Tuesday, December 30

Dear retailers...

This has to stop. Frankly, it's getting embarrassing for everyone involved.

Look, you know, deep in your hearts, that the relationship is over. That you and consumers haven't really been in sync for awhile now. They're pulling away, cutting back. You barely see them anymore. And when they are there, they don't stay long or spend much.

I can only imagine how scary that must be for you, watching them grow more distant with each passing day (and industry collapse).

And in your fear, you try to lure them in with tawdry promises of discounts and sales. But, stores, even if these ploys do work, you know it's just staving off the inevitable. The consumers are using you. They're buying, yeah, but it's mostly sale items. And it's so obvious that everyone is just going through the motions. They come in only because they know you'll give them what they want: cheap stuff. After they got what they came for, they leave and go find another store all too willing to lower its prices for them.

You're deluding yourselves that you can go on like this. Yes, you're maintaining a relationship, but only in the most superficial of senses. I know it, the consumers know it, and it's time you know it.

Meanwhile, how long do you really think you can keep going like this? You know you paid a certain price for that inventory you're flagrantly discounting. How much lower can you go? How many losses can you afford when the consumers aren't sticking around for the regularly priced merchandise?

We all know that, eventually, you have to hit a stopping point. That's becoming increasingly obvious as your cheap come-ons get more and more transparent. Macy's, you know you do this: You sent out an "After Christmas" sale catalog (four days before Christmas, mind you) that was almost identical to your "Last Days Before Christmas" catalog. Same coupons, same morning discounts, same everything.

How long do you think you can keep fooling the consumers into coming back? Eventually, you won't be able to do anything more for them. They'll realize that they've already gotten the best you have to offer. And then they'll move on.

You think you can't survive without these sales-vultures? You were fine before everyone got so power-drunk with credit cards. You'll be okay again. It won't always be pleasant. You will probably have to cut staff. But you can't expect people in foreclosure to go deeper into debt. You'd just be fooling yourself.

I know it's far from your ideal scenario. I know it's not what you want to hear. But it's the truth. And the more you play this degrading charade, the faster consumers will see through it. So stop now, while you still have some dignity left. Don't be that cloying ex who calls every hour of the day, hoping to get back together. No one wants to encourage that kind of behavior. It's annoying and a little creepy.

No, retailers, you're better than that! Play it cool. Let them know you have sale prices sometimes. But they don't have to come. Ya know, whatever. You'll be around, and, hey, if they stop by, great. But you know what you're worth. You know eventually they'll want to come back for some new clothes or the latest shoes they've saved up for. They need you. It's just a matter of keeping your cool. Of not panicking.

And if none of this letter convinced you, then at the very least STOP CLOGGING MY MAILBOX WITH NEW SALES CATALOGS.


A sales-vulture before sales-vulturing was cool,

Abigail Perry

Labels: , , ,

Monday, December 29

Regifting: Are you for or against it?

I know a lot of frugal blogs cover regifting. But I'm curious to hear your point of view. Maybe I'm oversimplifying a rather diverse group, but I tend to think that most frugal folks would be pro-regifting.

The subject came to mind several times in the past month. My mom was worried my feelings might be hurt, but she wanted to give a hoodie to a homeless shelter that was desperately in need of warm clothing. She just wasn't using it much, and she knew the shelter's clients would.

For the record, I say that, once a gift is given, it is out of my hands -- literally and figuratively.

For Tim's birthday, I got him two shirts and a hat from Ecko (hooray for outlet stores!) which he loved. But one of the shirts was the wrong size. When we went to return it, Tim decided he preferred another shirt. He was worried my feelings would be hurt. I told him I'd rather he get the shirt he wants.

And, on Christmas morning, we thanked my mom for her thoughtful gifts. After she finished opening her gifts from us (because, weirdo that she is, she hadn't torn open presents the moment she woke up!), Tim cleared his throat. He told her that, while he very much appreciated the gifts -- especially the thought she put into them -- he could not use one of the shirts. Instead, he wondered if she would mind him giving it to someone else. She really didn't mind.

So I guess I wonder what all the fuss is about. I know some people think it's callous. The argument, I suppose, being that a lot of thought gets put into a present.

I put a lot of thought into gifts, which helps assure that the recipient will want and use the item. But there are times when you simply misread a situation. Perhaps it's a gift card to an expensive, preppy store and you're a Hot Topic gal. Or a set of lotions and soaps that, while lovely, officially fill your cupboards with bath products.

Isn't it better that the person get some use from the item, rather than pretend to love it and then throw it away?

I kept receiving Eddie Bauer gift cards from one aunt. They were generous amounts, so I appreciated the thought. And the cards did allow me to replace my old, ratty backpack. Another time, I got a nice watch. When I had nothing else I needed, I used the card to buy a few small gifts for people on my list: a pedometer, a survival kit for Mom to keep in her car, etc.
In the end, the card did help me, if not quite in the way my aunt had envisioned.

I guess I don't see what the big deal is. Does anyone else?

If there are some ardent anti-regift folks out there, I would love to hear from you, too. I would love to hear from you. Since I really just have my own opinion, I want to know what your guidelines are:

  • Can you not regift/throw out any gifts, or just from people close to you?
  • How long do you have to keep something before discreetly disposing of it?
  • Are some presents okay to give away -- like last-minute, no-thought-in-them gifts -- while others you have to keep forever?
  • Have you had some experience wherein someone truly hurt your feelings with a regift?
  • Has anyone ever tried to regift a present to the original giver?

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 28

Oh, yeah, that's why I don't drink much...

This is not going to be an award-winning post. Currently, I'm having trouble forming whole words. And my mouth is like the Sahara, despite my periodic gulping of water.

Here's the deal: My mother-in-law has a practically-family friend Judy. They grew up together and are best friends. This is true to the extent that Judy's kids are considered 'cousins' of Tim and his brother.

