Thursday, December 31

Bye, bye 2009

I know it's the end of the year. So I should have some deep, philosophical, retrospective look at all that has been in the last 365.

I got nothin'.

Frankly, it's hard to remember much that happened since the summer, when we realized in mid-July that we were going to move in late August. I knew, abstractly, we were going to need to move. Tim's skin was only getting worse. But suddenly it became very, very real.

By the time we got here, we were exhausted and bickering. We were also more than $3,000 deeper in debt, thanks to moving expenses. At the worst point, we got up to almost $12,000 before we finally started making some headway. from the move. The next month and a half saw the debt increase When we had to buy things we'd left behind -- hangers, furniture, etc -- And the first few weeks we were here took us closer to $4,000. Then we got the news that my contract work might be ending.

I went into an emotional fetal position. Tim freaked out that he had ripped me away from my support system. I think (okay, know) that he was also feeling pressure: If he didn't get well enough to work, the move was for nothing. It wasn't exactly helping him plunge into the job search.

During one of our bigger fights, I told him that he had to get over it. He was more comfortable here, had almost no flare-ups. That, alone, was worth the move. But the macho pride thing is a hard one to shake.

Things got worse before they got better. We fought a lot. Sometimes about justifiable things. Other times, just things. Then we had that one big argument. At least, it started as an argument, turned into both of us blaming ourselves, and finally became an actual discussion about how we could change this dynamic.

And, for once, I listened. Crazy notion.

I thought I had been listening all along. But my knees kept jerking so hard, they must have gotten stuck in my ears. I knew he had priorities that were different from mine and that he was sacrificing them for me. But I couldn't let myself change goals. It was too scary. I was so terrified of debt -- mainly because I feel powerless, not being able to earn a full-time wage -- that I felt the only way to protect myself was to put blinders on to anything but debt.

That isn't to say I didn't make compromises. I did. But they were more about accepting that I couldn't change some of his habits overnight than about truly understanding his needs and priorities.

We're still working on things. I'm reading up on ADD. I'm making concessions to his needs, including spending on some things while we're still in debt. (That's a big, terrifying step for me. I figure, if it's that scary, it's probably the right thing to do.) He's trying to talk more rather than just react by acquiescing/shutting down.

So we will enter 2010 on a relatively high note. In fact, I'm really proud of the work we've done since fall. I've started to work to make my husband happy on his own terms, as well as mine. I am beginning to truly accept and understand the implications of my Bipolar II diagnosis. (Mostly, that it explains a lot of things that I thought were simply personal failings.)

And, most pertinent to this blog, our debt has seen some real improvement. As of mid- to late-October, our credit card debt was nearly $12,000. Later today, a payment will take it down to $8375. So we're exceeding my goal of $1,500.

In other words, my main resolution is keep on keepin' on.

We are on track (barring any huge derailments) to pay off the cards in June. It turns out that my contract work will last at least until then. After that, it's anybody's guess. But that should allow us to at least clear the credit card hurdle.

I want to keep learning about ADD, through books and blogs. It's bringing a lot of insight -- both for me and Tim. He never really learned much about the condition, except that he had it. So we're finding out which traits are attributable to ADD, as well as how to use its advantages and cope with its disadvantages.

I need to work up to a healthier lifestyle. My cholesterol is up high enough, my doctor wants me to go on medication. I want to try the old-fashioned way first. That means fiber (check), exercise (sorta check) and healthy eating ([tumbleweed blows across an empty lot]). I want to start in small increments, to make it more feasible in the long term.

As for financial goals, it's hard to be too specific until we see how things go after June. I do have some generalized goals after we're done with the credit card debt:

  1. Student loan: We rehabbed the surprise loan. This will be our main priority. Currently, it's about $3,500.
  2. Increase my IRA contribution: Right now, it's $25 a week. I'd like to double it once the cards are clear. After the student loan is gone, I Tim to start one.
  3. Emergency fund: I can't bankroll this quickly. But depending on our income, I want to put away at least $100 a month.
  4. Puppy fund: I've been promising Tim we could get a dog once our debt was paid off. But it won't be instant. We have to save up an extra pet deposit, plus the cost of the dog.
  5. Pay back Tim's dad: When he and I first got together, Tim got $3,500 from his dad. We paid back $600 of that before we had to focus exclusively on our credit card debt.
  6. Pay back Tim's mom: When Tim was in school, his mom took out a loan for him. It defaulted, and she was able to make some sort of deal, since she's on disability. We don't know how much, but we're pretty sure it's under $2,000.
  7. Pay back my mom: My mom lent us $2,000 to help us consolidate our credit cards. She is doing okay financially, so she insists that we pay back Tim's parents first.

So that's what 2010 has in store for us. What about you guys?

Tuesday, December 29

To save, you must spend?

Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, I see the current issue of Real Simple. In large, proud type is a feature story's title: How to Save $5,000 This Year!

In much smaller print, down by the bar code, the price is listed as $4.99.

Hey, sure $5 sounds steep for a magazine. But it's a drop in the bucket when you consider the $5,000 savings that it will oh-so certainly bring. I mean, that's like 10,000 percent of the purchase price! How could you lose?

I didn't get a chance to actually skim Real Simple, so I can't tell you how helpful the tips were. I just know that, if I were writing it, Step 1 would be: Stop buying $5 magazines.

And, yes, I know that plenty of people get discounted subscriptions through outlets like Still, I find it somewhat appalling just how much modern culture has co-opted frugality to the point of near-bastardization.

I'm not just talking about the current complaint, "I was frugal before frugal was cool." I'm referencing the fact that stores have managed to inject consumerism into frugality.

Sure, a certain amount of consumerism is necessary for frugality. You can't take advantage of a sale without acting as a consumer. I understand the relationship. But at this point, it seems that everywhere you go, facts are being contorted to look frugal.

I've been to the movies a couple of times in the last month (using passes), and one of the big new pushes is that you can pay "only" $4 for a $5 ticket to the concession stand. One per admission. Oh, and you have to buy it at the ticket window.

In other words, you make the hasty choice to save $1 without being able to look at the items offered. Then you get to the concessions stand and order what will almost certainly be more than $5 of food. Meanwhile, you feel like quite the smartypants for saving money.

There's also an offer wherein you get a medium popcorn when you buy two Icee drinks. Sounds like a great deal, until you realize that two Icees are $10.50. ($11 if you get the large, which is refillable.)

Did I mention this falls under AMC's category "Value Pricing"?

But we expect high costs at the movie theater. What about all these stores preying on people's worry about money? I don't mean to say that consumers are pure victims. They should know when they're being had.

Still, it's annoying to hear about the myriad ways you can "save" money by spending. One of Kohl's big promotions -- $10 in Kohl's cash, for every $50 you spend -- had a tagline that made me sick to my stomach: It's like getting paid to shop! And a perennial favorite for lots of stores is "The more you spend, the more you save!"

How about all those restaurant gift card offers? Get a $25 gift card, get $5 for yourself. Sounds great, until you get one and notice that the $5 gift certificate is good only in January and, in some cases, February. The store wins either way: You come in and spend more because you are getting $5 off, or you forget to use it.

Finally, we come back to magazines. All those pricey pages that promise to help you save money. All you have to do is spend it first.

It reminds me of a snippet from the Wall-Mart episode on South Park:

Cartman: Dude, check it out! Time Cop on DVD. Three copies for eighteen bucks!
Kyle:Why the hell would you want three copies of the same movie?
Cartman:Because one copy is nine ninety-eight! But this way you save like twenty bucks!
Kyle:You only need one copy, artard!
Cartman:Okay, fine, dumbass, YOU go ahead and buy one copy for nine ninety-eight!
Kyle:Okay, fine, I will! [grabs a copy] Huh, wait a minute! I don't even want ONE copy of Time Cop! [puts it back]
Cartman:Dude, you can't shop for crap.

Sunday, December 27

What is a "true" frugal blogger?

I wrote a rather-too-glib post yesterday about spending. I was called on it by an anonymous commenter. I think (s)he had some good points that brought me up short. On the other hand, I also think some of the charges were not entirely accurate.

