Custom Search

Monday, September 28, 2009

Student Life in France: Cafeteria Food

Recovering from a visit to the oral surgeon. Luckily, I can steal a post from Frugal Son's emails from Nantes. Not exactly on frugality, but a glimpse into French student life. His meals are about 3 euros (obviously, these are subsidized), which means they cost about half of what a meal goes for on an American college campus. So, to continue with my cafeteria theme.....

After the tour it was lunch time and since we were already on campus, we decided to eat at the Restaurant Universitaire for the first time. The line for tickets was HUGE so one of us waited in line to buy a carnet of 10 to split amongst the group. Once we got our tickets we went upstairs to the dining area and I WAS IN HEAVEN. Remember that up until this point I had only been eating two small meals per day, usually bread and cheese, so I was craving a big warm meal. I chose the “Cuisine Traditionelle” line, which featured a pork chop, couscous, and steamed string beans. On the side I had a plate of sliced, dried sausage products, a petit pain, and a little salad. Ohhhh it was so good.

At each meal you are allowed to get bread, two side dishes (like a cheese plate, pate plate, cold salads, fruit, etc.) and a main hot dish. In addition to “Cuisine Traditionelle” there were also lines for Pizza and Pasta, the Grill (steak hachee), Cuisine du Monde, and Poisson. Since my first lunch, I’ve eaten things like ray, paupiettes de saumon, paupiettes de veau, lamb moussaka, gigot d’agneau with couscous, caramel pork, saumon “americaine”, brochette de dinde, and ratatouille to name a few. The side dishes are equally exciting and almost every day I have a little plate of pate de campagne or a cheese plate. The French are obsessed with thinly grated (julienned?) carrots and other vegetables and at first I was confused by this obsession with a seemingly boring item. One day, however, seeing no more exciting side dish options, I took a small plate with julienned carrots, celery (or maybe celery root?), and red cabbage. It was so good and now I eat it almost every day! The carrots are served with no topping but the celery (or celery root) has a sort of mayonnaise sauce mixed on top of it and the shredded red cabbage is in a bit of vinegar.

Continuing in the vein of food, after lunch I went to the little grocery store by my dorm. There I bought a few necessities like cornichons, mustard, bread and chocolate. I found an 86% cocoa chocolate bar here and it’s really good. I already had some meat, cheese, and tomatoes (tomatoes are oddly cheap here, one euro for a kilogram) from my trip to Leclerc the day before so I was all set to make sandwiches.

Bon appetit!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cafeteria Ladies and Other Ladies: A Frugal Resource

After my post about recognizing an old friend in a book, I had to take a few days to recover. it is truly awful to re-experience all the conflicted feelings--pleasure, affection, anger, insecurity and so on--that emerge when reading about an unresolved relationship from college days. Not that I knew it was unresolved.

Now on to my next topic: cafeteria ladies. There is a wonderful cartoonist--Lynda Barry--who has a cartoon somewhere or other that shows two scornful high school students on line in the cafeteria. They look upon the ladies dishing up the food and one says "She coulda been a brain surgeon."

Doesn't that just capture the scorn of high school students and their assurance that they will get what they want--and that people who don't just didn't want it.

I do try to be mindful of the complex interplay of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and so forth in the pursuit of happiness and prosperity. I must be doing something right (in the mindfulness department), because several times at school open houses over the years, Mr. FS and I have been approached by cafeteria ladies. They wanted to thank us for the fact that our children thanked them. They would beam, "Your kids are among the few who say 'Thank you.'"

So even though my sense of etiquette is shaky (to put it mildly) and I violate many rules written and unwritten, I at least encouraged my children to thank cafeteria ladies.

And, now that I think of it, you do get something back. Not from cafeteria ladies, though a good relationship might assure you of getting lots of crusty top on your macaroni and cheese. No, from other ladies.

Like the lady who puts out the food at Big Lots, which, of late, has been a key component of my frugal life. She always points me to the best deals. She also told me that a BIG shipment will be coming in next week.

Now the Goodwill ladies are not allowed to do special favors for customers. But Donna, who puts out the books, is always happy to see me. She said, "I put out a lot of books yesterday. I wondered where my little friend was." That's me, by the way, even though I am about 5 inches taller than she is.

The lady at Walgreens always helps me figure out the proper order of checkout, when they have those confusing Register Rewards.

My late father, with his PhD, always had long chats with cafeteria ladies and other ladies. I guess that's where I get this predilection.

So let's all remember to appreciate cafeteria ladies and other ladies.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Things Found in Thrift Store Books: An Old Friend (?)