So when Judy's mom had an 85th birthday party (though I questioned the idea of a surprise party for an 85-year-old woman, since it's practically the start of a bad joke) we needed to be there.

But the additional treat (besides getting a whole table of food laid out for us for the second time in three days) was that Judy's daughter Patty was able to attend at the last minute. Tim never gets to see her, so we naturally decided we should go out.

As you can guess from the title of this post, we whooped it up. It ended up being me, Tim, Patty, her boyfriend, Shannon (Judy's oldest daughter) and Shannon's husband. And since I wasn't driving for a change, I decided to go ahead and do some drinking.

We found some affordable well drinks, so that we could have fun without going overboard on cost. All this would have been fine except:

  1. Since I am usually driving, Tim hasn't really seen me really, really drunk.
  2. The earlier party was at 2 p.m. And since we woke up late, we didn't have breakfast. And since the party ended around 5 p.m., we didn't really have dinner either. After the party, we scooted back up to the in-laws' place and got ready to go out, thereby skipping supper.
  3. Tim didn't know that, if someone keeps handing me drinks, I'll keep drinking them and forget to keep track.

I think you see where this is going. Things got a little hazy toward the end of the night. I know we did a very badly organized group rendition of Love Shack, which is the first time I have ever actually agreed to do karaoke. So I must have been plowed!

I will spare you lurid details about Tim and I getting sick, given that it was rather well deserved. We finally passed out a bit before 4 a.m. Then I woke up at 9 with a painfully dry mouth but also a head apparently set on "spin" cycle.

Every time I moved my head, I was distinctly uncomfortable. Thinking it was dehydration, I gulped a couple of mugfuls of water for as long as I could actually remain vertical. Then I went back to bed, only to be reminded that alcohol exacerbates Restless Leg Syndrome something nasty.

So I ended up out in the living room, still chugging water whenever I could get to my feet, and watching TV. Eventually I even had enough brain power to realize that, since water wasn't working, a completely empty stomach might be to blame.

I felt better enough to drive home, but after getting home, I started getting dizzy again. Being a bright girl, this time I ingested water and food. (I was an honors student, you see.) Luckily, Tim came to the rescue and walked down to the corner store to pick up some Gatorade.

I'm finally about back to normal. Still woozy, though, and reminded why I don't drink heavily anymore. Always good to remember these sorts of things.

Meanwhile, I'm back in Seattle. Presents were well received by all, except for the three items that didn't arrive in time thanks to the crummy weather. Sigh.

The other big present missing was our gift for Tim's parents. The $50 gift card didn't arrive in time. I had a $25 gift card, so we decided to just eat the cost. Then I found out that pretty much every store near us and his parents had the things sold out.

Wasn't this going to be the Christmas where no one was buying? There were a few different items I was looking at right before the 25th, all of which were practically sold out.

Some people think the stores underestimated the demand. I think that once again people's consumerism got away from them. I read an awful lot of PF blogs by frugal folks gleefully hitting the stores' desperation sales.

In the end, I printed out a picture of the device and wrote "Coming soon..."

Did anyone else have to do the IOU thing for presents?

I'm going to toddle back to bed, after another glass of water. Hope everyone had a good holiday. Now back to work -- for two and a half days.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, December 21

Do I need an attitude adjustment?

I was perusing The Wisdom Journal, via Twitter (yes, I have finally taken a sip of the Kool-Aid) and something he wrote was both thought-provoking and immensely irritating.

Under the subheading "Choices," the author wrote:

Where you are today is the result of the choices you’ve made, the experiences you’ve felt, the associations you’ve cultivated, the words you’ve spoken, the ideas you’ve had, the beliefs you’ve clung to, and the habits you’ve created. You are more in control than you give yourself credit because 99 percent of the time, your attitude determines the choices you make, and your attitude is the only thing you really control.

Okay, most of this stuff is deep and basically true. Except for that whole big part about choices.

Here are the choices I have made:

  1. I chose to go to University of WA rather than graduate $100,000+ in debt from Cornell. So you can either argue I might not have been exposed to Guillain-Barre out in Ithaca, or that I'd have died when my respiratory systems failed, because it's in the middle of nowhere.
  2. I chose to keep working. Kind of a misnomer, actually, since it was pure denial and stubbornness more than active choice. But it meant I didn't get disability early on which may have caused some extra debt.
  3. I chose to marry Tim. I knew that, between the two of us, we needed our own little bubble, we're so sickly. So I knew paychecks would never be for sure. And, a month before the wedding, he was fired. So I definitely had a clear view of the uncertainty in our future when I said, 'I do.'

So that it's, really. Those are my choices. Sure, there are lots of smaller ones in the day-to-day stuff: whether to have a drink with friends, whether to fling myself off the couch and cook or admit defeat and order pizza, etc.

But by and large, choice hasn't had a whole lot to do with the last decade or so of my life. I chose to seek therapy, which was certainly better than suicidality. I chose to get medicated (see the last remark). But I doubt my attitude determined my being in a hospital for 4 months. Or any of the fallout from that.

Does my attitude shape my decisions now? Yes -- for better and for worse. Some days, you just can't be chipper. I don't care how many optimists you throw together, when you have a long-term, debilitating illness, you're going to have bad days. If not, you're still in denial.

There are days when you need wail and gnash your teeth. Cry that it's not fair. That you didn't ask for any of this. And then you can get up and get on with life. Except maybe watch some TV and eat a little junk food for comfort. Theoretically, mind you.

But I guess my point is that I've been stuck in a more or less reactive state since the age of 19. Most of my decisions have been made based on a narrower set of choices than healthy people.

And I don't say all this to make a big pity party in my honor. I'm working on making peace with my limitations. Slowly. But I'm working on it.

My point is that, reading personal finance blogs, you'd think Tim and I were out on European vacations and driving two SUVs. We've certainly discussed the fact that most PF blogs are targeted at a very specific audience. But it still gets pretty exhausting when you are looking for support and still leave wanting.

