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Saturday, August 29, 2009

French Frugality and Decluttering

Today is the 4th anniversary of Katrina, or "the storm," as it's called in "the Katrina area." I was told by a psychiatric nurse that 4th anniversaries are occasions of psychological stress. I was awaiting stress and/or inspiration; perhaps luckily neither was forthcoming. I was lucky too in my storm: four big trees through the roof, while we were safe in a strong school building was definitely "Katrina Lite."

So, further thoughts on French frugality. My three new pairs of pants will, I hope, see me through the entire year, at least. Since they are made of new-fangled synthetics, I am not sure of their longevity. I have long thought that I could shop at Bergdorf's or Saks, given how much I end up spending at various alternative venues. Of course, I donate back my mistakes, so I justify them by saying that in buying and re-donating I am actaually donating to charity--twice. But the over-abundance is starting to get to me.

Each year, I set decluttering as a goal, and each year, I never quite complete the task. I am hoping that my three pairs of pants will keep me from temptation.

As part of my decluttering quest, I decluttered my inbox. In addition to deleting messages, I unsubscribed to many many tempting sites. I got on these lists by succumbing to an offer of free shipping.

Now I am off. No more Ann Taylor Loft, Talbots, Banana Republic, Steve Madden (shoes for Miss Em), Lands End, Levenger, and on and on. Honestly, it's better not to know about sales and special offers.

Now when I open my inbox, I can say "Ahhhhhhhhh."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Spent So Much Money on Eileen Fisher and Chico's Pants: The Gaze

Obviously, I feel very guilty, since I keep returning to those pants. For the record, the three pairs came to about $180.00, after various discounts and coupons. Plus, my mother bought me the pants from Chico's--thanks Mom!

So even though I seek to glorify these purchases by adverting to the concept of Franch Frugality, in truth, the reason has to do with the GAZE.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that students listen to only a small portion of what a teacher says. The ONLY thing I can be sure my students will pick up on is the magical phrase: extra credit. Sometimes they hallucinate, as when they say But you said we could have extra credit for coming to class!

Teachers are subject to the GAZE. Anyone who has spent any time in literary theory classes or film classes knows about the male gaze (famous article by Laura Mulvey: "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") and its many permutations.

So while teachers seem to have all the power (because they make up the tests and do the grading, obviously), as they intone away on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the students are, it must be admitted, not paying attention to the lecture. But they are GAZING upon the teacher. The GAZER, as we know from Mulvey et al, has the power to which the OBJECT of the GAZE is vulnerable.

I know this for a fact, because as I left my classroom yesterday, I overheard two fellows chatting as they waited for their class. They were saying, "That teacher has the biggest muffin top I've ever seen!" It is a testament to the power of the gaze that every woman to whom I related this story immediately said, "OMG, that must have been ME they were talking about!"

My new pants have wide and stretchy waistbands. Nuff said!

Francophilia and French Fashion Frugality

My family is comprised of francophiles. Indeed, I think I was in part interested in Mr. FS when we met because he had lived in France not once, when his father had a teaching Fulbright in 1968, but twice, when he returned post-college for two years. Hence he is fluent in French, while I am not, a source of frustration and, I'm afraid, some jealousy (of our son, who is there now).

The myth of French frugality is widespread. We get a glimpse of it in Babette's Feast, when we see Babette wrangling with the fishmonger and then cooking so as to wring the most flavor out of humble ingredients. (Of course, at the end she blows her lottery windfall on a fabulous feast out of artistry and love for the women who took her in . . . well, you should see the film).

I'm talking about French shopping frugality. This involves having a few basic items of excellent fit to be varied with au courant accessories. Including, of course, the scarf. I have never really managed this. My family sport involved getting as much as possible for as little as possible. My mother always spoke of French fashion frugality as a goal. She called it New York City-No Closet shopping. But her closets reveal that she has never achieved this ideal, and, in fact, has strayed from it more and more over the years as money became less an issue.

I have a French friend here and, by and large, she exemplifies the cliche. She buys very little, spends more on individual items than I do, and doesn't think about it again. This last is key. Once you have what you need, you STOP LOOKING.

Well, it's hard to stop looking with the internet. But I am aiming for a more French way of doing things this year. I know my readers were fascinated (hope the irony is evident) by my tale of two Eileen Fisher pants, bought on sale, but still expensive for me, the princess of the $3.00 thrift find.

