Sunday, November 29

A clutterless Christmas

Okay, so a holiday being completely clutter-free is unlikely. But it may just be something we should shoot for.

Debt Hater was venting about getting well-intentioned, but ultimately unused/unwanted gifts from family and friends. Instead, why not just enjoy the experience of being with people you care about?

I agree with the overall sentiment, though my take on it is slightly more materialistic. I do still enjoy giving and receiving gifts. So my suggestion is to give experiences rather than things.

Let's face it, there's a lot of clutter that comes with the holidays.

  1. Packaging: Most gifts come in lots of protection. There's the plastic cover or the cardboard box, plus the multitude of styrofoam to keep the item safe during shipping. Hopefully, the items will be recycled. But plenty of people don't bother with that sort of thing, which means landfills get bigger.
  2. Gift wrap: Just in case all that weren't enough, we add to the problem by wrapping everything up in decorative paper. Plus bows and ribbons. There's a bunch more clutter right there.
  3. Space: Whether or not the gift is any good, the fact is that it will take up space. (I have a hard time throwing away any gift. It's my overactive guilt complex. So even unwanted gifts stick around for 1-2 years, minimum.) As the items add up, clutter is inevitable.
  4. Disposal: As a result of the season, you'll probably dispose of some things. You might be making room for the new stuff, or you might be getting rid of the gifts you don't like. Either way, things are getting tossed. We can all hope these things are donated to charity, given away on Freecycle or sold on eBay/Craigslist. But the reality is that a lot of items will just be tossed in the trash. So, once again, landfills expand as a result of our consumerism.

So whether you give a good gift or not, there's a good chance it will create clutter. Still not convinced? Between Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day, Americans waste an extra 1,000,000 tons. Not just 1,000,000 tons in this 5-6 week span. No, an extra 1,000,000 tons. Horrified yet?

Oh, and for all of you who are smugly insisting that it's okay because you buy store gift cards? Well, most gift cards turn into physical things: clothes, electronics, home decor, jewelry. All things that may or may not get used, but all of which will probably get dumped rather than recycled.

Please don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that we should give up all normal presents. But how much of a difference would it make if, each year, we gave one or two presents that were experiences rather than things? I have absolutely no idea, but I'm betting the change would be considerable.

So what can you give? There are a lot of options:

  • Massages: A personal favorite of mine. Most spas are having a lot of specials right now, thanks to the economy. You can find excellent prices on massages and, if the price is still too high, consider going in with a second, and maybe third, person.
  • Spa services: Everyone likes to indulge from time to time, whether it's a facial, a manicure or some other grooming service. I'm a big fan of Salon Wish because it's so customizable. Gift certificates are good for any service (often, including massage) at any of the 4,000 participating salons nationwide. Potential discount: If you through Ebates, you get 6 percent cash back -- plus a $5 bonus if you're a new Ebates member.
  • Music: Concert tickets -- or a Ticketmaster gift card -- will give a singular experience. Get tickets or a season pass for the opera or symphony. (In a similar vein, play tickets are a great gift, too.) Or simply give the gift of downloads: iTunes. Potential free gift: Swagbucks offers $15 iTunes cards and $50 Ticketmaster cards.
  • Museums: Some places just beg for more than one visit. A museum, zoo, or aquarium pass will mean repeat entertainment, which is great if you know someone trying to live frugally. These places also tend to have special installations that change during the year, so the collection isn't the same time and time again.
  • Adventure: Know someone who likes the outdoors or trying new things? There are plenty of fun, adventurous programs out there: kayaking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, etc.
  • Movies: Almost everyone likes movies, but it's hard to justify the $10 tickets these days. A gift card will let the recipient see some films on the big screen -- or afford some popcorn. cards. Potential free gift: Coke Rewards offers AMC Theatre tickets (plus a free large soda). Regal Cinema gift cards are available through MyPoints -- or buy them through, using gift certificates from MyPoints and Swagbucks.
  • Dining: It's always wonderful to have someone cook for you. But, again, the expense can be a problem. So get restaurant gift cards. Potential free gift: Almost all rewards programs offer these. (For Swagbucks, you have to get GCs, then use those to buy restaurant gift cards.) But there is a non-rewards program way, too. Bring in a new or transferred prescription to Rite Aid or CVS (or some grocery stores) during special promotions, and you will receive a free gift card. These are usually for $10-25. Use that card to buy something from the gift card kiosk.
  • Rentals: Okay, well there's the obvious gift card to BlockBuster. But you can also buy gift subscriptions from Netflix or Blockbuster Online. You can buy 1 month or more, and give the gift of home entertainment. Don't forget that there are also video game rental services, such as GameFly. If you know someone with a disability -- especially one that causes fatigue -- this sort of thing can be a great way to avoid trips out and late fees.
  • Gaming: Have an Xbox 360 player on your list? You can buy gift cards for Xbox Live. These come in the form of points (which players use to buy special equipment or to download games) or a subscription, which lets players access online content and play with other Xbox Live users around the world. Potential free gift: Swagbucks offers Xbox Live points cards. MyPoints offers GameStop gift cards, and you can use that to buy points in the store. sells both Xbox Live points and subscriptions. Get Amazon GCs through MyPoints or Swagbucks.
  • Classes: I mainly think of things like yoga or aerobics. You can, of course, buy things like cooking classes (though I'd be careful of misinterpretations on that one) or language courses. Perhaps a creative writing class to help an aspiring author hone his or her craft. Don't forget that there are plenty of affordable classes at Joann Fabrics or Michael's. Tell the recipient to choose a class the two of you can attend, and the materials and class costs are on you!

None of these ideas will leave physical clutter behind. (Except, perhaps, your Joann class if you knit a scarf or sew a skirt.) But the lack of something tangible doesn't diminish the gift's value. It creates a memory (preferably, a good one) which will last a lot longer than some chotchke you picked up at a crafts fair. And there's no need to find room to store or display it.

Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list. Feel free to share your own ideas here!

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Saturday, November 28

Some new reasons to call it Black Friday

"Black Friday." It's a well-known phrase, and there are plenty of reasons for the name. If you haven't heard them, then you better check out the PF Blogosphere more carefully, because at least two bloggers covered the subject.

So, we know why it's called "Black Friday," but surely we can think of a few more fun explanations, can't we?

Black is:

  1. The sky, because it's not even 5 a.m. and sane people are still sleeping
  2. The color of the circles under your eyes from getting up so early
  3. The bruise on your wallet from your "Oh, but it's so cheap!" spending
  4. Your mood as you stand in line and move only incrementally.
  5. The color of the ink you'll be fingerprinted with. (You probably shouldn't have punched that lady over the last of the $170 netbooks.)

Kidding aside, most of us have a love/hate relationship with Black Friday. The deals are so enticing, but the lines and crowds make us wonder if it's worthwhile.

It was for me -- if only barely. At Wal-Mart, my line took over 90 minutes. (Later, we found out people had been letting their friends in line. And here I thought "cuts" ended in elementary school.)

Then again, I got an HP all-in-one printer for $25. I have missed having a scanner lately -- you use it for a surprising number of things, especially if you mystery shop -- but I didn't want to spend too much. I also picked up some Rubbermaid containers for $7. We don't have a lot of stuff to put the leftovers in.