I have this plan--so far unrealized--to write a whole series of posts on "things found in thrift store books." I am always amazed at how I often find JUST the book I want to read, if not now, then in a month or so. Or even a year or so. Often, this is a book I never would have heard of. That's how I found The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, some time before it was made into a film.

Then there are the physical objects I find: airline boarding passes, notes, receipts, photos.

But recently I found a book that--fortuitously--bought to me someone I haven't seen in about 30 years. The book is called French Lessons. Published by the University of Chicago Press, it was written by a professor of French--Alice Kaplan--who is about my age, but is a fantastically successful academic, with a position at Duke University. The book, with ecstatic blurbs by reviewers in highbrow media outlets, is autobiographical: the author's father was involved in the Nuremburg Trials; the author meditates on such subjects as language, identity, and academic politics, ambition, and success--all things I would find rather interesting.

How could I resist? Especially since Habitat for Humanity was having an "all books 25 cents sale." Also, who else who frequents the Habitat for Humanity thrift store would buy this book? It was positively my duty to purchase it.

As it turned out, I found the book kind of a letdown. In spite of the author's interesting life and topics, the book was kind of boring. Oh well. I did read through the sections on her time in the graduate program at Yale, where she was involved with a fellow named Bill Golden, and suffered through the anxieties and politicking of a small and very political department. So I wended through the book in a rather desultory way. (Sorry about my poor review. Maybe it's me. The blurbs really ARE ecstatic, e.g. "most engaging Bildungsroman" blahblahblah)

Then, I perused the Acknowledgements, in this book at the end, rather than the beginning. There, in the middle of the top line of a page was a name that jumped out at me: Nicholas -------. Oh my: an old friend from college, who had gone to Yale in French, and who had--so I heard--left academics. We did not part under pleasant circumstances.

So, of course, I returned to the Yale section to see if there were any references to him. After a while, I realized that Bill Golden (whom she also calls Guillaume
Dore), the sometime love interest of the author, MUST have been Nick. Who else was "painfully thin," aggressively workaholic, had a New York father who had mysteriously lost all his money, had a beautiful French mother, who left her very young son with his father, so eager was she to get a divorce and return to France. Oh yeah--and who else also went to the Lycee Francais in New York City.

So I found out that Nick, who, last I saw him was in graduate school desperately desirous of becoming a protege of the famous professor Paul De Man (who was later revealed to have written for pro-Nazi newspapers in Belgium), wrote an overly detailed and lengthy dissertation,quit a teaching job mid-class, was doing something with computers, married someone who "understood" his complete self, and had an indeterminate number of children. And apparently was wearing overalls as he surveyed his yard post-academics.

Well, I'm not sure why I wrote all this down, except that it was a weird experience. I almost emailed the author to ask if Bill Golden was Nick! Then I realized the book was published in 1993--more than 15 years before I read it.

Of all the things I've found in thrift store books, this was the strangest. Perhaps my next installment will detail the inappropriate email a professor sent a student, that was folded into Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory.

So Readers: any interesting finds in books?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Could We Stop Working RIGHT NOW?: Financial Independence

Those of you looking for facts and figures for the goal of EARLY RETIREMENT: this is not the right place. That's never been my goal. But I've always been attracted to the idea of FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE, a la Your Money or Your Life, not so I could quit my job, but so I could say every morning: I'm going to work because I WANT to, not because I HAVE to.

Now I don't actually know how much is in our retirement accounts, because I only glanced at a statement once over the past year. (Surely, I'm not alone in this possibly self-destructive behavior). Following the laws of averages, I know I was WAY down, and now am part-way up.

Yesterday, while taking a stroll through the neighborhood, I saw a yard sale sign by a pretty house with a FOR RENT sign out front. I wandered in and overheard the discussion: tenant is not owner, but renter. She's moving to Baton Rouge because she lost her job here and just got one in Baton Rouge. The reason she's renting is that she and her husband still own a house in Arkansas that they cannot sell. She and her husband live separately because of jobs.

Obviously, this is a snapshot of the upper middle-class version of the financial meltdown.

But here's the part of interest to ME. The house is owned by the Poole family, an old money family that owns a lot of the prettiest houses in the neighborhood. So it will NEVER be for sale. At least not for many years. If then.

The rent is $1800.00/month! Sorry New Yorkers: that sounds like a lot. The house is about 2/3 the size of mine, with a smaller yard, though with updated bathrooms.

Let's say we could rent our house for around that much. We OWN it free and clear. Hey! We could live in Costa Rica, where many Americans are now retiring, for between $1500.00 and $2500.00 a month. We would barely need to touch our emergency fund, though we would use it for family visits to and fro.