The EF pants were an acknowledgment of my misery at the waistband. Then, in a further journey to the Dark Side, I went to Chico's where I bought a pair of pants that look kind of like leggings. Other people must have my problem, because these pants are now sold out in many sizes including mine.

Anyway, I have 3 new pairs of pants. I am going to try to STOP LOOKING for a while. I am going to try to embrace the ethic of French fashion frugality. It's soooooo hard for a thrift store girl like me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Starving Student: More Food for Thought

Yesterday, my blogpal Duchesse urged me to send Frugal Son some money so he can enjoy a good meal in Paris. In fact, Frugal Son has plenty of money in his account, not to mention the fact that he has a credit card, which is linked to our credit card.

I emailed him the restaurant suggestions--for which, many thanks. Here is his response. The gist is that he wants to wait till he has some compadres with whom to enjoy a restaurant meal.

I already sort of responded to Duchesse but I’ll go into greater detail here (just got approached by one of those women who asks “do you speak English” and then shows you a card with something asking for money). First off, the fact that R. Mouffetard has cheap, student eateries is not a bad thing since, at the moment, I am a poor college student. Also, as I mentioned in an earlier snippet of an email, eating alone is not even a quarter as enjoyable as eating with a friend. As she once mentioned, eating out is not just to gain nourishment in the corporeal sense, it is also a time to relax and enjoy the company of others. Seeing as how I have no one to share a meal with, it would much less enjoyable and I’d be surrounded by all the other people with their friends so I’d be constantly reminded that I’m alone. Hopefully once I have friends I will be able to return to Paris and enjoy a more expensive meal in a restaurant but until then, it’s bread and cheese for me.

He has 5 months more in France.

And thanks to Duchesse for the restaurant suggestions. I have a feeling we'll be eating in some en famille on our next family trip.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Frugal Son still in Paris: How to Do An Abroad Program the Frugal Way

Is it bad to be jealous of your child? Well, I always wanted to spend a semester in France, but my college only had one slot--for a French major. So I asked my French teacher if I could be a French major and he said NON, because I wasn't fluent in French.

To fit with my frugal theme, let me point out that for many of these abroad programs, you pay your home school's tuition and fees. If you are on scholarship--merit or need-based--that money applies. If you are paying $50,000/year for a private school, well, that's what you are paying to do the abroad program. It seems to me that if one is not eligible for massive amounts of need-aid, then one should go to the state school and do the abroad program from there.

THEN you can transfer, if you so desire,to your fancy college. Last year, I read an article about how Columbia University (fancy college par excellence) wouldn't take the transfer credits from a student who, on his own, spent a year in England or Scotland. The price was much lower than Columbia's, maybe half or less. Columbia spokespeople argued, unconvincingly, that they weren't sure of the quality of the program. YEAH-right.

Excerpt from email:

Breakfast this morning was really crowded. I think about 30 Germans came in last night so the cave was full to the brim. I took my tray up to the courtyard and ate en terasse. Or en plein air. It was cloudy this morning and since the sun had barely started coming up at 8am it was really quite chilly especially since it was breezy. First I walked to Hotel de Cluny and, while sitting in the park typing up this letter, I discovered some very tenuous free internet from the McDonald’s across the street. Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished up this letter yet so I didn’t send it. From Cluny, I walked to Rue Mouffetard which is where I am right now. What a splendid place. There are at least three fromageries, a couple poissoneries, and tons of fruit and veggie venders. I was planning on just eating my left over President on left over bread for lunch (I had a bit but it really has gone a bit too far since I wasn’t able to refrigerate it) but I think I’m going to have to buy something here. There is a little crottin of raw milk chevre for just a euro and maybe I’ll buy a couple figs because they look so good. I love figs. Must be because of my name. On the way in I bought a Yop which, for the money, is actually one of the better ways of nourishing oneself with 585 calories per bottle. Also, there is another boucherie here and watching the guys actually cut and prepare the meat is great. Man, I’m not sure if French people actually shop at places like R. Mouffetard but it sure is idyllic and I like to imagine them doing so. I’m going to buy 4 or 5 figs (I hope the shopkeeper doesn’t scorn my miniature purchase) and the little crottin of chevre and then I’m just going to sit down and be happy. Well, time for me to go look longingly at the langoustines and huitres and snails and beautiful sardines. I’m dying for a kitchen, even one with just a single, lousy electric burner.