We also got some good deals at GameStop. I wanted Tim to have a protective case for his PSP, and the store offered one in a travel kit for $9.99. It also comes with a car adapter, which is handy. There was a Dax and Jaxter game for $6.99 that I picked up, as well. Later, Tim used store credit to take advantage of the "Buy 2, Get 1 Free" sale on used games.

So, for $54, we came away with a printer/scanner/copier, 15 Rubbermaid containers, a travel kit with case, adapter, headphones, and 4 PSP games. To me, that's worth a little sleep deprivation and even a bit of claustrophobia as the crowds press in.

What about you guys? Did you make forays into the wilderness that is Black Friday?

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Friday, November 27

Freebie Friday

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Check out the site for local events, free samples and other stuff near and dear to our frugal hearts!

Free Slice of Pumpkin Pie at Bob Evans

Free Alouette Cheese after Rebate

Skin Wonders Skin Care Sample Pack

Free $10 Gift Cards

2010 Betty Crocker Calendar

Free Breakfast at Ikea

Amazon Free $3 Credit

Free Food at Whataburger

Shelburne Falls Coffee Free Sample

Free Renewable World Energy Magazine

Wednesday, November 25

Who actually gives a car as a gift?

Two more days, folks. That's all we get until it's officially the mad rush for Christmas/winter holiday shopping. Okay, let's be honest -- it's all pretty much geared toward Christmas.

I'm not the biggest fan of crass commercialism to begin with. But the severe onslaught of ads are nearly painful. We're all pummeled with the commercials touting the latest stuff we need. (Perhaps most annoying is that so much of it does seem cool -- or at least enchantingly shiny.)

Still, I save my true hatred for the ridiculous luxury commercials. You know the ones: A husband surprises his wife with some pricey jewelry (ie, $500-1,000... or maybe more) or a shiny new Lexus or Mercedes. (It's never a Hyundai or Kia. I guess if you're going to go big, you should at least get some leather seats -- with seat warmers -- for your trouble.)

The jewelry, I guess I understand. I still think that's a lot of dough to put on one present (and it's never the only present the woman gets, is it?) but assuming you keep the price reasonable, I suppose you could sock away enough money over time to "surprise" her. Although I wonder if most men don't just put it on a credit card, like a true American, and worry about paying for it later.

The thing is, once you're a couple, it's hard to buy big presents without letting your spouse know just how much you spent. And that can be a bad thing. Especially if your spouse is as uptight about money as I am. (Tim, stop nodding!)

Of course, I have always kind of wondered about gift-giving in serious relationships. If you are pooling most of your resources, how much is your partner or spouse actually "buying" you a gift? It seems like (s)he gets all the good credit for purchasing something, even though it was probably bought with funds from both people.

I know that's terribly unromantic. Perhaps I'm just too much of a control freak (Tim, you're nodding again) to really enjoy a large "surprise" gift. I can't really imagine being 100% delighted by the notion that hundreds of dollars of our money got spent by you, without my getting any input -- and that I'm supposed to be grateful for it.

That's why I have a particularly hard time understanding the ads where a car sits in the driveway with a big bow on it.

The inner nit-pick in me piles on the practical concerns:

  • How did it get there without her noticing?
  • Wouldn't she have heard it pull into the driveway?
  • Did the car company deliver it in the middle of the night?
  • How would they know when she's asleep and it's safe?
  • Does that mean the husband gets a walkie-talkie and gets to say things like "The bear is in hibernation" and "Roger" and "Over"?
  • And, most importantly, who ties that bow, and how does it stay so perfect overnight?

But those are questions probably best left for another day. For now, let's keep the focus on finance, where the real puzzle is how anyone ever manages to surprise a partner with such a big purchase.

Yes, I know some couples have separate accounts. But does anyone keep accounts so separate that they can afford a down payment for a car -- let alone the whole cost -- without arousing suspicion?

Let's face it: More couples have joint accounts than separate ones. I really have no idea how you'd sneak out more than a thousand or two without arousing suspicion. Heck, in most households, getting more than $200 could land you in a pretty big argument.

Another thing to consider? You're not really buying a car. You're buying debt, albeit in a very attractive form. (And most debt won't get 0 to 60 so quickly! Unless you're talking about a credit card's APR.)

So all that money you spent on your thoughtful gift? That was just an introduction to more spending. In all likelihood, you just bought yourself at least two years' worth of monthly payments. Plus your insurance will go up since you have a new car.

Oh, and let's not forget the leverage lost when the salesman finds out it's a gift. If you're buying something that important, you're probably sticking to one specific car type that your partner wants. That means the salesman knows you're unlikely to walk away.

It also means you'll be hard pressed to deny a lot of the extras. No one really wants to say, "Merry Christmas! Look how generous I am! Oh, but on-board GPS was extra so I told them not to bother."

So to sum up:

  1. You just took thousands of dollars away from our other goals.
  2. You spent money that we earned together.
  3. You didn't let me in on the bargaining process
  4. You didn't have many bargaining options, so you probably didn't get a great deal.
  5. You've increased our overall debt levels.
  6. And now we have to add monthly payments to our budget.

And you want to get credit for this as a good thing?

Has anyone ever even met a person who got a car as a present? Does this kind of thing really happen? And what's the biggest gift you ever got from a partner or spouse?

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Monday, November 23

Does anyone actually pay for checks?

A mere two and a half months after moving here, I finally remembered (with Tim's help) to order new checks. It was kind of a weird experience.

The process itself was quick. I was actually able to do it online. Best of all, Chase is honoring Washington Mutual's promise of free checks for life. So the new ones won't cost us a penny. Probably the only part of the move we can say that about!

That said, I got a chance to scroll through the different check designs -- because I do that sort of thing -- and was a little disconcerted by the choices. Some were cute. Some were cutesy. Some were just pointless. But all of them were over $15. In fact, most hovered between $20-26.

Then there were additional flourishes for $4 a box. The font could be changed to something softer and approximating calligraphy. The initial of your last name could be enlarged into a sort of monogram in front of your name. And one I hadn't seen before: A symbol or statement on the check that denoted a hobby or activity.

I understand wanting to express yourself. But aren't there better ways to do it than on your checks? If you took a design and a couple of the flourishes, you're looking at over $30. For a box of checks. How often do you actually write checks? Do people actually compliment your choice in check motifs?

Of course, I know there are ways to get these things cheaper. I seem to recall that Current had advertisements for more affordable checks. And at least every other week you can generally find an ad in one of the Sunday inserts. I don't remember how much they cost -- I want to say around $12? -- but I remember thinking they weren't all that bad.

Perhaps if I were already buying through one of those ads, I would throw a few more bucks in to get some Muppet checks (Tim would be maaaad) or a nice, rounded script. Who knows? Since Chase is everywhere, I plan on taking advantage of the free checking as long as I can.

Yeah, it dooms me to boring old checks, but I can find other ways to personalize my life... Especially if it means saving $20-40 at a time.

So what about you folks: Do you pay for checks? Do you get the little flourishes?


Sunday, November 22

Christmas shopping is DONE!

