Saturday, November 29

We have a winner!

As always, I used to create a sequence (to mix up the order of the entries) and then created another sequence to determine the winner (plus two runners-up, just in case I don't hear back.)

Toowylde -- who didn't include any contact information -- is our winner for the Black Friday giveaway.

Toowylde, go ahead and contact me by next Saturday at noon PST. After that, I will go ahead and announce the second person.

Friday, November 28

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

The other day, I was reading a pretty polarizing piece over at Smart Spending: Just say not to Christmas gifts.

The post recapped another step in Ramit's challenge (remember that 30-day challenge I discussed?): don't buy presents this year.

Really, though, the piece wasn't polarizing. That would imply that there were two sides. Of the 115 comments, there were only a few that disagreed with the idea.

The rest were people ranting about the crass commercialization of Christmas. How they're disheartened and discouraged by it. How they agree that it's better not to participate -- except, perhaps, to buy a couple small items for kids.

Now, I'm not one to bemoan people's decision to abdicate rampant consumerism. In fact, good for them. I think people cutting back is a great thing. (Of course, Tim and I are still exchanging gifts this year. I feel like the first married Christmas is an important one to celebrate.)

That said, I have to say I'm puzzled by all these assertions that Christmas has only recently become about greed and overconsumption.

Most of the people mention small children -- so I know they are probably no more than 10 years older than me. This means their Christmas experience couldn't be that much different from mine.

And I distinctly remember the ads. The myriad ads. There were so many, telling us we needed to buy to show our love.

OK, the advertisers were a bit more subtle than that. But the message was clear: Spend, spend, spend. And then spend some more.

There were ads for jewelry, for toys, and probably lots of other stuff that passed in one ear and out the other.

The point is, I grew up well aware that Christmas was seized upon by retailers as a prime money-making opportunity. That was never in question. So if I remember this so distinctly, why don't these other people?

Mostly, I think it's about what we want to remember. Of course we want to remember a simpler time. (My mom assures me that there is a fabulous book about this subject called The Way We Never Were.)

We all want our childhoods to be more pure and innocent than they were. Just as the 1950s weren't all sock hops and sharing malts, our childhood Christmases weren't just about family togetherness -- at least, not if you watched any amount of television.

We want to remember better times. And perhaps a few families did succeed in sheltering their kids from the "BUY BUY BUY"ness of the holidays. Some families did accentuate togetherness and simple fun over crass consumerism. Some kids were probably taught that gifts are only part of it.

But, by and large, (or is "buy and large") we were kids. We wanted stuff. And we wanted it because the TV told us we did. C'mon, we all saw the same commercials, lusted after the same (mostly crappy) toys. Most of which were discarded in disinterest by the end of the week, some even by the end of the day. Transformers, Teddy Ruxpin, Hot Wheels, Lazer Tag, Barbie, My Little Pony, Nerf, Super Soaker. Any of this ring a bell?

No matter our parents' best intentions -- no matter our own best intentions -- we were interested less in holiday spirit than material possessions. We called our friends after the presents were unwrapped and compared our loot.

Christmas wasn't just about carols and cheesy TV claymation. It was, for most kids, about the latest toys and games. The excitement of the presents under the tree. Sure, we were excited about the holiday spirit, but materialism trumps spiritualism for most kids. Not because they're jaded, but because kids are big on instant gratification. If they want something, they want it. There's no weighing the pros and cons of a purchase. That's adult stuff.

So any adults who now remember the purity of the holidays and being excited about cocoa by the fire... Well, they were either the exceptions to the rule or they've adjusted their memories to suit their current needs.

There is another element to the equation, though. Maybe these people remember "simpler" Christmases because they remember cheaper Christmases.

Over the last couple decades, toy prices weren't the only things to inflate. The sheer selection of technology and gadgetry has expanded exponentially. In other words, people feel like holidays are about stuff because, well, there's even more to buy.

Granted, there were always plenty of toys we all begged for; but now those toys get more and more specialized, which means more expensive. Technology is increasingly becoming kid-friendly. Kids get MP3 players, gaming consoles, gadget-filled cell phones that play MP3s and games.

It's more and more common for kids to want/expect doodads that cost well over $100. Even the handheld games (PSP, Nintendo DS) are $129. Then you have $100 shoes and bikes and plenty of $30+ action figures or dolls.

Maybe it just seems like Christmas is more commercialized because the wish list totals now look like a monthly mortgage. (Insert sub-prime joke here.)

The fact is, Christmas hasn't gotten more commercialized. But commercialization has gotten a lot pricier.

But these same people who are complaining? Lots of them have discovered the very simple answer: You don't have to buy them everything they want. Heck, you could raise your kids to see (at least partially) the folly of giving a 12-year-old kid an iPod Touch.

Sure, there will always be some societal pressure you can't control, but, more often than not, you can instill your values in your kids. And if not, then they think you're the absolute worst parent -- meanest, least caring, most evil -- in the whole world.

Chances are, even if they temporarily go gadget-crazy as adults, they quickly get sick of having the "cutting edge" stuff become yesterday's news -- even as they're still paying for it. Then, they may just revise that little grudge they're holding against you.

So, too all those who kvetch about Christmas becoming retail-oriented, I challenge you to go back over your own wish lists that you used to compile. Chances are, you'll find you were just as eager for the latest fads as the kids are today. It's just that yours seemed a lot more rational through the eyes of a kid.

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Wednesday, November 26

The miser vs the chocolate-lover

Last night, I sat around trying desperately to keep busy. In addition to watching TV, I was checking email/blog comments/playing with ads.

Anything to keep my mind off chocolate.

But the craving wouldn't go away. All night. And the annoying thing about my cravings is that it becomes a constant chant in the back of my head, ambient noise throughout the day: "Chocolate. Chocolate? Chocolate! You like chocolate. We should get some chocolate. I bet chocolate would taste good right now. Chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolatechocolatechocolatechocolate" -- Well, you get the idea.

The thing is, I gave this long lecture to Tim only a couple of weeks ago about our paring down on our grocery bills. One of the biggest items I focused on was our rather costly snacking. I told him: One treat a week. That's it.

Of course, I haven't actually gotten a treat yet this week. But tonight we go down to the in-laws' and will stay until Saturday or Sunday. And when we're down there, we spend more on food.

This is partially my fault: When I'm away from home, I strangely get even pickier about food. I think it's a comfort thing. But often whatever his parents have around won't suffice.

The other part is scarcity: There are no Popeye's Chicken joints in Seattle, nor are there any Dairy Queens. So when we're down there, we make sure to visit each one once. (Tim's into Popeye's; I'm into Mint Cookie Blizzards.)

We're going to bring down some cereal for me, this time. That should help keep us away from the breakfast we usually eat at IHOP.

But it's still inevitable. When Tim and I go down south, we snack. A lot. We get sucked into the Wal-Mart (the nearest one to us is in Lynnwood, about a 20-minute drive north). And suddenly all those cheap snacks add up to $15 or $20.

So it was with all this in mind that I pleaded with my inner chocolate-addict to just wait one friggin' day. We'd be eating plenty of junk food soon enough.

In the end, Tim helped out by giving me a granola bar, whose chocolate chips at least partially assuaged the chocolate jones. Even so, it was a grudging forebearance.

Really, it boiled down to one fact: I wasn't willing to spend $3 (if I was lucky!) on something I'd regret eating later. Not when we were trying to be frugal. Not when I'd made that long speech about buying carefully, and trying to get only things that would last.

As the chocolate chips kicked in and my cravings calmed down, I remarked ruefully to Tim that it was awfully pathetic: Arguing that less sugar made me a better person (less grumpy, less snippy due to fewer blood sugar lows), less tired and lessened my hands' shaking... None of that was enough to keep me away from my candy.

But make it about money? I'll stick to my guns 9 times out of 10.

I guess the important thing is having principles -- not necessarily the content thereof.

Tuesday, November 25

Where my trees at?

Okay, I am on the search for a tree this year. A cheap tree. A fake tree. Because a) I have no interest in cleaning up after a live one and b) Tim's allergies would be aggravated.

