Friday, July 31

Freebie Friday

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Wednesday, July 29

Debt reduction: There's always more to sell

Well, I have learned quite a little lesson here in the past few days, folks. (Besides the fact that I hate humid, high-90s weather, that is.)

For just about a year now, I've been talking about debt reduction on a low income. I've talked about frugal hacks -- some quite small, really -- and generally how Tim and I get along. Through it all, I've maintained that, unlike many PF bloggers, there aren't a bunch of things around the house that we can sell to pay down debt.

Apparently, I'm a big fat liar.

I've been going around the apartment and realizing just how much extra crap we have. Well, technically, it's called taking inventory. But the end result is the discovery that there's a ton of crap that you don't mind getting rid of -- preferably for money.

In the last few days, I've been taking stock of various things we wouldn't want to bring with us when we move. There's a lot. And I recently discovered that eBay will now let you list 5 items free (as in, no insertion fee, final value fee still applies) every 30 days. It's a good time to act!

  • Books. Most of mine weren't wanted by any place, but 6 did have some worth to a company down in Oregon. They provided mailing slip so I don't have to pay for postage. When the order is approved, I'll get $13.75. One of the more helpful websites in this endeavor was Bookscouter, which will show you the prices from 10-20 different bookstores.
  • Clothes. I generally don't bother selling clothes. I donate them. But as I was thinning out my closet, I came across a few that I think could get some money: a cashmere sweater from Club Monaco (worn once, definitely won't be worn in AZ), a few formal dresses I haven't worn in years, and a pair of Lucky jeans from a thrift store that I figured I'd eventually fit into... four years ago. None of these will net me a ton of money, I'm betting, but each one could get $10-20 and I'd be about $50-100 richer!
  • Crafts. I really didn't think I had that many beads. But it took me around 15 hours to untangle and sort all the beads into various baggies. Then I realized I didn't want to put 70-100 listings on eBay. So I put an ad on Craigslist and have gotten some responses. Next, I'll tackle the yarn.
  • Sheets. Most of us just like nice sheets. For Tim, they're kind of necessary. He needs sateen sheets, which don't absorb heat as easily as regular cotton. So we have two or three sheet sets sitting around that we no longer use. They're nice, queen-sized sheet sets (once I find the second pillowcases, that is) and so someone should be thrilled to get them for $10-20 each.
  • Lighting. There are two or three lamps we really barely use for a variety of reasons. Two are definitely going; the other I'm debating. And then there's the floor lamp which has barely been used in years. If it actually still works, it's gone. Someone will happily snatch it up for $10, and I'm sure I can get $5-7 for the other lamps.
  • Shoes. Like most women, I have shoes that I own and rarely ever use. This includes a pair of Angel Fluevog shoes, which have a guarantee if the soles ever wear out. They're cute and served me well for the five or so years I first had them. Since they run around $100-200 each, I'm guessing someone on eBay will want them. There's also a pair of Doc Martens I found at a yard sale years ago for $5, and then kept despite never wearing them. (Hey, in my defense, it's a great yard-saleing coup!) Again, someone will want them.
  • Chairs. Once upon a time, we had people over regularly. So we needed more chairs. A friend of our came to our rescue, leaving us with something around 5 of the damn things -- including two ugly, beat-up ones we already had. We've already donated one and the two beat-to-hell ones got tossed. There are still two left, though, and I'm sure someone will gladly relieve us of them for $5 each. Then there's the bentwood rocker I never use and keep mostly for sentimental purposes. I rescued it from neighbors who wanted to throw it out. I repainted it and my aunt talked to a few folks and figured out how to re-cane the seat and back for me, since those areas were broken. But I'm not dragging it to Arizona with me!
  • CDs. Non-digital music is becoming alarmingly superfluous in this age. I had hoped to unload a bunch of my CDs, but found out that I needed to have saved the back cover art when I tossed all the jewel cases ages ago. Oh well. If you were smarter than me, though, you probably have $30-50 sitting around waiting for you to notice it.
  • Unique decorations. We all have one or two items that we got to express ourselves, or because it seemed cool at the time. Now, while we still like it, that stuff doesn't seem to have a place in our new home. For me, these include a Grecian urn and a metal horse from the Museum Store and a couple pieces of statuary from when I owned a house. These are fabulous items, but there's nowhere to put them currently and most of them are too breakable to bother transporting across state lines.
  • Art. Some of the stuff that I got and framed for my house just doesn't look as at home in an apartment. I think part of it is the coloring. Most of the artwork around the house is mine, which I've always felt kind of weird about. (That's what happens, though, when someone moves into an apartment you're already living in.) So I think I want to pare down my collection a bit so we can choose newer stuff together. Most of the pieces aren't worth much, but people will probably give us $10-20 just to get the frames cheaply.

I don't really know why I never bothered with this stuff before. Abstractly, I knew it was there. I think I fell prey to the "only" syndrome. As in, well I'd "only" get about $5 and what good is that? Sometimes it takes a large, concerted effort -- such as selling a whole bunch of $5-10 items -- to realize just how quickly all these things add up.

The fact is that most of us have items we no longer use or want. But it seems easier to put off dealing with them, or to simply donate them. So the next time you find yourself thinking that your debt reduction is going too slowly, take stock of your living space. Ask yourself what you'd keep if you were going to move. You'll probably find a lot more "junk" than you would expect!

Tuesday, July 28

I'm not dead, just molten

You'd be amazed how hard it is to type out blog posts when you've melted into a little puddle!

Yesterday in Seattle it hit the high 90s, today it's shooting for 94 and tomorrow may reach 100. Oh and as of 11 a.m. humidity is at 56 percent. Suppose this wouldn't be so bad, but because these temps are so rare, 99% of apartments don't have air conditioning.

I'm seriously considering escaping to a Starbucks later, as temperatures rise, to do my contract work someplace with air conditioning. I am becoming an increasingly devoted fan of the store's Wifi offer: get a Starbucks card (minimum $5) and buy one thing every 30 days and you get a couple of hours' free wireless access each and every day. A $1.50 cookie once a month for Internet access as needed is a pretty frugal option! Especially if you consider it free air conditioning on days like this.

Things have been hectic here for the last couple of weeks. Tim and I are weighing our options on when to move to Phoenix. If we find a good enough deal in the next week or so, we're seriously considering shooting for early September. So I've been calling (a lot of) apartments down there and (a lot of) moving companies up here.

At some point, I will do a rant about the insane prices of moving companies. But it's too hot to rant right now. Plus I have to go and deal with contract work, assuming that a puddle of goo (formerly known as Abby) can still Twitter.

Saturday, July 25

Free rent, the sleazy way

Photo by extremeezine

While perusing the Phoenix housing ads, I stumbled on this little tidbit (twice now!) and I thought it should be shared.

Hi, I've got a room across from the Glendale Community College campus with access to pools, jacuzzi, tennis/racquetball courts etc... I'm offering Free Rent + Utilities in exchange for "Personal Services". The room is unfurnished, but furniture may be arranged for the right roommate. During the fall and spring semesters I both go to school and work full time, I'm in my mid twenties and I'm not hung up on ethnicity, I'm just looking for someone laid back and preferably 420 friendly :-) so if you're interested then by all means drop me a line, I'd love to hear from you {^_^}

Okay, of course, I'm not advocating selling yourself for free rent. There's also a reason that this ad continues to be up: No woman has called just begging to take the place. But it's an interesting reminder that we all have a lot more options to make or save money than we admit to.