It's not that the tips and ideas are bad. Just that most are completely non-applicable to our life. I've gotten some good ideas off PF blogs, certainly. If I'm lucky, 10% are applicable and perhaps 2% are things I haven't already thought of/tried.

In a way -- actually, scratch that, in every way -- it would be so much easier if Tim and I were the target audience for these debt-reduction blogs. I don't love admitting when I'm wrong (luckily, I never am, right?) but if it were simply a matter of our flagrant over-spending, how much simpler would it be?

How much better would it be to simply bite the bullet and cut back? Not that changing a lifestyle is easy, of course. But it's a hell of a lot easier than already living bare-bones and still being in debt.

If Tim and I could just work more, hell we'd both be thrilled to. (Okay, the joy wouldn't last long. But if it were a short-term solution to getting out of debt, and we could actually effect change? Hoo-boy, you better bet we'd be covered in papercuts from all the job applications we were handling!)

But not everyone gets the same choices in this life. And while, as The Wisdom Journal notes, attitude is very important, it's not determinative. In fact, where you are in life isn't always the result of your choices. Sometimes, your choices are the result of where you are in life.

I'll leave this chicken-and-egg question for the philosophers. No PF blog can be relative to everyone all the time. And I hope I don't appear to be suggesting they should.

Still, it would be nice if generalized statements could take into account more lifestyles than the writer's when they are made. Whether that's a fair expectation, I couldn't tell you.

It's just my attitude on the subject, I guess.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, December 20

Of strippers and snow

Not the most obvious pairing in the world, but today has included both.

Tim's friend Seth -- met through Friday night Magic -- turns 20 on Sunday. Kyle, another Magic player friend, turned 18 on Thursday. And Tim turned 30 on Friday. Quite a motley crew.

Once I found out Kyle was turning 18, I pointed out to Tim that it was his duty to take the kiddo to a strip club. Which is when we discovered that Seth had also never been. Later, Seth's friend Chad was also added to the strip-club-virgin roster.

Unfortunately, we've had quite the bad (for Seattle) weather around here lately. It snowed a little bit earlier in the week. The temperatures stayed below freezing, though, so the ice stuck around.

Then, Thursday, it snowed for a few hours. Tim and I were out celebrating his birthday a day early (so he could be down in Sumner with his family Friday). And the mall had decided to close at 5 p.m. (4 hours early) because of the snow. Some of the stores didn't even open that day! Mind-boggling.

The movie theater was staying open, after which we planned to go to Cheesecake Factory, but I was worn down. Tim was a little bummed but insisted I not push myself. Luckily, Tim was basically getting a 3-part birthday: Thursday in Seattle, Friday with family, Saturday with the boys.

As someone who grew up in Anchorage, I spent most of Thursday marveling at the city's annual reaction (read: panic) to snow. People get snowed in (I guess shovels don't exist down here), businesses close, accidents pile up. And most years we only get a couple of inches.

But every so often, we get a nice long cold snap (cold, here, being a relative term) and the snow comes several times, along with lots of ice. That's what this last week has been: snow or ice. So I avoided driving around as much as possible. I also spent the week before that feeling exhausted and worn down, which kept us off the roads.

As a result, Tim and I have saved a surprising amount of money. Rather than go grab some groceries to make dinner, we scrounged around in cupboards Granted, we didn't eat terribly healthy food -- but, then, we never do. A couple nights with nachos or some canned soup. Anything to avoid being out and about. It was a good reminder that we don't always have to spend money for food. We have odds and ends throughout the house.

Another way we saved was my energy. Based on the weather and random drivers' behavior, Mom decided she didn't want us driving down to Sumner. She was sure we'd get rear-ended and leave her without a car and with higher insurance rates.

Instead, Tim's mom sent his brother to pick us up. This meant that I didn't have the stress or fatigue that comes with driving 50 miles. We came down yesterday evening and mostly just chilled out. Tim spent some time chatting with his parents, I didn't feel so hot, so I lay down with a book.

Today at noon, Seth, Kyle and Chad showed up. I had been on the fence about going to the strip club with them. But I had a good night's sleep, and I decided it was worth it just to be a spectator at this event.

The real tipping point, though, was that they were going earlier rather than later. My energy tends to flag in the evenings. And we all agreed to start out mid-afternoon, since a big storm was predicted somewhere around 8 to midnight.

So at 3 p.m. we piled into the car and headed on over to the club in Tacoma. I spent a lot of the time laughing, as I watched the boys watch the girls. I swear, they were hypnotized.

I should actually stop and say that the girls were surprisingly good. I had heard enough about these joints so that I didn't expect much. But these girls were good dancers and definitely knew their stuff. And I have to say that a few of them impressed me with some gravity-defying pole work.

The deal was that, as a birthday present, Tim would pay for Kyle and Seth to get in, plus get each one a lap dance. But when they found out Kyle was newly 18 and at his first strip club, some guy bought him a dance. (Men seem to get awfully generous around naked women. I bet we could balance the national debt if more of us were willing to strip down now and again.)

Overall, I have to say that it was a hilarious and vaguely educational experience. I can't say I was nearly as into the entertainment as the men were. But they, themselves, were quite entertaining in their own right.

By the time the boys were ready to go -- none of us were exactly wealthy, so the money ran out quickly and several of the dancers left early, worried about the weather -- it was snowing pretty steadily.

In getting back to Tim's parents, Seth's little car was slipping around quite a bit. And the windshield refused to fully defrost. So we insisted the guys stay here, rather than have Seth risk life and limb to get to his parents' (normally a 5-minute drive, but only via a very steep hill).

So, as I type this, the boys are playing Magic the Gathering, the snow is falling pretty steadily outside, and I am still awestruck by the fact that men will pay so much money for women to sexually frustrate them. (Okay, and still slightly impressed by their moves, I'll admit it.)