By the way, you guys could definitely live here. Just sell your 202 square meter house for say, $350,000 (225,800 euros) and then you can buy a 29 square meter apartment (with miniature kitchen, living room, bedroom, and toilet) on the 4th floor sans acenseur in the 18th arron. for just 350,000 euros! DO IT. Well, I’m off to peruse R. Mouffetard a bit more and be jealous of every French person I see.

What do you think? Should we buy the teeny apartment in Paris?

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Frugal--Maybe Squeamy--Moment in Paris

Well, after all the anxiety with the visa chronicled earlier, Frugal Son is now in Paris! He'll be wandering around a bit before he begins his semester in Nantes. Oh lucky boy. He is living my dream. One of them, anyway.

So, here is a bit of an email, describing a squeamy moment.

It’s now 1pm and I’m in the Tuileries where I just had lunch. Lunch was a delicious and, more importantly, FREE pizza courtesy of wasteful American tourists. A huge gaggle of Americans—must’ve been some sort of school trip because there were about 20 kids and 5 adults—came to the hostel last night and left this morning. I know they left because they were making such a racket this morning so I went to the window and saw them all gathered in the courtyard with their luggage. I also noticed that a couple of them were holding pizza boxes which I assume were left-over from the night before.

I went about my business getting ready for the day and then at about 7:45 I went down to the cave to get breakfast. On my way down, I noticed two pizza boxes left on the table but, for the time being, I ignored them. For breakfast I had chocolat chaud, jus d’orange, pain chocolat, AND a section of baguette (with butter and confiture de groseille…what exactly are groseilles?). Feeling quite satisfied I went out to the courtyard and of course I had to check out the pizza boxes. JACKPOT! Inside one was a FULL pizza (probably 9” in diameter) with jambon, olives, capers,Coeur d’artichaud et champignons. YUM. The other box had about half of a pizza but I didn’t take a good look at the toppings because I was absolutely smitten with the first one. I sat at the table, surreptitiously scanning the surroundings to see if there were any straggling Americans who might claim the pizza. After checking to be sure that no one was watching and preemptively opening my backpack, I moved the full pizza box to my bag and zipped it up in one fluid motion. Then I briskly walked out of the hostel and began my day.

After St. Chapelle I walked along the Seine, past the Louvre and to my present location where I found a nice shady spot to eat lunch. I thought I was going to be able to stretch the pizza to be both lunch and dinner but I was famished so I ate the whole thing. Too bad I couldn’t fit both boxes in my bag. In the shade, with the wind, it’s actually almost chilly after sitting down for a while! I think I’ll wander around here a bit more and then head across the river to Musee d’Orsay. Update later.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tightwad Gazette and Philosophy: Supermarket vs Stock Market

The justly famous Tightwad Gazette is, I believe, misunderstood. I think most people think of it as a collection of tips. There are tips aplenty, most of which I either already did or found useless (to me) or irrelevant (again to me).

Even though I was pretty advanced in the frugal way by the time I got a hold of these books, first by borrowing them from a friend and then by snagging them at a thrift store, I love the books and will probably never pass them on. I re-read them all the time. Not for the tips, but for the philosophy. Plus, Amy Dacyzyn is an excellent writer.

So, here's a bit of her philosophy: an essay in TG II called "The Supermarket versus the Stock Market" (pp. 51-52). She responds to people who have urged her to write about investing. She counters by saying that, first of all, she feels like she's not qualified. Then she goes on to wonder if anyone really is. That's a thought that has crossed my mind of late. I'm not just talking about bloggers here; I'm talking about all the so-called "experts" with or without MBAs who have been declaring that "no one could have seen the financial meltdown coming."

She later points out that "Tightwaddery gives you a great financial return [on investment]." Her example is a family that follows her frugal shopping tips and saves $250.00 a month. This is in the early 90s, by the way. You would need $50,000.00 earning 6% a year to get the same $3000.00. Yes, I am ignoring compound interest.

Fast forward to now. My Vanguard Money Market is earning less than 1%. Even at 1% I would need $300,000 to earn the grocery savings. Oh, and what if I had done a cashout re-fi as all my mortgage broker acquaintances were urging me two summers ago? And invested the proceeds in the stock market as they were advising?

You get the picture. The only sure things these days--or any days, really--are paying off your mortgage and learning to save on necessities. Somehow no one in the financial press was saying this during the boom years. Or bubble years.