We think about things like a second job, selling off items around the house or cutting all meals out. Once that stuff has been exhausted, we tend to assume we've done everything we can. That's not true. Instead, we've done everything that we're willing to consider.

Again, I'm not saying that every woman should consider selling herself -- de facto or literally. It does, however, raise an interesting question about our options as we see them. Dog Ate My Finances actually talked a bit about this in a rant about how people see themselves as having fewer options than they actually do. In fact, most of us have more choices than we let on, or perhaps even realize. (This is something Dog pointed out to me once in comments. While I still don't love the way she generalized some things, she does have a point about the choices we make -- often without realizing it.)

Point being, if some woman is really having a hard time making ends meet, would this be such a bad thing? Maybe she's easygoing about sex. God knows, men don't exactly tend toward picky, but if women act even a quarter as cavalierly as men they get called sluts. Or maybe she meets the guy and decides he's someone she'd probably consider sleeping with anyone. So, at least now, she gets free rent rather than a couple of drinks bought for her. Or maybe she's just really can't afford rent and this is her best bet at keeping a roof over her head. No matter what the scenario, I guess I wonder why it's a big deal. Why most of us -- myself included -- have that initial reaction of disgust. It's really just another example, if an intimate one, of bartering.

After all, you could argue that this situation isn't all that different from others where sex is involved. A lot of women stay in unhappy relationships/marriages because they can't (or believe they can't) survive financially on their own.

At least here, the woman might find the guy tolerable. She also wouldn't experience the resentment that builds as a relationship founders. Nor would she have to mourn the loss of "happily ever after." There'd be no starry-eyed idealism about that in the first place.

Yet, for some, that makes the situation that much worse.

This sort of thing fascinates me. I suppose it's because our knee-jerk reactions tend to be based on societal norms. This is especially true of anything that smacks of prostitution.

I know the arguments against it: it's demeaning, dangerous, etc. But is that the act itself, or the conditions created because the act is illegal? I don't ever want to sell my body, but I also don't think we have a right to tell a woman she can't sell hers.

But back to the main point of this piece: What you are willing to do to get or save money is very different from what you can do.

You could sell illegal drugs or steal cars to sell to chop shops. These things are illegal though, and even if you're not worried about getting caught, you probably have ethical problems with these. I don't think marijuana should be illegal, for example, but I'm not willing to risk jail time to sell it. And I have far too active a guilt complex to steal things.

You could sell items that are of great sentimental value. But if you have a steady job, then it's usually not worth the sacrifice. For example, I have a couple of pieces that my grandmother gave me before she died. Even when the jewelry market was better, I didn't want to sell them. I would, if it became necessary, but I prefer to pay down debt more slowly and keep these.

You could sell every scrap of furniture in your house, but most of us would rather pay off debt more slowly and be comfortable in the interim. While Tim and I are slowly winnowing down our possessions, we are putting most of the furniture sales off until closer to the move date. Even so, we will take the bed, the couch, and a dresser with us; the items are more expensive to replace than to move. That said, if we did get a caretaking job that meant free rent but just a single room, I would sell off the couch before we left.

You could eat the cheapest food available. I'm not talking junk food with coupons, though that sometimes qualifies. I'm talking rice and beans, chili with rice and tortillas, chicken and then boil the chicken carcass for stock for chicken soup later. My mom still mainly eats things like this. She gets very sick of leftovers at times; but the meals are simple, easy to cook and cheap. Most of us want a little more variety in life and cuisine. Most of us would rather keep going out to eat at least on occasion. So we find room in the budget for it.

You could sell everything except the absolute, bare essentials. Most of us are unwilling to live this way on purpose, though. When I was an infant, my mom was single and working as a clerk. She had just enough clothes to get through the week. She'd wash them on the weekend and start again. Three decades later, in some debt from a divorce, she didn't go back to that lifestyle. She did buy pretty much exclusively from thrift stores and had a bunch of my old shirts -- as in, high school castoffs -- for wearing around the house. Still, as much as she hates debt and worries about money, she was unwilling to go back to near-deprivation to cope.

I guess it simply boils down to what you are willing to do for money. And a lot of that, I think, is predicated on your situation. Some people consider sacrifice to be taking their kids out of private school. For others, it's about getting a second job. There's a wide range of choices -- so much so that we often don't realize how many choices we rule out automatically.

So ask yourself: What have you automatically ruled out? What is an absolute no, and what are you willing to reconsider?

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Friday, July 24

Freebie Friday

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Thursday, July 23

Wherein I go all 'old school'

Do people even pay bills by check anymore?

I mean, I usually do one or two, but the bulk get paid electronically. There are plenty of reasons it's better. While 42 cents doesn't sound like a lot, it can add up pretty quickly when you have a phone bill, a cable/satellite bill, a couple of credit cards, and more. I could also argue that electronic transfers come with confirmation numbers, compared to no guarantee (at least, without extra payment) when you mail things through the postal service. I did actually have a bill that never arrived at its destination. I was charged a late fee and, when I called the post office to complain, was essentially told there was nothing they would do.

The truth, though, is that electronic payments work best for me. It works with my procrastination-riddled personality. I can make a payment right up until about noon on the actual due date, compared with how early you have to send a check to avoid any worry of late fees. I don't have to keep stamps around all the time or get to a post office box. (These days, there's one across the street, but in the past I was never remotely close to one.)

So I was somewhat surprised to find myself writing out checks Tuesday evening. There was Tim's psychiatrist, Tim's dermatologist, an old ER co-pay, a phone bill and at least one more that now escapes me.

Really, these could all have been put on a card and paid later, which would have gained us miles through United. This passed through my mind a few times, actually, as I wrote out each check. But I had some strange mental block against doing it that way.

It could be that I'm becoming credit-card averse. Although I think that's only part of it. While I am truly committed to only charging what we absolutely have to, I think I'm also just financially stressed beyond belief.

This has been a bad 5 or so weeks. We got the $500 bill from the dermatologist, which had been building for about 6 months. Then The Body Shop had its sale on Tim's products. Since this only happens once or twice a year, we had to stock up. That put another $340 on the card, which will, at least, be offset by the 5% back from Ebates.

That meant that the United bill was over $800 -- and that was before I had to reorder my energy meds this week. Yet another $340 tacked on. Ouch.

So, more than likely, I was determined to write checks because my poor little heart couldn't bear to see the United bill get any higher. Too painful. As it is, after the checks, we could only throw $360 at that large sum.

Still, I consider this a step in the right direction. Paying with checks means that I have to consciously keep money aside for them. It means paying money with what we have, rather than putting them on the card to be worried about later. Delayed stress is almost always worse. In the back of your mind, you know it's there, but it's amorphouse and sinister. At least by writing checks, you know the exact size and shape of it.

Although I suppose I should note: When it comes to paying credit cards, I still pay electronically. I still have trouble with due dates, so I'll probably always handle them that way.

So what about you guys? Do you do better with checks? Or online payments?


Monday, July 20

Stupid things you don't need

No wonder Americans are in so much debt...