For example, the iPod Touch we're planning on getting will be entirely through rewards program points, just like Tim's PSP. We won't be paying a dime out of pocket. So I consider that pretty frugal.

There is also the issue of video game purchases. Tim got some birthday money from his mom, which he spent on video games. The rest of the games he gets by trading in old ones.

But junk food? Clothing? Yeah, those are my own screw-ups. I eat too much junk food. I try to only buy with coupons, and I've cut way, way back on how much we get. Still, it accounts for more of our grocery bill than I would like.

And clothing: I got three new shirts that cost $60 after tax. It was a complete indulgence. It wasn't one I felt terribly justified in (though it certainly comes across that way in the post). It would be easy to rationalize it away. For instance, the only clothes I have gotten in the better part of two years were when old ones no longer fit. So this particular expense doesn't come up often. But, the fact is that we're in debt; we're working to get out. So that money could have been used in a much more strategic way.

The main point of the anonymous comment, though, seemed to be that the things I talk about -- iPod Touch, junk food, Cheesecake Factory (where we each get a slice of cake on Tim's birthday) -- did not resonate with "true" frugal bloggers.


I make a couple of missteps during the holiday season, and I'm not a true frugal blogger? I suppose everyone is entitled to his own opinion; but I'd be curious to know exactly what the parameters are for that position.

I proclaimed in one of my first posts that I was not the Martha Stewart of frugality. I can't be. Anyone who has ever wrestled with severe depression can attest to just how hard basic tasks are. (Seriously, why can't I make a call that will take two minutes? I don't know. Some days, it's simply an insurmountable goal.) You add in severe fatigue, and you find your options are more than a little circumscribed.

Perhaps some people believe that I'm using my health conditions to rationalize being less frugal. It's not true, but it's hard to prove a negative. Really, I can try to explain until I'm blue in the face, but it doesn't do much good. People who don't understand depression or chronic fatigue simply can't understand how much it impacts your life. So, to them, I'm malingering.

Whatever you believe or understand, the fact is that there are few people in this world with the exact same situation as you. And so it's easy to believe that a couple of details make all the difference. Of course, sometimes it's true. But a lot of the time it's just wishful thinking. Grass is always greener, etc.

I'm guilty of this line of thinking, too. There have been plenty of times in the past that I've become judgmental. You read enough blogs, enough posts, enough "how I got here" profiles, and it's bound to happen. You get frustrated by all of the benefits that other people have.

Most PF bloggers make a fairly decent living. Many of them are in two-income households -- or have voluntarily become one-income situations. Meanwhile, Tim and I have only once ever hit $40,000 a year combined. A lot of people make that much (or almost that much) with just one salary.

Or how about those couples who got tens of thousands of dollars in debt by buying to their hearts' content? Must be nice. Our debt was earned mainly because our basic expenses exceeded our income. Health conditions are expensive.

Tim also brought $20,000 of defaulted student loans into the relationship. After a year, we had to pay $7,000 for oral surgery and dentures. In and among that, there have been plenty of medical bills. At least $5,000 a year -- though much, much more when we got his oral surgery.

In other words, the grass looks a lot greener on the other side of our fence. Even with all our problems and limitations, we've paid down more than $30,000 in three and a half years. Imagine what we could have done with two full-time salaries!

So, yeah, I get frustrated. And judgmental. I have even been known to get into snobby moods where I dismiss other people as having it easy. I get annoyed by how many more corners I have to cut just to get anything like the results enjoyed by people in more traditional situations.

Then (eventually) I snap out of it. Because this line of thinking isn't fair. People with more money get themselves into more obligations. Tim and I don't have a mortgage or car payments. Until recently, we had free use of a car, without any costs, thanks to a very generous parent. That's quite the little leg-up we had. (Now, we are paying for insurance, car repairs and gas, which has definitely affected our budget.)

And I really shouldn't go casting stones. I'm frugal -- but not to the same degree that my mom is. And she's not as die-hard as people who separate their two-ply toilet paper. Meanwhile, neither of us have a garden to grow food in. So, despite being ardently frugal, we can both be shown up by others.

My point? Everyone has different benchmarks for acceptable frugality. I, for example, have no problem with spending $40-50 for a birthday or anniversary meal. Or the occasional pair of cool t-shirts for $18. (Which is, of course, not the same thing as $60 on clothing.) On the other hand, I also make sure we take advantage of freebies, discounts etc. I milk all of the free birthday offerings I can find.

Most avidly frugal folks cook a lot, often from scratch. It's cheap and it can be far healthier than convenience foods and pre-made fare. But I will probably never cook as much as I would like to. I just don't have the energy or wherewithal to deal with it. Tim's stomach doesn't help matters. It's very finicky. If he tries to eat something he doesn't like, he stomach sends it back from whence it came. So he can't just eat that last bowl of leftovers.

Our solution, then, was to keep a few different convenience foods around. Maybe he can have some canned stew and feel better. Or a hot dog. Or some frozen pizza. So long as we don't end up going to the grocery store (which adds up quickly) or ordering out (which adds up even faster), we've saved a good chunk of money. So, we've found an option that's cheaper than the alternatives. But few people would look at it and proclaim it to be frugal.

Really frugal people go to the store to hit key sales. They do sales, coupons, rebates and Register Rewards. So far, I'm only up to coupons. I do the occasional Register Rewards, but my energy problems mean I'm never sure I can use them before they expire. Meanwhile, rebates are just somehow beyond me. I never get around to mailing them off, no matter how good my intentions are. Eventually, I'll get there. It took me awhile to work up to using coupons; now they're second nature. But, for now, people might decide I'm not trying hard enough in those areas.

Then there are the times that I do something dumb, like fall in love with (and buy) some shirts for $60. There is really no excuse for it. I actually tend to stay out of department stores because of the problem of temptation. This time, though, I didn't. And I paid for it -- quite literally.

I am in the process of trying to find a balance between constantly living for the future -- when the debts are paid off -- and enjoying myself a little in the present. Often, I fall too far onto one side or the other. It's yet another work in progress, and this last shopping spree was a not-so-gentle reminder that I'm not even close to finding the solution.

So, yeah, I'm not a paragon of frugality. But I think I do okay, especially considering my limitations. I certainly think I do better than a lot of people, assuming that counts for anything.

I talk on here about free and/or cheap entertainment. There are the movie passes from My Coke Rewards. I have discussed various rewards and cash-back programs, which allow for big purchases (especially electronics) for free. And I mystery shop to get free dinners or other entertainment. Sometimes, I even make a couple of bucks off the endeavor.

For now, that has to be enough for me. That's not to say, though, that it's enough for other people. We each have our own version of frugality, a standard that seems, to us, right and fair. It's not something you can easily get someone to change. And given my recent talk of spending, I'm not really in a position to argue anything anyway.

I guess I just bristle at the term "true frugal blogger" because I happen to think too much of frugality is a case-by-case basis.

If that's not true, then where do we draw the line? What is the objective basis we use to delineate frugal from non-frugal? How much do you have to save? How much debt must you pay down each month? How much leeway can you give yourself for entertainment or indulgences before you are booted from the club?

And while you consider those questions, remember that I -- who am not a true frugal blogger -- got our debt down by $1,200 (38% of our income) this month. Actually, we paid $1,800 (57% of our income); but $600 of that covered new charges like car repairs and a vet visit for Sandy.

Now, if I can just go back to avoiding department stores, we may be set after all.

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Post-holiday sales are expensive!

Today has been a flurry of receipts!

At Hallmark, I spent $22 for two ornaments. When we left Seattle, we ditched a good number of my holiday stuff. So I thought we should each have an ornament from the first Christmas spent together in Arizona. I got Wolverine for Tim, and The Swedish Chef for myself. (Hallmark is savvy enough to know what a huge profit comes from catering to our generation's geeky side.) The store also had some okay prices for holiday cards, but nothing truly thrilling.

Michael's didn't have any great ornaments or any good deals on wrapping paper. But it had a lot of good ribbon deals. I got four 3-packs of ribbon for $1.20 each, plus a blue stocking for Tim for just over $1.