Thank you, Amy, for your timeless wisdom.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Paperbackswap, Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and Cucina Povera

All one topic, in spite of the tri-part title. I just got the Zuni Cafe Cookbook in the mail, courtesy of a nice member of This has been on my wishlist for a while. The sender was very generous; the cheapest you can buy the book on Amazon is around $9.00, plus shipping.

I emailed the sender, thanking her for sending this beautiful book. She replied that she had gotten it at a yard sale for 50 cents! How thoughtful of her to get it for me!

The restaurant and the cookbook are acclaimed mostly for roast chicken on bread salad. Maybe I'll make that, maybe not. Most of the recipes are rather baroque--both the prose and the style of cooking. This is fun to read in small doses, but I'll leave it to my son to make some of the recipes. He is unfazed by picky and complex recipes.

There is one recipe I will try: the panade. As always, I gravitate to the most humble recipes. That this is made with day-old bread is a bonus, since I have ample homemade bread courtesy of Mr. FS.

The panade I am most likely to make consists of 6 cups of onions cooked waaayyyy down, layered with cooked chard (which I will have in my garden one of these days), dried bread, broth or water, and cheese. BAked for a while till it "oozes liquid."

Leftovers can be fried in an "amorphous patty." Then topped with a poached egg.

I have been dreaming of this all day, but, even in the interests of research and public service, this will have to wait a while. It's still in the 90s here and I am NOT turning on my oven. I'm hoping for an early fall.

Always in search of humble but good recipes, dear readers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Homemade Broth: RIP

Home cooks learn pretty quickly that homemade broth is a treasure, making as much of a difference in a finished dish as, say, decent parmesan cheese as opposed to the vile stuff in the shaker box. We eat so little meat around here that I ration broth as a precious nectar.

So I just have to get this off my chest. When we were in California, we made enchiladas, using a convenient rotisserie chicken. From the carcass, we made a yummy broth, for which we did not have an immediate purpose. As our time there wound down, I looked with anxiety at the broth. I made tortilla soup for lunch with about 1/3 of it. The rest languished.

I asked my sister-in-law if I should freeze the rest. No, she said, we'll give it to Pixie.

Pixie is the DOG. Somehow, I just don't think Pixie fully appreciates homemade broth.

This event recapitulates another. In my role as advice-giver and nag, I was explaining to a colleague who is always lamenting her money problems, hatred of cooking, over-reliance on fast food, and lack of time, how to solve all at once. She had a slow cooker, so I told her to buy a pot roast. I explained that the pot roast, plus one onion, and a little water, would yield several meals for her and her children. Day 1: success! For Days 2 and 3, I explained, she would eat left-overs the first day, followed by a beef and whatever (pasta, barley, vegetable) soup made with the abundant broth the slow cooker yields.

Oh, she said, we have no left overs.


The second day, I fed the pot roast to all the little boys who came over after school.

OKAAAYYYYYYYYYY. But what about the broth?

Oh, she said, we gave it to the dog. He looked so hungry while we were eating the pot roast.

Thank you for letting me get these upsetting events off my chest. Now I can move on.

And Dog People, am I a bad person to deny dogs homemade broth?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dorm Supplies for My Little Princess: Squeam Factor in Practice

A while ago, I wrote about the squeam factor, noting that the more squeamish an item makes the buyer in the used marketplace feel, the cheaper it will be. And the better. And the more plentiful. Now we will move from theory to practice. Or praxis, as befits the academic setting.

Case in point: bedding.

My wonderful daughter, now away at college, wrote a lengthy email about her first few days. She also mentioned her wonderful bed:

I'd also like to say I have the most comfortable bed known to man. I can't explain it. SO much better than LSMSA. Is it that foam? The soft sheets? The wonderful down pillows? I don't know, but it's lovely and I can fall right to sleep in it. Also, how could I ever have lived without a fleece blanket?! I'm in love!

Even though I am definitely of peasant stock, I am the mother of a princess. We wouldn't want the princess to feel a pea, now would we?

The bedding is comprised of squeam factor items:

Foam: a piece of very good memory foam, about the size of a twin bed, that seems to have been cut off a larger pad and donated to Habitat. Cost: $3.00.

Fleece blanket: a polarfleece blanket from LL Bean, twin, blue. Not only does this have the squeam factor, but it is monogrammed AWSF. Frugal Son suggested that--should anyone ask--Miss Em say the initials stand for Alaskan Wilderness Sealife Foundation. Also $3.00.

