Tuesday, September 29

Is Freecycle getting greedy?

Ever since I heard about Freecycle - lo, those many years ago - I have been a fan. It's just a terrific concept, really. People trying to reduce clutter can offer up their unwanted items to others who need them.

More often than not, I don't need or want whatever is posted. But it's nice to know that there is a place where things I need might come up. Perhaps it's a strange sort of comfort, but it's mine all the same.

That said, before we moved, I had already begun to notice a shift in the tone of emails. People were writing an increasing number of "wanted" posts. For those of you not familiar with Freecycle, that is simply stating that they need/want a particular item. If anyone has such a thing lying around unused, the poster will get a reply.

It just seems wrong. To me, Freecycle is about what you have -- about what you can give -- not about what you want to get. If you want things, you sign up for the updates. Perhaps what you need will be posted. Perhaps not. It's the nature of the site.

So this attitude of the posters strikes me as odd. Would these people dictate a list of needs to a thrift store worker? No, of course not! (At least, I hope not.) Because what you see is what you get. If the thrift store doesn't have it, it's because no one has donated it -- or the ones that were donated were snatched up already. And given that you actually pay the thrift stores money, I really don't understand how that attitude extends to something where people are gifting it to you.

Please don't mistake my distaste for cynicism. If we were talking about kids' clothes or something dire, I would of course support it. But that's not what gets posted. People request random things, few of which ever seem all that necessary. Often, I open these posts, to see why the person felt justified in asking for it. I've yet to see anything like, "Brother in hospital, parents flying down, have no bed for them to sleep on." It's usually just a quick couple sentences about the desired item.

And I should add that I'm not alone in my surprise at people's attitudes. About six months ago, some of the Seattle Freecycle mods wrote a note about the increasing number of "wanted" posts. It reminded people that Freecycle was about giving, not receiving. That did decrease the number, at least for a time. But the frequency was picking up again by the time we were preparing to move.

But if I thought it was bad in Seattle, boy oh boy I was in for a shock. The first week we were here, I signed up for Freecycle. I hoped to find some furnishings for our new place. No such luck, I'm afraid.

Still, getting email updates for Phoenix Freecycle groups has been quite educational. The sheer number of "wanted" posts boggles the mind. There's about one for every two posts actually offering something. Some days, the ratio is a lot worse than that.

These people aren't shy about asking for things, either. One poster wanted furnishings for a new apartment. The post literally just asked for furniture. Nothing specific or humble about it. Another person actually asked for a laptop computer. (!!!!) Based on the wording and writing style, I'm pretty sure it was the same one who then added another post asking for plates, silverware and glasses.

And yes, I know the old adage about a few bad apples. That's what I thought at first, too. But we're in our third week here and the "wanted" posts show no sign of decreasing. These people never explain that there exigent circumstances, or they just moved and have no money til payday to get a bed. They just state their needs and hope.

I guess, technically, there's no law against being brash. To use another cliche, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But it seems like they're taking a selfless system and tarnishing it with their greedy expectations.

Who are these people? The more cynical part of me says it's the same people who overspent during the boom. They got further and further into debt with their consumerist ways, thinking they deserved to have nice things and a big house; now, in the economic contraction, they think they've found a whole new way to fulfill their sense of entitlement -- all while staying in budget. Sort of like breaking the spirit of the law in order to follow the letter of it.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe those people are finally learning their lessons and it's some other group entirely. Perhaps it's random people from various walks of life, all burned out by the recession and the constant self-denial.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter who it is, does it? Whoever they are, why they are doing it... The fact is that it's happening. And there aren't many ways to get around it. Sure, the mods can banish them. But they can get another screen name and come back. There are enough free email accounts out there to tide someone over until the next millenium.

Nope, this greed is probably here to stay. I only hope it won't pollute the whole system. There's been enough of that in this country already.

Are you a member of Freecycle? Have you noticed any change in posts? Do you think it's okay to request things in these sorts of forums?


Sunday, September 27

Socialization, the frugal way

After school, finding friends is hard. It's even harder when you don't go to an office every day. Socialization becomes a dying art.

I wanted to make it a priority to meet new people, having left most of my social/support network back in Washington. The real question, though, is how.

Given my love of reading, I considered book clubs. It's a good way to meet smart people and have intelligent discussion. The best place to find information on those is at local bookstores and libraries. Still, the results can be mixed, even when you're in familiar territory. In Seattle, I had trouble finding groups that read stuff I was interested in. Those that did tended to not be accepting new members, or met too far from me.

I've answered a few ads on Craigslist. There is some potential there. But not all that many women in my more immediate age group. Most are in their early 20s. I still reached out to a couple of them, but who knows how many will actually respond. Still, it's a good, free way to make contact.

That's why I'm focusing a lot of my efforts on Meetup. If you're not familiar with this site, it's fabulous. You can choose your area and then various topics of interest. Whether you're a WoW player or avid hiker (or both) there's almost certainly a group for you. And it's free to use.

My main focus is on finding groups of women I can relate to. It's harder than you might think. While I don't care if the women are single, a decent number of the groups are for single women only. (Marriage-ists!) I totally get that -- being single can be a whole different universe at times. Still, it made things a bit harder.