Then I had to rush over to Macy's before my coupon expired at 1 p.m. No good ornaments or presents for Tim's mom. But I did find two Ecko shirts with the Star Wars theme. (One was Vader ; the other was Boba Fett.) After the coupon, both shirts were $18.

Unfortunately, just as the marketing teams intended, I was sucked into the sales rack. I managed -- barely -- to pare it down to three items, but that still rung up at $60 after tax.

Later, Tim and I ended up in a Joann Fabrics and found a 7' tree for $24. Tim, who adores all things blue, found some spherical ornaments for next year. (Insert "blue balls" joke here; goodness knows, Tim did... and continues to.) The sleeve of 10 ornaments was discounted to $3, so we got two. Along with some 29-cent curling ribbon, plus the tree, the bill came to about $34.

In other words, I spent almost as much in one day as Tim spent on my presents. On severely discounted items. There's a peculiar logic to this situation, you have to admit.

I could rationalize it, I suppose. We're stocking back up on holiday items: a tree, new ornaments, gift-wrapping supplies. And it's been at least a year (probably almost two) since I bought clothes out of anything other than strict necessity.

Or I can point to the simple fact of savings. The tree retailed for $80; Tim's shirts were $58 originally. And the three I bought had a combined MSRP of $336.

But the fact is that I probably got a little carried away. I spent only $35 on items from Craiglist. The rest of Tim's presents were bought with rewards program points. So most of my last four months focused on finding ways not to spend on the holidays.

Meanwhile, the whole time, I looked forward to the post-Christmas sales to stock back up on ornaments and wrapping supplies. All that anticipation built up into an expectation of spending.

So, okay, I may have spent more than was strictly ideal. But Tim loves his Star Wars shirts, which will see years of use. And I now have three new shirts that are actually fashionable, rather than tops that I wear because they don't actively make me look fat. What's more, next year, we'll have a tree that we picked out together, with ornaments that suit Tim's tastes, as well as mine.

So I have to say: I don't regret it. In fact, the only thing that bothers me? I have yet to find any good deals on wrapping paper. Still, there's always tomorrow!

Did anyone else go on a bit of a post-holiday spree? Find any great deals? Already done next year's Christmas shopping?

Friday, December 25

Freebie Friday

Merry Christmas all! (Or, as Sheldon would say, happy Saturnalia.) What better thing for the holiday of gifts than to talk about some things you can get absolutely free?

Brought to you by The Freebie Blogger. Be sure to check the site daily for information on samples, events and, of course, freebies.

International Delight Creamer Free Product Coupon

Airborne Effervescent Tablets Sample

Boating Magazine Subscription

Fresco Taco at Taco Bell

Pet Exam at PetSmart

Sausage Biscuit at Waffle House

Huggies Pull-Ups Sample

Always Infinity Sample

Arm & Hammer Toothpaste Sample

Smooth Infusion Sample Pack at Aveda

Thursday, December 24

Last-minute shopping?

According to a statistic referenced on MSN Smart Spending, at least 12 percent of shoppers are putting off a few purchases until today. It's assumed that people are doing this in order to cash in on any last, great deals.

I guess my question, though, is how much shopping can be safely put off until the end of today?

I had a friend whose father was Jewish and so, one year, it wasn't until Christmas Eve that he realized he hadn't gotten any presents. He went out that night and, noticing how much cheaper the prices were, he then made a tradition of waiting until the last minute.

Please, no complaining about stereotypes. I'm pretty sure his stinginess stemmed his financial situation. Sometimes the more money a person has, the less he spends -- often, to a fault. Based on my friend's tone, at least, I gathered the results were less than stellar for the recipients.

Do any of you plan on trekking to the mall? Are you just rounding things out with a few, last-minute goodies, or are you waiting on main gifts to get the best deals?

My main worry would be inventory. Last year, Tim and I wanted to get his parents a foot massager. The gift card I ordered took forever because of the holiday demand and the volume of mail being processed. It arrived on the 22nd or 23rd, as I recall. When I checked, all the stores were out. We had to give them the gift of a picture and an IOU. His parents were very understanding, of course. Still, I felt bad.

Also, has anyone heard of any actual great deals? I keep seeing sales circulars, but it's the Macy's syndrome: The same set of deals offered over and over, just phrased slightly differently. It doesn't feel like there are any really great offers that are worth the risk.

To be fair, I should admit that we're jetting over to a mall to check out The Body Shop's clearance selection, which started yesterday. They have a few things that might save us some money, like a sugar hair removal solution plus reusable cloth strips for a total of $7. But we are also hoping to get Tim's mom a couple of affordable goodies to add on to her present. (Yeah, we flaked on getting things in the mail. Too many years of being able to hand over gifts in person, I suppose.)

Also, how many of you are planning on hitting the sales on the 26th? I plan on scouring the stores for a tree for next year and maybe some lights or nice ornaments. Still, I don't want to visit store after store. I think 2 or 3 will be my limit.

Since I'll be posting Freebie Friday tomorrow, I hope you all have a merry Christmas -- whether you celebrate the holiday or just enjoy getting a free day off (or holiday pay).

Tuesday, December 22

Ho, ho, huh?

I have a confession to make: I'm blogging while tipsy.

Not only that, this blogging is taking place in a tree-less living room. Meanwhile, we're knocking back some screwdrivers and enjoying some nice, holiday nachos. And we're loving it.

Okay, it would be nice to have a Christmas tree. But there haven't been good any plastic tree sales yet, so we agreed to wait until post-Christmas sales kick in. Otherwise, we're pretty happy with our non-holiday theme.

We're looking forward to opening presents on the 25th, of course. And I even bothered to make peanut butter blossoms -- which are disappearing at such an alarming rate, I plan on making more tomorrow.

But, by and large, Tim and I are pretty happy creating our own version of the holidays. Once we have a kid, I'm sure we'll conform more. For now, though, we're getting unnecessarily tipsy off OJ and vodka. (And, yes, it's seasonal: The Absolut is in a special holiday bottle. That counts, right?)

My point -- and I do have one, honest -- is that the most frugal way to celebrate is to create your own traditions. A landslide of gifts seems great, but you'll probably end up with more clutter than treasure. Going to see A Christmas Carol at a local theater can be similarly expensive.

Meanwhile, caroling is free. And if you're not as tune-savvy as others, there are plenty of groups that carol for you. You can just sit back and relax.

Maybe you love a holiday-themed play? A few years ago, my aunt took me to An Owen Meany Christmas -- far more entertaining than the well-worn classic A Christmas Carol -- at a local college for about $10 a ticket. So check around for more modern traditional plays.

While I haven't explored Phoenix's holiday offerings, plenty of cities have funky attractions for the season. In Seattle, various groups create "gingerbread" houses -- that is, any (and all) kind of sculpture involving candy etc. Probably my favorite was a Chinese dragon with gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins for scales. (For true irony, you have to know that the event is sponsored by a diabetes group.)

But perhaps you have no interest in going out to enjoy holiday offerings. There are plenty of holiday traditions to create at home. Take, for example, the aforementioned liquor and holiday nachos.

Seriously, though, there are good traditions to enjoy. Get some holiday-themed shows or movies, but ones that more accurately reflects your mood. (Scrooged, anyone?) Personally, one of my favorite traditions involves watching A Muppet Christmas Carol. It's sweet but also snarky, both of which I consider staples of the holiday season.

The point is to look around and decide on your own holiday traditions. Find out about free offerings and then settle on your own way of celebrating this season. If you go through the motions of other people's traditions, you'll have less fun and probably end up spending more.

In case you're wondering, I'll probably be spending most of Christmas day watching movies and eating junk food. (Especially if any peanut butter blossoms are left. But they won't be.) After all, we're only exchanging a couple of gifts each. Plus we don't have any family in the area this year. So festivities will be over pretty quickly. That leaves the rest of the day to narf around and kill brain cells with some modern cinema and, yeah, probably a couple of alcoholic beverages.