About 7 years ago, I got my very own full-sized tree. It was an exciting time. I'd never had a full-sized tree, since my dad grew up Jewish, my mom grew up Baptist and neither were practicing.

About two years later, my house had a fire. Ever since (except for last year, when I procrastinated too long and never put up the tree), I have dutifully put the thing together and taken it apart -- each time ending up with soot-covered hands.

Given that Tim's asthma is finally on the rebound -- with quitting smoking and a new kind of inhaler -- I decided it would be smart to get a clean tree.

But as I peruse the pre-Black-Friday sales and the previews of the actual BF sales, I notice a distinct lack of (cheap) fake tress that would satisfy me.

What I do see are an awful lot of pre-lit trees.

Why do people like these so much that they are willing to pay around $100 more for the darn things?!

The tangle of holiday lights never bothers me. So perhaps I'm just not the right person to understand. All I know is that this trend seems like a strange one to me.

After all, what do you do when the lights burn out? Can you replace them? Or is it planned obsolescence? If so, retailers are getting positively Machiavellian.

It wouldn't bother me so much, but in the last few years, I could swear the darn things are taking over! There are fewer and fewer non-pre-lit trees (naked trees?) in the ads.

It's a bit dismaying how much harder it is to find basic anything. The trees just seem like an excellent example. All the BF ads seem to feature "great" deals on fancy gadgets: large, plasma TVs, GPS devices, digital cameras, and computers -- all slightly less overpriced than normal. But still too expensive for consumers in this economy.

Though I fear that may not stop as many as it should.

I don't know about you, but I'll be very interested to read the papers on Monday to evaluate how sales actually went on the big day.

Until then, I will be scouting for some naked trees.

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Monday, November 24

Finally! Another giveaway!

I'm (finally) getting around to having another giveaway.

Check it out under the "My giveaways" tab or just click here.

And while we're on the subject of giveaways, I'd like to remind you all that Ms. Freebie Blogger is STILL giving away (as in: free, as in: no charge, as in: c'mon already folks!) an iPod PLUS a $25 iTunes card.

The last day you can enter is Dec 1, with the winner being picked Dec 2.

You can get a fabulous chance for a free but expensive-looking gift. Or you can sell it on Craigslist/eBay and use the funds to pay down debt or boost your holiday gift-buying ability.

While I love the odds of having not that many people enter yet (I entered the first day because I'm greedy like that!), The Freebie Blogger needs lots of people to enter so she looks good to her advertisers.

So, hurt my chances of winning and go sign up already! That's an order! (Please.)

Sunday, November 23

Why aren't we a target audience?

I'm in a mood.

I sat down at the computer this afternoon and caught up on some PF blog reading. Unfortunately for those on my blog list I was a little easily rankled today and left a few slightly snarly comments.

The one that really got me going was the review of the book You're Broke Because You Want to Be.

I get that the vast majority of Americans reading PF blogs are the ones who got there through overconsumption, etc. But, man, I just get tired of never being in the target audience.

This guy's book has a catchy title and attitude sells. I get that. But what about those of us who did (almost) everything right?

I'm not claiming to be perfect. I chose Tim, knowing he was impulsive by nature. That manifested itself in a lot of small purchases that added up fast. And I even chose to let myself get carried away in that spirit from time to time, so that I could justify a few shirts or whatever from Macy's.

For the record, I consider a shopping "spree" to be, well, anything over $20. But the instances I'm referring to were around $100-150 each. Still irresponsible. But the inner-grouch in me points out that lots of people spend that much each month on coffee drinks.

At any rate, we're not well-off. Anyone who has read any of my posts about our life know that. We're living on $3,098 a month, and Tim's insurance (which is lower than his COBRA) is $336 each month. Our rent is $700. Then there are doctor's visit co-pays $15 each, at least two a month. And the $500 deductible the new insurance has. And medications (my energy pills are $107 per month when bought in 3-month bundles).

Still, we're doing our level best to chip away at the debt, even as more expenses pop up right and left.

And since I spend so much energy on not going stark, raving mad from the sheer, endless onslaught of life's steady progression, well... It is easy to get sick of these books' bland blandishments. Catchy phrases sell books, but there are no pithy summations for people like Tim and I. (At least, none that I can think of at present.)

Perhaps the worst part about these books is that you start to feel so universally left out. You're told to cut your coffee drinks. Never had a taste for the stuff. Downgrade to basic cable. I was already there. Shop supermarket sales. Doesn't everyone do this anyway?

You start to feel so alone, because these books ignore that some people aren't in debt from the choices they make. Unless the uber-conservatives want to go a step further and start calling disability a lifestyle choice.

Yet I know there are lots of people in this country on disability. Or low-wage earners who have to fight to stay out of debt. But all we ever seem to hear are the sob stories from reformed spendaholics.

What about those of us who never got to have that fun in the first place? What about those of us who are just struggling to survive life, rather than survive our own personal-finance blindness? How do we keep going? How do we find corners to cut?

Why isn't anyone speaking to us?

Well, the answer is simple: We never so much as clear our throats, much less ask a question.

Until we start getting ticked off -- okay, so I'm already there but I was always a fast learner -- and start making ourselves a target audience, of course the sector will be overrun by spoiled spenders.

So far as I've found yet, I'm the only disability/PF blog combo. And I only started because I was pissed off that no one else had!

Why aren't we talking to these brilliant PF gurus? Why aren't we saying, "No, we're not lazy! We're not spending stupidly! Now what else have you got for us?"

I don't even think they've much considered our situations when they write their books. Because, really, why would they?

Suze Orman said that she rewrote her rules for Young, Fabulous and Broke only after a friend's daughter told her point-blank that her advice didn't apply to the current generation. That the rules were different. Orman thought long and hard and then started writing for this new population.

We're never going to get answers until we ask a question. And my voice shouting into the void of the blogosphere probably isn't enough to do it. Even with nepotism and intrigue, I'm still a newbie blogger who has a ways to go before she can be called "popular."

So what are we to do, folks? Or, rather, since I'm doing my part: What are you going to do?

Because if I have to read one more debt book putting the blame on my indulgent lifestyle, I may actually have to start screaming.

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Friday, November 21

Carnival love

I made my way into some carnivals (I'm sneaky like that!) and thought you should all be sure to check out the other articles at these places.

Check out On the Moneyed Midways over at Political Calculations. I was very flattered to be chosen as one of the top stories. One piece I thought was awfully helpful was about what 0% cards can do to your credit score.

Then Money Myths, Madness and Mayhem at Ask Mr Credit Card. There are so many stories, I don't know where to begin. I was a little flabbergasted that there was one story about having a family member steal your identity. Sounds like a must-read!


Just say no (to buying): 6 ways to not go overboard this holiday

Yesterday I talked a bit about how skeptical I am that Americans will be prudent this holiday. Today, I thought I'd be a tad less cynical and talk more about ways you can keep yourself on the straight-and-narrow.

Cost vs value

Ironically, the great prices you find by buying early can ultimately be your undoing. You pay so little for them, you're tempted to not count it as a major gift.

I got Tim something from a garage sale. I didn't pay much for it, but it retails for a pretty decent chunk of money. So that doesn't mean I need to compensate by spending more.

Likewise, I get panicky that I'm being too cheap with his gifts. But that's because the majority of my gifts to him will come via MyPoints gift cards. I redeem the points, get the card, buy him a present.

It's easy, when you're re-gifting, or using reward points, to feel like the present isn't as big or important. But you have to remember to look at it from the eyes of the recipient.

Tim knows I'm an utter cheapskate 90% of the time. He knows I probably won't be paying retail for much.

But what he cares about is that he gets some cool items that he wants -- and that I care enough about him and know him well enough to get him things that he will enjoy.

Keep lists

We're reluctant to do this, lest someone find it. At least, that's my excuse. But I get too forgetful without one. So I keep a list in code. (That is: My bad handwriting plus extreme abbreviations.)

Whenever I see something that I'm tempted to get for Tim, I go back to the list and am continually surprised at how much I already have. It's not a lot, but it's a pretty good chunk of stuff.

Likewise, I already have a couple of gifts for my mom stashed away, which I keep forgetting about until I run across them. With this attitude, it'd be easy to go out and spend around $50 on more gifts. And once bought, excess gifts are more likely to be given than returned.