Yeah, that's right. I'm done.

Tim still needs to pick out something for his dad, which I may have input on. Then there's his mom's best friend and best friend's husband. They check in on her and try to help her out all the time. We want to get them something to tell them we appreciate everything they do. But Tim knows them better, so he'll probably be coming up with those gifts too.

So now all I have to do is sit back and try not to buy anything else for the holidays.

Perhaps easier said than done. There are plenty of pretty, glossy Black Friday ads for the ogling. (Although it helps to have already scoured most of them online, so I'm somewhat inured to the sales' siren song.) And there will be 999,999 sales between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. So temptation will be all around.

Still, my resolve is a lot less flexible this year. I think part of it is basic paranoia about our financial future. If (when) my job ends, things will get very, very lean. So, as much as I want to spend an extra $30 to get Tim this collectible -- and trust me, I hemmed and hawed and tried to rationalize for the better part of two weeks -- I just can't bring myself to go over budget this year. Which says a lot, with Black Friday looming. Plus, it's hard/dangerous to say no to Vader.

I'm not promising to stay in for all of Black Friday. There are a few things I would like to get for the house: an extra slow cooker, some food containers for leftovers, etc. And there are some $20-25 trees that look promising, some of which are even some are even not pre-lit.

But gift shopping for Tim? Done! Mom? Done! All that's left is getting the ingredients (and energy) for Christmas cookies. I'm a big fan of cookies as gifts. Beyond the obvious affordability issue, there's less pressure when you give cookies. If you get someone a gift, if he didn't get you one, there is a mad rush of guilt and apologies and generally awkward feelings. But most people can take cookies without any guilt, except about their waistline.

On that subject... Many of you probably have friends who are bound and determined to lose weight. This is especially hard during the holidays, which leads to the ultimate in frugal gifts: the gift of nothing.

Seriously. One year two friends, who were also roommates, were really serious about losing weight. So I told them that my gift that year was NOT giving them Christmas cookies. They actually thanked me!

I suppose, in that situation, the reply, "Oh but I didn't get you anything!" takes on a positive meaning.

So what are your gifting plans? What's your budget? Are you using rewards programs to help finance this holiday season? How many more gifts do you need to get? (And how many more will you actually get?)


Saturday, November 21

Does frugal mean sneaky?

Sometimes it seems to me like most things associated with frugality are, well, sneaky. Sure, sure, there are the basic coupon combos. And, if you're diligent (and patient) you can actually make money off certain offers with the help of rebates. Which is, depending on your point of view, kind of sneaky -- but in the sense that we say such a word proudly.

It seems, though, like the really good deals -- the impressive ones -- come about not just through hard work, but also through some amount of questionable practice.

I'm not talking about huge sins. More like small gray areas. And I'm not necessarily interested in debating the ethics of a situation. There are plenty of frugal folks to voice opinions on morality of taking salt packets from McDonald's -- or how many ketchups before it's stealing.

But there is an element of sneakiness that skirts the border of ethics. Some would call it being smart, keeping your eyes open. Others would say it's just sneaky -- in the bad sense. That it's... not cheating, exactly. But not fair play either.

I think most of us skirt the rules more often than we realize. Those grocery deals that have limits, have you gone back several times to take full advantage of the sale? The circular has a limit, but most stores don't specify if it's per trip or per household. So if we ferry bags back to the car, then head right back into the store, are we being smart? Or sneaky? Or both?

I say both. It's a little sneaky. Obviously, the store would prefer if you just got the maximum number of products once per sale. But it's also smart, because we know the stores don't bother to close the loopholes. So, for some of us, that's all the permission we need.

After all, it would be an easy situation to remedy. Stores just need to add a couple of words, and then the rules are more clear. No ambiguity. Heck, they could go a step further and really avoid the problem by configuring the loyalty cards to automatically stop applying the sales price after a certain number of weekly sales items had been purchased.

They don't, though. Probably because they make enough money on the rest of the customers that they don't need to risk alienating their die-hard frugal clientele.

But the stores' nonchalance doesn't mean we're automatically acting ethically. After all, shoplifting could be stopped 100 percent. It would just require that stores hire enough employees to follow customers around and watch them like hawks.

However, that would vastly increase payroll costs, not to mention driving away customers in droves. So companies accept that some shoplifting is part of the retail business. Still, that hardly makes it ethical.

In the end, most frugal people exploit the letter of the rules, rather than the spirit. We check coupons and sales for all the fine print. Then we scour that fine print carefully, to find any loopholes we can exploit. I think most of us are big on the phrase, "But it doesn't say that I can't."

Currently, Tim is happily exploiting Game Stop's return policy. When you buy a used title, you have up to a week to return it for full store credit. Tomorrow, he'll be getting a fifth title. Three were returned for valid complaints. But he plans on returning the current title, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, getting another game for a week, then getting Ultimate Alliance again, so he can finish it up. (He checked at the store, and it's not against the rules.)

Who knows how long he'll keep this up? It seems a little morally questionable to me, but it also appeals to my crafty frugal side. It does, after all, make the most of our money. (Especially considering this is all from a credit we got selling the old Xbox 360.)

So, that brings me back to the question: Are these attitudes sneaky or smart? And do you need to be a bit sneaky to get the best frugal deals?

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Friday, November 20

Freebie Friday

Sorry for the silence yesterday and for the late posting today. I had some trouble with my Internet connection and am only now back in the online fold.

Freebie Friday is brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Visit the site daily for free events, samples and plenty more goodies!

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$15 off $15 at The Limited

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Printable Thanksgiving Road Trip Activity Book

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Free "Things To Be Thankful For" Thanksgiving Recipe eBook

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Free Chocolate Cake at Romano's Macaroni Grill

Black Friday Freebies

Wednesday, November 18

Citibank is out of touch

I've been seeing some critiques of credit cards. Once people had to (gasp) pay off all those balances they racked up, they couldn't complain enough about those meanie creditors who lent them way more than was responsible.

To be fair, card companies have some pretty evil practices. I just think it's amusing that, around three years ago, most folks considered their plastic a part of the family.

But recently I read a pretty awful account of Citibank's maneuvering that kind of shocked me.

I should start by admitting my somewhat illogical soft spot for the company. It gave me my first card, which I still have 13 years later.of Citibank around. Tim and I are also enjoying a 4% interest rate while we pay down a balance transfer; but I freely admit that my Citibank loyalty has more to do with a long-time relationship than a current special deal.

I read a post by one blogger who was basically being blackmailed by Citi. (I can't remember which blogger, unfortunately, so feel free to help me out in the comments if you know.) So I found an article on The Consumerist that summarizes the scenario: If you don't do a balance transfer of $5,000 or more (with a 3% transfer fee, of course), the APR you're paying will double.

I really started wondering what in the hell Citibank was thinking. It made me feel a little queasy about my relationship with the company. And I had just about forgotten that scummy little tidbit, when I opened my inbox this morning and was reminded that Citibank has completely lost its (business) mind.

Let me be clear: I didn't get a threat, thank goodness. No, what I got was (supposed to be) an enticement:

Dear Abigail Perry,

As a valued Citi® cardmember, you are invited to open a Citibank® Ultimate Savings Account and get $25 from Citibank, our retail banking affiliate.