So there I was, waiting for my prescriptions to be ready at Walgreen's. I checked out sunscreen prices (remember when they weren't $10 each because people were actually into tanning? I suppose it's wrong to wish skin cancer on people just so I can get cheaper sunblock...) and looked around at clearance areas. Hoo boy, was there a treasure trove of useless crap in there!

But before we move to the clearance bin, let's start with the best (by which I mean the worst) product, displayed front and center in the store: the Egg Genie. This lil sucker promises you perfectly cooked eggs, up to 7 at a time! Also great for steaming vegetables! Light and sound indicators let you know when your eggs are done!

All for the low, low price of $19.95 plus $6.95 shipping and handling. (Assuming you're buying it online and not in the store.) And for an additional $6.95 s/h, you can get the Baconwave and Chop Genie. (Is it just me does this list start to sound like the products committed some unholy act of incest and gave birth to one another?!)

In case you care, the Chop Genie appears to be a really cruddy imitation of already specious products like the Slap Chop. (Which I can't ever even consider buying thanks to Attack of the Show's product evaluation. Those of you who get G4 know what I'm talking about. Let's just say they weren't content to leave the test to normal things that people eat. And that parts of a pig were involved.)

In a far more disappointing turn of events, the Baconwave is not some awesome microwave made of bacon. I got really excited for a minute... And that makes no sense because I don't even particularly like bacon. In fact, it's a tray that holds the bacon while you microwave it. Talk about a letdown!

So, for a mere $33.85, you can get an unnecessary gadget to cook eggs (for those of you too cool to fill a pot with water and boil eggs), plus a cheap-looking, Slap-Chop-wannabe AND a plastic tray to hold your bacon, which will somehow cook it to perfection in your microwave.

Of course, maybe the Egg Genie truly does work. But I really don't get it. I grew up with a mom who just boiled the eggs. Then again, she brewed her own iced tea too. She took out a small pan, filled it with some water, heated it and then steeped several bags of tea, which she later poured into a pitcher that went in the fridge. Whew, what a workout!

Then again, I'm still of the firm belief that 99% of people don't need rice cookers. I've always made my rice on the stove. Yeah, you have to check it a whopping three or four times after turning down the heat, but does that really necessitate a labor-saving appliance?!

Let's see, what wonders did I find in the clearance section?

  • There was the overly large ruler that had a calculator on it, with plenty of small buttons that looked hard to operate.
  • The pen that had a 2" by 1" square stuck on it that was, apparently, some Atari game I'd never heard of. On the back, it had a diagram that showed where the directionals were plus a few other key items. Good thing, too, because in front it looked like a chunk of plastic with just a screen and no buttons.
  • Two hideously colored onesies. As in bright, garish colors. One was striped with them. I think it was orange, lime green and red. Or something really unpleasant. (Does anyone actually buy infant clothing at pharmacies? I suppose it can't be much worse than the rest of the mass-produced stuff out there.)
  • A few, cheap-looking Jonas Brothers items. Or maybe they were High School Musical. The painful, teeny-bop trends all meld together into one unpleasant blur for me.
  • Plenty more items that I've probably blocked out to save my sanity.

And so I repeat: No wonder Americans are so deeply in debt. We buy all this ridiculous crap that we think will be cool or fun. But usually it turns out to be stupid, unnecessary and cluttering. At least, until we throw it out or donate it. At that point, we look it over and wonder what we were thinking when we bought it.

I personally have this theory that capitalism (especially the advertising industry) rests so much on stupid, unnecessary purchases that they put special devices in random products. So we go into an induced stupor, from which we emerge only after leaving the store.

By then, though, it's too late. There's a bag in our hand and a receipt in our wallet. By the time we've gotten home, we realize the purchase was dumb and superfluous, but we'd have to go aaaall the way back to the store to return it. (Plus the receipts for this stuff are always the ones you can't find later. But I suppose that my conspiracy theory about engineered disintegration in receipts will have to wait for another day...)

The point is, clearance bins are both amusing and terrifying. Hilarious because it exists; terrifying because somewhere someone has bought it. After all, there was only that one Atari-game pen. I really doubt the store just bought the one. So where did the others go? They were probably purchased.

Okay, okay, I should point out that there are good things to be had in clearance sections. After-holiday candy comes to mind. Cheap water bottles and summer toys. (Tim gets compliments all the time on the $1 water bottle I got at Walgreen's last year. It's shaped like a D, so that there's a handle to grab onto when you're toting it around.) And in this set of clearance bins, there was a set of three Phillips razor replacement blades for $9.99, which seems pretty reasonable.

So I guess it's a mixed bag. But mostly? It's a testament to just how many stupid items Americans will buy. And why so many Americans end up in debt with few real, valuable things to show for it.

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Saturday, July 18

Debt first, kids later?

Last Saturday, Tim and I went to finally meet the newest addition to our friends' family. His name is Eli, he's 4 months old and absolutely adorable.

When we arrived, though, we were shocked to find that our friends' friends, who we'd met on several occasions, had their own little, 7-week old bundle of joy. Also seriously adorable.

Tim admired the kids, and we got to catch up with two other friends we hadn't seen in months. I spent a lot of time trying to squelch girly noises and hit snooze on my biological clock. (I actually remarked, as we were leaving, that it would have been nice if the boys had been a little fussier, so I could feel better about having decided to wait for kids.)

The thing is... Tim and I definitely want a kid. But not right now. First of all, we both agreed that we wanted some time as husband and wife before jumping in to parenthood. Also, we want to have gotten rid of our credit card debt.

At one point during the get-together, the father of the 7-week-old asked if my biological clock was ticking. I explained our philosophy about debt. Later, we ended up repeating it for his wife. The father laughed and said, "In other words, they'll never have a kid."


There was a pause, and I smiled graciously and explained that we were well on our way to paying off our debt. It was simply taking longer because Tim couldn't work and I can't earn a lot by working part-time.

It was all chuckled away and clearly he meant no harm by it, but I have to wonder about the age-old wisdom that you can never truly afford kids. I've had this argument with a few people, and frankly I find these attitudes terrifying.

Obviously, accidents happen. And if Tim and I were to find ourselves as impending parents, we'd figure it out somehow. But we also try to be careful so that we don't have to struggle any more than we already do.

So, by and large, I guess I am simply stumped as to why people are so laissez-faire about the idea that you should create a whole new large financial strain on your budget before you're out of the bulk of your debt. (Of course, children are far more than a financial burden -- or a tax write-off as we all like to joke -- but the fact remains that the lil buggers are expensive!)

Perhaps it's only because we're already low-income people, but Tim and I don't want to equate parenthood with severe financial distress. We don't want to add to existing credit card debt and then wonder how and when we'll ever be able to get that number down.

For me, the jury is still out on whether you can ever, truly, afford kids. My non-parent attitude is hell yes. People do it every day. I'm not saying you can live as lavishly as before, still I know that there are couples like Eli's parents who can even make the choice to go down to a single income. (To be fair, Eli's dad recently got an excellent position in a large, stable tech company; and that was after being given a large severance package by his old firm.)

I had this argument back at age 21, when a friend announced she and her new husband would be trying to have a kid within the next year. They both came from big families, both with parents who started young. So they both felt it would be "weird" to hit 23 or 24 without having a kid. I should mention that, at this point, she was working as a receptionist in a car dealership while her husband pursued his PhD.