Then in 10 years or so, we could start tapping our retirement accounts, which surely would have recovered somewhat.

Mr. FS thought for a minute after my report. He queried, "What would we do in Costa Rica?" Well, take walks, appreciate beauty, cook. Sounds good.

But what would we do ALL DAY? Read. Walk. Talk to people.

That's kind of what we do now, though not in such beautiful surroundings. Plus, who would listen as I hold forth on this or that literary work? Could I find someone in Costa Rica who would want to know how beautifully constructed is a poem by George Herbert?

Isn't it nice to know we COULD do it? That, even now, we are going to work because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Beggarman, Thief?: Updates on Numbers

I did "Rich Man, Poor Man" yesterday and so have to finish the rhyme. I'm not sure if what follows is a good fit, but....

Talbots: Do you people remember when I thought about buying Talbots stock at around $1.80? I was struck by the divergence between the mainstream "male" view (Motley Fools named it their "Scary Halloween Stock") and the upstart "female" view (women bloggers "of a certain age" started admiring the new styles and the new president). Well, shoulda done it. As of yesterday, the stock was $9.25. A quintuplement!

Edmund Andrews: Remember him? Author of a book on HIS mortgage crisis within the context of the financial meltdown? Only he neglected to mention crucial financial information? I thought of him again because i saw his book at the public library. It's been checked out 4 times. I'll probably read it one of these days. Sales rank on Amazon: around 29,000. I'm not sure what these numbers mean, in terms of royalties etc.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggarman, Thief: Update on Frugal Favors

Update of Frugal Favors: The "poor woman" from Goodwill pressed a $20.00 bill in my hand the other day. "I couldn't live with the stress," she said. So I gave her the leather jacket that has been residing in the trunk of my car.

Duchesse noted in a comment that she would have taken a check for $8.00 from my "rich[er]" co-worker. Well, I don't know. New bank fees often involve a punitive charge to the depositor as well as to the writer of the bad check. And I had heard many a discussion of creditor calls and hidden shopping bags and multiple accounts and post-dated checks from this person. Having over a month to come up with $8.00 in cash seemed like easy "terms."

I don't have a moral to draw from this, except to say that some people--like my Goodwill pal, and like me, for that matter--find indebtedness intolerable.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Credit Card Perks

I'm writing on this topic because a commenter on a previous post marveled at my receiving $20.00 in gift cards from the LL Bean Visa.

I have plain vanilla rebate credit cards. The American Express has a sliding scale of rebates and gives me back a few hundred dollars a year and the Chase Freedom Card gives me 1% back. Then I have the LL Bean card, which I got to get free shipping and monogramming on the de rigeueur backpacks when my kids hit middle school.

I charge just about everything because I am lucky to have a built-in limit (built in, that is,to my brain or consciousness or something). So I never have a finance charge. I did a rough calculation and decided that airline miles linked credit cards were not better than what I already have. Plus, I figure that anything hawked with such enthusiasm by the purveyors (car leases, variable rate mortgages, variable annuities, whole life insurance) must be better for the purveyor than for the consumer.

As an amusing sidenote, a person I know slightly exclaimed that she and her husband had earned 2 tickets to Europe with a frequent flyer card in just one year. She was "playing middle-middle class," because she and her spouse had gone to Europe the previous year, also, she said, on frequent flyer credit card miles. When I said, "Wow! That's a lot of miles," she said, "I charge everything. Even groceries." Little did she know that she was revealing yearly spending on her card of perhaps $80,000.00, since you need about 40,000 for a plane ticket. A lot of groceries.

Anyway, I tend to ignore the various offers that arrive with my statements. So how did I acquire the $20.00? I bought my parents some luggage on sale. I got a few other things. I think LL purchases earn 3% back. Other purchases earn only 0.5%. I used the card a lot in Europe, since many places only take Visa, and that's my only Visa card. So somehow, I got $10.00!

Then, out of the blue, I got a $10.00 just because credit. I assume this was just because business this year, as my children would say, sucks. So it is to encourage spending. Hence, my $29.00 tote bag purchase.

If you don't have the card already, I think you get a $20.00 gift card just for applying. Then you get free shipping, returns, and monogramming. I seldom use the card, but even these little freebies are fun, pure lagniappe.

A few years ago, I earned a lot of credits and rebates when we were buying our Honda Civic. I put half on the American Express and half on the LL Bean Visa. We had saved up enough to pay cash since our previous car was 14 years old. But we figured, Why not get the rewards?

I was so scared that the bills would arrive late or that I would forget to pay, incurring a huge finance charge, that I sent the full payments to the companies that very day. And checked to make sure they got there.