A Citibank® Ultimate Savings Account is a great way to save. It features a competitive rate of 1.15% APY2, no monthly fee3 and is FDIC-insured up to $250,000.4

How to get your $25:
1. Open a new Ultimate Savings Account and deposit a minimum of $1,000 by 12/31/09.
2. Maintain a minimum balance of $1,000 for 3 consecutive months.
3. Get $25.
Start saving today!

Wow! A whole $25 just for little ole me?!

And to think that silly old Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America and a few other institutions were out there offering the same kind of deal for boring old checking accounts! How are you supposed to lock in a fabulous rate like 1.1% if you're putting your money in some no-interest checking account?

This offer from Citibank is clearly a vote of confidence in me.

Those other banks, they just asked for $100. Sure, a couple wanted me to do some direct deposits, but the amount didn't matter. And for that, they'd pay me $100. What an insult!

Clearly, those other guys didn't think I was capable of more than that. Citibank, on the other hand, feels certain that I can come up with $1,000 and keep it in there for 3 months, even though I owe the company about $6,000 on a credit card right now.

Citi clearly believes in its customers. Of course, that belief is that we have no eyes to read all the far more attractive offers that come through the regular mail. But still, isn't it great to know that your credit card company has faith in you? Or at least your stupidity?


Tuesday, November 17

Potatoes by mail and other randomness

Yeah, that's right: We got potatoes in the mail. They're from Betty Crocker.

These aren't you basic free potatoes, either. This is a whole friggin' box of Roasted Garlic Betty Crocker potatoes-- 2 pouches, 4 servings each -- such as you would buy in the grocery store. I know this because last Tuesday we actually did buy these kinds of potatoes.

In other happy news, I officially have a doctor in the city again. Less than two miles from our front door, no less! This is especially spiffy because my Seattle ARNP has yet to call in that refill for my Wellbutrin that Walgreen's contacted her about... over a week ago. Yeah, my serotonin levels are all over the map this past month or so, as her refilling speed has decreased exponentially.

But seeing a new doc also meant I'm now trying Adderall for my energy meds. If this works out, we'll be saving about $70 a month over the Provigil. That would be fabulous!

Unfortunately, not everyone's Monday was quite so happy -- and I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who got postal potatoes:

Blogging Away Debt had a case of the Mondays. Usually I boo anyone using such a phrase, but her Monday is such that she gets a pass.

Wealth Pilgrim won my heart by not only equating finances and food (a metaphor near and dear to my own heart) but by extrapolating some unique rules from it. '

Frugal Dad is dealing with the loss of a parent and takes some time to reflect on a subject I dwell on all too often: The Real Costs of Depression.

Budgets are Sexy asks readers for their input: One woman's grandfather bought her a replacement for a now-dead car; but it's way more than she wanted to spend, and she doesn't want to owe him. (Lots of people weigh in. I, being my therapy-ized self, think she needs to stop asking all of us how she should feel and ask herself why she feels the way she does. I say it better in the comments, trust me.)

But I want to hear what you buys think about this gal and her new (to her) car. What would you tell her?

Monday, November 16

The American way: Spend your way to savings

Okay, I have accepted that not everyone can be perfectly frugal. (I certainly can't.) I get that the average American isn't going to be as successful at pinching pennies as the average personal finance blogger. It's unrealistic to expect that kind of thing.

But then I see something like the little blip on CBS News called Money Talks, where Kelli Grant from talks about small ways to save. And, boy, were they small.

Grant offers tidbits like:

  • Use bookstore loyalty programs. For example, Barnes & Noble's free membership can save up to 30% on books.
  • Itunes isn't the only game in town. Programs like DownloadShopper can help you find the cheapest site to get a digital song.
  • Veni, venti, Visa. Get a Starbucks credit card and get 3% cash back when you reload your Starbucks reward account. (One percent on other purchases.) Plus you get free syrup/milk options and free refills on brewed coffee.

It's taking all of my self-control not to rant for an entire post about the idea of saving money by getting a credit card at Starbucks. Also, look... I'm not a coffee drinker so I'm clueless, I accept that. But why would free refills on brewed coffee be an attractive way to save money? Isn't that still more expensive than buying Starbucks beans and brewing from home?

And the books thing: Exactly how many new hardbacks will you be buying while working your way out of debt? I'm just curious. Call me old-fashioned, but I do this weird thing: I go to a government building and rent books for free. But, hey, if you dislike enjoying the fruits of taxpayer money, there are also stores that sell used books. (Think of them as certified pre-owned.)

Just out of curiosity, though, I checkout Barnes & Noble's membership. It claims to give 40% off hardcover bestsellers, 20% off adult hardcovers, and 10% on "almost everything else" (emphasis added) for a mere $25 a year. In looking around the website, though, I noticed the books all seemed to have a cheap, "online" price. The hardback bestsellers I saw were generally discounted about 30% from the list price. The members' prices were generally discounted another 10% or so, which I'm guessing is where you get that 40% savings mentioned on the membership page. In case you haven't done the math by now, that means you would need to spend about $250 on books in order to make up that initial $25 membership fee.

Let me point out here, I agree with the basic premise of the piece, which was called Saving on Life's Little Luxuries. (The actual Smart Money article is called Splurging on a Budget; You can Do It.) I think it's smart to remind people that frugality doesn't mean complete deprivation. Nor does it mean immediate and total immersion into money-saving mode. It's something that does need to be approached in small increments.

And it's not like I expect these kind of basic pieces to cover new ground for people like us. The average reader of these things isn't the average reader of PF blogs. So I try to keep my temper -- and keep from rolling my eyes too much -- when listening to these snippets of advice. What may seem banal or trite to many of us could easily be helpful to a neophyte.

Even with all that, this piece disappointed me. More than that, really. It pissed me off.

What bugs me isn't the obvious stuff that Grant left out -- and she left out plenty. Like that you could just listen to the radio and wait to buy music until your money situation is better. (Certainly you wouldn't want to break the law by using sites like Lime Wire. That would be wrong... cough, cough.) Or that you can do most manicure/pedicare/waxing stuff at home. Failing that, perhaps you could just try a beauty school, where the cost is often quite small for such indulgences.

No, it's not all the information was was MIA. That part is actually understandable: Articles have character or word counts. Even more importantly, Grant was probably told what tone to take, which is to say, what kind of audience to write for.

And that, actually is my problem: Her audience. Grant is writing about frugality for people who honestly believe they shouldn't have to do any of the hard work implicit in frugal living. She's essentially writing an article about avoiding sacrifice, but she's gearing the whole piece toward people who want to give up so little that they might as well just be waiting for their fairy godmothers to show up and wave a wand.

Look, I get it. No one wants to cut out the fun stuff. And I agree with some points in the article that remind us not to go cold turkey. I think it's a mistake to cut out every single unnecessary expense, unless that's the only way you can avoid bankruptcy/homelessness/going without food. In that vein, you'll never find me trying to get between the average person and his coffee. It's like getting between a bear and its cub -- except you don't have the safety of being able to play dead!