Of course, she is and was a frugal gal, so they made it work. At least, as far as I know. We've fallen out of contact, by and large. I know that, a couple of years ago, he got his degree. At least initially, though, most non-teachers have to do a year or two of low-paying work to get any real credentials. I'm sure, too, that having a wife and child certainly helped his financial aid package. Still, I just don't understand the desire to start a family amid that much debt.

Perhaps it's just that I was raised very middle-class, with parents who were financially comfortable. Perhaps it's because so many people on my mom's side of the family have kids young, then spend the next 18 years (or more) struggling to pay for everything. Or perhaps I'm simply being practical. Whatever the reason, I can't picture having a kid while we owe thousands of dollars.

Obviously, Tim and I are a special case, since our earning potential is probably lower than most people's. In other words, being overly cautious will probably save us, financially.

But what about a sterotypical couple? Am I being too idealistic about finances and kids? Do you think anyone can ever truly afford a child? Has anyone made $10,000+ of debt and kids work, without a lot of strain and stress?

(And, on a completely different note, the cutest onesie ever? Eli's black, cotton number, with a iPod on it with the words "iPooped" on the screen.)

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Friday, July 17

Freebie Friday

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Thursday, July 16

Debt Kid

Check out my post at Debt Kid. It's a nice wrap-up of the horror that was those six days. You will be able to see exactly why I gained the two pounds. (Though now it looks like some of that may just have been random water retention. Who knows? I've given up on understanding my body.)

Wednesday, July 15

By the numbers: Frugality means math

Photo by Jekert Gwapo

It's a basic fact: Frugality tends to require that you deal with numbers. Whether you're building a budget or shopping sales, you have to be number-savvy to really get the best deal.

Comparison shopping

Most frugal people don't just randomly buy big-ticket items. While the definition of "big ticket" may vary, the comparison shopping tends to be a constant throughout the frugal population.

Some people still prefer to go store to store. But the majority of us probably do the work online. I like it because it allows me to read up on the products, read consumer reviews, compare different models and compare prices. I can even use sites like Yahoo! Shopping to find which stores have low prices on the product.

Online shopping definitely involves some math. When you're perusing prices you have to take several things into account: basic price, cost of shipping, cash-back offers and sales tax. When I comparison shop, I take all of these into account in order to figure out what the end cost would be. (The sales tax is a particularly big issue, since in Seattle it's 9.5 percent.)

Grocery shopping

Groceries create a huge need for numbers know-how. Looking at the overall picture, you have to stay within budget, which requires an awareness of what you're spending and how much it will leave you.

It's also important when comparing deals. For example, I need to buy some new sunblock. Rite Aid is offering "Buy one, get one half-off." Walgreens is offering a $10 Register Reward when you buy 2 bottles of certain sunscreen. I needed to do the math to figure out which was the better deal. (Rite Aid. The initial outlay is less. Plus Tim and I don't buy anything that's $10 or more at Walgreen's, so the RR would go to waste.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need math to know when you're getting a good deal. Sales can be deceiving, especially as more stores take up the trend of offering discounts on purchases from specific lines. Albertson's is fond of the "Buy $X of these items, get $Y off."

Sure, it could be a good deal, but you won't know until you do the math. You might be surprised by just how minimal the savings turns out to be. I find this is particularly true when the prices are too high anyway -- at least, in my opinion. Things like Fiber One bars can be 50 cents to $1 off, and I might have a coupon that gets me another 40 cents off. But when the price starts around $4.99 for 5 bars, that's still a little steep for me.

So when I make up grocery lists, I do the math, then I go one step further. I note the sale price along with the final price, after discounts and coupons. This way, I know exactly what I'm paying and how good the deal is.

If nothing else, it can give you a sense of accomplishment or triumph, when you see just how little you'll be paying for each product. I certainly felt smug today when I walked out of Albertson's with 9 boxes of cereal for $12.

Rewards Programs

I love my rewards programs: Swagbucks, Memolink, MyPoints and Ebates. But when you're making an online purchase, it can be confusing to try and choose among them. Some offer cash back, others offer points. And each points site requires a different amount for redemption. No matter how you try to compare them, you're likely to get a headache.

I ran across this recently, when I was stocking up on a sale. The Body Shop was offering a buy-one-get-one-half-off sale on body butters. So two $20 butters would come to $30. Ebates offered me 5% back on my purchase. MyPoints offered me 3 points per dollar.

I realized that the best way to choose was the find a common denominator. I decided to use gift cards. After all, it's the only thing that MyPoints offers, and you can also use cash to buy GCs. Just for clarity's sake, I chose the $60 per order figure because that is how much you have to order to get free shipping.

MyPoints Ebates
Reward 3 pts/$1 5%
Order amt $60 $60
Rwd Rec'd 180 $3
$10 GC 1,450 $10
Percent 12% 30%
$25 GC 3,500 $25
Percent 5% 12%
$50 GC 6,350 $50
Percent 3% 6%

Looking at the table, it's pretty clear that Ebates is the hands-down winner. Even in MyPoints' best scenario ($50 GC), I'd still be getting only half of what Ebates offers me. And it's in cash, which is a good factor to consider.

I actually took this a step further. When I shop online, I spend $60+ to get free shipping. I also get cash back. When I shop in the store, I get rewards points: 1 point if you spend $20, 2 points if you spend $50. When you get to 4 points, you get $15 off any item; at 8 points, you get $25 off.

I wanted to compare the scenarios and see which way was cheaper. Was it cheaper to go online and spend $60+ but get cash back? Or was it more frugal to buy $50 of product in the store?

In these scenarios, I added Face Protectors to the order. Tim runs through them about as quickly as the body butters. It turned out that I saved $12 going online and came away with an extra item. It's amazing what you learn when you do the math!

What are some ways you use math to stay frugal?


Monday, July 13

Bargain-shopping for school supplies

Photo by c.a.muller

It's that time of year again: School supplies season! (Which is weird, since it's only mid-June, but that's a subject for another day.)

I actually kind of enjoy this period because it's another chance to get deals you feel triumphant about -- especially since we're not actually keeping most of the items.

In fact, it's important for everyone to remember that you don't have to have kids to take advantage of school supplies sales. There are plenty of families who can't afford their children's supplies, especially as the lists of items get longer and longer every year.

It should be a no-brainer to check your circulars, since different stores will have different loss-leaders. And those of you with kids are probably old pros at finding the most expedient route.

So let's look at the less obvious things:

Don't shop alone.

Most of the cheapest items have very low maximum purchases. Usually it's right around two per customer. So the more people you have with you, the easier it is to stock up. (Though some folks simply do a revolving-door strategy: Buy, put items in car, go back in, buy more.)

If you can't get a friend to go along with you, use your kids. (Besides tax deductions, that's what they're there for, right?) Give each one enough cash to get the items and have them each get in line. There is no minimum age for being a customer. Although I recommend using only kids who are verbal/no longer in diapers.

Don't be lured away from your list.

You should know better, but sometimes it's tempting. You're tired or the price seems reasonable enough to just buy it and be done. But this early in the game, there's no need to get everything at once. (Unless you are going on an extended vacation.)

In school supplies, as in everything frugal, it's worthwhile to wait to see how things play out. Keep an eye on prices and whatever you need will probably go on sale in the coming weeks.