It's the holidays, people!

Monday, December 21

Mystery shopping as a route to saving

These days, a lot of the mystery shops I choose involve some form of spending. First of all, these shops tend to have better pay. Often, the most fun shops involve spending. Last week, Tim and I got to see a movie. We'll be reimbursed for one ticket (we used a pass for the other) plus the popcorn.

But there is a third benefit that I am only now realizing: savings.

When you get paid for a mystery shop, you're generally looking at a month to a month and a half lag. So, by the time you get it, it can easily feel like found money -- even when the payment includes a reimbursement for shop expenses.

So if the spending on a shop is relatively low -- that is, you feel comfortable taking it out of the bank account, rather than putting it on a card -- mystery shops can provide an excellent route to savings.

Let's face it, except in the most extreme cases, most of us will pick up a few unnecessary purchases. If you have plenty of money still in the account, it's easier to rationalize that bag of candy, a latte or some other small treat. The point is, you're likely to spend money on something that you barely remember a few days later.

But if that $10-20 is spent in the course of a mystery shop, you will probably forgo the indulgence. Then, when the payment comes to you, it's a heftier amount -- one that you're more likely to put against debt or into savings.

In this way, then, I'm starting to see mystery shopping as a route to bigger debt repayment.

Of course, this doesn't work when you have to put the expenses on a card. So restaurant shops, which can often run $30-50, may not be expenses you can take out of your account without feeling a pinch. Or perhaps you would take it as a challenge to be particularly careful for that period.

I suppose this method of savings could be applied even without the mystery shopping angle. For example, when I feel the urge to get a DQ Blizzard, I could exercise some willpower and just put the money aside. (And that would be good for both my wallet and my waistline.) Then, when Tim's unemployment check comes, I could redeposit the cash and put it toward the credit card payment.

Arguably, if I can exercise willpower more, I could simply stick to a stricter budget and skip these little psychological fake-outs. But when I know the money is sitting in the account, I find it too easy to indulge in small ways. Often the expense is small. I'll okay a bag of candy for Tim or myself (or both) at the grocery store, when I'd otherwise stick to the list. Still, those $2-3 can add up pretty quickly, as most of us know all too well.

So, at least for now, I need to use these little tricks. They help keep me aware of our spending, and they help me recreate the sense of urgency that sometimes gets lost when I'm burned out or have a craving. Whatever it takes to keep those extra funds going toward credit card debt, rather than to some sugary treat or some fast food.

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Does Christmas shopping hurt the economy?

Louis Navellier, over at MSN Money Top Stocks, seems to believe so.

Personally, I think he fails to make the case that Christmas shopping hurts the economy. The only point at which he comes close is when he refers to the problem of lost or unused gift cards. This is an accounting thing, which he doesn't explain particularly well. If you care, skip to the end of this post for an explanation.***

So, okay, Navellier goes for a slightly sensational headline to get our attention. Most of us have done it. I was still thrilled to read this post because finally someone is saying what I've wondered all along. Namely: How can rampant, reckless spending for a short period of time help the economy in the long-haul?

The short answer is that it can't.

Even in this recession, you can bet that plenty of people are going at least a bit (further) into debt to get their loved ones presents. Whether the recipients love or hate the gifts, the point is that spending comes to an annual screeching halt in January. People are experiencing the sticker shock from the latest credit card bills, and they cut back like crazy trying to get back to a solid financial base.

So I hope you can understand my confusion about how this helps the economy. Profits fly high -- though, in recent years, never quite as high as companies hope -- and then everything comes crashing down. Feast, then famine.

It's just another instance where the market folks and economists are being short-sighted. Yeah, the economy is helped out, briefly. But it's a blip. So we're told that the economy is swinging up, which gets hopes up.

Then, consumers get the bill for that upswing. And spending goes to what I'm guessing is an annual low. That makes the economy flag again. Which means that we hear reports of how badly the economy is doing, how the recession is still hitting people.

If anything, that's going to panic people and make them spend even less. Thereby furthering the dire news from business analysts that profits are down down down. And we all know how people react to that sort of news: They get worried and don't spend as much.

So, maybe Nevellier is right. Maybe this annual cycle actually does hurt the economy.

But, like the people whose arguments he is rebutting, Nevellier is focusing too much on the short-term. First of all, there are plenty of people who are staying sane during the holiday spending season. Unfortunately, it's a vast minority; but it is a percentage of the population. (Though never as big of a percentage as the polls indicate.)

There's also a slow, but natural, stopping point to this panic-induced spiral. After a month or two of cutting down on everything, the consumer gets restless. The bills get back to pre-holiday levels, and a few small luxuries get added back to the budget. Spending slowly resumes.

But that holiday rally the market analysts depend on, well... That's another year away.

***Basically, any prepayment (money given before goods/services are rendered) is categorized as "unearned income" rather than actual income. That means that, until the gift card is redeemed, the money can't count toward profit and, in fact, counts as a liability. (I'm guessing that's because the buyer might request the money back at any point.)

Since businesses pretty much sell themselves (aka their stock) based on having good profits and low liabilities, this can be a big problem, especially when you consider just how many gift cards are bought during the holidays.

Now consider how many are lost or not used in full. It's a problem for the company's books. It's also, as far as I can tell, the main reason companies start to charge you for unused gift cards after the first year: It's really the only way they have to officially count the money they have received.

Saturday, December 19

Things not to tell your son

... when you call to wish him a happy birthday: That your wife (his mother) will be needing a heart transplant.

I don't know if Tim's dad just figured this out or simply ran out of conversation topics. Whatever the reason, the words were propelled from his mouth over the phone and into my dear husband's ear. Let's just say it didn't add to the festivities.

I calmed Tim down a bit and sent him out to pick up his cheesecake slice (and my chocolate cake slice) and called Nadine to find out what happened. Apparently, she handed over the phone because she needed to use the bathroom, and this was the first she knew of the conversation.

Apparently, the need for a transplant is eventual, not immediate. And it's something she's known pretty much since they first hospitalized her with atrial fibrillation. But nothing has changed, which was my main concern. (We had a scare two months ago, when she was diagnosed with pneumonia and H1N1.)

Luckily, I was able to distract Tim a bit, so it didn't ruin his birthday. Though I'm sure it's still lurking somewhere under the surface.

Friday, December 18

So much for that...

Ah, the joys of car ownership!

Yesterday, I announced that we were finally getting one of our cards under $3,000. I was practically asking for trouble, I suppose. It's the same logic that makes my mom call a car wash a "rain dance."

The check engine light came on again -- 8 days after the last fix cost us $96. This time, the bill is $285. Something about the gauges that monitor gas levels, etc. I was reeling from the number at the time.

The funny thing is, my mom had the car checked thoroughly before we left. Yet, so far, we've had over $500 in fixes in the past three months.

To be fair, we did drive it 1,500 miles to get here. And we're having to drive more here than we did in Seattle. Things are farther apart, and the public transportation system is maybe half as good as Seattle's. But I think the car just misses my mom and is protesting.

I'm trying to bear in mind that it's not the biggest setback in the world. It's just disheartening.

Luckily, we're doing Tim's birthday celebration tomorrow as a relatively frugal event. We're hitting Chili's for some of the appetizers he loves so much ($10 per person), then over to the Cheesecake Factory for a cheesecake slice of his choice and a slab of chocolate cake for me ($6-7 a person).

I suppose $40 doesn't sound terribly frugal, but for a decent birthday outing, I consider it an acceptable expense.

It's also lucky that I've been taking on the odd mystery shop. It will bring in a few bucks here and there. Plus, Tim ended up getting one last birthday gift out of it.

Before you go saying that I caved, I would like to attest to it practically being fated. I had to go to a department store for an audit. But it involved killing some time in the store. That's when Tim spied some Ecko hoodies he's been drooling over for about a year. Specifically, the Darth Maul hoodie. Tag price was $99.99, but it was half off. And I had some gift cards that I still hadn't used three months after getting them.

I was already relatively convinced the stars were aligning in our favor. But, while we were standing in line to see how much was on the cards, the woman in front of us was informed she couldn't use her $10 off coupon. So she gave it to us.