Seriously, I know it's a right of passage and all, but I have never understood men that regularly go to strip clubs. I think most women can affirm this: There are lots of women out there who will sexually frustrate you for dinner and perhaps a movie.

Granted, man is a visual creature. So there is something to be said for spending money simply to look and not touch (as far as the law is concerned anyway). But it's just another way in which men and women are pretty darn divided. Most women just don't get it.

Whether you think it's degrading and another way to keep women down, or whether you're the jealous type who can't stand your man wanting to see other women naked (in which case, you better have a Power Bar because you have a long road ahead of you), or whether you're like me and just simply don't care and figure these girls gotta make a living too... Women just generally don't see the appeal of strip clubs.

That said, it's an excellent reminder that, no matter what you do well, chances are you can market it. Just a thought -- however sleazy -- for all you would-be entrepreneurs out there.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 19

Holiday paranoia & other fun traditions

Well, it's officially the holidays.

Can I tell this from the lights all around? The near omnipresence of the word "Christmas"? The bell-clanging Salvation Army volunteers?

Okay, all that helps, sure. But what really tips me off that Christmas is here is my annual panic.

Tonight, I wrapped most of Tim's presents (read: all the ones that have arrived). As I looked at the stack, the only thought passing through my little head was, "THIS ISN'T ENOUGH!"

It was pure, undiluted panic. A small voice in my head told me I had been thrifty to a fault. That I had avoided spending and, in the process, short-changed Tim on presents.

The stack of gifts looked meek and unassuming. It looked vastly inadequate. The feeling was so strong, I nearly jumped onto the computer to start plotting what else I could afford.

It was all I could do to keep from dashing out the door, credit card in hand, and materialism unchecked. Instead, I focused on calming down and tried to visualize the list. When I had looked at the list, the items seemed like enough. But as covered, unknown shapes, the offerings seem paltry.

I also reminded myself that a couple more gifts are due -- this wasn't everything. Somehow, though, I doubt the additions will make the panic vanish. Especially since this happens every year, regardless of how many gifts I have.

What is it about covering gifts -- which should add mystery and inherent value -- that makes an otherwise worthy pile seem downright miserly?

Is it that I've simply internalized the retailers' message that love equals material possessions? Is it because I am always careful about staying on a budget, even for holiday shopping? Is it a fear of disappointing people? Or is it simple guilt because I'm excited to receive gifts, and I'm trying to overcompensate with generosity?

Honestly, I don't know. Probably each plays at least a small role.

Unfortunately, I think a large part is that I've been sucked into the rampant materialism of the season. I sometimes forget that Tim knows I love him, regardless of the presents I give. I forget that presents aren't about proving your love for those close to you. It's about showing generosity and thoughtfulness because you love them.

The other big part is that I like giving people gifts. I enjoy the surprise and happiness that come when the recipient unwraps the presents. It's fun, and it's great to be able to show people that you care about them and know them well enough to get them what they want. The fact that we can't afford a whole lot right now, well it's frustrating.

Of course, it's not exactly fun to live carefully all the time. But during the holidays, when so many gadgets and clothes and books and jewelry are dangled in front of us, it's a major shackle. Yes, there is an element of fun in figuring out crafty ways to afford gifts: DIY, MyPoints, shopping sales.

But, by and large, it's irritating to be forced to scale back, to separate what I would like to give to Tim from what I can afford to get him.

And when every other Sunday ad features a $200-$400 gaming system, I just get so frustrated. Together, Tim and I may spend $400 on all our gifts. To spend it on just one? It's hard not to be jealous.

So is that all there is to the holiday-gift anxiety? I doubt it. I'm pretty sure everyone has at least one moment of similar panic. Even those people who do get the $400 gaming systems.

Maybe they've just internalized the materialism more than I have. Or maybe we are all just neurotic. I'm not sure there is a clear source of this panic. Or an obvious way to avoid it.

Rather, I'll simply have to win the lottery. That way, when the panic strikes, I can have the driver take me out to buy more -- which I'll call 'propping up the economy.' Or, if I'm too tired, I can send my personal assistant out for me. Heck, if I'm rich enough, I bet they'd bring the store to me (or, at least, parts of it).

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 18

DIY gifts: Body scrubs

Gifts that clutter are bad, but I'm a firm believer that nice bath gifts are always appreciated. And, in the harsh winter, most people are thrilled to get something that can get rid of all that dry skin.

Best of all, these recipes tend to be cheap & easy.

The biggest costs for these will probably be the essential oils (if you choose to make them scented) and containers. I think you could just scrounge around at home for some containers (Crystal Light containers are a good size, for example) and simply go for a slightly eccentric flair. Who cares what the products come in, if they're good?

But, if you prefer the standard route, most craft stores (any place that sells candle- or soap-making supplies will probably have your essential oils and plenty of containers) will have cost-conscious containers.

It's been about 3 years since I bought mine, but I believe I got about 20 jars for about $10.

Okay, onto the recipes:

You will need an exfoliant:

  • Sugar (white or brown, most recipe-makers prefer brown)
  • Salt (Epsom, kosher or Dead Sea, which will be at aforementioned-craft store)
  • Oatmeal (colloidal is best, be sure it's finely ground or that you have a good grinder)
  • Coffee (tightens skin among other things, again be sure it's ground finely)

If you don't want to grind the oats yourself, Wal-Mart has a good generic version of Aveeno's Oatmeal baths.

You will need an oil:

  • Jojoba
  • Grapeseed
  • Coconut
  • Safflower
  • Almond
  • Olive
  • Any vegetable

In a pinch, you can use mineral (baby) oil. But it's not as good for your skin, since it doesn't sink in like the others. It may also clog pores.

The best ones to use are oils with omega-3 fatty acids, since this provides extra protection for your skin. (These are the elements that provide natural barriers against dirt and keep your skin moisturized. You can also get these by taking supplements like flaxseed oil or any fish oil.)