Know what goes on sale

I suppose this is part and parcel with the one above, but it bear mentioning. Staples and Office Depot routinely have backpacks for 25-50% off. Usually the themed ones are only 25% and don't last long enough to go to half off. But there are plenty of basic backpacks that can be found for under $10 when on sale.

Wide-ruled paper, crayons and pencils are usually offered for a penny, at least once before school starts. Usually pencils can be found that cheaply throughout the supply-buying season.

You should be able to find 3 notebooks and/or composition books for $1 several times before September. Basic binders should never cost you more than $1 each. If they are more, wait for a better sale.

Scissors aren't discounted as often, nor are glue and rulers. That said, stores are always Though stores are always changing the rules, so keep your eyes open.

If money is an issue, get blander stuff

Yeah, your daughter wants that Jonas Brothers backpack, and your son is begging for that GI Joe bag. (Apologies for stereotyping genders, but sometimes cliches exist for a reason.) And they'll be kind when "all the other kids" get what they don't.

But if you're even partially concerned about money in the future, you probably want to err on the side of caution. Like most boy bands, Jonas Brothers will soon be a thing of the past. (And your daughter will be mortified she ever liked them. Which does give some value to a themed backpack as blackmail, but still...)

Get backpacks made from hardy material, in colors they'll continue to like. (Hint: Not pink.) Get binders that are dark so that marks won't show as well. Depending on your kids' personalities, consider one or two nicer pens. Some people lose fewer writing utensils when they feel the utensils are special. Of course, if your kids would lose the socks while still on their feet, just wait for a sale on those bulk pen packs.

Know your rewards programs

Walgreen's Register Rewards are pretty easy to get and could help you afford a few extra items. Just be sure that you don't get too high of a reward. This week, for example, you can get a $10 Register Reward when you buy two sunscreens. But the RR has to be used on a single item, and neither Tim nor I buy anything there that is $10 or more.

Staples and Office Max/Depot rewards are really awesome for free supplies. You get a percentage back based on what you spend, as well as credit for recycled ink cartridges. Most of the stores only reward these monthly or quarterly, so you have to think ahead.

Don't use much ink at home? Ask friends and family for theirs. Most people throw them out anyway. Also, look around at work and see if there's a bin for them. If you feel awkward, go ahead and ask the boss or IT people if it's kosher to grab them. Most places really don't care. My mom picks them up at the University of Washington computer labs. They're just going to be recycled anyway, so the school doesn't care.

You can turn in plenty of ink cartridges at the supplies stores, so you can get a relatively hefty reward. Mom already had two $30 checks waiting for her. And with that Tim and I were able to afford a bunch of school supplies for a friend with a kid.

Know about carnivals

The friends we were buying for usually go to school supply carnivals. This way, lower income families can pick up donated items and cut down on what they have to buy. Usually, I'm told, you have to go to several to get a whole list done. Still, if you're having trouble making ends meet, this could save some vital dollars

How we did

Tim and I got permission from Mom to use one of her Rewards checks, which gave us a $30 credit. I also grabbed a $5 off of $20 coupon from Staple's Sunday ad.

As a result, we came away with:

For the kids:

1 GI Joe backpack ($14.99 on sale)
1 Lightning McQueen backpack ($14.99 on sale)
1 ruler
1 two-pack of scissors
1 bottle of glue
2 boxes of crayons
4 sets of 8 pencils

For my mom:

1 box of Sweet 'N Low (400 packets)
4 reams of copy paper

The copy paper has a rebate and will end up being one cent. That means, in total, we will have spent about $11 of our own money to help out some friends. (And to help out my mom who keeps us in copy paper all the time.)

Have any other tips for thrifty school supplies?

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Saturday, July 11

What's your favorite cheap/geeky vacation?

Photo by Sharat Ganapati

Blogging Away Debt talked about the cheap vacation she and her husband plan on. (I'd never even considered beach camping, which is kind of sad, given that I've been to New Jersey a lot. The Jersey shore used to be infamous for people staying under the boardwalk, hence the song.)

She urged people to talk about their favorite in-state location to get away cheaply. And it got me thinking...

Well, not about Washington. I'm a tad embarrassed to say that I've seen very little of the state. It's kind of understandable, I suppose, since I've only had regular access to a car in the last 5 of my 13 years here. The point is, I mainly have secondhand knowledge of cool places in this state.

I've heard wonderful things about Ocean Shores. I was never terribly interested in going there, mind you. And Tim can't really enjoy the whole beach since salt water + open skin = very unhappy Tim. Still, I had a friend who loved to go there.

I've also heard tell that we have a friggin' rain forest in this state. That kind of interests me, but not enough to gather up the energy to go. It makes me kind of sad that I'm this apathetic about the state. Maybe it isn't such a bad idea to move...

I will say that I've been to Snoqualmie Falls, mainly thanks to an enthusiastic friend who asked me to tag along. It was very pretty, very awe-inspiring. And it is a relatively easy day trip for most people. We admired the sheer enormity of the water rushing down. We didn't do any of the trails because none of us felt up to it, but the basic sight of the waterfall was well-worth the trip. And we went to the cafe from Twin Peaks. On their menu it even says it's the home of "damn fine cherry pie." I chose apple and it was quite tasty, too.

At any rate, all this vacation talk made me remember what a great time Tim and I had on our honeymoon. I'm not sure I've actually discussed how we spent ours. We went down to Florida and went to a bunch of entertainment parks.

I think I'll actually make a separate post about our honeymoon, since we took in a lot of rides and such. But, suffice to say, it was great. Nothing like some roller coasters to really relieve the stress of a wedding!

In that vein, I wrote on Blogging Away Debt's page that my ideal in-state trip would be to Spokane, Washington. But really that's because just over the border in Idaho there's apparently a very fun amusement/water park. I'm a sucker for water parks especially. The hotels in Spokane are very cheap, so it makes up for a slightly longer drive to the park than staying right nearby.

I told Tim that one day we have to go to West Edmonton Mall in Canada. It houses the world's largest indoor amusement park and a five-acre water park. (!!!) Is it sad that that is one of my dream vacations?

Don't get me wrong, I want to take Tim to DC sometime, where there is a ton to see and do -- a lot of it for free. The zoo, the memorials, etc. Plus there's the spy museum and a bunch of other interesting spots.

And Tim definitely needs to go to New York at some point. He's never been. But that's going to be a pricey getaway, given hotel costs there. As for entertainment, there's plenty to see just walking around, plus you can save money with last-minute rush tickets. Still, the price of hotels (to get anything without a shared bath, you're looking at $100+ a night, probably closer to $150) is going to kill any budget.

So, when it comes to domestic, affordable travel, my sites are set a little low, I suppose. But there is something triumphant about having a great time and spending little to no money.

Do any of you have geeky and/or frugal travel ideas?

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Extended stay hotels and the virtues of moving on spec

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Okay, Tim and I are still hoping to visit Arizona for awhile before deciding to move there. To really get an idea of how it would affect his skin, we'd need a minimum of 2 weeks, preferably 3 or 4. Of course, we can't afford a hotel at that rate.

My mom has signed us up for the Caretaker Gazette, which has listings all over the world. If people need someone to house sit or be a caretaker, they can advertise in the paper. It also has email alerts as things become available.

I've been looking around on Craigslist at temporary housing. Most are for corporate folks, so they're pretty expensive. There are one or two that we could get for about $150 a week, but we still have to pay our normal rent here in Seattle. Plus there's the cost of getting down there.