I found three or four groups though: One for geeky gals, one for liberal ladies, one for women in their 20s and 30s, and one for couples. There are also a couple of board game groups that I have my eye on, and I bookmarked some Magic the Gathering groups for Tim.

Not all of these events are free, of course. Sometimes the organizers require $5-10, which is the discounted group rate of admittance. Other times, the groups meet at a restaurant, so you might feel uncomfortable just watching others eat. Still, no one is expected to go to all the meetings, so you can simply skip the ones that would make you financially uncomfortable. You can also make a compromise and order something small from the menu. Given the tight times, these events seem to increasingly focus on affordable deals and happy hour specials.

I'm proud to say that I already went to an event. (The sunshine here is helping make the depression a little less severe, which gives me a bit more of an energy boost.) We met in Tempe, the local version of the University District in Seattle.

It was a dueling piano bar, which was something I had always meant to check out in Seattle. There was no cover during happy hour, there were quartered, hoagie sandwiches for the munching, and any drink we wanted was $3. Our group could order 2 special drinks, each $2, but neither of them were of interest. So I sipped some $3 Lynchburg Lemonades and generally had a great time.

Dueling piano bar means that there are two players at any given time. They take requests and will convert any song to piano. My favorite was Whip It, though I was suitably impressed by one player's rendition of Sublime songs. Nothing like hearing the phrase, "bust a cap in Sancho" with piano key strikes behind it.

As the night wore on -- which is to say the crowd grew to an appropriate size -- the audience was asked to sing along at specific parts. At one point, we were divided into competing sides for "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond: One half followed the phrase "Sweet Caroline" with "Boh, boh, boh!" and the other half came in after "Good times never seemed so good" with "So good! So good! So good!" In other words, it was silly and fun and the musical abilities were quite impressive. In fact, I plan on taking Tim there in the near future for some frugal fun.

Of course, it wasn't completely frugal. I could have gotten away paying just bus fare, but I decided to "splurge." I didn't need any food, since the sandwiches were plenty, but I did indulge in 3 drinks. After tips, that came to $12.

Meanwhile, I met three cool ladies. The first one I met had to leave relatively early because she lived on the other side of town, but I hope to see her again at another event. The second was the organizer herself, who also heads the couples group I joined. The third and I didn't get to talk much because, by then, the noise had moved far beyond a dull roar; but she was very friendly. She asked if I liked to hike. I shouted a quick explanation about fatigue

Then she invited me to come with them to Oktoberfest the next weekend. They're going to carpool to save on parking, though I will probably just take the bus to cut out the middleman. While I'm not much of a beer fan, I am excited. I never have made it out to an Oktoberfest, so this should be an experience. Plus it's another chance to socialize.

Oh, and I checked: Admission is free.

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Friday, September 25

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Wednesday, September 23

The cost of vice

Photo by clspeace

As I was furiously scribbling numbers (more on that later), I had occasion to consider the extreme cost of most vices. We all have one. People who claim not to are lying (or annoyingly perfect and who wants to hang out with those people?).

When live frugally, you quickly learn that almost any hack will add up quickly. Whether you save money by reusing Ziploc bags or simply buy an answering machine and nix the voice mail, the savings accumulate with surprising speed.

The thing about bad habits, though, is that they add up quickly in the negative column. Perhaps you enjoy a beer or two after a hard day at the office. Or go out to lunch semi-weekly with coworkers. Maybe you're at the movies each weekend to see the latest flick. We all have habits that cost us.

And who's to say that it's a bad thing? A smart frugalist is one who knows that a small indulgence or two keeps us sane the rest of the time. So, while you ruthlessly slash your expenses, it's always a good idea to set aside a little money for fun.

So, what's the difference between a habit/indulgence and a vice?

Perspective, for one. My satellite TV has certainly struck some as unnecessary. But, then, most of those people are very healthy. That means they have more active social lives, because they can reliably leave the house. They can turn off the TV and go for hikes or other outdoorsy things that rapidly fatigue me. They are happy to curl up with a book after work or over the weekend. But they forget that I've got 8-12 hours to fill every single day. Oh, except for weekends. Then I have 12-16 hours. Considering I can rarely be out and about for more than 2-3 hours at a time (on a good day), that's too much reading, even for me. And I'm rarely without a book for more than a day or two.

But that's not enough of a distinction. We've talked in the past about needs versus luxuries. (And the in-between luxureeds.)

So how is an indulgence different from a vice? Well, for me, it's about choice. You can choose to indulge in a weekly chocolate bar or a night out with friends. But if you consistently go over budget, or if a large amount of your money goes to one specific habit, you have to at least ask yourself whether it's a vice. A high-end gym membership, for example, could drain the coffers, but it'd be a stretch to consider it a vice. Indulgence, sure. Unnecessary, probably. But not a vice.

All that (finally) brings me around to my own example: Tim's smoking. It got worse toward the end of our time in Seattle. Even before the move preparations began, he was going over his 5-a-day goal. A lot of it had to do with having a smoking buddy.

Rather than have a solitary cigarette and then come back to the apartment, Tim scheduled his smokes with the friend. Then they could sit around and shoot the breeze -- while polluting the breeze. (Guess you don't have to wonder where I stand on the smoking issue.)