But there is a line that shouldn't be crossed, when it comes to articles about budgeting. I believe this one crosses it. Grant's piece flies clear past that boundary when it suggests that, when you're cash-strapped -- it's still okay to buy enough books to need a paid membership. Or that it's financially prudent to acquire another credit card in order to save money on specialty coffee.

This piece and others like it are part of an irritating new wave of frugality articles. They are hell-bent on assuring this nation that little to no sacrifice is required to save money, that you can change your life without making any major life changes.

Of course, part of the problem is there is a huge audience for this kind of writing. We want to believe it because it's a lot more palatable than the truth. Heck, we've wanted to hear this stuff all along. That's why get-rich-quick schemes worked -- at least, for the person who sold you the secrets.

Americans got this deep into financial trouble because they wanted to believe -- and so people were happy to be paid to tell them -- that they could have everything. Money didn't require work, and that conspicuous consumption was cool -- and the funds to pay it all would show up down the road. The major theme of it all is simple: No hard work or hard choices are necessary to get things to go your way.

So now most Americans consider the concept of a budget to be completely foreign. And they're still waiting for that old message to kick back in. They're still hoping someone will tell them that things will get better without much effort or sacrifice on their part. Which is pretty much what these sorts of articles feed into.

It's a perfect niche for articles like Grant's. Sure, the piece could tell Americans the cold, hard truth: Getting back to a good financial base will be hard work and will probably require some sacrifices. But where's the market for that? It's a lot easier to pretty up the facts. Heck, Grant's article manages to imply that, not only can you keep spending and acquiring, you can do it and consider yourself budget conscious!

Look, I understand -- and agree with -- the idea that people shouldn't tackle frugality all at once. But can we please differentiate that from what's going on in this article? There's the advice to gradually immerse yourself into a frugal life for a sustainable change to a budget-conscious, financially intelligent lifestyle. On the other hand, there's this article, which tells people that they can keep spending on things they don't really need, with no obvious end to the behavior. It's irresponsible.

You don't give someone a gastric bypass and then tell him that the occasional milkshake will be okay. First, you get him used to the idea of parceling out food in small amounts and eating more healthy items. Then you discuss, further down the road, small ways to indulge once in awhile. Even then, he'll mostly be satisfying his sweet tooth with fruit. He needs a complete overhaul in how and what he eats.

Americans aren't much different. We're in a situation, now, where we've proven we can't stick to diets and other, less drastic alternatives. So now we're considering the big stuff -- and that can't (nor should it) be simple. It has to be supplemented with major life changes.

We need to relearn how to consume in a sensible, sustainable manner. What we don't need is a a so-called expert telling us that, after the operation, we'll be able to have whatever we want. It sounds great; I'm sure we all would love to hear it.

Instead, we need to hear the truth. And that is that we've lost sight of what is healthy for us, what is smart for our long-term future. Until we're ready to hear that, no real change can be made.

Saturday, November 14

When did you learn the value of money?

FruGal has a post up about learning the value of money. She remembers how hard it was when she, at age 19, scrimped and saved all by herself for a backpacking trip, no help from her parents. All the toil was worth it, she says, when she finally started out on her trip. And there was the exhilarating feeling that she had worked hard and earned the trip, all on her own.

Alas, I have no cool vacation story to relate here, but it did get me thinking about how much I owe my mom for teaching me the value of money.

One of the best lessons happened accidentally. When my mom set up my bank account in Alaska, she somehow walked away with an account in trust. The upshot of this was that I couldn't touch a single cent without one of my parents there to okay the transaction. I couldn't cash my paychecks, I couldn't even get money back from a deposit.

I never thought much about it, until I started working at the movie theater. Many of my coworkers routinely bought their meals, while I usually brown-bagged it. Their meals generally cost $5-7, which may not sound like a lot, but most of us made $5.50-6.50 an hour. It wasn't uncommon for some of them to buy a CD or two a week. Even at age 16, I thought it was weird that they treated their hard-earned money so casually.

I guess it's because I had been taught to save from early on. Half of all holiday and birthday money went in the bank. Later, when I began babysitting, the same rule applied. Maybe it sounds strange, but I have to say it worked for us. Of course, there were times -- lots of times -- when I would have loved to have the whole amount. But I understood there was a long-term goal of college, and that we'd have to save a lot for me to afford it.

There were two main reasons, I think, why this whole thing worked. First, I was a complete goody two shoes. It really never would have crossed my mind to demand something else. (I say if you're gonna indoctrinate them, do it young.) Second, I was always part of the process. My mom took me to the bank to deposit my funds. She had me fill out the deposit slip myself, and she often showed me the deposit slip and the ever-growing number.

So I didn't care much that I lived on $20 every two weeks. My parents saw to my needs, and that money was for whatever I wanted. Sometimes it was a slice of pizza or some fries from the school cafeteria. Sometimes it was a movie out with friends. A lot of the time, I was saving for something, like a dress I had my eye on.

I suppose I had a pretty unique situation. Plenty of my friends had bank accounts and were saving for college, too. But I probably had the strictest set-up. Even at the time, though, I appreciated it.

I didn't understand the parents who let their kids spend all the money they made. In Alaska, especially, that can mean some serious moolah. See, Alaska residents get the Permanent Fund Dividend, a share of oil revenues each year. The first ones I can remember were around $500. By the time I got my last one, it was up over $1,000 a year.

Some families used everyone's check to finance a vacation to Hawaii or Disneyland or some other exciting place. Car dealers offered to "double your dividend" as a down payment. And some families just let their kids run wild. What, I ask you, does an 10-year-old kid need with $500? Because I knew a kid whose parents routinely let him spend. I think that particular year, he got a synthesizer.

I, on the other hand, got to keep $40 and was thrilled by the extra funds. That sounds kind of pathetic in retrospect, I suppose. Then again I graduated high school with over $30,000 in the bank.

Of course, there was a lot of hard work that went into that money. Junior and senior year, I worked 20-25 hours a week at the movie theater. That was in addition to participating in 3 plays a year (about two months of work went into each) and doing a competitive form of drama/speaking that had meets throughout most of the school year. Oh, and I had 3 AP classes each year. (I still managed to graduate having received a B only twice. Remember, I was a goody two shoes.)

In my senior year, I got offered a temp job making $10 an hour -- nearly twice minimum wage -- and so I added that to my roster, two or three days a week for about three months. In hindsight, it was way too much. I actually began to show signs of the strain, between lack of sleep and basic exhaustion from homework, after-school participation, and regular work.

But my point is that I understood the value of saving, and I knew that I needed to be serious about making money in order to avoid too much college debt. I even turned down my dream school, Cornell, which I got into early acceptance. In that fun twist of fate, my bank account hurt my financial aid chances. While I loved that school, I simply couldn't face graduating $100,000+ in debt. (It also seemed likely I'd go to graduate school, so it made sense to go to a more affordable university now, and save the big expense for the last bit of education I'd do.)

I don't regret that decision one bit. I got a great education at the University of Washington, especially through its fabulous honors program. I spoke to someone at Cornell a couple of years later, and from what she told me, I probably made the best choice. The work and stress were hard on even the smartest students. Given how much adjustment college was, including being homesick, I think I would have really struggled there.