You may want to add scents:

  • Lavender
  • Vanilla
  • Grapefruit
  • Mint

This is basic aromatherapy. Add a few drops to the whole batch for a nice, not-overpowering scent. Lavender is calming and soothing. Vanilla just smells good. Grapefruit and other citrus are invigorating. Mint is stimulating for the mind.

You can use the ingredients above to experiment a bit. (No explosions, I promise.) Overall, the mixture should be closer to a paste than soup. And you may have to stir the stuff each time you use it.

Check out these sites for exact recipes, or to get a general ingredient ratios.

Also, be sure to check out this easy- and fab-sounding Foaming Vanilla Bath.

Scrub for those with eczema/psoriasis/sensitive skin:

Tim's eczema causes him to get patches of dry, flaky skin that just won't go away. I bought some exfoliating sponges and gently worked on his skin that way. He said it helped reduce the itching a lot.

Still, I worry about scratching too hard and inflaming the eczema. So I think I'm going to try this recipe, made with eczema and other skin conditions in mind.

Tip: Once you've put the scrubs in containers, you can add a bit of elegance with tags or labels. List directions, ingredients or simply "to" and "from" in calligraphy -- or a calligraphy-like font.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 15

Frugality & procrastination don't mix.

Well, I screwed up big time.

I was absolutely sure that MyPoints emailed the gift certificate code to me. So I put off ordering the cards until this weekend, to ensure that I would have the full amount necessary for 2 $50 cards.

Turns out, I was wrong. The gift cards are mailed, which means I'll be lucky to get them in 2 weeks. Meanwhile, Amazon informed me I had only 6 days left for standard shipping to arrive in time for Christmas.

In other words, I would have to pay cash now and then sell the cards on eBay when they finally arrived. Which would mean getting maybe $90 after fees, etc.

Luckily, Mom routinely buys textbooks from Amazon. So she ordered for me, and I'll hand over the gift cards when they arrive.

Basically, I have once again proven that frugality & procrastination are natural enemies. In fact, procrastination costs people plenty: late fees, forgetting to cancel memberships, etc.

I'm sure all of you are plenty prepared and would never let such things happen. But just in case the unthinkable has happened -- and because you now have only a couple more days to order with standard shipping and still get items in time for Christmas -- I'm offering some ideas for gifts under $25:

  • First, visit the i pick up pennies' Amazon store at the bottom of the page for plenty of apparel for the comic-book-lover in your life. I created a category called, "Geek Chic" and almost every piece in there is under $20.

  • Also on Amazon, consider finding great bargain books from Amazon sellers. Plenty of "Used -- Like New" which I have gotten and they really look untouched! I got a boxed set of 3 books by The Sweet Potato Queens (perfect for the sassy lady in your life) for $1.48 plus $3.99 tax.

Also good for light and funny reading are Terry Pratchett novels, which I'm getting Tim into. Need some good chick lit? I love Marian Keyes. Buying for the more serious literature type? Try Ann Patchett, Richard Powers or Isabel Allende. Harry Potter fan who's restless now the series is over? Try the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Allende also has some very well-written young adult books, so check hers out, too!

  • If you know a bookworm with no space for books, consider a rental plan, like the one at BooksFree -- where you can get a plan with regular books or audiobooks. Audiobooks are great for people with reading or visions problems, or for those with severe illnesses. (They saved my sanity in the hospital!) Plans start at $9.99, and you can get a 10% discount on gift-plans and renewals through 12/25.

  • Just about everything on Levita is under $25. Many items are under $15! I'm in love with lots of this jewelry. If I weren't already surrounded by stuff I didn't wear, I'd buy everything below (and then some)! Free shipping on all orders, but today's the last day if you want your order to ship before Christmas.

Textured silver bracelets (4), also available in hematite ($9.99):

Curved sickle earrings ($6.49):

3" Purple Glass Oval Hoop Rhodium Earrings

Shower rings vintage gold earrings also available in silver ($6.49):

3" silver earrings w/ diamond accents also available in gold ($5.99):

Garnet necklace ($17.99):

Silver chain w/ faux pearls ($13.99):

Silver-plated wild shape necklace ($16.99)

  • Shoe lover? Give them a gift certificate to Gotham Online. Or pick up some $19.97 Bandolinos or Steve Maddens for yourself.

  • Snarky person? T-shirt lover? Busted Tees will have just the thing! Shirts from $7.77 to $20.

  • Marvel is having some pretty decent holiday sales, as well as some decently priced regular merchandise.

Calendars from $8.95
Videos (animated & film) from $14.98
Mugs, watches, bobbleheads & lunchboxes $6.95-21.95

Shirts under $20

Spidey bobblehead ($6.95):

Silver Surfer shirt ($11.21):

Hulk bust bank ($14.95):

Ben 10 lunchboxes, shirts, watches, etc $2.50-$14.95
Foster's shirts (from $4.25), jewelry ($3.25), keychains, etc
Billy & Mandy "Clowns hate tangelos" T-shirt ($8.48)

Star Wars watch ($12.95):

Foster's "I'm a hot toe picker" shirt ($4.25):

Ben 10 Kevin 11 & Max Transforming Alien Rocks ($2.50):

  • The WB shop has a multitude of lines: Looney Tunes, Harry Potter, Scooby, DC Comics

Batman shirt ($8.48):

Dumbeldore's Army Messenger bag ($21.71)

Superman messenger bag ($16.85)

Harry Potter heat-sensitive mug ($14.95):

Superman thermal shirt ($17.50)

Corpse Bride shirt ($8.48):

Where the Wild Things Are ($16.22):

T3 skull figure ($7.98):

Superman silver cuff links ($9.98)

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory Hoodie ($20):

Harry Potter bookmarks ($10.50):

Speedy Gonzalez hoodie ($20):


Saturday, December 13

Free shopping is the best kind

Thanks to a reader over at Smart Spending's message board, my mom found this great coupon: $15 off a purchase of $15 or more over at JC Penney. Good until 12/24.