It wasn't much better while we visited his friends and family. He could smoke in the house, and most of his friends smoked. When we got here, though, I had hoped he could refocus on quitting. We agreed that 7 was a better place to start than 5, given the uptick in his nicotine habit.

Then Tim made friends here in the complex. And how did he make friends? Why, being out smoking, of course! You can imagine how thrilled I was about that.

Don't get me wrong: The main guy, Joe, is very cool. But he's also a smoker. So he and Tim smoke socially. And now that we have a patio, Tim has taken to sitting outside to smoke, while still watching TV. (A habit I've been trying to persuade him to knock the hell off.)

The point of all this is that I'm very distressed by Tim's smoking level. That 7 a day? He's hit it once. To be fair, he was under the mark with only 6. But I should add he was up for a whopping 7.5 hours. (Insomnia had kept him up the night before.)

So, what's a gal to do? I've tried asking nicely. I've tried using logic. I've gone the less pleasant routes of lecturing, yelling and even guilt, since I worry a lot about his health. (Let's not forget he has very severe asthma.)

And before you start in on me, I know none of that will really work until Tim wants to quit. Which he does, intermittently. The thing about someone with severe ADD... Some of his convictions only last until he's distracted.

The newest plan was for him to mark down each cigarette he smokes. And each one over 7, he's started marking in red -- his idea. That's been going on for 4 or 5 days now. Each day he's hit 12 or more. This morning I woke up and saw 15 tick marks. And just got angry.

I've tried every conceivable means to get him to focus on quitting. But as soon as he wants one, it's uncontrollable. (Yes, I'm also trying to get him to take his Adderall regularly, which should help with some of the impulse-control issues.) And in case you're wondering why I can't just let it be... Well, there's the health thing. His family has a history of cancer to begin with. Plus he has very severe asthma. Two excellent reasons right there. And those are the ones that tend to worry me.

But this is a frugality blog and, let's be honest, I'm something of a miser. Combine that with being a staunch non-smoker and you can imagine how painful it is for me to see $6-7 dings on our bank account, each one for a pack of cigarettes. We couldn't really afford it back in Seattle. And now that we have to pay off the move, it's even more urgent that he find a way to quit.

So I thought maybe I should remind him of that. Remind him that every cigarette he has is expensive. It's money down the drain (or, at least, down his lungs). Nothing else has worked. Why not try appealing to his newfound sense of thrift? I sat down and wrote out the cost of 15 cigarettes and slipped it under the cellophane of his pack.

Even based on a carton from Sam's Club, the numbers are pretty sickening: $4.45 a day, $31.13 a week, $133.43 a month, and a whopping $1623.34 a year. Yet another way that cigarettes make me want to throw up.

I accidentally woke him up while trying to find the pack of cigarettes, and he was not terribly thrilled about the idea. Can't say as I blame him, but I figure visual reinforcement is one of the only ways to go right now. We had a small argument, mainly consisting of him telling me to just do whatever. I did, and then stomped back out here.

Then I remembered that he's not the only one with a vice. I have an unhealthy (literally) love of junk food. It's not good for me on a few counts, but especially because I am hypoglycemic. Nothing sends your blood sugar levels rollercoastering like some high fructose corn syrup. Not to mention the fact that I would be a lot healthier -- and have more energy -- if I shed 20 lbs.

So I did my own math. It was harder to quantify. I go through phases of specific items, and there are weeks when I don't buy much at all. (Okay, they're rare but they do happen!) Still, I went ahead and threw in the number of $10 per week. And I wrote out my own list, and clipped it to the freezer: "$1.43 a day, $10 a week, $42 a month, $521.43 a year; realistically? probably $800+ a year!!!!"

It's sobering, to be sure. Even if the real amount is "just" $500... That means there was an extra $1,500 that could have gone to debt over the last 3 years. To spend so much on something that hurts my body... It's incredible. It's embarrassing. And, at least, it gives me a slightly better insight to Tim's situation.

That said, he still needs to quit. I just need to be there, along with him, paring down my own excesses. I don't want the cost of our vices to remain yet another roadblock to debt reduction.

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Monday, September 21

And they all lived frugally ever after... Or not.

Well, we're officially settled in now. Most of our stuff has been unpacked. We've got some furnishings. We're learning the area.

What we're not doing is living frugally. We're burned out. Big time. What with the 6 weeks of move preparation, the 1,700-mile drive, and getting here, our tanks have officially hit E.

In retrospect, we probably should have put more energies into getting our cupboards full rather than unpacking everything, but it's hard to deal with anything when there are boxes all around. Especially if you daily have to rummage through five or six of them to find what you're looking for.

So we waited for the food circulars on Wednesday, only to find out that we don't receive ones in the mail from Fry's, Albertsons or Safeway. Sigh. In other words, we've been living on takeout and pizza. Not good for our wallet or our waistlines!

And getting some furniture put a dent in our budget too. Some would argue (probably rightly so) that we should have focused less on furniture and more on paying off the move. But there were reasons to get some side tables, etc. First and foremost is that a table lamp doesn't do a whole lot of illuminating if it's sitting on the floor. Tim's also used the side table we picked up as a gaming surface for Magic. And the coffee table is a good eating surface (we don't really want/need a dining table at the moment) plus it will be a work surface while we try to find an affordable desk that can fit in a 4-door sedan.