Any ideas on where to find cheaper places? Or how to get there cheaply?

I've looked at sublets, but most are for more than a month. And vacation rentals are insane! Most go for hotel-like prices and are opulent. It's hard to find one that is just made for two people. Most sleep 6 people or more.

At this rate, I'm torn. I mean, it seems silly to move down there on spec -- even if Tim's skin did do better both times he lived there. There's the worry that his skin won't be good "enough." That I'd get my hopes up about his working ability and be disappointed.

Still, does it really make sense to spend $900 ($400 to get down there, $450 for a place to stay for three weeks) when that money could go toward moving costs? On the one hand, we could get down there and find that Tim's skin does nothing. In which case, we've saved money. More likely is that his skin will improve greatly and we'll move down there.

This is something we have to figure out, because Tim's only got five months left on unemployment. We're trying to make an appointment with his Dept of Vocational Rehab caseworker, so Tim can explore some career options. If they suggest schooling, we might be okay.

But if he can't start working regularly by the time the unemployment runs out, we're going to be in big trouble. Tim can get a job pretty easily. But once his skin starts acting up, he starts missing days. Eventually, the boss has to let him go. Meanwhile, he'll have killed his health trying to keep working even when he shouldn't. At that point, we'll have almost no income, which will make moving hard. And even if we can move, Tim will need to build his health back up before he could start working again in any serious capacity.

Worrisome to say the least.

At least if we move to Arizona while he still has unemployment, he can file from there. And, if his skin improves, he can do without insurance for a little while. Which would free up $502 a month. But that's if his skin improves. Which we can't know until we go visit down there.

Is anyone else dizzy from the circles I'm running in?

I'm exhausted and 2 lbs heavier

Ah, emotional eating! Can't beat it! I held out relatively well during the first couple of drama-ridden revelations. But there was one last one that caused me to speed over to Wal-Mart, pick up some candy and hoover it down over the next two days. A lot of candy.

I don't feel like getting into it too heavily at the moment because we're still recovering from the trip. (I very nearly started crying with relief when we actually got back into the apartment building. No exaggeration.) Suffice to say that it looks like a friend of ours is in complete denial about the domestic violence in her relationship. Her husband is controlling her financially and demanding sexual favors at inappropriate times. Which she agrees to.

Hence the hoovering.

Meanwhile, Tim and I are covering for my mom while she's on a trip for 10 days. I have to show apartments and be available for tenant problems/lock outs. Nothing terrible. Saturday and Sunday I have to stick close to home from 12-6. And I actually have to remember to bring my cell phone with me everywhere.

Here's hoping that there are some lock outs, since Tim and I could make some moolah there.

I'm signing off now. I promise more thorough posts in the coming days.

Friday, July 10

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Tuesday, July 7

Families: The ties that bind (and gag)

My apologies to Ms. Bombeck for subverting her book title. But I cannot think of any title even half as apt as that one. Let me just say: This trip is turning out to be emotionally exhausting!

First there was the whole to-do yesterday. Today, I was less weepy. Partly, I think, because my blood sugar wasn't at basement level. But also because I had to keep busy with work. Of course, there's also that thing about slowly accepting upsetting facts/situations.

Today, though, was full of an entirely different set of painful feelings. Tim and his dad, Marc, had a brief spat. Tim went to the bedroom to calm down and avoid his dad, who had snapped at him without much provocation. His dad sat on the couch and grumbled.

Frankly, I was sick of the whole process. Tim feels like Marc always takes Matt's side. (Tim's closer to his mom, Matt's closer to his dad. Not uncommon, but it does have its effects.) Tim will get frustrated when he thinks his dad is protecting Matt and never listening/caring about Tim's side of things. His dad gets frustrated that Tim is always on Matt's case (even if most people could see why).

I get the impression that Tim's tough-guy act fools Marc into believing that nothing he says really has any effect on Tim. Incredibly untrue. But, if you think that nothing you say really affects someone, you're apt to be extra mean. That just further convinces Tim that his dad only really cares about Matt. And so the process speeds onward.

Maybe it's just being a relative outsider (no pun intended) but, to me, the major problem seemed clear: Marc just didn't know how much his actions and words hurt Tim. Like I said, Tim is great at the tough-guy routine. But deep down, there is a part of him that still aches for his dad's explicit approaval.

So I told him that his words really did impact Tim more than he might think. That when he snapped or otherwise reacted, it made it really easy for Tim to think he was always siding with Matt.

This led to something between a discussion and an argument. I was trying to stick up for my husband while still acknowledging that this was their house to do with as they pleased. It's not technically any of our business. Right up until they call us and complain about all that's going wrong and stressing them out about Matt and his his girlfriend du jour.

Tim joined in the conversation. He was pretty blunt about how his dad's actions made him feel. The words "second-class son" were uttered. I almost felt sorry for Marc, who seemed really taken aback by all this. I think he had honestly been oblivious to most of this problem. He seemed pretty genuinely bewildered, at any rate.

There was definitely some tense moments. Like when we pointed out just how ridiculous it was that they kept taking Matt back. Marc countered with all the things he'd done for Tim. All of which, we pointed out, were several years ago. Tim had grown up and was trying to be responsible. Matt was happy to live off them.

At one point, Tim started packing up our things and declared we were leaving. His dad asked him not to go. That, I thought, was big. Maybe not as big as Tim would have liked, but it was a good start.

Even so, there was still a lot of back and forth. A lot of offense/defense. A good chunk of denial. A very different take on things, depending whose side you looked at. The basics of any family argument that has its roots in decades of keeping score.

I think the basic problem is that Marc is the kind of guy who thinks love is shown in grand gestures. Tim, like me, is all about the day-to-day stuff. So when Marc helped Tim out over time, he thought he was making his love clear. But Marc failed to see that inaction can be a gesture itself, such as well Matt keeps getting his way.

The whole thing just sort of petered out, after awhile. We all headed for rooms to take a breather. After about 20 minutes, dinner was ready. Marc was lying down. Tim's stomach gets pretty upset during/after arguments. I got him to take a Tums and said we could always get food later.

So dinner was just the three females: me, Nadine and the 20-year-old. (Let's call her A from now on, for brevity's sake.) Good food, weird ambience. Nadine and I just didn't discuss the huge debacle that had taken place. A had been on the phone at the time and apparently missed the whole thing. Even after Tim joined us mid-meal, no one referred to the argument.

After dinner, Tim and I left for a couple of hours. We got to bond with Tim's "cousin" Patty. (Her mom is Tim's mom childhood friend, so Tim has an "Aunt" Judy, whose daughters are Tim's "cousins.") It was fun, and I wasn't as bad at pool as I'd remembered. Still a long way from good. But not completely terrible, either.

When we got home, Marc had resumed his normal place on the couch watching TV. We headed for the room, where an envelope had been taped to the door. Marc had written us a note. It was actually pretty touching. Basically that he's sorry that we feel the way we do, and it's just that he's not good at expressing feelings. But that he was very proud of Tim and proud at how well we take care of each other. And that he would try to do better in the future.

Like I said, it's not as big as Tim might have wanted. But it's a start.

He also gave us some Regal movie tickets that he'd gotten while he was a contract worker at Boeing, and instructed us to go see the new Transformers movie. Which was pretty sweet, overall.