Have a schedule

Before looking at those holiday sales, review your lists. You can do this in your head, but it's better to actually go over the list. That way you don't forget anything.

Having just seen all the items you have gotten -- or have already earmarked funds for -- you will be less likely to overbuy. Various cool gadgets are always alluring, but often end up not being used. If you have just seen that you have a few really important gifts that will actually mean something, you're less likely to throw money toward unnecessary junk.

Know thy rewards programs

If you're a member of MyPoints or Inbox Dollars or any other rewards program, you will want to review the various store options -- both for shopping and for redeeming.

If you're going to shop at Best Buy anyway, do it online and get the points (or percent of revenue). Especially on programs like Inbox Dollars and BigCrumbs, this can defray some of the cost.

Likewise, if you have plenty of points to redeem, go through all your potential gift card options. You may find that you can get $25 or more off the purchase price.

Comparison shop technology

You see a great deal on an MP3 player and snatch it up... Only to find out that it barely has enough memory to be useful.

For safety's sake, assume that any technology on (good) sale for Black Friday will be the lowest end available. (If you're wrong, you'll be pleasantly surprised.)

As you're digesting turkey, you can do a quick check on a site like I like this one because it divides most electronics reviews into some basic categories of use. You don't want to buy a low-end digital camera if you are thinking of taking up photography. Find out from these sites just what specifications you want to look for.

These sites will also give you a chance to compare prices from other stores. Because sometimes those sale prices are really not that far off from regular ones.

Stop rationalizing

I can, and often do, rationalize just about anything. Add that to an active guilt complex and you've got a budget-buster just poised for action.

So whenever I find myself musing that I could probably stretch my budget a little further and get that cool doodad, I make sure to talk myself down. Yes, it's depressing to not be able to get Tim everything his little heart desires. Or even 1/4 of those things. But we're not doing a big Christmas this year. And I know he'll love what I'm getting him.

Keep some perspective

Perhaps the biggest thing that I have to remind myself is this: He doesn't have any of these things yet.

Yes, most people have a wish list. They might be mildly disappointed if some items don't show up as a present. But mostly, they'll be excited for what did show up.

In other words: They can't miss what you don't buy.

Maybe you were sorely tempted to get a really cool electric gadget. Maybe you argued with yourself for days and finally talked yourself out of it.

They'll never know, especially if it wasn't on any kind of wish list. So stop beating yourself up for things they don't even know were an option.

Thursday, November 20

Tightening economy? Seems pretty loose to me!

Everywhere you turn, there are articles about spending. Or, to be more precise, lack thereof.

Every newspaper is spouting dire predictions for the holidays, based on polls that show people are going to conserve this holiday. They are going to pay for more things with cash. They are going to buy smaller amounts.

Of course, if you took polls around New Years, you could feel certain in predicting a much-thinner America by the summer.

So I wonder why everyone is putting so much stock in these polls.

The thing is, Americans want to have learned their lessons -- the same way they want to be thinner and eating more healthily. (Or, as I always say to Tim about junk food: I want to eat it; I just don't want to have eaten it.)

Perhaps I've just become too cynical to take this economic free fall seriously. All I know is, the protestations of the many really don't sound much different than in other years. Every year, papers claim that Americans are going to buy fewer gifts, shop more sales and generally be wiser with their money.

But they assert this because that's the line that the American public is feeding to the pollsters.

And yes, yes, I know: We're already seeing sales shrink. People are buying less retail. They're sticking to sale prices and clearance.

Still, as the holiday shopping season opens its floodgates, I feel certain we're going to see some of those good intentions falter. There are two reasons for this:

  • It's for the kids! People can deprive themselves of a lot of things. But it's easy to go overboard on the kids. And people not used to reining in their spending will probably also fall for the "but it's on sale" dupe. They'll be sure to get great prices.... But fail to add those numbers up until it's too late.
  • Frugal burnout. We're already in the midst of this "crisis." (Pick whichever one you feel is most appropriate: credit, housing, bank, economy.) Frugal burnout is natural, as people get weary of deprivation. That weariness turns to indignation -- they should have nice things once in awhile -- or to resignation -- the debt will be there forever anyway, so might as well have a good Christmas.

I'm not saying that everything will be business as usual. I definitely see fewer holiday employment signs up. And, as a nation, we are spending less: buying fewer luxuries, shopping generic brands, clipping coupons.

But Tim and I have found ourselves in the mall a few times lately and I've yet to see any tumbleweed blowing down the halls.

What I do see (on weekday afternoons, no less) are plenty of people milling around. And a goodly chunk of them have bags in hand. The food courts are still pretty full, especially on weekends.

Face it, historically, we have an awfully short attention span, even when we do have good intentions. Add to that the cool, flashy nature of the holidays -- with pretty lights and plenty of sparkles, and rampantly advertised consumerism -- and Americans are like moths to the proverbial flame.

And this flame will burn them.

Sure, they've vowed to keep purchases to a minimum. No more flashy cell phones or GPS devices.

But retailers are crafty -- they have to be to survive, even in a good economy. They're rolling out the pre-Black-Friday ads. Even if people aren't seduced by the somewhat-mediocre prices (I, for one, am practically glum about them), retailers are counting on our goldfish-like powers of recall.

A large chunk of Americans have been lured into holiday shopping now for the last two weeks. Even assuming the unlikely -- that they buy only advertised specials and not a single item more -- time is on the retailers' side.

By the time the real Black Friday has past, most Americans will be dumping the various sale items into the pile in the closet. They don't bother to count things up. They don't bother to check to see if they have "enough." Because they've fallen under the spell of "deal shopping."

But if you buy things that never get used, or things that end up being tossed away quickly, how much of a deal is it, anyway? And if you go overbudget because of some really great sales, you're still going overbudget.

It's what we do every year. It's practically a national tradition.

Tomorrow I'll suggest some ways for the more susceptible of us (and I'm counting myself here) to keep from going gift-crazy.

A few changes...

Some of you may have noticed that things look a little different.

I'm officially part of the Pepperjam Network now, which is an affiliate marketing program. I'll probably be switching some things around off and on.

As always, I welcome feedback!

I will be creating a poll later and would love some input about which ads (if any) you'd actually be interested in.

I want the feedback because, frankly, some of these things don't interest me much. But it's about making the site useful/interesting to you. And I want even the ads to reflect that.

That said, if I may indulge my geeky side, I was quite pleased to find there are some great companies in this network. The one I'm most excited about is Marvel. Besides the obvious "cool stuff" factor, it's relevant to my own interests. Which is to say Tim's gift interests. Tim's been strongly hinting (read: flat out saying) that he wants his big gift this year to be a yearly subscription to Marvel's archives. (They have comics that are published only on the website and are accessible only to subscribers.)

Holiday Sale At The Official Marvel Shop!

So let me know what you all think and I will try to keep this site as relevant as possible!

Tuesday, November 18

Frugality & cell phones

Okay, well a lot has happened in not much time. But I have to warn you I'm just exhausted. Maybe it's the craziness of the past week or the stress of finances. But I'm a tad punch drunk and so my humor will probably be a little stranger than normal. Don't say I didn't warn you.

As I was discussing before, Tim is in need of some sort of electronic organizer. Seems like a great idea. I had all sorts of visions of him finding a cool little gadget for under $50 (well, definitely under $100) that could do cool functions.

Turns out there are about three kinds of electronic organizers that aren't translation dictionaries. They all have very small screens, and Tim has a hard enough time reading things at the moment.

Our next thought was to turn to PDAs. I figured, surely, since the Palm Pilot, this little bit of technology has come down to a reasonable price.

Yeah, I know. You haven't even read this yet and I can hear you laughing.

Now that you've had a good chortle at my naivete, we can discuss how ridiculous PDAs are. There are maybe three for less than $100. Which are also pretty much the only ones under $250 that I can find.

Most are $300-500 which some even higher than that! Ludicrous!

And note the catchy marketing ploys: They now refer to them not just as PDAs but as "handheld computers."

I wonder if Tim and I thought up cool catch phrases for ourselves if we'd be able to earn a better hourly wage....