In other words, our budget is wincing in pain from the combined costs of driving down, using the pod service, hiring movers to empty the pod and getting set up. It's not so much a mortal blow, mind you. It's more like a shallow wound -- but one with every chance of getting a malingering infection.

So what are we to do? Well, mostly it's a matter of getting back into a frugal mindset. I got the Sunday paper today -- and will be grabbing the special that gives me Sunday and Wednesday papers for $1 for the first 13 weeks -- and went through the ads. Then I printed out coupons from online. Then I sat down with the food ads (physical and online) and figured out what was worth buying this week. That's a start.

But it's not just a matter of hitting specials. We need some basic foodstuffs. We've started over nearly from scratch in the food department. We have some crackers, peanut butter, jelly and spices. A few random mixes and condiments also made the trip. By and large, though, our cupboards are bare.

So Tim and I need to put our heads together and figure out what sorts of food we want to be eating and then start the process of fleshing out our pantry. We also need to realize that the temperature outside may affect our food tastes inside. While I am in air conditioning most of the day, I still don't eat all that much until the sun goes down. I don't know if that will go away or not, but it's good to bear in mind when grocery shopping.

I've pledged to work on learning some slow cooker recipes. Not only does this make the chore of cooking slightly less onerous, it also comes in handy for light fare, such as soups. But I have been told that you can make a ton of things with a crockpot, so feel free to send me any URLs with good recipes!

Beyond that, I'm going to try and stock up on cheap chicken breasts while they're on sale this week. I'm trying to include more meat and less bread in my diet. It's supposed to help with the hypoglycemia highs and lows. It also means that I'll stay fuller, which means less food consumed overall. Or that's the theory.

In other news, I am officially in love with dollar stores that sell food. It's fabulous! Obviously, you still have to be careful. The packaging tends to be smaller, so you're not always getting a good deal. On the other hand, we found cheap salami to accompany Tim's cheese and crackers. And the jerky has been OKed too. That's a lot better than the $6-7 a pack in grocery stores or even the $3.50 at Wal-Mart.

Interesting note about this place: There are tons of drive-thru Mexican places. We're not talking Taco Bell here, though somehow those are still around. We're talking about $5-6 quality enchiladas handed to you through a window as though it were a Happy Meal. Awesome. Strange. Quite tasty.

That is all.

Friday, September 18

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Wednesday, September 16

The shared illusion of value

Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You've heard the old saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure?" Well, that works the other way around, too.

I'm reminded of this as we go through and catalog what we need to replace. When Freecycle fails to provide, my next bet is Craigslist. But, at least out here, prices are hilarious -- inasmuch as 'If you don't laugh, you'll cry.'

Seattle wasn't great when it came to furniture prices, but at least the selection was good for my price range. Here, anything under $30 is pretty much driven by I'm-moving-and-this-needs-to-go desperation.

This disparity could also be because we're close to Scottsdale -- a rather well-to-do area. Still, I have looked at listings throughout the greater Phoenix area, and they're pretty astounding. I've seen several "great" deals on entertainment centers for $300-700.

Want a dining table? There are plenty of people selling them for over $1,000. There were 14 ads posted today for dining tables with a minimum price of $1,000. That doesn't include people who only put the price in the text of the ad.

My favorites? Last night, it was a dining table, two leaf inserts, 10 chairs for $1,500. (Owner paid $3,500.) But today that was trumped by someone selling a custom-made dining set that cost over $11,000.

But this post is more than just angry, cynical ranting about how people tend to have more money than sense. I wanted to talk about that ever-so-fun theory called "value."

In this society, we tend to treat it as a constant. You hear it in our lexicon, as we talk about "investing" in big ticket items. "Oh, well we spend so much time in the living room, with the kids, we invested in a nice couch." Uh, wrong.

Investments have the potential to go up in value. It's why a car isn't an investment: As soon as you take it off the lot, the value depreciates significantly. Similarly, almost everything you buy will lose value in terms of resale. (Unless, of course, you keep it in pristine condition and wait for it to be an antique.)

Still people treat their things as having a set value. Yes, there can be a set value -- the amount which both buyer and seller agree to. But there is no absolute value. You cannot buy a coffee table for $100 and know, for certain, that in 4 years' time it will be worth $50. Or perhaps it's better said this way: An item is only ever worth what someone else is willing to pay.

I ran into this problem when we were preparing for the move. There were things I wanted to be rid of -- but not for the prices that people would be willing to pay. Since I paid good money, someone else should respect that fact by forking over an amount based on the original price.

But the thing is, people who buy used generally do so because they can't or won't pay retail. So why on earth would they agree to a price that's dependent on an amount they've already dismissed? They won't, by and large.

So I learned to let go. I learned to think in terms of money in my hand, rather than compare it to the price I paid so long before. If I kept it, the item earned me nothing. If I sold it, I had some money back. That's the logical, rational way to think about such things.

Intellectually, we all know that, in the same abstract way we know we should floss daily, eat healthy food and never break the speed limit. In theory, we know that taste varies and that the used goods market is fickle, at best. But all that goes out the window once we start dealing in things we have paid for. And the more we paid, the more attached we tend to feel to objects. Whether it's guilt over the expenditure, a determination to "get our money's worth" from the item, or simply a happy memory around the time of the purchase, we are tied to our possessions.