I also shudder to think how I would have coped with getting $100,000 into debt, only to be disabled. I probably could have gotten the debt canceled, but it took me years to accept that I had a severe disability. In the meantime, I would ruined my credit score with my inability to make the payments.

Perhaps most importantly, choosing not to go to Cornell probably saved my life.

When I got sick in Seattle, I had my aunt and uncle for support. I stayed at their house, which quickly let me realize how helpless and weakened I was getting. (At night, each time I thought I was going to be sick, I had to crawl the 10 feet to the bathroom. It got harder and harder to do even that.)

If I had been in a dorm, I would have put a trash can by the bed and tried not to move.

Really, I only begged to go back to the doctor because my uncle was leaving for work. I was hit with a realization that, if I could barely get to the toilet, I couldn't even make it to the fridge -- let alone open it -- if I needed food. And could I get up enough to reach the phone if I needed help?

In a dorm, though, there's always someone around. I probably would have just kept waiting to get better. Right up until I went into respiratory failure later that day.

I didn't even notice that my breathing was getting weaker. Probably, I compensated with more short breaths. All I know is that, suddenly, I understood what it was to be a fish out of water. I kept gasping and trying to draw in breath. But it wasn't enough. I was drowning without a single drop of water around.

If I had been in Ithaca, I would have panicked. The student medical center would have been closed -- it was evening at that point -- and so I'd have had to dial 911. If I were lucky, there would be someone there to communicate for me. Even so, how long do ambulances take? Maybe 10 minutes in a perfect world? There is no way I could have remained conscious for more than 5 minutes. I doubt even that long.

But no ambulance was necessary, because I was in a Seattle ER. They had been monitoring my vital signs since I came in. I was actually on my way to be entubated when my lungs finally gave out.

That all happened because I refused to get a bachelor's at the cost of $100,000 of debt. I made that decision because I understood money in a rational sense. I was taught to deal with money as something that can be made to stretch, something that shouldn't be spent as soon as it's in hand. My mom instilled in me an understanding of the value of money.

And that, if you'll pardon the pun, is priceless.

When or how did you learn the value of money? How does it compare with the rest of your family? Your friends?

Friday, November 13

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Thursday, November 12

Using a freebie: Get what you need or what you want?

We all love freebies. They make our little frugal hearts beat a little faster. At least, that's the effect they have on me.

But not all free stuff is equal. Most of us would work a lot harder to get a free shirt of our choosing than we would for some random promotional t-shirt. Similarly, sometimes you can choose what it is you get for free. That's when the real quandary can present itself: What's the best use of a freebie?

Here's a good example -- and one that I have yet to decide:

I saw an ad offering first-time customers a free waxing service. At first, I thought it would be a great way to save money. My eyebrows need doing, and this will keep me from spending money on it. Seems perfect, right?

Except that, at a beauty school, that service will only be $8. Don't get me wrong: Saving any money is always great. But I feel like you should make the most of this kind of open-ended freebie. To me, that means a service over $10.

Leg waxing, for example, isn't cheap -- even at beauty schools. Knees-down is $25. And there are always more -- ahem -- private areas of the body that can be depilated. That kind of thing is never cheap, at least by my standards.

By the way, yes, I realize that this is an utterly shallow, immaterial situation. Nevertheless, it highlights the personal finance question of how to make the best use of freebies.

When considering the question, you have one of two options: You can get what you need -- thereby saving money on expenses -- or you can get what you want -- letting you indulge yourself without spending.

The first option is a classic example of saving money. You are lowering your expenses, which frees up money to go against debt or into savings. For example, if I use my rewards points to get a grocery store gift card, I'm lowering the amount I usually spend on food. At the end of the week or month, there will be a small surplus that I can use to better my financial situation.

The second option is frugal, but not in such a straightforward way. It's frugal, because you're going out or getting something without spending money. But that does not mean you're actually saving money. Perhaps I use that grocery gift card to buy an expensive treat for myself. This means I won't have a surplus at the end of the week/month. Still, I haven't exceeded my budget, either.

Or I could skip the grocery store altogether. Instead, I could choose a restaurant or department store gift card. Again, I get something without spending money, but I don't have extra money lying around at the end of the transaction, either.

Even so, getting what you want can be better than what you need. If you live very carefully, avoiding spending on unnecessary things, you can start to feel deprived. This can lead to spending sprees, if you get to a point where you just can't take it anymore. By getting a few indulgences for free, you can feel less deprived and are, therefore, less likely to become the financial equivalent of "stir crazy." Sometimes that saves more money than avoiding a direct expense.

So what should we choose?

For the most part, I use freebies to keep us from feeling deprived. This can be integral when you're married to a spender -- even a reformed one. There are a lot of ways to indulge frugally. Sometimes I mystery shop to allow us a meal out; I save up rewards to allow for nicer holiday gifts; I try to find specials and promotions for the occasional night out at a bar; Coke Rewards means free movie tickets. There are a plethora of ways to work in frugal fun, but the point is that some indulgence here and there can keep you on the straight and narrow the rest of the time. (Or, at least, the majority of the time -- we are human, after all.)

But there are times when you have to bite the bullet and apply freebies to a direct expense. I need some new bras, so I cashed in some rewards to get Macy's gift cards. They will be boring and utilitarian, but they'll also be free. Given our relatively short time frame to make a dent in our debt, it's the best use of that freebie right now.

Similarly, Tim's Body Shop products are so expensive that the rewards program primarily helps us stretch our dollar. The $15- and $25 rewards mean an extra product for free. That can be huge -- especially back in Washington, when Tim was going through a $20 jar of body butter in a week or less.

I suppose this mixed-use of freebies is a viable third option. Many rewards programs offer gift cards with several possible applications. or Wal-Mart cards, for example, can buy gifts, household necessities, groceries or some personal indulgence. And more programs are offering Visa gift cards, which allow for all sorts of purchases -- necessities or luxuries.

No matter what, it's important not to lose sight of a few key facts:

  • A freebie is only free if you avoid spending money. Sound simple? It's not. Getting a free haircut is great -- unless you get talked into a $70 color. A $25 gift card to Nordstrom's means you'll almost certainly walk out poorer. (Unless you stick to one or two makeup items, or find a really fabulous sale on some shoes.)
  • Your priorities aren't necessarily other people's. Maybe you use that Safeway gift card for groceries, but your neighbor might use that same card to get a different gift card. (Love those ubiquitous GC stands in stores these days!) So long as she's not skipping meals for lack of groceries, she is perfectly justified in having different priorities than you.
  • If it's free, you already won. You got something for nothing. C'mon, how great is that?! Pretty great. So try to enjoy your freebie, no matter how you end up applying it. So long as you use it to enjoy life a little more -- decreasing stress by decreasing expenses or getting to indulge yourself without spending a dime -- then you've used it correctly.

When you get to choose, do you use freebies for things you need or for things you want? Why does that work best for you?

And --
far more importantly -- do you have an answer for my waxing conundrum?!

(Okay, you don't actually have to answer that last bit. I just wanted an excuse to use the words "waxing conundrum.")

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Monday, November 9

It's the new math!

According to Tim, we got a free Xbox 360 this weekend. Did we actually? Not even close.