I tagged along with mom the first trip and helped her buy some items for the family she and her sister adopted for the holidays. We spent $1.07 after the coupon (because of sales tax).

Mom went back and used the coupon again a couple days later.

I printed out two -- one for me and one for Tim -- and am going to get some new undies as several pairs of mine have been evoking a death rattle. (RIP, undies.... You have served me well.)

So if you usually experience that last-minute "I didn't get enough gifts" panic attack, be sure you have a copy (or two) of this coupon. You can get some items free -- or close to -- assuaging both your guilt and your wallet.

What could be better?

Friday, December 12

One-day sale

I was perusing my ad network when I noticed that Busted Tees is having quite the sale. Some of the t-shirts are $12. A few are even $7.77. But the rest are only $15 each. So for any of you looking for some affordable, hilarious/evil/evil-ly hilarious clothing -- for yourself or as holiday gifts -- here ya go!

MM Xmas

Thursday, December 11

Under $11,000 and counting

Okay, a mere three months after I mentioned it, I finally have debt counters up and running. I am happy to say we have finally limbo-ed under the $11,000 mark on our credit cards. Hooray!

I'm tired and burned out. The stress of the impending season is starting to wear on me. It's not just Christmas but Tim's birthday (the 19th). He's been screwed out of enough birthday celebrations that I vowed to always make a fuss.

This year, though, he has some friends from Magic who, magically enough, have birthdays on the 17th & the 21st. Turns out, one is turning 18. Naturally, this means Tim has to take him to a strip club. It's practically a law!

Naturally, Tim's family wants to see him on his birthday, so we'll be going down there for that. The day after, Saturday, the other two guys will join him at a Tacoma strip club. Tim has gotten the okay to buy them lap dances (the other guy hasn't been to a strip club either). I mean, again, it's practically a law, right?

But here in Seattle, we'll go ahead and celebrate the day before his bday. Tim's favorite restaurants will get visited -- Gordon Biersch, with a birthday coupon, and Cheesecake Factory -- and probably we'll go see a movie or find some type of shenanigans.

Anyway, his birthday is only one week away, which is a little startling, since it means Christmas is in two weeks. I'm not sure how that happened. I always plan so far in advance that I inevitably get behind as the actual event nears, because I put off actually ordering/buying. So I have to get on that. Thank goodness for MyPoints!

I got the tree put up last night, with relatively minimum soot coming off on my hands. Today, I got as far as the garland and lights. So the hardest part is done. Tomorrow, Tim and I will go ahead and actually put the ornaments up. Then we can start stacking up some presents.

That's about all the news that's fit to print.

Is it a little sad when you're proud because you actually updated Quicken twice in two weeks?

I'll just keep telling myself it's about the little victories. Or I'll go out and get a life some day. But that sounds hard.

Two reasons to check out the Freebie Blogger!

One: Because there are only 3 days/gift cards left in the 12-days-of-Christmas giveaway! Yours truly won a Wendy's card (whoo hoo!) which I intend to spend indulging in Frosty's and my favorite fries.

Two: Because she has a cool (and simple) DIY gift of her own: Chocolate covered pretzel rods. She even details how to cover them with candy, etc. They look great (and I bet they taste even better!) and I'm thinking even mom and I can't screw up this recipe too much. Though, goodness knows, we'll try!

Tuesday, December 9

DIY gifts: Back with a vengeance (and some Mod Podge)

I love decoupage. Maybe it’s because I can’t draw to save my life but still think I have an eye for color and design. Or maybe it’s because, each time I peel off the glue-skin that forms on my hands, I’m transported by to childhood, when the trick was to see how big a piece you can get.

Whatever the reason, it’s a great way to craft without spending a lot of time or money.

I also like decoupage because it makes decorative containers and organizers, which help keep down clutter. Most DIY gifts create more clutter.

The Projects

For this post, I dug up an old Ann Taintor weekly calendar, a lucky find at a thrift store. Her pictures are great for visual appeal and snarkiness.

Naturally, not everyone can get their hands on something like this. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest you go online and find her images that I’m sure plenty of people have uploaded. That would be illegal. Ahem... Moving on.

The bank:

A frugal gift twofold: Cheap to make and it helps the recipient save money! I found the "Insert Coin" phrase in one of Tim's gaming magazines. It seemed too perfect not to use.

You don't have to go with this sort of theme, though. If you know someone who is saving up, find some images associated with that: a house for, well, a house fund, a plane and sun for a vacation fund, shoes and jewelry for a shopping fund. You can really personalize these to the individual!

The recipe holder:

For the cook in the family, create a recipe box. This gift would be best if you scared up some tabbed index cards, for better filing.

The jewelry box:

The lid

The box

If you know someone who always has jewelry scattered everywhere, decorate a box to put it all in.

Of course, this could also be a small bank, separating coins into different boxes. Or a larger box for holding photos/keepsakes. Each different purpose suggests a different decoration theme.

The coupon holder:

I thought it would be great to have a coupon holder, for the time between clipping and shopping. I tend to lose loose coupons, so it would be great to have a place to put them (other than clipped to the fridge, where they get forgotten).

The box was 10 cents at Tim's card store.

As you can see, I cut out phrases and coupons. But if you prefer pictures to words, it's all about your own personal aesthetic.

The big project:

Our first Christmas together, I wanted to get Tim something special. He always needed more storage for his Magic the Gathering cards. He also had downloaded a lot of the art from MTG's website, for use as screen savers and backgrounds on the computer.

One day it dawned on me that these two facts could work together. I went to Value Village and got him a wooden box. Then I printed out many of the pictures. Some I left in squares (for the base layer). Others I cut down for extra emphasis and texture.

It took forever, but it turned out beautifully (if I do say so myself):

When he saw the result, Tim was blown away. Magic the Gathering is a huge part of his life, and I was able to take something he needed anyway (more storage boxes for his cards) and personalize it.