That emotional tie makes it hard to be logical because we're not looking just at facts. We're looking at our own history, our own past judgment calls. While, from an outsider's perspective, it's all a basic instance of sunk costs, to us it's personal.

And so we find ourselves in danger of pricing things too far above market value. We can rationalize it, but in the end we want people to pay for our attachment to these items. And since market value is such a changeable idea, the thing might sell right away. Who's to know?

What we do know is that there are more factors than what you originally paid. Yes, the retail cost does factor in; but you also have to think about how many other people were willing to pay that price, the useful lifespan of the item and, of course, the condition it's in.

In other words, we're all very sorry that you were crazy enough to pay that much money. But we don't want to pay for your mistake. And that's what you're asking us to do: You want us to pay an absurd price simply because you paid a more absurd price awhile ago.

As I sputter, laugh and rant my way through these ads, it occurs to me that perhaps it's not just about recouping some of our money. Perhaps there's also an emotional need contained within these prices. Maybe it's not just helping to cover the cost of a new couch. Instead, maybe it's about justifying what you spent on the old couch.

If you can simply get someone to pay a decent chunk of what you did, it is like the buyer is validating your choice. If they're willing to pay, say, 50% of the thousands of dollars you spent on a living room set, this reassures you that you're not overspending.

In fact, it simply means that it's a shared madness, this idea of inherent value. Yes, things from the Pottery Barn are very nice, but I don't want to pay those prices. And if you've had the item for even one month, no one wants to pay anything approaching what you did. Finally, misers like myself will be appalled at the prices you're asking 5 years later.

It's important to point out that none of this means the people are wrong. Eventually, they will probably find someone who thinks of items' value in the same way. They will agree to something close(ish) to the asking price. That said, I could probably, if I advertised enough, find two people who agree that the grass is blue and the sky is green. That doesn't make it an absolute truth. It just means that their views of the world coincide... far away from mine.

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Monday, September 14

The economics of geography

Especially in the wake of the subprime loan crisis, we've heard a lot about the variance in housing costs throughout this country. That's not what I'm talking about. Frankly, I don't think I have much to add on the subject.

But there is another facet of the cost of living: geography-based consumer needs. These tend to be wildly different, as you move from one climate type to another. Now that I'm on my third distinct one, I find myself pondering how climate affects the cost of living.

Mostly, it seems to boil down to the creation of new needs. Anchorage may have been one of the more severe examples, in that sense. To survive the winter with all your limbs and digits in tact, a good coat, mittens/gloves, a hat and scarf were all pretty important. Bear in mind that a "good" winter coat generally included goose down. Of course, there are always sales. Usually it was smartest to buy at the end of the season for optimal prices. Even so, you considered yourself lucky to find a coat for under $40. Adults could get away with the same coat for many years, but growing kids made such things, at minimum, an annual expense.

Then there was the cost of boots. Snow boots (we all called them moon boots, since they looked remarkably similar to astronauts' footwear) were important for traction on snow and ice. And if you had to wade through snow -- either to shovel it or to play in it -- you were thankful for the things. And each year for "break up," when snow and ice melted and created a chilly slush, you needed a good pair of rubber boots.

Of course, there were other costs: Warm blankets (sometimes electric), thermal underwear, warm socks, etc. Fur attire, while obviously a luxury, was relatively common. Of course, we found ways around some of these items. My family never had electric blankets, which might short out. Nor did we buy special, heavy blankets for warmth. We just used layers. (Similarly, my parents saved on bedding by never indulging in pop-culture sheets and comforters for me. That meant they never had to replace these items as my tastes changed.)

In Seattle, costs were a lot lower. Still, it was a good idea to have a quality, water-repellent coat. A good windbreaker was also a smart investment. Those were rarely cheap, unless you found one at a thrift store. In that respect, I was lucky: My rain coat was a hand-me-down from my aunt, and my windbreaker was purchased with a gift certificate from another aunt. Otherwise, I would have been looking at a minimum of $50 each.

Here in Phoenix, though, things are a bit different. I'm definitely going to need some quality sunblock. (Interesting, by the by, how you never find sunscreen anymore. Only sunblock. Advertising is full of smart, crafty people.) On the drive down, I applied a store brand spray-on, 50 SPF before we left in the morning, then again two hours later. I often forgot the third application until three (sometimes four) hours had gone by. I burned (lightly) pretty much every day. Eesh.

In addition, if I decide to go for fashion at all, I'll probably need at least one or two pairs of sandals rather than just tennis shoes. I know this isn't a need, per se. More a luxureed. Nonetheless, I'm betting it will happen.

For a lot of people down here, the major cost is utilities. In Seattle, water/sewer/garbage is generally paid by the landlord, unless the apartment coms with a washer and dryer. Not so down here. It's a desert. Water's a commodity. So you pay for it.

Similarly, in Seattle, electricity bills are pretty low. Most people I know pay about $15-30 a month. Before I got on the low-income program, I generally came in around $17 a month -- and that was with being home almost all the time.