Down pillow: can you think of anything more squeam-inducing than a pillow? Several years ago, I learned that down pillows can be machine washed and dried. So obviously, all squeam is removed by such treatment. Cost for 4 is only $4.00!!

Total of $10.00 plus lots of very hot water and soap. A bed fit for an academic princess.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Visa Woes and Other Anxieties

This is not about credit cards. The OTHER kind of visa.

Well, Frugal Son just got his visa for 5 months in France (pauvre petit!). Problem is that he was supposed to leave this morning. When it was clear that the USPS would not get it here on time, we re-scheduled his flight.

Whose fault? That's what God says in Paradise Lost. The answer: our fault. "Whose but his own? I made him just and right." Then God goes on to say the words that I tell my student are the key to understanding Paradise Lost. "Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall."

So, the fault lies with Frugal Son who underestimated the time it would take to get a visa, which entailed an appointment (only 5 available per day) and a trip to the French Consulate in Houston. Then he had to wait over a week for the paperwork to be done.

The French Consulate came through.

But a bit of fault lies with USPS. The fellow behind the counter did not tell me that express mail was not really overnight, though I asked. And that Sunday delivery cost extra. We were ecstatic to see that the item arrived in New Orleans Saturday at 6 a.m., so we assumed we would get it that day. We live only 40 minutes away.

I called the USPS and the operator said "Didn't you get an estimated delivery date on your receipt?" What receipt? I wasn't given one.

So 90% on Frugal Son, who was nagged by us all summer.
10% to USPS for poor customer service at point of purchase.

Meanwhile, postal truck has been outside for 20 minutes with worker just sitting in there. After 15 minutes, he put one foot on the ground.

Stress Level: huge. Cost of nagging son all summer: huge.

What about the financial cost? Strangely none: the price of the ticket has gone down (a LOT, thanks to the recession?), so even with a $250 penalty and the loss of a one-way ticket to New York, we came out a little ahead.

Frugal Son is more cavalier than most about deadlines and bureaucracy. All this was a good lesson for him. But the stress has taken some years off my life, I'm afraid.

Frugal Son accepts 90% of the responsibility. But he also says FEDEX, which we've never used, has a customer for life!

Does anyone have tips for dealing with cavalier and procrastinating youth, when they are still supported by you? One friend, with an even more cavalier son, said, "Let him fail." To which I replied, "But we have to pay for whatever happens." Even if it "come out of his bank account," it's still all on us. Right?

Any tips or wisdom appreciated.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

School Supplies the Frugal Way: EASY

Inspired by a jaunt around the blogosphere and trying to avoid thinking about the real stress-inducing event in my life.

One blogger wrote that school supplies can REEK HAVOC on your budget (Sorry, I know I have my fair share of typos too, but this one is funny. No link for obvious reasons). Over the past ten or so years of parenting, I have found that school supplies remain one of the great deals of the back-to-school season. Notebooks and 10-packs of pens for a dime. Lots of 4 for a $1.00 and 2 for a $1.00 specials. In fact, I stocked up so much that I refrained entirely this year, since I have a big bin chock full. Miss Em took a bunch to college yesterday and there's plenty left for next semester . . . and beyond.

As for backpacks: just get the one from LL Bean with its lifetime warranty. My late father said You are paying for the warranty. In other words, it's built into the price. So use it! Frugal Son got his in 4th grade and has had one replacement; the zipper on Miss Em's second one just started messing up and so will go back.

Tip 1: Get the LLB credit card for free monograms and shipping. I suggested this to a student who was mooning over the catalog before class. She said, "But I already have too many credit cards." I said, "Just use it for this one thing and never use it again." She looked dubious. An alternative would be to find a friend who has the card and will order for you. I did this for a friend.

Tip 2: Miss Em went off to college with a box of school supplies. College bookstores are not the place to buy your supplies, except in case of extreme emergency. One blogger recommended waiting till you got to school for supplies. Big mistake, in my opinion. Take advantage of the sales now. Best ones are at drugstores like CVS and Walgreens (Walgreens is better, usually). Those companies have been in a death match for a few years, so take advantage!