And even though the coupon shouldn't have worked after 1 p.m., it did, bringing the hoodie's cost to $39.99. With my gift cards, our total cost was $4.53. You can spend that on a Blizzard at Dairy Queen!

So the hoodie came home with us, and Tim has been wearing it pretty much non-stop since. He is the envy of all of his friends. And they already coveted his PSP, so now they may actually be the green of an unripe tomato. Who knows.

What matters is that Tim is practically skipping around with glee. Not really skipping, though. In fact, he is actually walking around quite purposefully, with his hoodie zipped all the way up. It completely freaks people out. At the very least, he gets some interesting double takes. Especially at night. That's the gift that keeps on giving.

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Thursday, December 17

Cracking $3,000

Once the payment goes through on Sunday, Tim and I will officially have gotten our United card under $3,000. ($2,903.28, if you want to be exact.)

For whatever reason, this feels like a big thing. A debt under $3,000 seems, to me at least, to being more manageable. It sounds like an amount that you're almost done with. So I feel victorious for the moment.

Of course, we still have a ways to go. The Citi card is still hovering at just over $6,000. It's on the back burner because we've locked in a 4.99 percent rate until that balance is gone. And there are a couple of things that may push our balance back up. The car's check engine light came back on -- about a week after we got it taken care of. (We are going to need to return to NAPA and request that they check it again for free, since clearly the computer diagnosis missed something.)

Still, for now I'm going to enjoy the victory of getting the debt more under control.

And if we can avoid too many unexpected expenses in the near future, we can have this particular card paid off in February. That's the image I'm holding onto, right now: a nice, fat zero in the "United" column of my spreadsheet.

Isn't it amazing how sexy "nothing" can be?


Tuesday, December 15

Skip the doctor

Before anyone jumps all over me, I'm not suggesting you avoid regular medical care. In fact, I'm saying quite the opposite.

Too many Americans avoid being seen by a medical professional for financial reasons. Whether they are uninsured or they simply have high co-pays/deductibles and low funds, they try to ignore symptoms that could be very serious indeed.

It's a stupid risk to take. From a health standpoint, you're risking your life in order to save some money. And you can't spend money if you're dead. Yeah, what you have probably isn't life-threatening. But what if it is? You can bet Jim Henson had health insurance, but for whatever reason, he dismissed his symptoms and it cost him his life.

Meanwhile, it's also a bad financial bet to make. Great, you saved $150-200 by not going to the doctor. But once those symptoms worsen and get to the point that you are worried enough to get seen, you may be forced to go to the ER. Even if you're not admitted to the hospital, you'll be getting a bill about twice as steep as a normal doctor. It's also possible that, by waiting to be seen, your condition will have gotten severe enough to necessitate a hospital stay. Then you're really looking at the big bucks.

In the end, you need to find balance between saving your bank account and saving your health. Here are a few tips to help you along your way:

Know what it isn't

Despite my little lecture above, I'm well aware that a lot of Americans go to the doctor unnecessarily. They become convinced they're very sick, and no amount of logic can dissuade them. When money is tight, of course, this is less likely to happen. But it's good to be cautious. There's nothing worse than sucking up the cost of a doctor's visit only to discover there's really nothing wrong.

Know the difference between a sprain and a break. I know from personal experience just how painful sprains can be. But you should be able to tell the difference between a sprain and a break. For one, sprains tend to swell up. I know the old wisdom is that if you can move it, it's not broken. I don't know how true that is, but it may be one guideline.

At any rate, the best treatment for a sprain is RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevation. Also consider some ibuprofen. Other than that, there's not much to be done. Except to pledge to be more careful next time.

Also, know the difference between the flu and... everything else. It's a popular one to get wrong. People think a stomach flu is the flu. They think a bad cold is the flu. In short, they think anything that is highly unpleasant must be the flu.

In fact, if you're throwing up, you probably don't have the flu. Usually, it's a stomach bug, which is often a case of mild food poisoning. Drink some flat Coke or the juice from some canned fruit. The pectin will settle your stomach. You should feel better in 24 hours.

If you're stuffed up and/or have a sore throat, you probably don't have the flu. You have a cold. It's hardly fun, but there are tons of products out there and lots of Walgreen's Register Rewards/CVS Extra Bucks to get when you stock up. So take some Nyquil and see if some rest helps. (To be fair, if the sore throat lasts, you may have strep. Usually, this is will involve a sore throat without any sort of relief for a couple days on end.)

Finally -- and this is the acid test -- if you don't want to die, you probably don't have the flu. I've had the flu. It was only two years after I had been in the hospital, on life support, for 3 straight months. And I remember, in the middle of it, thinking, "This is the worst I've ever felt." (About two minutes later, I realized how absurd that was. On the other hand, I got narcotics in the hospital.)

I felt fine that morning. By 1p.m., I started a tad "ooky" to use the technical term. By 4 p.m., my skin ached from contact with my (softest) shirt. By 7 p.m., I was lying prostrate on the couch, being racked by coughing fits. That night, I had alternating fever and chills. After a day or two of medication, I began to feel human again. But it was miserable in the meantime.

Of course, I can't say how H1N1 feels, but Tim's mom did have it. When her friend asked her how she felt, she said, "Like I got hit by a truck." So I'm guessing that one is self-evident too.

Nurse line:

This may be one of the best ways to get some quick, free medical advice. Most hospitals have a line you can call to speak with a nurse. While this is hardly a substitute for a real visit to a health professional, it can be a good first step. There are a lot of times that we go into the doctor's office unnecessarily.

If you can't find the number, simply call the hospital's main number and ask if they have a nurse on call to answer a couple of questions. It helps if you jot down a list of symptoms or concerns before you call. Once you have a professional on the line, try to be concise without skipping over anything.

Don't expect a diagnosis over the phone. This person isn't a mind reader. But you should come away with a bit of advice. Most often, you're told to try one or two things from home. If the symptoms don't get better or worsen, the nurse will tell you to make an appointment with your doctor. (Depending on the type of symptoms and their severity, you may be ordered into the doctor/ER immediately. But it's rare.)

MD? Nah, ARNP:

If you do need to be seen -- but not in an emergency room -- your best bet is to find an ARNP. These professionals can order tests and prescribe medication just like a doctor. But their rates tend to be significantly less.

I can't quote you a general price range. Tim is new to the world of being uninsured. But the one I found for him charges $75 to a new patient -- at least, one paying out of pocket -- and $50 thereafter.

The exception to this rule can be specialists. For example, the psychiatric nurses I've found around Phoenix are far pricier than their non-specializing counterparts. The first appointment is $150-220, with the follow-up appointments going for about $60-75. That's the same as a lot of psychiatrists.

Actually finding a medical professional without an insurance database can sometimes be trying. My suggestion is to google "ARNP" and your city. If that doesn't provide enough results, you can always try using the Medicare website. You don't have to be on Medicare to find a provider through the website. Just go to the site and look for "Find a provider." You can specify what kind of medical professional you want, from ARNP to general practitioner to specialists. You can put in your exact address and see results by distance.

One note of warning: This is a large database. A lot of the information is old or not terribly clear. Doctors tend to have a lot of ties to various offices. So getting the right number can be a pain. I ended up calling a heart hospital once, looking for a GP. Another doctor I was looking for had outdated information. I did some searches and found a newer number, only to find out she was no longer there. After calling three more places, I found out she was now working in the Air Force.

In other words, be prepared for some frustration. And a lot of calling. The best thing will be to do the research before you need an appointment.

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Giving the gift of debt

Photo by Eric Swanson

Tim's mom called us the other day to check in, and to wish him a happy birthday. (Four days and counting, for those of you watching your calendars.) She also informed him that she was dropping $100 into the account for the combination of Tim's birthday and our Christmas presents.

Tim's mom tends to give cash because she figures we can best decide what we want. In addition, it means she doesn't have to go out shopping. With her congestive heart failure, surgically repaired knees and bad hip, Nadine has trouble walking any real distance.