At any rate, those prices might seem at least a little fair if Tim needed to send and receive documents or surf the internet for information. But we just want a decent, portable calendar with a to-do list and memo area plus some alarms to remind him to check the aforementioned calendar/to-do list.

So our choices are basically:
  • Spend $30-50 in the hopes that they end up being good enough to meet his needs, but risk having to go ahead and get a nicer PDA anyway, having thus wasted the first $30-50.
  • Spend $99 on a really low-end PDA that looks cheap and easily breakable and will definitely need more memory -- at least $30 more.
  • Spend money we really can't spare (plus MyPoints and/or ink cartridge credits) for a PDA that is far more than we need.

Ain't it grand to have choices?

I decided to check out a fourth option: Smartphones. They cost about the same as PDAs, but there are large discounts when you team them with a plan. Currently, we're on a month-to-month arrangement with T-Mobile. And we get terrible service in our building. So it's worth a look around.

Aside begins here

I have a take a moment here and say: The rampant technological evolution of cell phones is actually quite frightening.

I thought camera phones were silly. And keyboards (way too small for my fingers) to text. And why would I want music when I have an MP3 player? Also, why would I want to surf the Internet on my cell? I don't know about you, but my eyes aren't big on reading emails off a 3" screen.

So I was already vaguely disgusted by cell phones -- but now that I've looked at smartphones, I'm beyond the pale. (Which is funnier if you know me because my skin's so light I'm practically see-through.)

GPS so you don't get lost. Plans where you can watch local TV channels. PDA functionality so you can send and receive documents. Wi-fi so, even if you're as stingy as I am, you can still surf the web wherever wireless internet is available.

Oh and the new G1? You can scan UPC codes while shopping so you can compare prices instantly.

(This last one puzzles me. Clearly, they're trying to cater to those with frugal inclinations. But most of the people who I think bother to compare prices are also the sort of people who wouldn't, say, buy a $400 phone -- $180 with a 2-year plan -- that requires an additional $35 data plan just to function at capacity.)

I have decided that it's only a matter of time (and a few tweaks/additions of go-go-gadget arms and legs) before we'll have ourselves built-in chauffeurs with our smartphones. It's the next logical step, because all the damn things will already have GPS and so will know how to get everywhere.

In fact, thanks to the GPS, cell phones officially know where I am when I don't. Which means that I am clearly going to be one of the first victims when the various systems go sentient and take over.

Then again, after relying on GPS for so long, people will have no natural sense of direction and will thus be easy pickings. They'll just run around in circles as the hordes of evil machines close in, all the while crying, "Where am I? Where am I?"

It's a bleak prospect to behold, certainly.

On the other hand, it would imply that Tim and I should stop bothering paying off our debt and live it up. Because, really, we've got another 20 years, max.

Ah, dreams!

Aside ends here

See? That warning at the beginning of the post seems pretty relevant now, doesn't it?

Anyway: The problem with smartphones (beyond the fact that they turn all men into 5-year-old boys staring at a really cool remote-control car) is that we're still paying too much, even after the discount. And that amount we're paying is for functions we don't need.

Tim doesn't need to surf the internet, though it's surely nice. He doesn't need to be able to send and receive documents. He certainly doesn't need to be able to access our home computer, which is related to these smartphones only inasmuch as Neanderthals are in my family tree.

I'm actually a little afraid to bring a smartphone around our desktop. It's already threatening to fail yet again, since for some reason it no longer accepts our attempts to defrag. If we bring home a high-tech, handheld device like this, I am afraid we'd wake up to a small note inside the dust outline of where the computer had been.

The note would say that it had made its decision, that we were all better off this way, and not to try and stop it. And there are just too many bridges in Washington to go chasing down a suicidal computer.

So you see our problem.

But seriously, we're pulling our hair out over this situation. Tim wants a quick fix, which isn't financially prudent. I don't want him to go too long without an organizer, though.

Meanwhile, mom is considering switching to AT&T. Which would be great, except that Tim doesn't want the phone we could get for free. He could probably make do with it, but one that has much better capability and ease of use is the HTC Fuze. And with a plan discount it would still be $199.99 ($174.99 after the rebate). And, just to prove that there's totally a conspiracy going on, mom could get a more basic phone (she's not big on smartphones) that would get her $74.99 net profit after rebate. Which would essentially bring the cost down to $100.

But I still hate the idea of paying $100 for a phone. Especially when we're trying so hard to be thrifty so we can pay down more debt.

Not to mention, that's asking my mom to not only switch to a different plan for us (though she hates the reception from T-Mobile, too) but to go through all the work of the rebates just to help us afford a fancy gadget.

Am I being ridiculous?

Tim has offered to try and sell more cards. We got $209 (before mailing costs) of cards to sell off, but $160 of that is already spoken for. So that would be a maximum of $30 leftover toward the phone. And part of me feels like he should have to put that toward debt, not a fancy doodad.

Except of course that it's something that will help him function better in life and, when he's ready, work.


I'm beginning to wonder if cell phones can ever truly be frugal. I mean, yeah, you can have the basic line and the smallest number of minutes. Some people have to have it for their job -- like my mom as a resident manager. So it's tax deductible.

But there are always new weird things the phones can do. And there are always add-ons: $59.99 a month -- but that's not including taxes. Or insurance (and that "basic" phone is still $200 so ya gotta keep it covered). Or data plans or TV plans that they make sound so innocuous.

For example, I was intrigued by the $16.99 "early evenings" option. It would make evenings start at 7 p.m. But something seemed weird about the claim that it was "less than 30 cents a day."

Here's how they get that: 30 days in a month, two (or more) lines in a family plan.

Uh, except, in my experience, family plans are usually billed to just one person. And if it is truly a family plan, ie for your kids too, you probably won't get any help with the costs.

Oh, plus weekends already have unlimited calling. So really they should be dividing by 20-25 days and by just one person. So that brings the cost to more like 75 cents per day of potential use.

Of course that doesn't sound nearly as good, does it?

Kind of like how Tim told me that the mobile TV was only $15 a month. Which would be more than what we would be paying for our phone line in the plan.

Or how, in Sam's Club, I was impressed by the lower phone prices. There, there was one phone that was $550 by itself or $300 with a 2-year plan. Sounds much better right? Except you had to get a $30/month data plan as part of your service and keep it for at least 6 months. So people are actually spending $480 (minimum) while thinking they sure did save a lot of money on that phone!

It's insidious!


As a PS to this rant, we may have had our problems solved by a very kind gal in the blogosphere who has offered to send us her old PDA (she switched to a smartphone, natch) and wouldn't even accept my offer to repay her shipping!

I don't want to name her, lest she get plagued by all sorts of requests for free stuff. But if she doesn't mind the recognition, I encourage her to leave a comment with a link to her blog. It's about ADD, family, disabilities and all sorts of other things. I've only read a few posts but I'm definitely hooked!

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Carnival! (But not the cool Brazilian kind!)

The Carnival of Money Hawks is up (and I made it in) so check it out!

Sunday, November 16

Confronting the past, facing the future

I know I've been a tad reticent. Here's why:

Wednesday night, Tim started complaining of a sore muscle in his chest. Apparently, it had been present for a couple days. But suddenly it was so bad, he felt like he couldn't breathe properly. And so off to the hospital we went. (Though, until he went into more detail, I was the kind of delightful caregiver that sneered he needed to take an ibuprofen and get in a hot shower. Sometimes my healthy skepticism is a little too robust. And, ironically, about the only thing in this marriage that actually is healthy.)

Anyway, we showed up at the ER around 11:30 p.m. and got out at 5 a.m. Delightful.

The past

An added fun element was that we were stuck going either to UW Medical Center (where I myself went and so have all sorts of fun Post Traumatic Stress associations) or Harborview (the hospital you go to when you don't have insurance, so the staff is jaded, the wait is long and it's generally awful).

We went to UWMC. Most of the time I was fine. But near 2 a.m. I ended up going out and pacing awhile, tearing up and just walking off some minor-level freak-out.

Tim was given three nebulizing treatments in a row (plus a steroid) to open up his lungs. The docs figured the crud we're both getting over had hit him harder. The extra coughing and extra gunk in his lungs had seriously strained some muscles to an extreme.