Here in Phoenix, though, air conditioners run most of the time. That will suck up a lot of electricity. When Tim was down here the first time, he misunderstood the apartment agreement and thought electricty was paid for completely. (In fact, it was paid for up to a point.) He and his roommate ran the air conditioner constantly, and after one month had to pay $200 -- over and above the flat rate they were normally charged.

I think that these costs are one reason that rents are so low out here. (The other major factor being that minimum wage is about $1.50 less than it is in Seattle.) Sure, you can get a one-bedroom for under $500, but utilities may easily make up the difference.

Since Tim takes two or three showers a day, we made sure to find a place with a flat rate for w/s/g. (And, yes, we checked to be sure that there was no limit on use.) Electricity is included in rent, so we don't have to worry about that. While we may pay a bit more for rent, this means we're probably saving money overall.

Still, there is one aspect of the desert we cannot escape: drinking water. Once upon a time, Tim found out the hard way that tap water out here isn't drinkable. I'm taking his word for it. But it's hard for me to stomach paying for the stuff. I grew up on well water, and the tap water in Seattle was great.

Granted, a gallon of water out here is relatively cheap. I found it on sale for 67 cents, merely by walking into a random grocery store. But when you start to consider how much water Tim and I drank in Seattle... Well, we're going to be guzzling the stuff out here.

I checked into water services and about choked. We'd be looking at around $40/month, minimum. And that wasn't including the water cooler rental -- about $8-10 a month. So I bit the bullet and spent $50 on a four-foot tall cooler on Craigslist. I figured, even if we get a water service, having the cooler will save us around $100 a year.

It turns out, though, we will almost immediately make our money back. I finally had a chance to price the refill stations for water jugs around here. We can get a 5-gallon jug filled for $1. A water service would cost us around $1 per gallon. Even buying an extra 5-gallon jug at retail, we'll save over $20 in the first month. By the second month, the water cooler will have paid for itself and then some.

Doing that math, I felt rather triumphant. I had faced down a new expense and found a way around it. Of course, I don't kid myself that new ones won't pop up. But for now, I've conquered one new environment-related expense. And I'm choosing to focus on that.

What geography-related expenses do you have?

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Saturday, September 12

Veni, vidi, leasee: I came, I saw, I rented

As of yesterday afternoon we are officially residing in Phoenix. Yep, we signed our lease and all the accompanying paperwork. Then we -- okay, Tim -- unpacked the car.

It wasn't nearly as smooth as it might sound, of course. We showed up around 11 a.m., wanting to move in before Qwest came to install our new services. Even more importantly, we wanted to actually check out the apartment and community before ABF dumped the 1,500 lb metal box on the property. I worried that there might be some deal-breaker, in which case we'd have to rehire ABF to move the cube a second time. Not a pleasant idea for our wallets.

But the carpet was still being installed, thanks to the vendors not showing up the day before. In the end, we didn't get in until about 3 p.m., and the cube was delivered about 15 minutes before we had gotten a chance to see our apartment. By that point, though, we had at least gotten to see the apartment community, which was as nice as promised, and check out the surrounding area. So while we didn't have a chance to look at the apartment, we knew the area and the complex were both more than acceptable. Circumstances still weren't ideal, but, in this life, few ever are.

All in all, we are quite happy. The only real annoyance I have is the utter lack of ceiling lights in the bedrooms or living room. Annoying, since we sold off/donated our lamps. So we'll need to watch Freecycle and Craigslist. Luckily, many stores are still finishing up on back-to-school sales, so we might luck out there. And this community has online classifieds for residents, which may help us replace some of our jettisoned furniture.

Our place is also pretty centrally located. We're within two miles of Fry's grocery, Target, Ross, Tuesday Morning, Wal-Mart Supercenter, Safeway, 4 Blockbusters, 2 libraries, and a Sam's Club (with gas station).

In addition, after pet rent, taxes and the monthly water/sewer/garbage, our monthly amount will be $676.26. That's almost $25 less than we paid for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle and we're not responsible for electricity. Since we have a second bedroom, which will be my office, about $80 a month will be deductible. Here, we also have access to 2 pools, a fitness center and a hot tub.

It's all still a tad overwhelming to be here. And the first night here was a little strange, since we were sans furniture. Still, things will be a little easier later today when the movers come and unload our items for us. I had tried to convince Tim that we could unload ourselves -- thereby saving $400 -- but at this point I'm glad we hired them. After 1,700 miles of driving (we took a detour to see the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert) in 4 days, we're both pretty ragged. Even without the heat as a factor, we're really in no shape to lift heavy boxes and furniture.

I'm already discovering plenty of frugal programs out here, but I think I'll save those updates for another day. I am off to find some (free?) lamps and maybe a desk. Freecycle & Craigslist, here I come!

Tuesday, September 8

Caution: Alligators

Road trips are chock full of instances to be contemplative about life, landscape and all sorts of other things. For example, why aren't more people interested in living in Bliss (pop 275)? Also, should there be rundown buildings in a town called Bliss? Personally, I say no.

As I watched the rolling green hills give way to rolling farmland, then to rolling hills again (though this time, mainly scrubland) and then to mesas and other rocky outcrops, I realized just how little traveling it takes to completely change the terrain you look at.