Our old console had been making some rather ominous sounds lately. It made quite a racket when it ran, but we had gotten used to that. The last week or two, though, it had had trouble starting up. We would get an error message 2 or 3 times before it would turn on normally.

So when Wal-Mart released its Saturday deals, I was thrilled to see a special on Xbox 360s. If you bought the Arcade version for the regular price ($199), you would receive a $100 Wal-Mart gift card. You can use those gift cards at Sam's Club, where we shop relatively regularly, so it was basically a $100 discount on the system. So we're down to a $99 purchase.

Later that day, we went over to Game Stop and asked about trading in the old console. We could get $100 in store credit or $56 cash. Tim was shocked that I was even considering the cash. To him, a $100 credit for non-necessities was twice as valuable as $56 in cash to replenish our account.

In fact, in Tim's mind, the store credit made the console free. I think he learned a different kind of math than I did.

But I know this is the kind of math the stores want you to buy into. It's the reason Walgreen's insists that, if you get $5 in Register Rewards toward your next purchase, it's like that $10 item only cost $5. But it didn't. The next thing you buy will cost $5 less. In the meantime, you're still down the purchase price -- the whole $10.

It's only going to get worse as the holiday season nears. One of the newest fads, it seems, is for stores to have specials by giving you gift cards rather than actual money off. It's pretty brilliant, from a marketing standpoint. Your customers believe they're paying less; they have to come back in to spend the gift card; and they will probably treat it as free money -- despite having treated it as a discount -- and use it to splurge on something.

This all stems from the same twisted logic that grocery stores use when they tell you how much money you saved on your purchases. Most of our grocery purchases are based on what items are on sale. So if I buy them for 50 cents, I'm not really saving $3.50. I've spent 50 cents because it was a nice, cheap treat for Tim. I haven't saved anything. I refuse to think of it any other way. Rationalizations are just too easy to get caught up in.

What marketing ploys/rationalizations irritate you?

Friday, November 6

How much is appropriate?

It seems that I'm not the only one in the blogosphere thinking way too much about the holiday season already. I've already read several posts -- yes, I am FINALLY caught up on the blogroll that accrued in my absence, thankyouverymuch! -- about holiday preparations, making lists, checking them twice... You get the idea.

But Stacking Pennies asked a question that I've secretly wondered for ages: How much do you spend on a gift?

Okay, there are plenty of you who are smart and non-materialistic and don't do the gift thing. I'm impressed and part of me wishes I could be so blase about it. Unfortunately, when I think of all those presents wrapped up, I slightly morph toward a Gollum-esque state. ("My precioussssssss.")

So, for all of us who are not quite above-it-all and do the whole gift thing: What is okay? How much does it depend on your finances? After all, Tim and I are in debt and trying to sock away money. But we are exchanging gifts this year. I'm sure some will tsk-tsk, but this is something I'm willing to make an exception about in our new, stricter budget.

Of course, it helps that rewards programs are paying for all of Tim's birthday/Christmas presents -- except for a couple of small ones I found at garage sales and on Craiglist, for a total of $40. Meanwhile, Tim can spend $150 on me, and we've agreed to $10 per parent. Amazingly, we've already found two great gifts for a total of $11.30. Sometimes fate smiles on you, I guess.

I am sure that $200 could be put to better use on our debt, but, to us, this is an important, fun ritual. We really don't do gifts much at any other time in the year. For our anniversary, we had a nice dinner out. By my birthday, we were completely engrossed in the particulars of the move, plus money was too tight to really get anything. Instead, we enjoyed some birthday freebies -- Red Robin and Cold Stone -- and went to see a movie with some free tickets from Coke Rewards.

If we were in better financial situations, I would probably still be using rewards to buy presents, because it's always fun to get a terrific gift for free. But I would probably increase the spending a bit more, since Tim shops more by inspiration than price. And our parents would probably go as high as $50. We still aren't really on speaking terms with his brother, even though the pregnancy turned out to be completely imaginary. I'd probably get a little something for my cousin and her two boys, and maybe a small gift for my aunt. That, sadly, I would consider living large.

What about you guys? Where would you draw the line -- if you were in deep debt, getting close to the finish line of being debt free, or were completely free and clear? I'm interested to see how the limits vary for people.

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Thursday, November 5

Sometimes it's just dumb luck

I work hard at being frugal whenever possible. With some vigilance and careful planning, it's possible to save a lot of money. It's not easy, and most of us work hard to live a thrifty life.

Sometimes, though, you just luck into things.

Tuesday was one of those days. Body butter was on sale at The Body Shop. While Tim may be going through less of it down here, I know we'll need it eventually. So I planned to get a few extra while they were cheaper.

The first bit of luck was that Ebates is currently doubling its cash back at certain stores. The Body Shop was one of them. So, instead of 5 percent, we were getting 10 percent back on purchases made through the site. I am a simple creature, and just that bit of luck was enough to make me happy, but there was more to come.

Through the store's reward system, we were due $25 off any one item. Usually, we use it to get extra body butters. This time, though, Tim and I had agreed that I could get something for myself. I had run out of a lotion that really made my skin feel better but, at $22 a bottle, would not make my wallet feel even remotely well. Using the reward, though, I got the lotion for free. Free makes me happy.

I added enough body butters to get the order up to $60 -- the minimum amount for free shipping -- and put the order through. I then went to make a second order (like I said, I like to stock up while the sales are on) and noticed something very strange.

The site was still claiming I had a $25 reward coming to me. So I made the new order. Sure enough, $25 was taken off. So I took the opportunity to get one other item I had run out of and, of course, some more body butters. The order went through without a hitch.

Curious, I went back to the home page and, wouldn't you know it, the website still claimed I was due a $25 reward. I made a total of four orders, each one giving us a $25 reward. Honestly, I would have kept going, but our finances couldn't really handle more than that.

In the end, it was quite the coup:

  • 2 lotions I couldn't otherwise have afforded -- one free, one for $1
  • An exfoliator delicate enough for Tim's skin
  • A night cream I want Tim to try
  • Some facial buffers (Tim's skin builds up easily and then gets itchy)
  • A Christmas gift for $6.30 (retail $32)
  • And 16 body butters

The partridge and a pear tree was extra.

At their normal rates, the body butters alone would have cost $288. I'd get 5 percent back ($14.40) through Ebates. This time, though, all four orders came to $283.25, and I get 10 percent back ($28.33).

I was half expecting an email from the store, saying there had been a mistake and that I would have to put the orders through again. But the confirmation arrived in my inbox the next day, and today I got confirmation of the products having shipped.

Sometimes things just fall into place for you. You don't even have to be particularly frugal. But those of us living a thrifty life know to take as full advantage as is possible. And then go brag to frugal friends. It's what we do.

What about you? When did you just fall into some great savings? Did you take full advantage or do you wish you'd gotten more?

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Tuesday, November 3

The most dangerous time of the year

We're not even all that close to Thanksgiving yet, but I'm already worried about Christmas. This culture makes me sad sometimes.

That said, I have reasons to be thinking about this stuff.