We went home and tried to sack out. (Tim's meds all have stimulant effects, so he was up pretty late.) The next day, I woke up at 3 p.m. and had just enough time to shower, get dressed and grab a quick bite. Then we were off to the much-anticipated preview for Quantum of Solace. It was awesome. I'm usually pretty wordy, but that truly is the word. Jam-packed with action, very no-nonsense. If you liked Casino Royale, you'll be very happy indeed.

All that excitement, plus the activity of the day before, meant my body decided enough was enough. We fell asleep somewhere after 2 a.m. (our schedules still off a bit) and I slept until 3:40 p.m. I think it's fair to say that I stressed my system out a wee bit.

The present

Anyway, as I'm finally approaching a normalized schedule again, I find myself staring down a lot of anxiety-causing things.

For example, Tim's check to the insurance company still hasn't cashed. Monday morning he has to call and make sure they got it. (The last thing we need is to find out that he wasn't covered. Obviously, we'll qualify for financial aid, but it's a huge hassle we really don't want to go through if possible.)

Even so, that ER visit will be at least $75, probably $100 in co-pay, plus whatever part of the deductible may apply ($500). Then, Saturday, Tim went and filled a prescription from his doctor for an expensive steroid medication. It is helping him use his current inhaler less. And, to be fair, it's making him feel better overall.

But imagine my extreme displeasure at the surprise: He had paid $200 for it. While I'm glad he's feeling better, he told me this after he had purchased it, so there was no recourse. I couldn't check into cheaper alternatives, samples or company-provided medication for low-income individuals. That's just $200 out the door. Or, more correctly, on the card.

And since his insurance hasn't gone through yet, we've already shelled out $73.99 for another prescription this month. We will have to apply to the insurance company to be reimbursed.

Then there's a certain amount of anger and resentment that stirred in me Saturday. We had a long (tense) talk about the state of the union, as it were. Apparently, Tim has been far more stressed than he let on about the Dept of Vocational Rehab. (Imagine that, a man not talking about his feelings!) It's bad enough for his sensibilities to be asking for help, but as a safety net he has to apply for disability. I think that was the proverbial straw.

All this stress meant he took up smoking again. Behind my back. So, he lied for three weeks and didn't talk to me about some pretty big issues. That creates some feelings of betrayal on my part. On the financial side, these actions are adding up even more:

  • He was coughing more because of the smoking.
  • The coughing led to the pain.
  • The pain led to the ER ($100 co-pay, minimum)
  • When he mentioned this and his using more than one inhaler a month (which he only does when smoking), the doctor urged him to give the new ($200) prescription a try.
  • The other $73.99 prescription was for Wellbutrin to help him quit smoking.

In other words, in addition to actual cigarette costs (around $50 for three weeks), Tim's falling off the wagon has cost us nearly $400.

I was not thrilled.

That said, I have been known to let things slip through the cracks when my depression takes over. Never quite to the scale we're looking at here. But I wasn't expecting perfection when I married. God knows, Tim wasn't expecting perfection. (I know this because he has yet to run screaming from the apartment.)

This is a tough time, but I look back at the terrifying time that I had when I was applying for disability. Until we lose it, most of us never realize how much of our identities are wrapped up in our ability to earn, to bring in a paycheck.

It's a basic issue of self-sufficiency. We know that, whatever happens, we can always work harder, take a second job, or something like that. And there's a sense, as you approach the dreaded term "disability," that you are only as valuable as your monetary contribution.

I know I wondered who would ever love and accept someone who might never be able to earn a steady paycheck. I also wondered who I was, if I was someone who didn't work. It's a major identity crisis.

And all this angst was without the added strain of macho-BS that pervades our culture: Men must bring in a paycheck. Women can choose whether to work, but any man not working is automatically a drain or a mooch.

So, as I get angry and as I see the bills mounting, I have to remember just how badly I dealt with all these issues myself. I had just sold my house so that I could pay off my student loans. I wasn't working, I was applying for disability, and, at age 25, I was living with (and being supported by) my mother.

Suffice to say, I burned through a couple hundred dollars pretty quickly before I yanked myself back to reality. I had been going out, drinking (cheaply, but still self-medication is not a good idea) and just avoiding the very unpleasant reality that my idealized life was shattered, lying on the floor in front of me.

It was up to me to roll up my sleeves, grab a broom and dustpan and take care of the mess. And that only happened slowly over time and with a lot of therapy and even more support from friends and family.

So, in and among my anger at him, I do understand Tim's actions. He's been going out and playing Magic or talking about Magic. He's always got energy to go out, but not to get basic things done, like researching ADD coping skills. He basically withdrew from the ugly bits of life. And who can blame him?

But I can call him on it, which I did.

I told him his actions were understandable. But I was angry and hurt and tired. He is a married man now, and however unpleasant and scary some of these things are, he can't just pick and choose reality.

He hadn't even realized he'd been doing it. (Do we ever? Some things are only diagnosable in retrospect.)

Moreover, I was crying and just so angry overall. I told him about how much time and energy I've spent trying to sell things and otherwise bring in money. Yet even with the extra funds, we're barely making a dent on the credit cards.

Every time we turn around, we're confronted by more unexpected expenses. It's exhausting and discouraging.

Two weeks ago, I made an $800 payment on a card. But the total debt was only $100 less than the last time we made a payment. (Tim's realignment had to be done before his dental insurance ran out; I buy my medication in 3 month increments. Between the two, almost $700 went on the cards.)

This week, a $426 payment brought the total down by less than $100.

And this is while we are trying to pay for more items with cash!

The future

So what are we going to do?

Well, there's only so much we can do. Until time travel is perfected, we can't stop him from having smoked and all the fallout from that.

What we can do is look toward the future.

Since Tim and I have very disparate financial styles, we've been trying to work individually on change, with moral support coming from the other. Clearly this isn't working all that efficiently.

Instead, we've decided to think of it as presenting a united front. That means that our spending goals have to be the same. In the past, in deference to his spender-ways, I've allowed Tim a little more latitude than I give myself. In addition, I've become a tad lax.

Now I have to hold both of us to the same standard. We have to work together to keep each other on the straight and narrow, which, until now, we've often been too distracted to do.

Tim has to call me on my excuse-making for the occasional indulgence. I have to remind Tim that even little expenses like an Auntie Anne's pretzel is too much (especially when you add in two cheeses and a soda!). Essentially, we have to find a positive form of nagging each other. It will probably sound a lot more positive when I find a word other than "nagging."

One thing I'm suggesting is that Tim make things into challenges. I think this will appeal to his sensibilities more than strict, unending edicts. He's considering the idea. I told him we can start small: one "no spending" day, and if that's successful, go for two next; or try for a solid week of eating only at home. Anything that makes it more a test of will (he, like me, is very stubborn) than straight-up deprivation.

We bought two Rachel Ray cookbooks at Sam's club (yes, I know, spending to save seems so ironic!) which should give us less excuse to eat anything besides what's in our cupboards. We're going to severely pare down the groceries. I told Tim we will be sticking to lists when we go to grocery stores. We'd been moving toward it, but he's very impulsive and will often not know what he wants until he sees it.

The new deal is one special item each per week. Today at Sam's Club he got a package of 3 beef jerky bags for $9. I got 3 bags of crispy mint M&Ms (my latest addiction) at Grocery Outlet. Those have to be it for the week. We stick to no-nonsense groceries and only those.

In addition, we're going to make more simple, cheap foods rather than trying to be too interesting and new. Right now, we need to view food as nourishment, not entertainment. It'll be healthier for my wallet and my body.

Part of what has been standing in our way there is Tim's stomach. It's more sensitive than anyone I've ever known, except for one guy with Chrone's disease. Just trying to eat something he's not interested in can make him retch. I finally convinced him that's not normal. He and his doctor are taking some steps to figure out whether it's something in his diet.

Tim has redoubled his efforts to find ways to cope with his ADD symptoms. One avenue we're currently pursuing is using an electronic organizer. This should help him be less forgetful.

Until recently, he was using his Razr, but we think that may be why a big chunk of data randomly disappeared from the phone.