While I don't recommend that you start with this intricate of a project -- it wore me out -- it's proof that there is no limit to what you can use decoupage for:

  • Decorate a bank (rather than make one)
  • Beautify the cover of a blank journal
  • Personalize a photo album's cover
  • Cut out various, funky letters and spell out your favorite quotes.
  • Get pictures and copy them onto regular paper. Decoupage with them.
  • Find a cheap clock and decorate the face.

The point is, there are tons of ideas out there. You just have to know your audience.

The method


1 bottle of Mod Podge Gloss Lustre ($6.99 at Michael's, $4.19 after 40% coupon)
1-2 paintbrushes (49 cents each at Michael's)
Container(s) for decoration
Magazines OR clip art
#400 sandpaper (optional)

The first step, obviously, is to find an item to decorate. The great thing about this craft is the containers don't have to be pristine. Depending how much actual decoration you're doing, you can cover up stains or scratches. It means you can find some very cheap items in the thrift stores.

Once you have your container, you need images. Get them from the internet, old magazines or just clip art files. It doesn't matter, so long as the images express your theme.

Assuming you are doing just a basic, one-image item, you simply need to swab Mod Podge on the back of the image.

Tip: When you're placing the image, you may be nervous about putting it on crookedly or in the wrong place. Don't worry. Mod Podge doesn't dry instantly, so you have some time to scoot it around or make the picture level.

As you are placing the image, you need to be aware of air bubbles. The best way to avoid these is to place the image down left to right (Just reverse this process if you're left-handed, it's all pretty intuitive.) Place the left side of the picture down to make contact with the container. Then, using your whole hand, push the image down left to right. This should force out any air bubbles.

Tip: If you don't like getting your hands glue-y, you can use anything that allows you to apply an even pressure over the whole image: a ruler, a sponge, someone else's hand... You get the general idea.

No matter how careful you are, you may miss a small pocket. Don't worry. Using your fingernails (and I bite mine so anyone should be able to do this), you can pick up one side -- lifting slowly and gently so that you don't tear the picture -- and smooth it back down.

Once the image is secured (and flat) you simply need to seal it with a coat of Mod Podge.

How many coats you put on is entirely up to you. One or two will easily get the product looking finished. (A coat generally takes 20 minutes to dry.) I chose to do about five or six coats, to make a more even finish between the picture and the container.

If you use the Gloss Lustre variety of Mod Podge, you won't need to apply a second sealant for a glossy finish. (To get a truly glossy shine with Mod Podge, you have use fine sandpaper, wetted, on the top coat. Personally, I like the slightly grainy look that came from just painting it on.)

If you cannot find the Gloss Lustre, you will need a secondary sealant. This is bad for two reasons: These seem to come primarily in spray cans and they reek. A lot.

Spray cans are fine if you are able to work in your own garage. But in an apartment setting, you have to worry about messing up the floor permanently, if the spray goes farther than anticipated.

More importantly, the smell can't be contained as well in an apartment. The best you can do is to seal off your bathroom for several hours.

Remember that, despite being a spray, the sealant will run down the sides. This means each side has to be done individually. Assume at least a half hour for thorough drying. And the smell won't dissipate for a few hours after that, even with the fan on the whole time.

In other words, just go get the Gloss Lustre Mod Podge and save yourself the headache (from the fumes).

Tip: If you're worried about a glossy shine (personally, I liked the slightly grainy look I created) the bottle suggests using a fine grade of sand paper between coats.

Tip: Be sure to wash out your paintbrush between coats. It will be hard to get all the Mod Podge out. Even after this, the bristles may dry a little stiffly. Before tossing your brush, though, do a few strokes. Often, the bristles loosen up after a few dunkings in the bottle.

Tip: Don't forget that Mod Podge dries clear (despite being a milky white when you apply it) so feel free to apply more as needed.

Tip: Especially when you are creating a layered collage, you may have trouble wrapping around the corners. Use lots of glue, both under the image and coating the top, and push it down with the paintbrush as needed.

Tip: When working with layered collages, be sure to first cover the whole surface area with base layers. Then, as you're putting in more layers, be sure to cover seams from those base layers.

I think that about covers it. Feel free to write in with your own experiences, or questions!

Monday, December 8

Bottom shelf milk and other little life surprises

I am right about 30 1/3 years old. I may not have everything in the world figured out, but I thought I had a pretty good handle on the basics.

Yet it was only about a month ago that I discovered bottom-shelf milk.

Turns out that the grocery stores have yet again found a way to take advantage of our short attention spans. After three rows of identical milk, Albertson's sneaks in a more generic variety on the absolute bottom shelf. There's a price difference of 60 cents.

I suppose this is old news (for those of you who didn't already know about this system) since it happened a month or so ago. But I was reminded of it over the weekend, when I once again scooted down to the bottom row to get my cheaper milk.

It makes me wonder just what other little tricks I am falling for while I think I'm being frugal. Anyone else found similar mind-games in the stores?

And, in the vein of not-so-fun surprises, we discovered that Tim's new insurance received an erroneous termination date from his old insurance. As far as the state health pool is concerned, Tim is still covered by Regence Selections.

So until we can get written proof from Regence (which Tim is working on as I type this) that his coverage ended 10/31/08, the new insurance won't cough up a penny.

Life just keeps finding new and interesting ways to wrinkle, doesn't it?

Friday, December 5

DIY gifts II: This time it's personal(ized)

Currently, VistaPrint is offering each customer a free* wall calendar for your friends and family.

By free, of course, I mean that the company has contrived several ways to get you to spend money on a free gift. But the cost is still quite low.

First, it depends on how personalized you care to get. The standard calendars have some pretty and/or funky designs. You can put in a "logo" (or, as an individual, probably a little message). All that is free.

But, if you prefer to upload your own pictures, the cost is $2.49.

Second, the grids. If you want basic black & white grids (which I think are fine) it's free. For matching-color grids, it's an upgrade of $0.74.