We definitely appreciate the influx of cash. Tim will take his $50 from the birthday money and probably buy himself a video game. Our combined Christmas money will probably go to cover any gap between our Swagbucks and the cost of the iPod Touch.

Still, as nice as it is to get money, I always feel weird taking gifts from Nadine. As I've mentioned before, Tim's parents are not in a good financial situation. They have exactly $0 in retirement funds. His mom is on disability and gets around $1,100 a month. But she won't get Medicare until this summer. Meanwhile, his dad is unemployed. So they are living on under $3,000 a month (and just their space rent is $500, who knows how much the mortgage is). They still owe money to the IRS, too, and some undisclosed amount to a credit card.

I think my hesitation is pretty understandable. I was raised to be frugal and careful with money. More to the point, I was raised to discourage gifts that I didn't think the person could afford. At the very least, to make it clear I wasn't asking for/expecting anything.

There are at least a couple of bloggers who have weighed in on this subject. One had a relative who, despite massive amounts of debt, always spends lavishly on gifts. She had mixed feelings about it.

Tim, on the other hand, has no qualms with accepting the money. He figures if someone wants to give us something, it's silly to turn it down. I'm sure it helps that his parents spend so much of their time, energy and money on his brother, Matt. I think Tim sees gifts as their chance to show him that they're willing to spend money on him, too. In addition, Tim's pretty sure that if they don't spend it on him, it will end up going to Matt one way or another.

I guess I understand this outlook. But it's hard for me to shut the guilt complex off. I just keep thinking of how much more Nadine probably needs this money. We're not doing well and, yeah, we have a lot of debt. But we have things to fall back on. She doesn't. She has to make the $1,100 last all month, while still paying some household bills and any of her own medical costs.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to the usual lessons I have to learn:

  1. I have far too much guilt and should just let things go sometimes.
  2. I can't control other people or how they spend their money.
  3. Just because they aren't the choices I would make, doesn't mean they are wrong.
  4. It probably makes her happy to be able to give us something.

So once again I will probably be taking a cue from Tim and just enjoying the moment. I will thank her graciously and will be sure to tell her what the money ends up buying. That way, she can know just how helpful her gift was.

Do you have any similar situations in your own life? How do (or would) you handle them?

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Saturday, December 12

Blame Monopoly!

As a kid, I loved Monopoly. Couldn't tell you why, but it was the game I most wanted to play. I was pretty ruthless, which meant that I was pretty good at it.

So it was kind of a shock when I played a game yesterday. It was a mini game, and it was against a computer. Still, the crass nature of Monopoly is pretty appalling. It's all about money and possessions. Material goods are the driving force of the game. I guess we don't have to wonder what message kids will take away from this game.

It's not just the attitude, though. The whole game is pretty freaky, when you take a good, long look at it. To get anywhere in the game, you have to buy buy buy; you buy anything you land on, if it's not already claimed. Don't think, just put down money! Then develop the land as quickly as possible. That will allow you to raise rent. Finally, once you get a good number of homes, raze it all and put down a hotel.

Oh, and if you run out of money, no worries. Just mortgage some of your real estate. You'll pay it back... probably.

But my favorite? The object of the game is to financially break the other players. You are supposed to create a scenario in which you wring every last cent from people. You can't win until the person has used up every last asset and owes money everywhere. You have to shoot to drive other people into bankruptcy. How's that for a life lesson?

There is also the issue of obsolescence. When's the last time a railroad was a good investment? And I think the last decade has proved just how problematic utility companies are.

I think the truly galling thing, though, is the money. You get $200 just for making it around the board -- and it's tax-free. (Unless you hit that unfortunate "10% or $200" square.) Tax-free money just for existing? C'mon, at least take out FICA taxes for believability!

Maybe the least believable part, though, is that everyone starts out as equals. Players have the same amounts of money. They don't have to work summers in college to get that $1,500. Nope, the banker just hands it out at the start of the game. Hardly a real-world experience.

Shouldn't the game be a little more diverse, socioeconomically speaking? Sure, it wouldn't be much fun to start off in different economic groups -- "Aw, man! I rolled the underprivileged, inner-city kid! " -- but at least it wouldn't reinforce the BS we're fed about everyone having an equal chance.

So it's unrealistic. Maybe I could live with that. But, from a personal finance standpoint, this game sends a chilling message to players -- most of whom are children. The game makes it perfectly acceptable to over-leverage yourself in the pursuit of riches. Use everything you've got, borrow what you don't, and hope it all turns out okay in the end.

If you can't pay for a property, mortgage something so that you can. Or sell a house. Need to make rent? You can find more ways to borrow the funds. And when you eventually run out of options, that's it. The game's over, and everyone just walks away. There are no lasting repercussions. You just push it all out of your mind.

Maybe I'll start my own board game. It'll be called Bankruptcy. Preferably to be played right after Monopoly, but by itself is fine, too. Once you declare bankruptcy, the game begins. For the first seven trips around the board, you're actively in bankruptcy.

The board will be filled with all sorts of fun, ongoing trials, like dealing with your creditors and learning the impact of the new bankruptcy laws. Oh and let's not forget the memorable "Getting a car when yours breaks." You try to negotiate a car loan when you have terrible credit and no money down! How high will that interest rate be?

How about "Renting a place to live"? You can experience the fun of trying to find a building that will consider someone in bankruptcy -- and then having to put down a bigger deposit.

Of course, after the first seven trips around the board, things ease up. But the players will have to do a few more rounds, just so they can truly appreciate the lasting effects. Like how it could interfere with finding new employment! (Some companies run a credit check, as well as a background check.) And they can revisit the oldies-but-goodies, like how you'll never have an easy time renting again, with a bankruptcy on your record!

Sure, by the end of the game, your kids will be quizzing you on how much you're putting away for their college funds -- or maybe they'll just be rocking back and forth, crying -- but wouldn't it still be a better (and more accurate) representation of the world than Monopoly?

Bad wife! No biscuit!

It only took me three and a half years to get a clue.

For three and a half years now, I've been yelling at Tim. Well, sometimes yelling. Other times, it was a rant or even a conversation. A lot of crying too. All of it trying to figure out why we kept having the same problems over and over. We'd figure out a compromise to a situation, but it wouldn't stick. Tim would still buy on impulse. He'd forget to tell me important things. And plenty of other instances. And I couldn't understand why.

Now that I'm reading some books on ADD -- right now, I'm working on a Thom Hartmann book, which stresses that ADD shouldn't be viewed as a disease or illness, just as a fact -- I see Tim in these pages. The traits described in the book practically paint Tim's portrait.

So many of the things I got angry about were listed as characteristics of ADD. It made me start thinking. About all the times I lectured and ranted to Tim, furious and exasperated over yet another misunderstanding. Or the times I angrily told Tim I couldn't deal with it anymore, had tried to compromise, and now he needed to come and meet me in the middle. And all the times he sat there, miserable and penitent, promising he'd do better.

It made me feel pretty terrible. I feel like I failed him in some very basic way.

Tim says that I'm overreacting -- though he certainly appreciates my apologies -- because there was no way I could have known. Except that I have known for years that he has ADD, and I've made very little effort to truly understand what that means. I figured it just meant he was impulsive and forgetful.

And it's not like Tim could have corrected me. Thanks to a lot of factors, he really doesn't know much about ADD either. I asked him if/how they explained ADD to him, since he was only about 10 at the time. He isn't too clear on the specifics, so he just remembers a general feeling of, "This is why Tim can't sit still."

So they put him on Ritalin, which was a resounding failure. Lacking other options (this was back in the late 80s, when Ritalin was more or less the go-to med), his parents put him in Special Ed. There, he learned a few classroom coping skills -- mainly how to focus by blocking everything else out. After a year and a half, they were satisfied enough with the results to put him back in his old school.

And then? Nothing. His parents never tried new medications. They never tried to find out more about the condition. They never took him to a doctor for it again, or had him see a therapist (psychological or occupational) to help deal with it. He was just expected to pick up and move on.