Tip 3: Back to school supply sales only happen once a year. So, for your college student, stock up for second semester, or second and third quarters.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cooking From the Pantry: Pasta Emergency

I've written before about the opposed cooking styles of me and my sister-in-law. I rely on my pantry and coordinate meals. Even though I love to shop for food and cook, I spend hardly any time at it. My sister-in-law doesn't like cooking, but needs to cook for her family and for her father, who lives nearby. She decides what to cook in the morning, shops in the afternoon for all called-for ingredients, cooks dinner, following the recipes exactly. Next day: repeat the entire process.

It's none of my business, of course. But my frugal heart was distressed during our recent visit, when I discovered more than 15 partly used packages of pasta in the pantry. These ranged from 6 penne at the bottom of the bag to about 80% of a big bag of vermicelli. Then I opened a drawer and discovered about 6 more pasta boxes with varying contents. Most of the boxes contained varying amounts of vermicelli, in fact. One day we made a pasta salad and used up a few boxes. But the rest languish because we had requests to cook things like enchiladas that required no pasta.

If I had been there a little longer, I would have cooked Mark Bittman's potato and pasta dish, which is designed to use up the remnants of all your boxes of pasta. I made this years ago from one of his Minimalist books. He has since put it on his Bitten blog at the New York Times.

I always make it a point to try any supercheap recipes I run across. The comments on the blog are, for the most part, dubious. Trust me, this is delicious, though perhaps better suited to a chilly day.

I would have made this during our visit, but I didn't think the assembled company would have considered this fit for dinner. Like Bittman's readers, they would not have been enticed by the humble ingredients. If you are as bothered by bits of pasta as I am, this is the recipe for you.


* 2 tablespoons olive oil
* 1/2 cup minced pancetta or bacon, optional
* 3 or 4 potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
* 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
* 3 or 4 small dried hot red chiles, or to taste (or substitute about 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)
* 1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes, not drained
* 1 1/2 pounds assorted dried pasta
* Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


* 1. Put several cups of water in a pot on stove, and keep it at a simmer. Place olive oil in a large saucepan, and turn heat to medium. If you're using pancetta or bacon, add it to the oil and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes slightly crisp, about 10 minutes. (If you are omitting the meat, proceed to the next step.)
* 2. Add potatoes, garlic and chiles and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes begin to brown all over, about 10 minutes.
* 3. Add tomatoes and their juice, along with 2 cups of the simmering water, and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium-low, and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally to break up the tomatoes and prevent sticking.
* 4. While potato mixture is cooking, break long dried pasta, like spaghetti, into several lengths; place cut pasta, like ziti, in a bag, and break it up with the back of a pot or a hammer. After potato mixture has simmered for about 10 minutes, add pasta and plenty of salt and pepper to pot. Simmer, stirring and adding the simmering water as necessary; mixture should remain thick and stewy, never dry.
* 5. When potatoes are tender and pasta quite tender -- this will take 20 minutes or more -- the dish is done. (It may be covered and refrigerated for a day or two, or put in a closed container and frozen for several weeks; it's likely that you will need to add more liquid when you reheat.) Check the seasoning, and add some crushed red pepper flakes, black pepper or salt if needed. Serve hot, in bowls.

Source: The New York Times

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Splurges of Summer 2009: Clothing

First, a keep-out warning to men and those of you under around 40. At best you will not be interested and at worst you will be scornful.

It is hard for me to spend more than a pittance on clothing. That is because the Thrift Store Gods have blessed me. But only for clothing, not for neat costume jewelry or furniture. So I am the one with the Chanel loafers, the cashmere sweaters (top-quality only for me, not the thin ones so prevalent today), the St. John and Carlisle jackets. All in like-new condition. Oh, and the Michael Kors handbag I picked up. In the Iliad, there are a few characters who, like the gods, just "have it": Helen of Troy and Paris have beauty; Achilles has prowess in battle. You can't be mad at them; they just "have it." I don't have the beauty or the prowess, but I do have the touch for apparel. Don't be mad at me. Hence, my difficulty in spending more than a few dollars on anything.

Those of you who are reading, women, especially over 50, have no doubt learned that it becomes harder to buy clothing for one reason (body part?) or another. For me, it is my waist, which is out of proportion to the rest of my body, which remains a size 8.

So my summer splurge of 2009 is two pairs of Eileen Fisher stretch viscose crepe pants! These were bought from Garnet Hill, on sale, at less than 1/2 of the ridiculous retail price. Eileen: viscose is rayon, a synthetic, plus you were quoted in the Wall Street Journal admitting that your prices had gotten out of hand during the recent boom days. But I had bought a pair in wool-blend at a Wellesley consignment store ($6.00 rack) and the elastic waist was pure bliss. The wool turned out to be surprisingly useful for chilly nights at Tanglewood's outdoor concerts. With the exception of a wool coat and a pair of Uggs (also half-price), these pants are the most expensive clothing I have ever bought.