My mom needs plenty of time, since she tends to cash in rewards points for gifts. Those can take 2-4 weeks on average, so the earlier the better. Tim, on the other hand, has decided to get all his shopping done early. As in, he's almost done. We just have to find something for his dad.

I suppose I should be grateful that he didn't wait until the last minute to do this stuff. But he "finished" shopping for me the day I finally sat down and made a list of things I would like. I even used Kaboodle so that I could email a copy to him and my mom, to give them some ideas.

I was aggravated, since I had repeatedly told him the past couple of days not to buy everything, because I was going to be making up a list soon. (In his defense, my "soon" is never something you want to rely on.)

I think the overall problem here is that, to make the list, I had to let the monster out of the box. The monster, in this case, being a nasty case of the Wants.

Most of the time, the Wants are completely happy in this box in the back of my mind. They stay out of my way, by and large, while I'm trying to be frugal. Every so often, though, the Wants break out. Instead of walking by, I stop and look at things I know I can't afford. I'll take a good, long look. I'll remind myself I can't afford it, but I'll still imagine how happy I'd be to have it.

It's about this time that I realize what's happening and shoo the Wants back to their domain. This is usually best accomplished by looking at the price tag. They seem particularly afraid of big numbers and will go scurrying back from whence they came.

Once the Wants are firmly hidden away, I can snap out of my trance and realize that the purchase isn't worth it. There's the inevitable guilt that you bought something rather than throwing your money at debt. And let's not forget how fleeting purchase-induced happiness can be. It's a rush, sure, but it leaves just as quickly as it came on.

Of course, I'm not claiming to be perfect. Sometimes the Wants overrun my good sense. Or they make an argument that sounds logical enough that I agree -- mainly because I want to be talked into it. But, for the most part, I'm pretty good at reining in those impulses.

All that is great, right up until my birthday and Christmas. Those times, I have trouble because I have to undo all my hard work. I am supposed to take time to dwell on what it is I would like, rather than trying to be happy with what I have. (Yes, I know some of you will take this opportunity to point out I could ask for charitable donations in my name rather than things. I'm afraid I'm not that selfless. I like getting presents. Shallow, but there it is.)

So, inevitably, when someone asks what I want, I come up blank. When you spend all year trying to avoid temptation, it's hard to change that in an instant. Frugality is mainly about making only necessary purchases. Whenever possible, you find it secondhand or you try to make do without it. And you definitely don't dwell on what you don't have. At least, not on a regular basis.

With all that on our plate, how do we answer the question of what we want? Really, the main way is to let the Wants out of the box. All those things you've been training yourself to not think about? Let it all come rushing out in one big tidal wave of materialism.

It's hard to do. You're, rather suddenly, switching your brain in reverse -- never advisable for any machine. But you will also then see just how many things you actually do want. It can be hard on the ego, if you were starting to think that you were above materialism. I know I was a little dismayed by how many things I wanted to put on my list.

Most importantly, though, you've had to let your Wants run wild. That's not something you can easily undo. And the more things they see, the stronger they get. So I end up with a good list for people to crib from; but I also end up more susceptible to spending impulses.

I made up the list yesterday and emailed it off. No big deal, other than way too long spent at the computer. Today, though... Today was not good.

I had to be at the mall for a mystery shop. Malls are not good destinations if you just switched your brain onto "consumerism" mode. I had to make a purchase and a return for the shop. But there was a few points where I almost convinced myself to buy a few items and only return one.

Then, Tim and I had to kill time before making the return. So, of course, we end up strolling around and poking our heads into shops. I'm proud to say that I left the mall without a single item, once I had made the required return, but it took just about everything I had in me.

I wanted to go on a shopping spree every time I saw a new store. I wanted to march in and start trying stuff on. Two things stopped me: A small amount of budgeting sanity that remained and, mostly, not having enough energy to bother wriggling in and out of clothes.

At one point, I even ended up looking around in a jewelry store. I've taught myself not to go in those anymore. I don't wear jewelry often enough and, most importantly, I get sad when I have to leave all the pretty sparkly stuff behind. But there I was, looking through the cases.

I even asked about the prices on a couple of items. I have no idea why. Even if they had been $30 -- and they weren't -- we're really not in a position to spend money unnecessarily. I guess I just wanted to entertain the fantasy that I might buy them. But that always just makes it worse.

The thing is, I know it's only going to get worse as the season progresses. All the sales and the ads for the sales... On the TV, on the radio, in the newspaper, in store windows, on banners or sandwich boards. It's relentless. No matter where you go in this society, you end up saturated with consumerism. And that stuff doesn't wash off easily.

And it's not just personal greed that will doom you. Trying to buy for others, it's easy to get swept away. You want to buy more gifts, nicer gifts. Nothing is ever enough.

So what do we do? I wish I had some sage advice for you here. I'm sure lots of frugal articles are out there with all sorts of peppy advice:

  1. Avoid malls. "If you don't see it, you can't want it."
  2. Focus. "If you have to go to a store, go only there and then only to the department you need. The more you look around, the more you'll leave with."
  3. Write it down. "Make a list of presents for each person. Do not deviate from that list. Do not buy extra gifts. Remind yourself that what you have listed is plenty."
  4. Tie up those purse strings. "Have your budget laid out, and know what things cost -- and what you want to pay for them. Do not allow yourself to go over budget for 'just one little thing' because that little trickle can easily become a roaring river."

That all sounds great, honestly. Unless, of course, you're human.

  1. Avoid malls? If you have to buy any presents at all, you'll probably need to go to a mall. You might be able to do it online; but there are plenty of ads there, too. And the stores' websites are only a click away.
  2. Focus? I don't care if you put blinders on, you will still see something that catches your eye. Stores set up displays specifically for that purpose. If your poor attention span, doesn't get you, smart marketing ploys probably will.
  3. Write it down? Has anyone ever created a perfect gift list from the comfort of home? I know I haven't. Some people are completely impossible to shop for in the abstract. You just have to wander around until you see something that calls to you. And what if the store is out of the items you wanted to buy? Now you're stuck at a mall with no agenda! How will you survive?!
  4. Purse strings? This one might be possible, assuming you pay only in cash. It's hard to go over your budget if there are no more bills to use. Even so, you have stores working against you. You'll probably find some little item on your way to the register that is just sooo great for Aunt Jane. And you already got her a gift, but this is just perfect and you have to get it. And it's only a couple of dollars, so it's no big deal. Unless you left your credit cards at home, you'll probably get it.

The thing about being a pessimist: You're always prepared for the worst, and you get to be pleasantly surprised if you turn out to be wrong.

That said, there are still no obvious solutions to help deal with the holiday excess. I guess you could watch A Christmas Carol and other lesson-laden movies every night to remind yourself about the true meaning of Christmas. Personally, I don't think I could handle it.

My mom is a big fan of adopting a kid or family for the holidays. You find out their needs and supply some presents. It's a good reminder that some people are just overjoyed to be getting a warm coat or a single toy.

That's probably a lot better for your karma than my method. This year, I'm choosing to look at our credit card balances every time I get the urge to get someone "just one more little thing." I can't say it'll work 100%, but, as I said, the Wants seem afraid of big numbers.

What do you do to calm down your consumerism during the holidays?

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