So, really, how could Tim know what sprang from ADD and what didn't? How could he have told me when I was making unreasonable demands? Neither of us realized just how thoroughly ADD affects everything.

But we're learning, that's for sure. As I read, it's becoming clear that ADD pervades most of his personality. In other words, he's spent most of his life beating himself up for things that are hard-wired into him. Not to mention all the time other people were giving him grief.

His parents would tell him to clean the kitchen and get angry when, hours later, he was not finished. They'd accuse him of slacking off. In fact, Tim sees every item in the kitchen as a separate task. Looking at the kitchen that way, it's no wonder he feels overwhelmed at the prospect. No wonder he never knows where to start.

Our solution? I'll get him started. If I want him to clean the kitchen, I need to write a list of what I want him to do, and then we'll decide together on which task to start with. After awhile, the list may become ingrained in Tim's mind. If not, he'll have an iTouch around the end of January. He can make lists for various chores, errands and other situations.

It'll be a lot of work. And it will involve more misunderstandings, I'm certain. Plus a lot of trial and error. But at least we'll be working together instead of butting heads. I'm kind of appalled to look back and see how much time Tim and I have wasted by trying to undo basic personality traits.

And yes, I understand that we have the rest of our lives ahead of us. I also know hindsight is 20-20. Still, I feel like this should have been a priority long before now.

I guess, in the end, what matters is that I'm making it a priority now.

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Friday, December 11

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Thursday, December 10

A more affordable way to lose a cell phone

Yep, I lost my phone. To my credit, it's the first one I've ever lost. Still, it's upsetting to say the least. We've done a couple of searches in the house, to no avail.

I'm going to try and do one last grid search of the apartment. I am convinced it's here, and not just because I called all the spots we visited the week before it went missing. I distinctly remember the night before Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving eve?) I was using the landline because my cell was low on charge. I thought, "Gee, I'd better charge it soon because it will die overnight." And, of course, I didn't.

If I still don't find it, I have to figure out what to do next.

I don't particularly want to buy a new phone because even the crappy ones aren't cheap, unless you're willing to sign away an extra 1-2 years of your life. Especially since this isn't my personal plan, I don't feel comfortable doing that.

I suppose the other option is to cancel the line. But we only have a year left, and my line costs around $12-15 a month. So the termination fee will be about as much (if not more) than keeping the line open. And if I choose the latter, I have some options if I either find my phone or meet someone who wants to upgrade to a nicer one. I could also prowl eBay if I'm feeling particularly desperate, which, for the moment, I'm not.

So I think I'm going to attempt to get a new SIM card instead. I have to check with AT&T, but if I get a new one, that should make the old one defunct. That would keep anyone from using our plan's minutes -- assuming someone found and kept my phone. At the same time, we wouldn't have to pay the termination fee, and, if I find another phone, I could go back to having a phone.

I figure that's the most affordable way to pay the stupidity tax.


Wednesday, December 9


It's what I'm battling. And how I feel (assuming we're keeping this PG).

Yesterday, I got so dehydrated that even touching my skin (to, say, put on lotion) made me wince. Climbing into bed elicited a yelp. Finally, I got a clue and sent Tim for some Powerade, which did help immensely. So now I'm just down to some coughing, a sore throat and a nose that somehow manages to be stuffed up and yet constantly running. Go figure.

Mostly I'm just wallowing a bit in self-pity. And enjoying the Puffs Plus that we splurged on because our noses had been rubbed raw from using toilet paper in lieu of tissues. (Did I mention Tim is sick too? He's been nice enough not to club me over the head for all the whining I'm doing.)

Sadly, there's not much else to report. Tim's eager for me to get better, if for no other reason than we can get his punching bag. We went to Sports Authority on Sunday and checked out some sale items. It looks like the $99.99 stand and $79.99 100-lb bag will suit us pretty well. With some coupons, the whole thing will run around $150, including tax.

We each got a set of gloves, plus Tim got foot guards since he practices shoeless, even when he's kicking. And we have to go by Home Depot to get bags of sand. Three to weight down the sand ($5-8, compared to the $45 weight plates the catalog pictures show) and two to fill up the heavy bag. So, in all, it will cost around $250 to $275, but that's not bad given how much we're getting.

Perhaps I will even start using it to get some exercise. If nothing else, it will be a great thing to vent frustration on. I find it's nice, when you're really angry, to be able to wear yourself out physically. And now I can do it from the comfort of my own home!

That's about all the excitement there is, I'm afraid. I'm off to eat some oranges and blow my nose on some very tender tissues. Don't be jealous, it's unbecoming.

Monday, December 7

How much would you save?

The other day, I needed some cheering up, and so Tim threw on some Margaret Cho stand-up for me. It did the trick, even if she is brutal at times.

I will always love Margaret Cho because she's unflinching. Not everything she says is golden and hilarious, but the stuff she does get right is memorable beyond belief. More than that, she's fearless about being honest. She holds her guts up to the world and, if we want, she'll offer us a microscope for a better view.

She talks about her completely messed-up body image, about substance abuse, self-hatred, sexuality and other issues that really shouldn't be funny at all. But she pulls it off. And here is one of my favorite rants of hers:

So from the age of 10, I became anorexic, and then bulimic, and then stayed that way for about 20 years, until one day I just said, "Hey, what if this is it? What if this is just what I look like and nothing I do changes that? So how much time would I save if I stopped taking that extra second every time I look in the mirror to call myself a big fat f---? How much time would I save if I just let myself walk by a plate-glass window without sucking in my gut and throwing back my shoulders? How much time would I save?" And it turns out I save about 97 minutes a week. I can take a pottery class.

Okay, it's funny. But it's also painfully accurate. This quote made me realize just how rare a thing it is in this society to accept yourself as is. You're always supposed to be getting better. You're always supposed to be working toward something. But maybe instead you could just make a vase for Mother's Day.

All well and good, but I suppose I ought to tie it to this blog, eh?

Any money situation creates plenty of questions. But for the purposes of this post, I'm going to go general. Whether you have savings and still don't feel safe; whether you are still in debt and are obsessed with getting out; whether you are underwater on your house. The question is the same:

How much more could you enjoy life if you stopped centering everything on money? (FYI, I'm addressing this to myself, as much as any of you.)

What if every waking moment weren't consumed by thoughts of how to increase your savings account or your credit card payment? What if you could stop berating yourself for past financial choices? What if you could let yourself accept that nothing is certain in life and we can never be completely prepared? What if you could stop always putting off happiness today for security tomorrow?

How much time and energy would you save? How much frustration, stress and sorrow could you avert? How many more happy memories could you make?

And a PS to anyone out there suffering from depression:

What if we all just stopped listening to that Greek chorus in our heads? You know, the one that says we're not good enough, thin enough, smart enough, pretty enough. What if we just started disagreeing?

What if one day, we just started telling ourselves, "No! That's it! You know what? I'm fine! I'm not bad. Not awful. Not unlovable. I'm fine!" I wonder how much time we could save, not hating ourselves. Not shrinking away from some criticism we imagine we see in other people's eyes.

Sunday, December 6

Spending to save (our sanity)

I was raised to be frugal. Spending money unnecessarily was BAD and that's all there was to it. If you absolutely had to spend money, you had to be sure you a) found the best deal and b) spent it on someone else whenever possible. In other words, I'm the type who sneers at ads that say, "The more you spend, the more you save!"

I tell you all this so you can truly appreciate the importance of my agreeing to buy Tim a $200 punching bag.

For two years now, Tim has been telling me he wants a punching bag. For two years, I've put him off. We didn't have space in the old apartment; here, we are trying to concentrate on debt reduction, while I still have contract work. But Thursday I agreed to start searching.

Tim has been increasingly antsy since we moved. Part of it, I think, is that he's finally feeling well enough to be out and about. Also, he can drive around now, so there's an inherent desire to make up for lost time. Finally, there's the fact that he has ADD and no medication. We've worked on all these areas in various ways, but each one is going to be a long-term project. Meanwhile, he's about to quit smoking, which means his anxiety will be through the roof.