I am trying to be more French in my shopping, although any French person would laugh at my struggle here.

My final confession: I was so freaked out at succumbing to Eileen Fisher, the brand for the middle-aged woman who has given up (there's even an article called "Do not go gentle into that Eileen Fisher"), that I read the comments on Eileen offered by fellow bloggers Duchesse and DejaPseu. I promise you ladies, the pants are not boxy or baggy. Tell me it's OK.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Wedding Gift from My Grandmother

When we visit my mother in Stockbridge, we do all the cooking. Because she hates to cook. And we like to cook. It is not a great place to cook, because the house is a smallish cottage with a tiny awkward kitchen that is difficult to work in.

For the past few years, I noticed--in a not-quite-paying-attention way--two nice pots: a Dutch oven and a 2 quart saucepan. These are Le Creuset style, but made in Belgium. I assumed my mother had bought them somewhere (she loves to shop, though she hates to cook), because I couldn't remember them from the days of my grandparents or my great aunt, who, with her husband, was the original owner of the house.

This year, I asked my mother why she had such nice pots. She said, "They were to be a wedding present to you from your grandmother. But you weren't married."


Anyway, my beloved grandmother Emmi died in 1983; I got married in 1988.

Thanks, Grandma, for the wonderful gift. I have written before about how I really don't like getting gifts. These pots are an exception.

P.S. My mother said I could take them home next time we visit.

Monday, August 10, 2009

My Splurges Summer 2009: Home Edition

Since I have never left school, I follow the school year, rather than the tax year, in budgeting. And, since Mr. FS and I do not teach in the summer, we tend to spend a lot then, because we can finally get around to doing the stuff we didn't have time for during the school year.

School starts early here. The public schools are already in session in my town. My school will begin shortly. So it is time to review my splurges of 2008-09.

Getting two good quality swivel chairs re-covered has been on my list for a while. Problem: picking fabric. At issue is an enormous Chinese Deco rug given to me by my father, after his sister left it out for the trash. It is too big for the room it's in, but no one else has the space. I am a poor decision maker, and fabric stores set my head spinning.

My splurge: I hired someone to pick my fabric. My mother discovered a woman in a furniture shop in Florida who helped her with various home items. She's really good! My mother encouraged her to start her own business, recommended her to friends, and she is now a successful small-business owner. I asked if she could work from pictures. She said OK. So she sent me swatches, bought and sent me the fabric, and will recommend a paint color.

Cost: $250.00. Definitely Worth It.

I just got the chairs back and they look great! Cost for 2 chairs $400.00 labor plus around $250.00 for fabric. The chairs are good quality, by the way; otherwise, reupholstery is not a good option. Also Worth It.

Next up: Ottoman reupholstery and some pillows (Why am I a klutz incapable of sewing???). This will end up being another $400.00 or so.

Mr. FS will do the painting himself.

It should be no surprise that I tend to be an extreme cheeeepwad with myself. I am making an effort to get what I want, rather than what other people tell me I should want. It is difficult for me.

But I think I'm going to have some help in another room next. I am so happy!

Any splurges of Summer 2009 you'd like to share?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A New Job at 80% LESS than previous salary!!

One result of the recent economic woes was that I, a frugal teacher whose financial prowess heretofore consisted mainly in being a black belt grocery shopper, began to read the on-line Wall Street Journal. The news there was so dispiriting, and often beyond my intellectual ken, that I migrated over to the Lifestyle section, where I read news on books, food, and fashion.

One feature that melded Lifestyle and Economics is a series of blog posts by the unemployed: bankers, analysts, CFOs, and the more junior incarnations of the business class. The posts were often a mix of self-pity and pugnaciousness. Shining through many was a sense of entitlement: I WORKED HARD and got an MBA. NOT FAIR!

Anyway, I checked back yesterday post-vacation and discovered that about half of the bloggers were now employed! One fellow, whose name is Spencer Cutter, was laid-off from the late Lehman Brothers in spring 2008 (in other words, before it was late). During his job search, he took care of his toddler son, while his wife remained emplyed in the luxury retail business. Guess what? Mr. C. just got a job. Only it's at 80% less than his previous job.