I also realized that an "Icy Bridge" sign in the middle of Utah in 75-degree heat is hilarious -- even if the blinking light (ie, whether the message is relevant) is turned off.

Among my other realizations were:

  • Cats are not necessarily smarter than dogs. At least dogs know to make full use of a rest stop: get out, walk around a bit, stretch the legs, pee on various trees and maybe get a bit of food and water. A cat just looks at you, then at the food/water you've put out, then at you again. Despite having been cooped up for two or three hours with no litter box, she will not, in fact, piddle. Instead, she'll plunk down in the same position she used in the carrier. Except now she's not yowling indignantly (until you put her back in). A couple of hours later, she may or may not grace her carrier with a bowel movement.
  • Cruise control is a very economic option. Not only does it create some extra fuel efficiency, it's far cheaper to go at a constant speed rather than, say, getting distracted and then getting pulled over for doing 15 miles over the speed limit. Especially when you're out of state and so they stick you with the maximum. Hypothetically, of course.
  • Being on a road trip doesn't meant paying rack rate. Most people told me I should book with hotels in advance, to get better prices. But with so many variables -- especially my energy -- Tim and I were hesitant to pin ourselves down like that. Instead, I called Hotels.com and booked a room for $61. And if you book through Hotels.com 10 times, you get a free night at any partner hotel, room value up to $400.
  • Cheap hotels don't have to be bad. Certainly, the decor tends to leave something to be desired. (Often a flame thrower, for example.) But some of these places have very nice touches. The Shilo Inn (through Hotels.com) was a nice surprise. The room had wifi, a fridge and a microwave. The beds and sheets could have been a little nicer, but the hotel itself offered a pool and sauna/steam rooms. And the continental breakfast was surprisingly extensive: juice, some fruit, yogurt, milk, rolls, bagels, cereal, pastry, mini-muffins, microwaveable omelets, and even DIY Belgian waffles with those little timed irons. I'm a sucker for those.
  • Rest stops can offer invaluable savings -- and, no, I'm not talking about stealing toilet paper. Some will offer helpful pamphlets and other materials for weary travelers. I found something called "Room Saver." It's essentially a coupon book for lodgings, grouped by area. In two minutes, I had found a Best Western in Salt Lake City for $49.99.
  • When you're being so crafty, saving all that money by calling about coupons or contacting the travel website by phone, don't do it in a mountainous area. Turns out that, no matter how many bars your cell claims to have, you will get disconnected. About three to four times in the space of 15 minutes. And always right before you get the confirmation number.

But so far the best thing about this trip? The sign I saw this afternoon:

13 miles
Caution: Alligators

Perhaps the miracle is not getting eaten by the alligators?

Out-of-work muppets

Times are tough when even our lovable, huggable, furry friends can't keep a job.

The TV in the hospitality room of the Shilo Inn was tuned to The Today Show, and so I was treated to a glimpse of the upcoming feature, which involved Elmo and his mom. It seems Mom has recently lost her job, like so many other Americans.

The hosts hinted that the fuzzy duo would be discussing Elmo's feelings about it and giving some tips to kids for how to deal with this scary stuff/how to help their parents. I probably should have stuck around to watch, but I wanted to get back to the room. Also, I really can't stand Elmo, but that's beside the point.

I suppose it's good that someone is reaching out to kids who are probably pretty confused and scared. Money troubles, even in the best of times, can easily cause parents to fight or, at least, ominpresent tension. And children pick up on those vibes. Big time.

Still, I can't help but wonder at the placement of the skit. How many kids do you know who watch The Today Show? Or, more importantly, who understand it? This is a grown-up's program. Maybe some parents have it on in the background, and so their kids will take it in. But, by and large, I am betting that people will have to call their kids in to watch the segment.

So what's wrong with that? Well, essentially, you're being herded in to watch something with an IMPORTANT MESSAGE. So be sure you get that IMPORTANT MESSAGE, kiddos. Be sure you understand exactly what it is you're supposed to be learning from this. Don't, say, just watch this skit and glean from it what you will. Nope. You need to sit down, pay attention and get that IMPORTANT MESSAGE drilled into the marrow of your little kiddy bones.

Perhaps I'm overestimating kids. After all, if you're still at an age wherein you don't find Elmo repugnant and cloying, you will probably just be thrilled to see Muppets outside of the normal Sesame Street time period.

But, like I said, kids pick up on vibes more than we think. So I wonder just what kind of message it sends that parents will be calling the kids in to watch this skit and then telling them to skeedaddle. It's got to tell the kid, at least on some basic level, that they're supposed to get something from this. It might end up putting more pressure on a kid than it does to help.

I guess, in the end, I wonder why this piece was inserted into The Today Show, rather than being highlighted in Sesame Street. Why not put this lesson in a way that's less on the spot? Why not let kids see the information in the normal context?

I remember learning a bit having an unemployed parent by reading Ramona books. I really liked how these books dealt with real life issues in a realistic way. That is, off and on in the way a normal kid would take things in. Whether it was her sister going through puberty and horrible teen years or, in one book, her dad being out of work, these plots drifted in and out of the storyline, but were there, nonetheless.

Ramona understands that her dad doesn't have a job. And that there's a lot of tension. And that he comes home looking sad and tired. But, like a normal kid, she is still confused and disappointed when her parents say no to fast food, or when her dad doesn't bring her home a little present, even though she's home sick for the day.

