. It lets your kid do everything she can do on an iPhone—send texts, watch videos, take pictures, surf the Web— except connect to the cellular network. Instead, it uses WiFi to get online.

Your kid will be perfectly happy with this pseudo-cellphone—at least until, say, ninth grade. Your savings: about $900 a year.

5. Tie Knots That Stay Tied

We've been tying our shoes wrong—with granny knots!—which is why our kids' shoes are always coming untied. The solution is simple. You know the first step, where you tuck the right lace under the other and pull tight?

Reverse the laces. Instead of tucking the left end over the right, tuck right over left. When you complete the bowmaking business and pull tight, the loops lie horizontally across the shoe—and the knot won't come undone!

6.  Save More at the Movies

Most theaters offer popcorn in small, medium, and large sizes—but the prices are slanted to favor large. For example, you might pay $6.50 for a small, $7.50 for a medium, and $8 for a large. So on family movie night, instead of ordering three small popcorns, order a large—and then ask, "Could I also have an empty?" That way, you get the value of the large popcorn, but you can share it without having to keep passing the bucket, risking spills along the way.

7. Ditch the Itch in a Pinch

When you get a bug bite and there's no drugstore visit in your immediate future, roll some antiperspirant on it. The zinc works wonders to stop the itch!

8.  Find the Gas-Tank Indicator You Didn't Know Was There

When you drive up to a gas station, it's helpful to know which side of your car the fuel tank is on so you can pull into the pump the right way. You probably know where your car's gas cap is. But if you're driving a rental, someone else's car, or a new car, it's worth noticing the handy triangle arrow painted on the gas gauge of every single car. It points to the side of the car your fuel tank is on!

9. Stop Apples From Turning Brown

Once you expose an apple's flesh to the air, it begins oxidizing—reacting with oxygen and turning brown. It's a visual turnoff, especially for discerning consumers under 12. To prevent the browning, keep air away from the cut parts by holding the apple slices together with a rubber band until eating time.

10. Chill Your Food Faster

When your soup, chili, or oatmeal is too hot, most people have only one tactic: blowing on each mouthful.

But there's another technique worth teaching your kids: Take small bites from the edges of the bowl. The food there is always cooler, both because the depth is shallower and because the bowl material itself has cooled down the hot stuff it touches.

11. Peel a Better Banana

You probably open a banana using the stem as a pull tab. Unfortunately, that often mushes the first bite, especially if the banana is a little green. You also have to pick away the stringy bits. Open the banana from the other end.

Pinch the black crusty endpoint to split it, then peel. This way, you avoid mushing the tip; you get no stringy parts; and the stem acts as a handle.

12. Spread Smoother Jelly

A knife is just not the best utensil for spreading jelly, butter, or cream cheese onto bread. The back of a spoon is better. First, its larger surface area distributes the pressure, so it's less likely to tear the bread. Second, when you need to scoop into the container for more jelly—well, it's a spoon.

13. Teach This Set-The-Table Trick

Showing your kids how to set the table? The order is easy to remember: It's alphabetical! Fork, knife, spoon.

Which side of the plate is easy too: "Fork" has the same number of letters as "left." "Knife" and "spoon" have the same number of letters as "right."

14. Unstick Gum From Clothing

Freeze it. Once you've frozen the garment (and the gum), the goo pops right off.

15. Extract Ketchup Scientifically

How do you get the ketchup out of the bottle? Instead of banging on the bottom, it's faster and cleaner to use centrifugal force.

Hold the bottle at the bottom. Make sure the top is on securely. Swing your straight arm in a big circle. Instantly, the ketchup flies to the top of the bottle.

16. Don't Pay for Cable While You're Away

If you go away for the summer, or split your time between different homes during the year, don't keep paying for cable TV or satellite service while you're not there. The cable and satellite companies offer vacation-hold plans. Just call to let them know when you'll be away—and then stop paying while you're gone!

17. Use Your Phone's Camera as Memory Supplement

You probably use your cellphone's camera to take pictures you want to keep. But it's equally useful for taking temporary pictures, which you'll consult once, or never, before deleting them. For example, take a picture of the sign over your garage space, to remember where you parked. Or photograph the open fridge before shopping so you won't have to wonder if you're out of milk, ketchup, whatever. Also shoot the scratches on a car you're renting, as evidence; the cable connections behind your TV before unplugging them; your taxi's license, to be able to recover stuff you leave behind; and your children as you enter the amusement park—if you get separated, you can tell the security people exactly what they were wearing.

18. Enjoy a Sparkling Microwave Without Scrubbing

Put a microwave-safe bowl half full of water in your microwave; turn it on high for five minutes. Open the door carefully after a few minutes (it's hot!), and wipe with a paper towel.

That's how you steam-blast the oven's walls to loosen up caked-on exploded food, like spaghetti sauce.

19. Get Your Picnic Drinks Cold

You put ice into picnic coolers to keep the drinks cool. But regular ice can't get any colder than its melting point: 32°F. If you want your drinks to get even colder—or colder faster—lower the ice's temperature (down to about 15 degrees) by mixing a cup or two of salt with the water before you freeze it into ice cubes. Salt lowers water's freezing point, so it remains liquid at lower-thannormal temperatures. The melting ice will remain supercooled, as will your drinks.

20. Clean the Blender Faster

Fill the blender jar halfway with water, squirt in some detergent—and then turn it on. Rinse, and you're done!

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