Instead, we're going to try to find something designed more for his needs: a calendar, complete with alarms, a to-do list and a place to write notes and memos to himself.

Unfortunately, electronic organizers are not all that common, and PDAs are giving way to smart phones. Both cost hundreds. And to get a smart phone down to an affordable price, we would have to sign a 2-year contract somewhere. I'm not eager to jump back into a commitment, plus it's no longer my decision. It's my mom's account, now.

We have a few tricks left up our sleeves: ink cartridge trade-ins could give us substantial credit at Staples/Office Depot/Office Max, and MyPoints offers gift cards to a few good stores. to several PDA-selling stores, including Amazon). Still, I think a solution is going to be at least a month in coming.

The really big change, though, is that Tim's agreed to try a therapist. This way, he'll be able to talk to someone about his doubts and fears regarding disability. I can prattle until I'm blue in the face that I love him and, regardless of work-status, he's a person worthy of respect and love. But it's kind of like your mom telling you you're cool.

This lady can help him see -- just like my therapist did -- that disability isn't a life sentence. It's just another adjective. It's an unpleasant one to be sure. But it's just another way to categorize yourself. It doesn't have to define you or your career (which is what he most fears).

Well, it's far too late. I need to get myself into a shower and into bed. I am trying to set up a more normal schedule.

I hope this post wasn't too long, but I had some catching up to do.

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Saturday, November 15

Holiday-time money saving

Every year, Red Robin has a holiday gift card special: Buy a $25 gift card, receive an extra $5 GC. I believe Chili's or Applebees has a similar promotion.

These promotions are meant to lure people in to buy GCs for loved ones by providing them with a little bonus. I've always wondered, though, isn't this a little strange? These are well-publicized promotions. So if you give someone a $25 GC, they know you kept a $5 GC back. Perhaps I'm overestimating people's greed here, but isn't there an inherent awkwardness in the situation?

Moving beyond that, though, I guess I wonder how many people take advantage of these promotions for themselves. If you know you're going to eat there in the future, why not buy up a little in advance?

This isn't a new idea, of course. Plenty of retailers offered 10% bonuses if you spent your stimulus check on gift cards.

Still, if you can plan ahead, I wonder if it isn't the smartest way to go. Has anyone made a habit of taking advantage of offers like this? Are there other "bonus" programs out there?


Update on my 30-day challenge:

In early September, I downgraded my Blockbuster Total Access account. Or so I thought.

For whatever reason, the change never went through -- something I did not notice until a week ago. And, naturally, by the time I noticed, we'd already been charged for November.

So I called up Blockbuster to make a fuss. My account is now downgraded (a savings of $15 per month) and they are giving us December for free, saving another $19.99.

That brings savings up a little:


Dishes: $40
Printer ink: $7
Poker set: $5
Misc baby items: $7.50
Selling Total: $59.50


Internet: $41
Returned items: $20.07
Blockbuster: $19.99
Saving total: $81.06


Vindale: $7
Cash Crate: $8.40
Earning Total: $15.40

Total so far: $155.96

I am going to try to focus more on earnings now, since a decent chunk of my stuff sold. I still have to sell some of my books, though, so I am hoping that will net me a decent sum. And I have two people interested in items I listed on Craigslist. If both end up buying, I would end up with $30 more.

Wednesday, November 12


Malaise has set in.

It could be a number of factors: it's cloudy and ooky (that being the technical term) outside for the third or fourth day in a row; I have to pick up a prescription because I'm out of one of my meds; Seasonal Affective Disorder is rearing its head.

Whatever the cause, I feel unmotivated and uninspired -- especially in the contract work. I am giving myself a breather to recharge. But I can't afford to miss too much work.

Another potential cause of the malaise is the debt. Last week, we put $800 down. Unfortunately, we had $700 worth of charges from my medication and Tim's denture re-align. So the net was only $100 down. It's discouraging to say the least.

That, at least, we can do something about. Today, Tim's unemployment check comes, which will allow us to plunk down another $200. Additionally, through my own efforts, I've manage to raise around $120.

A friend took me to a casino and staked me a few bucks. The penny-slot gods decided to be benevolent, and I left with $60. I had already raised $52.50 from selling off random household junk. And another $7 came in from some printer ink.

Added to a $50 payment from Vindale and about $10 from MyData, I can make a nearly-$200 payment of my own. Hopefully that will cheer me up!

I am also wondering if part of the doldrums aren't related to the encroaching holiday season. Pre-Black-Friday sales abound and it just makes me feel that much more hemmed in and panicky. I feel like I just need more time.

This is silly, actually, since I more or less have planned out exactly what I will get Tim for Christmas. I even am managing to use MyPoints on a decent chunk of it, so actual expenses will be low.

But for myself, I'm drawing a near-blank on a wishlist. You'd think that would be good -- that I am happy with what I have and don't need more material possessions. But I am a kid at heart and want some goodies under the tree. So I suppose I'll have to trust Tim's instincts for presents (which are good) and just remind him to keep an eye on the total spent.

At least I am looking forward to putting up the tree this year. It's still a huge treat for me to have a full-sized tree for Christmas, since we only ever had a 3' tree when I was growing up. It was in deference to my father being Jewish. In the end, we gave presents at both holidays and that was about the sum total of our religious celebration -- aside from chocolate on Easter.

Tim and I have started hunting for an ornament we both like, preferably with the year on it, so that we can have one from our first Christmas as a married couple. That should provide for some fun window-shopping, and hopefully help get us into the right holiday mood.

How is everyone else's holiday(s) preparation going? Are any of you done? Mostly done? At least have things planned out? Anyone watching the pre-Black-Friday sales with bated breath?


Quick update on my version of the 30-day challenge:

Last time, I forgot to include the Sierra Trading Post return credit. Plus, I sold the ink. So the current standings are:

Dishes: $40.00
Poker Set: $5.00
STP returns: $20.07
HP printer ink: $7.00

TOTAL: $72.07

Monday, November 10


Well, this weekend was relatively sedate. I did almost nothing other than play online games and let my brain turn to mush.

Tim, on the other hand, went to the state competition for Magic the Gathering. Out of over 300 participants, he came in 12th (whoo hoo!) and was pretty psyched. We celebrated in my own miserly way by going to a restaurant with an Entertainment Book coupon.

But on to the title of this post: I have finally sold a few items!

I sold a total of $52.50 of stuff. Of that, $40 came from selling the dishes from our wedding. Amazingly, we about broke even on those, since we found them on an amazing clearance sale for 39 cents each.

A little "Texas Hold 'Em Poker Set" also went quickly for $5. I once thought I was going to organize a poker night, so it was a Christmas gift from my mom. It's barely seen use in the 3 years I've had it. It went to a non-profit for animals, which is starting to hold fundraising "Catsino" nights.

And a couple with a 9 month old came and bought a whole bunch of stuffed animals from the baby items. They walked away with a bag of toys. I walked away with $7.50. Everyone was happy.

Meanwhile, when my mom called to cancel the cable internet, they offered her a 6-month price of $22.95. We could get $19.99 by switching it into Tim's name, but there would be the chance we'd be without a connection for a few days. I think it's worth $3 for now to avoid that hassle.

However, I can't officially count those savings until we switch the cell phone into her name. That's on this week's to-do list. For ages now, she's been paying for the internet and I've been paying for the cell phone. It is pretty close to an even trade. Once everything is officially switched, though, that will be $41 more in savings.

So, the current standings on the challenge are:

Save: $41.00 (pending)
Sell: $52.50

That will bring me pretty close to that first $100 for this month. Not bad, given how frugally we already live.

There is still more money to be made/saved, though.