Third, paper. The standard paper is, of course free. For slightly nicer varieties, you will be charged $5.24.

Finally, shipping. This cost is unavoidable, unfortunately. But the basic method is still only $5.10.

So, if you go with the basic options -- standard design, b&w grid, standard paper -- the calendar costs you a total of $5.10 for shipping.

For one with personalized pictures, you are still only paying $7.59, which is less than any calendar kiosk and far more individualized.

You can get an additional discount, though, as a member of Inbox Dollars. If you use the site's link to go to Vista Print, you will receive a $5 credit to your account.

That brings the entire cost down to 10 cents for a standard calendar or $2.59 for one with personalized pictures.

(On the off-chance you're not already a member of Inbox Dollars, you do receive a sign-up bonus of $5, which means, essentially, you'd be getting paid to create a calendar.)

In summation: quick, easy, thoughtful and, above all, CHEAP.


As for other cheap gifts, be sure to check out The Freebie Blogger's 12-days-of-Christmas giveaway. She's giving away your choice of gift cards. But you have to register each day.


And a quick couple (cheap) ideas from the Marvel Shop (for those Spidey fans among you):

Ever wish Spiderman would agree with you more? Well, now you can have that -- and you get your own captive audience to boot! He's on holiday sale for $6.95 (reg $11.95)

Or, for those of (ahem) poor taste who don't see the delight in your personalized Vista Print calendars, you can get a 2009 Spectacular Spiderman Animated Series 2009 calendar. (Tim and I watch this show, I'll admit it, and it's actually pretty fun. Though the theme song is forever stuck in my head.)

Holiday sale $8.95 (reg $10.95)

Thursday, December 4

The power of stubbornness

Today, I argued my way out of $12.

I did a bunch of other errands -- credit card payments, reconciling Quicken, depositing a check, mailing the holiday shopper's survival kit -- but this is the accomplishment that I'm really proud of.

See, I signed up for eMusic's free trial under my gmail account. Unfortunately, about a week later, I started the sign-up process for the program with my Yahoo account. That wouldn't have been a problem, since I never submitted credit card information for my Yahoo account, but it then got me confused.

And when I went to end the account before the free trial expired, I submitted my Yahoo address, rather than my gmail. Their ever-so-helpful customer service emailed me back to say that no credit card was ever submitted, thus there was no worry that I'd be charged. Little did I know they went only by email address, not by name/address/etc.

So I went on my merry way, until today, when I saw a $11.99 charge on my credit card from -- you guessed it -- eMusic.

I called customer support, absolutely livid, and gave my account information. When the Yahoo email address didn't pull anything up, the operator asked if I had another email account. Of course, under my gmail account, the free trial had expired. And, naturally, they have a no-refund policy.

Interestingly, I have a policy too. It's the no-'no-refund-policy' policy.

See, companies rely on us valuing our time more than a small charge -- especially if it's just the one time and then the account is cancelled. So they claim they have a no-refund policy in the hopes that we'll just cancel the account and eat the one-month fee.

Unfortunately for them, I know this is just step one of the bargaining phase.

I pointed out that the Customer Support email could have asked the same question she had and all of our time would have been saved. She argued back that I should have known that I can hold accounts under multiple emails. (Even though most programs will tell you that you can't sign up for free trials with different emails and if you're caught doing such you will forfeit your free trial period and start paying automatically.)

I also felt it necessary to point out that I had never received an account verification email. The operator smoothly said I should have received updates as well, showing that I had an account. Nope, never got them either.

So, just to recap, I have no proof in any of my three email accounts that I ever signed up for this program (and I spent a good hour just clicking back and forth through them, trying to find the email) and when I did email Customer Support, I was told that the account was inactive.

How, exactly, then, should I have known to cancel?

The operator pointed out that I could have pointed out the activation confirmation right at sign-up. I pointed out that even the shakiest, fly-by-night programs I've checked out had the decency to also send me a confirmation email. And since eMusic informed me I would be sent such, I didn't feel the need to print anything.

These points just kept getting reiterated. The operator did try to appease me by offering me 10 free downloads. But I informed her I just wanted the money back. Then we went around the arguments again. This time it was 30 free downloads. Same answer from me.

And just when I might have considered giving up and swallowing the $12 fee, I was galvanized: When I asked to speak to a supervisor, I was told that the supervisor had just left for lunch and would not be available for another hour.

I don't know why, exactly, this pushed my buttons, but it just felt like the ultimate sloppiness on the part of the company, the ultimate proof that it didn't care about customer's needs.

Whatever the reason, I was now not getting off the phone without a refund.

It felt like I argued for the better part of half an hour. Probably, it was closer to 10 minutes. But the important thing is that stubbornness won out over the operator's patience. She told me she would issue a refund to my card "as a gesture of goodwill."

I guess their no-refund policy has a few loopholes, after all.

And that's the point, isn't it? You have to assume there will always be a case where someone can make an exception. And if you honestly feel the company fouled up in some way, you have every right to push for that loophole.

The companies are counting on our meekly accepting their rules as golden and immutable. The fact is, customers are vital to profit. So they would rather lose a small amount now than have some pissed-off individual out and about, ranting about the horrible company.

If I had taken even the third or fourth "no," Tim would've gone a month without health insurance -- plus another month of "pre-existing condition" rules. That would have cost us $250 in light therapy bills alone.

Obviously, you don't want to abuse the company's need to keep customers happy. Having worked in customer service, I try to remember that these people are just doing their jobs. Yelling at them is cruel and serves no purpose. Similarly, trying to get something from a company when you're actually at fault... Well, it just makes the company less inclined to help you in the future.

So pick and choose your stands carefully. But do stand up when you feel you've been wronged. And don't take "no" for an answer until you're at least talking to the supervisor's supervisor. Maybe not even then.

Because, in the end, it pays to be the most stubborn person in the conversation.