So that was our day. I hope tomorrow is a little simpler. I'm not sure I can take anymore meaningful exchanges.

Or, for that matter, revelations about Matt's new girlfriend. While I'm trying not to dislike her just because of the circumstances (which she had little to no part in), she's not making it very easy otherwise.

She's very, very young. And she chides Marc with wildly inappropriate, laughing remarks about kicking his ass when he's a smart-aleck. I guess what's even weirder is that it's almost a creepy flirtation thing. Like when those boys at school like a girl and so give her hell all the time. Very unsettling.

I also found a very interesting fact out: She has $5,731 in the bank. Before you go thinking I'm super sleuth material, I passed by while she was on the phone to her bank. She repeated that number pretty clearly. Apparently her roommate has been opening her mail. So I think she was checking her balances and making sure no accounts had been opened/linked to.

The actual amount of money isn't the issue -- just the fact that she has monetary assets. See, she told Nadine and Marc that the aforementioned roommate had stolen $180 cash while she was in the hospital. So she couldn't get down here to Sumner. I guess she doesn't fully understand how banks work.

Oh, and she regaled us with tales about the mistreatment of her childhood cat. Apparently she tied firecrackers to its tail. Another time, she stuffed it in a barrel with something. I think it was more firecrackers. But the real treat was the last act. She (well, she said, "we" but didn't elaborate) put it in a microwave and turned the device on. They actually killed it this way. She laughed and said, "That's when we had to get rid of the microwave.... I hate cats."

Did I mention that we were all still sitting at the dinner table? We had finished eating but still... Up to that point, I was appalled but had just made slightly snarky observations that I don't think she even heard like, "I take it you're more of a dog person." But after the microwave thing, I just sort of stared.

I probably should have said something about how awful it was. Instead, I just kept thinking of all those crime dramas I've watched that refer to torturing small animals. You'd be amazed how many of them find ways to point out that it's a good indicator of sociopathy. So I just sat there wondering if they had to torture any and all small animals available, or if they could be just very concentrated on one kind. (She's very sweet and loving with the dogs in the house.)

I also wondered how it came to be that this girl has brought three children into the world. Especially since she still has at least partial custody of two of them.

Ah, family!


Sunday, July 5

Oh, hello Mr. Elephant! How long have you been in the room?

It's 11:34 p.m. Sunday night and I'm holing up in the guest bedroom at my in-laws' place. We came down for the 4th of July and are staying on through Tim's mom's birthday.

So, why am I holed up, you ask? (Well, you should have, anyway.)

I think it has something to do with the fact that the other bedroom is currently housing a pregnant 20 year old carrying what is purported to be Tim's niece or nephew. Oh, did I mention she already has three kids?

Tim and I expect Matt to screw up. He's been an addict since he was 10. He went into rehab at 12. (And, the next day, started using drugs again.) He went to prison and got his first strike only about a year and a half ago. He was let out on probation, which he then violated by not only using but (as we discovered later) selling drugs.

But, being the cunning fellow he is, Matt went straight from the UA that he was about to flunk and into his parole officer's office, saying he wasn't handling the pressure of being outside well and that he thought he needed to go to rehab. That's the only thing that kept him from being sent back to prison.

Instead, the officer spent about three months trying to find Matt a bed in a rehab facility. His parents were really stoked about the rehab center. It sounded great. Except that the state decided it would only pay for 30 days of treatment. After that, it said, everyone could just see how it goes.

So, anyway, that's a (very) brief recap of Matt's life. It's barely skimming the surface of his ridiculous life. I could rant at length (and am tempted to) about the many ways he's screwed people over, but this isn't really the point of the article. So for now let's just say that, like most addicts, he uses people when he needs them and otherwise treats them like dirt. And, like most addicts, he has a good core of family and friends who continually excuse his behavior and forgive him over and over.

Given all this background, we were understandably blown away when a friend decided to catch us up on current events. I think she found it funny that we were so out of the loop. I got that from the subtle way she cracked up and even nudged her husband to say she couldn't believe we didn't know.

Frankly, neither of us was surprised that Tim's parents didn't tell us. They probably knew how we'd react. Which is with horror and grim, Pandora-like predictions.

What did surprise me, though I don't know why, was just how quickly this friend defended it as an okay thing. There was:

  • "Maybe this will make him straighten up and fly right finally" Yes, because what a recovering addict truly needs is the added stress of financially supporting a child.
  • "Actually, he's really good with kids." Uh, yeah because he's their friggin' PLAYMATE!
  • "Well, he watches my kids." Hey, I was a good babysitter at age 12. Does that mean I was ready to be a mom?!
  • "Well, he's almost 30 now, so if he wants to start a family, he'd better hurry up and do it." Gee, thanks. Did I mention my 31st birthday is coming up next month?

Whatever. We shook it off. And decided not to bother confronting Tim's parents. It wasn't worth it. But then, today, I was in the living room playing around on the web, while Nadine talked to the girl on the phone. Not quietly. And asked several questions that made it obvious the girl was pregnant. (I mean, I'm pretty good at reading between the lines, but it's also made easier by questions like, "So did the doctors let you know about the pregnancy? Oh, okay. Did they tell you how far along you are?")

So when Tim woke up, I told him what I heard and kind of laughed about just how bad his parents are at keeping secrets. On our way in to take a shower, Tim asked them if they were ever going to tell us that Matt got a girl pregnant. His mom said that they only just found out for sure that morning. Apparently, she announced her pregnancy to Matt and his parents after taking a home pregnancy test. But she didn't bother to get it confirmed by, say, a doctor in the past week or two since then. At least until she had passed out during a heat wave from dehydration. So she was already in the hospital.

At any rate, Tim's mom insisted that she had just then found out for sure. Tim shook his head and excused himself to use the bathroom. Which left me standing around with his mom. She proceeded to talk about the baseball game that was on. And what we were going to do that day. And maybe a couple other things. It was hard to really listen, what with my brain screaming, "Why aren't we talking about this at all?!"

So, yeah, that was the last time his mom mentioned it. Apparently, Tim got his dad to talk about it a little while they ran an errand. But it wasn't really information that was volunteered.

I really thought Nadine would be thrilled to have a grandchild. She just seems so ready to be a grandma. So I'm not sure if she's not shouting it from the rooftops because even she recognizes what a screwed up situation this is, or because she knows we're not exactly thrilled.

Either way, it was just strange how the subject was dropped. I mean, there were things that we just didn't talk about in our family. But it's been rare that something so obvious, so big wasn't talked about. The whole thing was practically palpable. But no one discussed it.

Right about now, I'm close to either packing up and leaving (I'll explain why in another post) or leaving some peanuts out for the elephant in the room. He looks kind of hungry.


Friday, July 3

Freebie Friday

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Wednesday, July 1

$70 or $40, which should I choose?

Yeah, that doesn't sound like too hard a choice, I know. But hear me out:

My favorite incentive program, Swagbucks, is offering a new option. You can redeem those bucks for $5 Paypal. Seems like a pretty good deal, right? I mean, who would turn down cold, hard cash?

Here's the problem: The Paypal option is significantly higher than the Amazon gift cards I was saving up for. (You can buy tons of cool things on Amazon, and I tend to get a lot of Tim's presents there.)