Let's compute. OK. I know I have a pitiful salary, though it is above the U.S median. 80% off and I would be earning less than a part-time baby-sitter. It occurs to me that when Mr. C takes an 80% pay cut, he's still earning a lot more than I am. Maybe even twice as much? Maybe more?

So while the percents are shocking, the % off method with salaries may be as misleading as in retail. If you get a designer tee shirt at 80% off its original price, you may still be paying a ridiculous $60.00 for a simple tee. The fact that Mr. C remains in the affluent class at 80% off suggests that Wall Street salaries may be as inflated as designer duds. In fact, if I've learned anything from the various lifestyle portraits of the former and current Masters of the Universe*, it's that the financial world is a parallel universe. I can't even imagine what these Masters think of people like me. Or if they think of me at all.

* Masters of the Universe: from Tom Wolfe's prescient Bonfire of the Vanities.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Frugal Bliss: Saying No to Extra Money

The title says it all. For me, the goal of frugality is not so much to retire early, but to avoid doing things I don't feel like doing. Even if those things involve extra money.

To wit. I received an email (after 8 days sans email)asking if I'd be interested in teaching a course at a seminary college nearby. Now I taught there for a few years a while back. The pay was pitiful, but I did it as a favor to a friend and for a couple of other good reasons I don't feel like going into.

If you've been reading my blog at all, one thing that should be pretty clear is that I love my chosen profession. Not every bit of it, of course. but the fact that I get to blab for hours about the poetry of John Donne is a privilege I can't even begin to describe.

Just because I love teaching doesn't mean I want to do it all the time. Or that I don't find it incredibly draining. That's why Mr. FS and I don't check the "YES" box on "Do you want a summer course?"

Back to the seminary college. Teaching there was a gruesome experience. Perhaps I pride myself too much on my excellent classroom management and rapport--not to mention my amusing presentation. But the boys at the Abbey were awful to me. they were awful to most of the "outsiders," in fact. That is because when you are in the priest-to-be biz, you are constantly criticized by those above you. All this is taken out on the teachers.

One day, I realized that I could quit. So I did. I said it was because I had a sabbatical coming up, but the real reason was that I hated teaching there and that the money was too pitiful to compensate for my stomach aches.

When I got the email asking if I'd return, I replied that I'd need to hear the details. No reply. Eventually, I returned home and was relieved that someone else had been found. I was planning to say no, but it's always better not to turn down a job.

Though I don't want to retire early--or ever, really--I do enjoy retiring each summer. And I especially don't want to take on extra courses. I have a very heavy teaching load at my "real" job.

What does frugality enable you NOT to do?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Selling Your Books: Best Way

Back from my almost 3-week vacation. Little internet access. Pure bliss.

I had planned to post a killer back-from-vacation essay, but, of course, the pressure to do so makes writing hard. Instead, a very prosaic one.

In the months since the economic meltdown of Fall 2008, there have been loads of articles in the mainstream press about how to make extra money. They all sound pretty much the same. One common tip: Sell your books. Common variation: Be a book scout. This advice is followed by a tip to sell to, because you can often sell a book you bought for a quarter at a yard sale for $5.25.

As it happens, this advice, as well as the example, comes from the cash4books website, which also features a picture of the successful proprietors and their adorable baby.

I typed in a few isbns for a test run, and cash4books wanted nary a one.

So, in a public service mood, I checked out a current and desirable textbook: the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. The book is not for sale, folks.

But if I were selling it, here are the options:

Amazon: The lowest price is $40.00. You would have to pay 15%, plus a dollar in fees. Then you'd have to pack and ship. You'd get $3.99 for shipping from Amazon, which probably would cover this bulky tome. Maybe add insurance in case it got lost.

Barnes and Noble: $25.85 cash. They provide a prepaid mailing label! Pack and ship! Easy-Peasy.

Powells: I remember old Mr. Powell bringing a big cart of books to the Reed College campus in the early 70s. A much-beloved store. But they only offer $11.00 in cash and a teeny bit more in virtual credit... They also provide a prepaid shipping label.

cash4books: In spite of the great press these folks get, they only offer $14.46.

I have a beef with these journalists. First, do they take all the info from company publicity? Do they check anything out?

A lot of people must be taking their advice, because I see a lot of book scouts caressing the books at the thrifts with their cellphones.

And, once again, you can't buy my book because it has my precious teaching notes in it.