Personally, I think this is a better way to present the information: The way the kid would actually perceive such things. That said, I'm not really up on my child development psychology. I don't know if certain ages need a more blunt presentation of certain topics.

What I do know, though, is that little kids really don't get larger adult issues. You can show them all the fuzzy puppets you like. That doesn't mean they'll better understand (for the long-term, anyway) why everyone's so upset. They'll just know there is tension and tempers flaring at random times. They'll see upset adults -- which, I believe, is what truly frightens them -- and they'll pick up on anger and fear. But explaining it to them once doesn't mean they'll really "get it." In fact, explaining it to them a billion times (given the short attention span of most kids) won't help, especially if they're still young enough to have to have Elmo explain things.

I think the more important thing to remember is that kids don't understand adult issues because, well, they're not adults. You can tell them your job doesn't exist anymore. But they don't know what a job is, really. They know you go away for hours a day and then you're home. They know, abstractly, what money is and maybe even that you get it from working. But a four- or five-year-old child is not going to be able to understand how job loss correlates to having less or being more stressed about money.

Children's needs are immediate and all-consuming. So every time they want things, you're going to have to explain to them that you can't afford it, why you can't afford it, etc. And they'll probably still think you're denying them out of some inherent meanness. Because, to kids, you're all powerful. You're huge, and you know everything, and you're just generally awesome. So how is some small child going to understand "can't afford"?

Saturday, September 5

Accidental savings

There's nothing that makes you feel quite so frugal as stumbling into a fabulous deal. I'm never quite sure why. Sure, plenty of planning and crafty use of coupons and sales can result in some triumphant savings. But there's always a bit of an added rush when you find a great deal purely by accident.

I've always wondered why this is. My theory is that it just makes you feel like all your frugal stars are aligning -- that every part of your life is now attracted to the magnetism that is frugality. But maybe it's simply that we are thrilled by anything that makes us feel lucky. It doesn't have to be big, either. Just finding a penny on the ground (or in a Coinstar machine) can keep me in a good mood for an hour or more. Guess I'm easily amused.

All this simply goes to explain why I've been pleased as punch with myself since Monday, when I secured a great deal with Qwest.

Thanks to the stress of trying to work and pack and get ready to leave town, I had procrastinated about turning off our basic services like TV and phone. By the time I remembered this, it was the Saturday before we moved and, apparently, Qwest doesn't do weekends.

That's how I ended up calling to cancel our telephone service around 3 p.m. on the day that we were leaving. Oops.

At that point, I was beyond ragged. I'd been been in moving (aka stress) mode for over a month, packing mode for over 2 weeks and had been cleaning since 9 that morning. I was barely coherent.

So when I called Qwest, I wasn't as firm as I perhaps normally would have been. Turns out, that worked in my favor. First, the man offered to transfer our service for free -- normally $30. It was tempting, but I declined. We were just going to use cell phones.

Then the "loyalty" representative noted that we were on a telephone savings plan. He offered me 5 months at half-off. Given that we current pay about $10-12 after taxes, I decided it was worth trying out. After all, if we decided once we were down there that we needed a landline, we'd have to pay the $30 connection fee.

Once he had sold me on that, he moved to DSL service. I am a staunch cable modem gal, and said that, for my work, I needed speeds faster than what DSL offers. He then pointed out to me that cable speed is based on users, so the speeds I was being quoted were tentative, at best. He also quoted me a price about half of what I'd have to pay for broadband. Between those facts and the exhaustion, I decided I'd try it before rejecting it.

I told him okay. After all, if it didn't work out, I could just cancel, right? Uh, no. There was a 2-year contract for that promotion. Even through the haze of severe fatigue, my reaction was practically knee-jerk. No, not interested. Not signing a 2-year agreement.

And wouldn't ya know it? His manager just happened to be right there and was giving him the OK to waive the contract. How fortuitous! Especially since his manager -- without being on the call -- seemed to magically know what we were talking about. Whatever. I got out of signing a contract.

There was one wrinkle: telephone assistance. We won't qualify for it in Arizona. Income limits are lower down there. That worked to my advantage, though. The rep changed the offer from 5 months at half off to 3 months completely free.

So now we're paying $0 to get the landline installed, $0 for the first three months while we decide if we want a landline and $25 for DSL ($37 after the first year). Of course, we'll probably downgrade to a basic phone line after the first three months -- assuming we keep the landline at all.

Even if we didn't change anything though, for the first year our phone and DSL total would be about the same as I was going to have to pay for broadband. So, all in all, I'd say I made a pretty good deal. Especially considering that I was having trouble forming sentences, let alone brokering a deal.

What is the best accidental savings you've ever experienced?


Friday, September 4

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Visit the site daily for information on free samples, events and other offers.

Scrubbing Bubbles Gift Pack

Stayfree Overnight Sample

Free Small Coffee at Seattle's Best in Borders

Huggies Little Movers Diapers Sample

Free Blue Bunny Frozen Novelty After Rebate

Free Home Depot Kitchen Workshop

$15 Proctor & Gamble Coupon Booklet

Kashi Cereal Sample

Free Burger at T.G.I. Friday's