Right now, there's a promotion, so for 80 Swagbucks I'd get $5 Paypal. That means I would have just about enough to get $40 in Paypal. (And that's due in large part to all you fine folks who used me as a referral. I do appreciate it, and everytime I see my totals I know I didn't get there alone!)

So, $40 of actual money... Seems like a pretty good deal, right?

Well... Maybe. One small consideration is Paypal fees. In the end, I'll still have $38.54, which isn't a bad little sum. And I bet it would look great up against my credit card debt!

But that's not the only thing to consider. I had originally been saving up for Amazon gift cards. I use them quite often in gift-buying for the holidays. In fact, one of my favorite things about Swagbucks is that their Amazon gift cards are very affordable.

So if I keep the Swagbucks as a sort of Christmas fund, I would already have $70 stored away. Arguably, saving $70 in 5 months (eek!!! only 5 months?!) is a pretty good return versus $38.54 now. Of course, you could also argue that having the money will make it more likely to buy more than I need, since I can. (Somehow I doubt Tim would protest more gifts.)

Finally, there's the fact of interest, since we're looking at a present vs future payoff scenario. Our credit card debt is consolidated onto a 4.99% card, so interest rates aren't exactly killing us. We pay about $35 a month, actually. I would love to pay $0 of interest, of course, but by and large accruing interest isn't exactly dire. On the other hand, those of you who are staunch Dave Ramsey, financial snowball fans would probably remind me that anything you can pay down is great.

So what do you think, folks? Take the money and run, or accept that I'll want to spend something on my husband this holiday?

While you ponder that, I want to address all of you who have yet to be converted to the beauty of Swagbucks. I am betting some of you held back because you prefer programs that offer actual cash. Well, then, now is the time!

If you sign up here you'll start off with 5 Swagbucks. Just be sure to enter the code CASHISKING (case sensitive) during sign-up.

Once you have those 5, you're on your way. You'll be 1/9 of the way toward that Amazon Gift Card or 1/16 of the way to $5 from Paypal!

The code expires July 6th, 12 PM Pacific. So be sure to take a break from all that bbq goodness to sign up!

Financial infidelity

Photo by Kathryn,

For awhile, I had a hobby that involves collecting. I still have my collection, but I'm trying not to spend much to expand it. In fact, I had to stop participating on a related message board. I loved the people on there, but it just fueled my materialism. Badly.

There are days when I miss the community. It was all women, from teens to grandmothers. Many of the members were collectors along with their daughters, which helped them bond. It was a lot of fun to chat with women across the country and, sometimes, world. They were all very supportive and interesting.

There was really only one thing about the board that galled me. A decent chunk of the women talked openly about lying to their spouses. We're not talking about adultery, of course. But they would hide their spending, which I found mind-blowing. Frankly, I still do.

I guess I'm naive, but I grew up with the assumption of joint accounts. While, of course, I'm a firm believer that one person should be financial head of household, I always sort of assumed that both partners would be on the same page. That means being aware of purchases and credit card amounts.

Apparently, some of these women didn't agree. They went so far as to "lol" about it in messages and posts. They treated it as simply another detail in life. Get the kids off to school, answer some email, get groceries, and buy something without hubby finding out.

Their nonchalance may actually have been worse than the lying. At least a few had the decency to be sheepish about their spending. They would admit to spending money they shouldn't have and seem unhappy about the idea of having to hide the purchase. They would at least, then, pay lip service to cutting down on their buying.

Even so, there always seemed to be an air of self-absolution. As though sneaking around behind their partners' backs was excusable because it was about consumption. As though it were no big deal, because their husbands were grumpy about spending. (Which, for all I knew, they could have every right to be.)

Most of them, though, were pretty open about the deceit. They would talk about putting the items away in the closet, among holiday and birthday gifts. That way, they could claim they had bought it for a daughter. (Bringing your kids into it? Really?)

A couple of women I resold items to had me send them the tracking code. This way, they'd be there to intercept the package. Their husbands would never see it and so would never ask what it was or how much it cost. Frankly, it made me a little queasy to do transactions like that.

Other board members would joke about hiding things in plain sight. They would simply add it to the collections they had on display. On the (very) off-chance a husband noticed it, the women would claim it had been there for ages. I got the impression they'd go so far as to laugh and tell hubby he wasn't very observant.

I mean, I can kind of understand not disclosing a purchase. Okay, not really understand. But I guess it is more conceivable to me to not mention a buy (and just hope it goes unnoticed) than to flat-out lie to your partner's face.

These women went to pretty good lengths to disguise their buying. It made me wonder about their finances and why they had to be so secretive. Were they deeply in debt? Could they just not stop spending? Were they supposed to be saving for some shared goal?

Granted, I've never been a stay-at-home mom. Or a mom at all, for that matter. Some of these women worked outside the home, others had home-based businesses and others were full-time stay-at-home moms. Perhaps they had too much time to wander the net and find things they shouldn't buy. It can be a danger of web surfing, for sure. I've found a zillion "dream" items: shoes, jewelry, collectibles, etc.

Just overall... If I have to work that hard to hide purchases (assuming it's not a gift for Tim) I'm going to take that as a sign that something's not right. Call me a goodie-two-shoes. Or naive. I think it's more about being financially sane.

I think for some of these women, it was almost out of their control. They felt compelled to complete collections, to get the things that they thought they needed. Except that there will always be more things (especially thanks to eBay) and new items coming out.

Actually, for me, that's what keeps me from spending sprees. By and large, you buy a lot of things beause there are so many items you want and think you need. You're trying to stop that feeling that there's something out there you don't have. But I know that, even if I were to get everything my little heart desired, within a couple of months, I'd find more. It would never be finished. I would never be done, no matter how much I spent. Really, that goes for any category of buying, I think.

So I guess I'm lucky that I didn't fall into the trap. Just another case of low-income status being a good thing, I suppose. It really dispels the notion that you can just do a whirlwind of shopping and be done forever.

Still, I'm left with the question: Why did these women act this way? I mean, can you really hide your purchases from your partner like that? Does it really work? Wouldn't the husbands notice the missing funds, the lower account balance or the higher credit card bill?

Even if they could get away with it in the short term -- perhaps they were in charge of balancing the checkbook and paying bills -- I cannot imagine how it could work out over a longer period of time. How long, really, can you keep a lie going? Or keep such a bad habit a secret?

I mean, what's the best case scenario here? That they lied about spending because they were embarrassed by their excess? Maybe, then, you should focus on that as a sign that something's wrong. More likely, they weren't supposed to be spending the money for budgetary reasons. So they were sabotaging their own finances.

Probably, the women weren't thinking that far ahead. Clearly, they also weren't thinking about just how big a violation they were perpetrating on their spouses.

They were not just betraying their husbands financially. They were also betraying their husbands' trust. They were actively trying to obscure the truth, whether it was by not talking about a buy, lying about costs or actually hiding purchases. These women were putting in jeopardy the basic trust that is so important to keeping a marriage healthy.

If partners can't trust each other, how can they live together? How can they find common ground?

The fact is, these women were unfaithful to their husbands. It was financial infidelity but infidelity all the same. This habit of theirs was destructive and, frankly, dumb. I know there are plenty of rationales. Some of them might even be convincing, but I very much doubt that any of them are worth losing your spouse's trust.

Have you ever lied about a purchase to your partner? Have you ever had a partner lie to you? Why do you think people do this?