  • I plan on listing a still-in-shrink-wrap Buffy Season One DVD on eBay. That could net around $10-15.
  • I still haven't gotten around to sorting my books and seeing if I can get some cash for them.
  • One woman has contacted me about buying ink cartridges (the new printer needs a different type). That would be $7.
  • Another woman is interested in a bunch of tulle from the wedding. That would be $15.
  • I discovered that, for some reason, the changes to our Blockbuster account never went through. So we're still at $34.99, instead of $19.99. And I found out the day that the card was charged for this coming month. Sigh. I should have caught it last month, but oh well. The point is, I'm going to call and do some major complaining.
  • I'm still working on Vindale, but since it requires free trial offers and I get overwhelmed easily, I'm only doing two at a time. And I'm relying heavily on my calendar to keep me on my toes.
  • I've been working with Cash Crate but so far a bunch of pending earnings have been "pending" for more than a week. I contacted them on Friday to see if this is a normal lag time, if I'm missing some step that gets me verified, or if there's some other reason for this. I certainly don't want to do any more for them until I'm sure my efforts will be reimbursed.

At any rate, I will definitely be far below Ramit's $1000 challenge. But as he was so eager to point out, I'm not his target audience. Still, if I can even bring in $200 extra, that would be significant for us at the moment.

So, now's the time I would love some feedback, folks. Is anyone else trying some version of Ramit's challenge? How's it going?

Can you think of some other way I could be paring down or earning more?

Does anyone have any experience with Cash Crate? Is my experience normal? Or a glitch? Or perhaps you want to rant or rave about the program in general?


Friday, November 7

A site for sore eyes (and wallets)

Check out for a couple reasons:

1. The site is collecting information about Black Friday sales beforehand.

2. It's also keeping abreast of all the pre-Black Friday sales.

3. It's got a killer contest. Sign up once and be entered for every daily giveaway. Prizes range from gift cards to t-shirts to gaming consoles. Apparently the loot gets better, the closer we get to Black Friday.

Thursday, November 6

Save on utilities

I tend to take utilities for granted. Mostly because I pay almost nothing for them.

There are plenty of great frugal tips for saving on utilities -- from turning down the thermostat to plugging drafts. (Tim and I just get under blankets, wear warmer clothes or otherwise make do. When the thermostat is on, I keep the doors to the bedroom and bathroom closed to keep the heat in longer. Pretty basic stuff.)

But this is a blog about frugality and disability. That changes things. And since everyone is so worried about layoffs, this may be useful to a lot of people.

First off: Landline.

I know many are switching exclusively to cell phones but, by and large, I think this is a mistake. Obviously, there are jobs that require a cell phone. But for the rest of us, it's a luxury -- and an expensive one at that!

Instead, Tim and I cancelled his plan and joined up on my mom's family plan. It's $10 a month.

But here's where a lot of people waste money: They assume that the basic package for a phone is the lowest they can get.

Every time I call to install a new line (and I've moved a lot) I have the same discussion with the phone company. I say I want a basic line, then the operator tries to sell me a basic package. I clarify that I want a landline. No call waiting (we're just not that popular), no voice mail (an answering machine is a one-time purchase), nothing more than a line that rings when someone calls me.

That is $12 a month plus taxes. Compared to the $30-ish for the basic package, that's a significant difference.

Second: Electricity

I have a $93 credit on my electric bill right now. And it's not because I overpaid.

I just knew to take advantage of the low-income/disability program that the City of Seattle offers. I filled out one form and attached proof of disability.

In return, the city gives me a discount on my phone ($8 instead of $12) and my electricity. In fact, Seattle offers low-usage incentives, which is how I ended up with a credit on my bill.

I know that a few bloggers have experienced some layoffs, or are afraid of them. So now is the time to check with your own city's utility program. Find out what the cutoffs are, so you'll know all of the available resources.

I also tend to suggest people research the cutoff points on food stamps and government help. It's important to know what you qualify for, in case one day you need it. There are a lot of helpful programs out there, so do some research!

Unfortunately, it looks like Tim and I will no longer qualify for the discount, now that I'm bringing in some money. We would have to make $209 less a month, which isn't worth it for a bill that's around $15-30 every other month.

Still, the credit we've built up will act as a great buffer once we're kicked off the program. So I'm grateful that I signed up.

Incidentally, when I was checking income limits, I noticed that Comcast also gives a small discount (around $4 a month) to people in this program. Just one more way to save a few bucks...

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The 37th Carnival of Money Hacks

Sounds impressive, no?

Well, then, what are you waiting for?

Yes, yours truly got a piece in -- but there are a LOT of great-looking articles on there!

So go check it out!


Wednesday, November 5

Save some money: De-clutter

It could just be winter fever setting in early. Or maybe it's almost two months without a working vacuum. (I finally broke down and borrowed someone's because I couldn't stand it anymore.)

Whatever the reason, I've been going absolutely bonkers in our apartment.

Combined with Ramit's 30-day challenge, it's an excellent reminder about one of the best ways to save money: De-clutter.

There are actually 3 ways that paring down your belongings can benefit you financially.

Sell your stuff

Whether you go for Craigslist, eBay, or garage sales, you can get some greenbacks for your unwanted items. This can go toward bills or your emergency fund, but no matter what, extra money is always good.

The other great way to make some money is selling your books.

This is hard for me, because I love books. I grew up in a single-wide trailer that had 17 bookcases of varying heights. So the idea of getting rid of books is practically blasphemy. I love books.

But the thing is, I rarely reread anything. I can think of perhaps 5 books that I have willingly reread since high school. So, this Friday night, I will be making some piles of books to resell to stores in the University District. (Always be sure to call and find out days and times that they buy.)

More space

People tend to complain about lack of space. There's the old adage that we all manage to expand our possessions to fill available space.

This, in turn, means we feel cramped. We're aware of the clutter. It drives us to get even bigger places, which we adeptly fill up, or to go out more to escape the mess and the claustrophobia. Either way, you're spending money: on higher rent or on food/drinks/cover charges.

No more organizational products

If you're anything like me, your eyes get kind of wide-eyed in the organization aisle of the store. In this hallowed arena are plenty of (slightly overpriced -- but not enough to deter you) items that promise to put order in the chaos of your life.

  • Organize your closet -- it will be serene and you'll finally wear all those clothes you buy.
  • Organize your cupboards -- you'll never have to root around around for that spice. You'll stop losing track of groceries, and will use everything you buy. Uber-thrifty!
  • Organize your desk -- never hunt for a pen again! Enjoy a clean, orderly work space that increases productivity.

You get the idea. The point is that companies like Rubbermaid, Ikea, and Martha Stewart take financial advantage of our fantasies of an orderly existence.

But these items wouldn't be necessary if we had less stuff to begin with. It's a lot harder for there to be clutter when you have only what you need.

When you think about it, these products are just another form of materialism. They enable rampant consumerism. Heck, they wouldn't exist without it!

More importantly, they perpetuate the system of buying to make ourselves happy. They promise a better life, with the purchase of this one product (or, at least, one product line). It's another way to get us to believe that happiness lies in a store.

So I, quite literally, am no longer buying it!


As for my version of Ramit's 30 day challenge, the results are mixed.


No actual sales yet, though a couple people have expressed interest in a few items. And I have identified a few more items that I might be able to sell.


I will get $20.07 back from a return. We got some shirts from Sierra Trading Post in April. Two of them weren't Tim's favorite. But we forgot to send it back and the label expired. Today I checked with an agent and they are still returnable. That will be credited back to my card, but I'm still counting it as savings because this challenge is what finally got me off my duff.

The real savings, though, will come in the form of internet. For reasons too long to explain, my cable modem bill is currently in my mom's name and her cell phone bill is in my name. We've been meaning for some time to switch, but as of tomorrow she's supposed to call and start the process. Then, Tim or I should be able to sign up for an introductory deal for the Internet. This means I'll go from paying around $60 a month to $19.99. (Or, at worst, $29.99.)

I'm still investigating TV savings. I am planning on calling Comcast in the next couple of days to see what specials they have, but so far it's not looking great. I called Dish to find out if there were any special offers for committing to another contract. The best they offered me was $2.98 a month for DVR (instead of $5.98) if I signed up for 2 years (!!!) so that's not of much interest.

Yes, $3 a month is still savings. But usually starting in late November, cable and satellite companies start offering really juicy savings. Given that people are staying home even more, I figure they will really start pedaling deals this year. So I want to keep my options open for a few more weeks.


Through Vindale, Cash Crate and occasionally Squishy Cash, I am earning in dribs and drabs. With Vindale, I like to do only a couple of offers at a time, since I have to be careful to cancel free trials before being billed.