We're also discussing getting a iPod Touch. It would provide most of the functionality Tim needs to keep on task. You can create about a zillion alarms, and the volume can be adjusted so even Tim notices. He can make notes in it. And there are plenty of free downloadable apps that could help him -- including "To do" lists and spending trackers. That's still up in the air, but if it can wait until the new year, we can pay for most of it with gift cards, I think.

Even if we did have to pay for it, the gadget may be worthwhile. I've always hated repeating myself. A lot. And Tim's attention strays easily. So I have to not only repeat things, but also remind him of things he promised to do. One of our new main projects is finding out more coping techniques used by people with ADD. So that's something he could program into his phone -- whether it's a reminder to read part of a book on ADD or to check out ADD blogs and discussion forums.

Right now, I spend a good chunk of my time having to help him remember to get things done, and trying to help him rein in his impulsiveness -- especially in spending -- that it's hard to do much else. Both in day-to-day life and in our relationship. It's creating a lot of friction and it's caused a lot of fights. (I'm going to try and expand on that in another post.)

In other words, this is a case of priorities. We can get out of debt first, then get the punching bag and PDA later. But that may not be what's best for our relationship. And I plan to keep Tim around a lot longer than the debt. So perhaps he should be a priority, too.

And so I say: We're spending to save -- our sanity, and our marriage.

Friday, December 4

Freebie Friday

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Wednesday, December 2

Well, damn!

This will teach me to talk about plans before enacting them.

I was super excited about exchanging some swagbucks for some gift cards. By my calculation, you could get $25 of free household toiletries for only 100 SB. Sounded great; almost too good to be true. Which probably should have tipped me off.

Thanks to a message from FrugalCityDweller, I took a closer look at the Alice gift card redemption rules. Turns out, you can only get one per Swagbucks account. In order to use the credit, you have to supply the code while you're actually signing up for an account.

In other words, it's $5 off your first order. Not a bad deal, but certainly not as fabulous as I had thought.

So I apologize to anyone who I got amped up over free household goodies. Know that I, too, am completely bummed by the lack of free drugstore items in my life.

I guess I should have realized that the site wouldn't want people like me taking advantage of multiple gift cards. Then again, Tim's PSP just arrived -- the PSP that was paid for by Swagbuck gift codes! So my faith in Swagbucks partners is, I hope, somewhat understandable.

That said, I'll be sure to check and double-check the fine print from now on, before I go getting our collective hopes up.

Sorry 'bout that.

I may never buy toilet paper again!

And not in some creepy three-seashells kind of way. Or stealing TP from restaurant bathrooms. I'm talking about, where I will now be getting lots of things free!

If you're not familiar with, it's a nifty little site. Essentially it's a newer, better There are all sorts of toiletries and household items to buy.

A helpful checklist when you sign up lets you designate specific items you tend to shop for. Then, you can click on those items -- garbage bags, laundry detergent, etc -- and see the selection available. Or do a search (by item or brand) for the exact thing you want.

One of my favorite features is that you can set up reminders. As you choose items for the "My Products" page, the site asks how frequently you buy them. It will then remind you if you're due to run out soon. This is great for people like me. I constantly run out of garbage bags, hand soap and a few other random things. Then I have to hunt around for whatever deal I can get at that exact moment. The reminder function will probably save me a bundle.

Another nice thing? Automatic coupons. The site keeps track of various manufacturer's coupons and applies them without any work on your part. No fuss, no muss. Great for anyone who hates the hassle of clipping.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, shipping is always free! This has always been a sticking point for me, when it comes to online drugstores. Sure, the prices may be lower, but that doesn't help me if the shipping costs obliterate any savings., though, has no physical location, so there's never any sales tax or shipping costs. The price you see is the price you get.

Okay, all this is great, you're thinking, but how does any of this mean I get free stuff? Well, we're back to one of my favorite themes: Why Swagbucks is awesome!

Swagbucks has $5 gift cards for 20 SB. Twenty. If you're even remotely diligent about your searches, you can get that in about 10 days. If you're kind of compulsive, like me, you'll get one in 5-6 days. (And when you sign up, Swagbucks starts you off with 3 SB, just to get you on your way.) has a pretty wide selection. Under my products, I have deodorant, shampoo, razors, garbage bags, storage containers, hair scrunchies, vitamins, sunscreen and cat food -- just to name a small selection. I was psyched to see a couple of Catwalk products that I have been wanting to try out. (I'm a sucker for anything by Tigi!) We've also been discussing the need for a Swiffer around here, and that's in Alice's inventory.

Just think how nice it would be to spend $25 less a month in your drugstore. Whether you want to try out Gladware, stock up on batteries, get some Forever stamps or get some extra contact lens solution, you're set with And isn't it always nice to get a little extra breathing room in your budget?

Use that $25 to snowflake your debt, add a little extra to your savings, or -- heck -- go out to Chili's and get the "2 for $20" deal. Whatever. All I know is, we'll be spending a lot less on toilet paper around here.

Sign up at Swagbucks, and get started on your own free toiletries.

If you got $25 a month for, what would you buy? Necessities? Indulgences?

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Tuesday, December 1

How much have we really learned?

The Nation Retail Federation released the numbers from Black Friday weekend. And people are not optimistic. Apparently, the American consumer just isn't consuming the way he used to.

More people came out this year -- 195 million, compared to last year's 172 million -- but people spent less. And this fills retailers with additional worry that sales won't be up to even their lowered expectations.

The precipitous drop in spending? A whopping $29.16. (Last year it was $372.47, this year $343.31.)

I hate to nitpick about details, but I'd like to make a quick point here:

  • Average spending amount is down 8 percent per person
  • Number of people spending is up 13.4%
  • That means the retailers made more money than last year

That said, if I were a retailer, I would be worried -- just not for the same reasons. People are concerned that shoppers spent less, whereas I'd be worried that more people bothered going out on Black Friday. To me, that means more people are looking for good deals, hoping to spend less (and get shopping done earlier) this holiday season.

This all sounds like such a hopeful thing. People are spending less (okay, only $30 less, on average, but it's something right?) and trying to cash in on available savings. Maybe they've finally had the epiphany. Maybe they finally get it.

So does this mean that Americans are finally learning to keep to a budget when it comes to holiday shopping? In short, no.

What this means is that, even as jobs continue to vanish, even as average families await any sign of the economic upswing, American shoppers will go out (or online) and spend almost $350. Over a four-day period.

Okay, so the $343 is an average. This means that some people spent less. I, for example, spent a whopping $51 on Friday and have yet to get anything else. But an average also means that plenty of people spent more. Some probably spent much, much more.

It's important to note that a lot of people took advantage of discounts on large appliances. That does help explain some of the spending. On the other hand,almost one-third of the 5,000 people surveyed had bought toys. So it's pretty clear that not all sales were ranges or washer/dryers.

Oh, and let's not forget that prices have dropped since last year on many items. Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles both decreased by $100, to make themselves more appealing. And Wal-Mart was selling Nintendo DS systems for $70 less than retail. In other words, people could have been just as rampantly consumerist as last year, but simply had a smaller total.

The really great news, though? Roughtly 40 percent of those surveyed said they were 10 percent -- or less -- done with their holiday shopping. That's hundreds of dollars more spending!

So, assuming this survey is representative (and it's supposed to be, with a 1.4 percent margin of error) then Americans are spending about as blindly as they have in the past. To be more precise, this survey tells us that about 72 percent of Americans have done less than half of their gift buying. After spending, on average, almost $350 in the last five days.

All of this is disheartening enough, but you know what's more? It's going to get worse.

I know it is because, every single year, people swear up and down that they're going to rein in their spending. This year, they say, they're going to keep the number of presents smaller. And they don't.

They go over budget, they take advantage of too many sales, or they just get that last-minute panic most of us have -- that we haven't bought enough for those we care about -- and run out to stock up on some more goodies.

So what have we actually learned? I say not much, if anything at all.

More people went to trouble of waking up early this year for the door buster specials. Perhaps that means some have learned that their time isn't necessarily more valuable than saving a few bucks. Then again, if they end up s

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