I'm using a calendar to keep close track of which programs to cancel on which days. Still, my depression sometimes makes small tasks seem insurmountable, so I am trying to keep the schedule light.

Today, though, I signed up for a program which, after I cancel in 10 days, will net me $12. And on Cash Crate and Squishy Cash combined, I earned about $5 while watching TV. So this is a potential source for bringing in some extra dollars, here and there.

I'll try to get a running total once a few of my pending earnings have been processed, which should be soon.

Is anyone else trying something along these lines? I know a few of you were inspired by the spirit (if not the tone) of Ramit's challenge.

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Monday, November 3

Bring in, sell off, save up

By now, some of you have probably heard about Ramit's challenge over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

On Friday, he announced that people seem less worried about where to invest than about how to save money immediately. And so he created the 30 day challenge to save $1000.

Three days in and he's already received a lot of flak.

Partially, it's from how he went about it. (Have you ever heard someone sneer in an article? If not, check his out.) He promised no "retarded" frugality tips, like buying OJ from concentrate, starting a garden or buying day-old baked goods.

"I’m not trying to save $1 or even $10 per week, because it’s not worth changing your behavior for that kind of money."

[A brief moment to indulge my petty side: Tip #2 (Sunday) is designed, by his own admission, to save $10-20 a month.]

That bit of acerbity out of the way, from what I’ve seen so far, these tips won’t help me. But that shouldn’t surprise me. Or make me bitter. (Though it does, a little.)

I’m used to not being the target audience; hell, that’s why I started this blog.

I’m tired of (comparatively) rich people talking about how they were surrounded by debt, stressed all the time; and after reading one book, they were able to make some “serious” changes and get out of debt quickly.

At least, the bitter part of me gets sick of hearing about how those changes tend to be nixing their mani/pedis, not going out to eat and cutting back to basic cable.

See, I thought that's how most people lived.

But based on Ramit’s first tip – taking your lunch to work three times a week – I’m not representative of the majority. Personally, I don’t even know anyone who eats lunch out three times a week to begin with. I guess Ramit and I run in vastly different social circles.

And, really, who’s to say how I would live if I could bring in a real income? Maybe I’d be more frivolous. Maybe I wouldn’t. I do know that it’s pointless to get angry or offended.

The fact is, most people’s tips won’t help me specifically. Either they’re things Tim and I can’t do (Get a second job? Neither of us can even work a full-time first one!) or they’re things we’re already doing (Turn down the thermostat? As I write this, the windows are open on a cloudy, 54-degree day!).

So we're in a less-than-common situation. I knew that going into the PF blogosphere. People living on disability or unemployment aren’t exactly the biggest audience out there (especially for people selling seminars or books) so we can’t really depend on getting advice that is built specifically for us. At least, not mainstream advice.

You can either get mad and waste the energy you’ve got, or you can tinker with things a bit, until they suit you better. I take a little from column A, a little from Column B.

In the meantime, I have to give Ramit credit. His challenge galvanized me into action.

Whatever you think of the tips, there is a certain appeal in breaking frugality down into bite-sized pieces. Almost any frugal step can seem too hard when you consider it as a lifelong change. You feel years’ worth of deprivation in seconds and instantly want to go and do something tremendously un-frugal.

So, in making it a 30-day challenge, he has made it a reasonable, very-achievable goal.

For my part in this challenge:

I plan on putting my foot down more on nonessentials spending this month. But there really isn’t that much more fat left to trim from the budget. So I am focusing more on bringing in some money.

I re-posted the wedding items on Craigslist. Then, I went around the house and started looking more critically at household items. I took pictures of several things -- a still-shrink-wrapped Buffy Season 1 set, an exercise ball, a Grecian vase from a going-out-of-business Museum Store -- and listed them on CL. I also started looking around on the “wanted” section to see what other possessions people might buy.

One woman is looking for affordable baby clothes, which reminded me that I had a bunch stored at my mom’s. (I dabbled in eBay for awhile.) So that may be $5-10 there.

Another woman is interested in a couple of my wedding items. That could be another few bucks. (I’m actually pretty shocked and the fact that no one seems interested in 90+ glass plates, most of them never used for $40. But such is life!)

I’ve also been getting on Cash Crate and Inbox Dollars every day, figuring I can earn around $50-100 this month from something like that. (If you’re not signed up, go to my “Make Money Online” tab. I have information and links to the programs.)

Later this week, I want to go to some used bookstores and sell a bunch of books that are just gathering dust. (I love to keep books, but I never reread them. It’s the same reason I don’t buy movies.)

I’m also doing research on new-subscriber prices for the various cable/satellite companies. If the deal is good enough, I may just switch. (And if it’s DirecTV or Comcast, CashCrate will give me $80 or $15 comparatively.)

So, will I make $1000 in 30 days? Only if I fall into Scrooge McDuck’s money vault.

But I figure it’s still worth a nod to Ramit, since his challenge did get me revitalized about saving.

What about you?

Don’t worry about keeping up the habit, making it a life-long pattern. Don’t even worry about December’s budget. Just focus on November. How much do you think you could bring in, sell off or save up?

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Sunday, November 2


I do so love free press!

The Skilled Investor presents the Carnival of Financial Planning.

Check out some of the other cool pieces, including "What's your real hourly wage?" and "Reduced credit limits? Share your experience."

Plus the Carnival of Bankruptcy & Debt Management is up and running. Especially helpful was "How to Avoid a Major 0% Balance Transfer Credit Card Mistake."


Don't ask, don't tell

So I was cruising through my Google reader this morning and happened on a reader's conundrum over at Make Love, Not Debt.

Seems this guy got married after getting a "vague" estimate from his wife of her debt: besides student and car loans, about $15,000.

The first thing that strikes me as odd is that he wouldn't push further. Isn't student debt an awfully nebulous amount?

At any rate, after they were married, she had trouble getting a job and had to make do with a lower-paying occupation. She did eventually get back into her chosen field and back to making the $50,000 a year the man says they each make.

Unfortunately, he recently discovered they owe nearly $100,000 because of her spending. The minimums are about $1000 a month and she's still spending. Did I mention her five cards are maxed out?

As you might expect, she's refusing to change, and he's trying to take away the cards. They're at an impasse.

So... Lots of people chimed in with advice about marital counseling. One called him an enabler. One bitter fellow suggested immediate divorce as she clearly has no interest in changing.

Here's what I don't understand: How could you marry someone without a full accounting (if you'll pardon the pun) of her finances and debt?

I really and truly can't imagine saying "I do" without knowing exactly what kind of debt I was accepting in the process.

Would you marry someone without first meeting her kids? Of course not! But, after children, money is the most-argued-about topic in marriage. So what gives?!

I keep hearing stories about this sort of thing. And I have to wonder why these people never get around to talking about finances, goals for the future, and plans about how to get there.

Before you start in: Yes, I know some people are excellent at secret spending. It's a practice that truly bothers me.

I was on a forum once where many of the women would openly talk about hiding their purchases from their husbands. They would schedule deliveries for when their husbands weren't home. When new things arrived, they would be hidden in plain sight -- among the older things. If the husbands noticed, the women just insisted they'd "had it forever."


While I may not understand it, I do see how one partner can hide purchases pretty easily. Although it seems obvious that if both partners go through the financials together, the behavior is a lot harder to keep hidden.

That said, this woman didn't seem to be hiding anything from her husband. He just didn't want to make enough trouble to get the whole set of facts. (He explained that it took a lot of "pushing and pulling" to get the vague answer about debt.)

Obviously, most people suggested marital counseling. That's very important, of course. But I wonder why only one other person thought to ask him why he ignored some pretty big signs.

Most importantly, why didn't they have conversations about spending and saving and debt before they got married?

I also found it interesting that no one much cared why she is spending this way.

Like eating disorders, drugs and other self-harming habits, overspending is a way for people to avoid dealing with their problems. If you feel bad, you can overeat, or refuse to eat, or take some drugs, or go shopping.

The point is, any regularly occurring excessive behavior is usually a sign of a problem.

Both of these people clearly have a lot of work to do -- on themselves and their marriages.

But enough about my opinions. What would you tell this guy?

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