So my story of credit cards involves paying them off in full and using them lackadaisically to get rewards now and then.

Do you make wise or clever use of credit card rewards? If so, how?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tick Tock Tote

Long ago, I mused on my quest for a tote bag. Even the slightest whiff of the paradox of choice paralyzes me. Luckily, my local Goodwill had two of the classic LL Bean canvas totes with monograms. For $1.99, Readers, I bought both. Needless to say, the monograms are not mine. Strangely, no one who knows me has ever mentioned the initials. Perhaps monograms read as monograms--preppy, whatever--and no one ever checks out the initials. Or perhaps no one wants to embarrass me by mentioning the initials that are not mine.

But the pressure is on, dear Readers. Last year, I acquired a $10.00 LL Bean credit from the use of my credit card. This expires in October. Then, I acquired another $10.00 credit---just for having the card! Neat! Thanks, LLB. This expires at the end of September. Sadly, there's nothing I really want.

Well, I do want some wheeled luggage. On our last trip, because of my weak arms, Mr. FS had to carry MY bag plus HIS bag. He looked like the Michelin tire man, only with a backpack and a front pack. He scorns wheeled luggage. Decent wheeled luggage is expensive, and only seems to work in airports and not on cobblestones.

So, as I did with my stove purchase, when I gave myself permission to buy a Wolf faux pro for $5000.00 and eventually worked my way down to a Frigidaire for $700.00, I gave myself permission to buy a Baggallini wheeled tote for $150.00 or thereabouts.

Then I worked my way down. First I'll try REALLY underpacking and carrying my own bag. Back to the LL Bean Hunter's tote for $29.00! Comes in black, olive, and--for a true classic--two camo patterns.

Interestingly, fashionista readers, when I did a search on camouflage totes I discovered that Tory Burch, the reigning queen of postmodern prep (maybe it's not postmodern, just overpriced) was giving out camo totes as gift with purchase. These had the Tory monogram in purple, red, or orange.

Maybe I'll get the LL bag and have it monogrammed Tory Burch. Just kidding, Tory. No need for a copyright lawsuit.

When I was last on this topic, my blog galpal Duchesse suggested that if I get camo, I should do an orange monogram. She and Tory think alike.

What think you dear Readers. Olive or Camo? What color monogram? I have till September 30 to decide.

Tick Tock Tote

Monday, September 14, 2009

Frugal Favors: Foolish?

I was thinking about this common issue because, just yesterday, someone at Goodwill, who begged me to buy her a leather jacket last week, which I did (with misgivings), did not have the $20.00 to pay for it. Instead, she offered me her pay card as hostage. Of course, I don't want to be holding someone's pay card (whatever that is).

I had a feeling this would happen. And Mr. FS could wear the jacket if she doesn't come through. Or I could take it to the Buf, as we call Buffalo Exchange. Last year, I bought two tops on sale at Banana Republic, one in small and one in medium, because I didn't have time to try them on. An instructor in my department was wearing the same top in black. When she heard I was returning the brown, she said, "Bring it in. They were out of the brown when I was there." I said, "OK. It was $8.00."

So I brought the top in the next day. Even though she is a low-paid instructor, she has a husband who is an accountant, who has scornfully said, apropos of departmental fights, "I can't believe people get so upset over a $60,000 job." But I am pretty sure she has a shopping disorder. So I specified that I wanted cash.

She offered a check. I declined, because 1. it's a pain to go to the bank, and 2. if the check bounced, I have to pay a fee, right? I reminded her many times. She never had $8.00, but begged me to wait another week. I stopped reminding her because she starting looking at me with hostility. So I took the top back to Banana only to discover that I was one day past the return deadline!!!!

I was reminded of all this because I read on another blog (can't remember which one) a cry of distress from a woman who has just paid off her credit card, only to have her husband put on their card the hotel reservation for 5 people! Because the other people have no "room" on their cards.

I was going to comment with the above stories, as well as the story of how my husband and I paid for a dinner for a class we were teaching (the "students" were teachers who were paid for taking the class, which was funded by a grant we wrote.). Not only did they not pay for our lunch (even though each one made money plus got several graduate credits for free), they reimbursed us ONLY the cost of the meal, conveniently leaving out tax and tip--i.e. 25%. This was for 20 people!

The above scenario has happened to Frugal Son too. On MY Amex. He said he got reimbursed. I hope he's telling the truth.

I love to spread the frugality around, but really it incurs resentment. YOU become the villain. I didn't comment on the other blog, because there were already zillions of comments with similar tales of woe.

Have you ever done a frugal favor with a happy ending?

Friday, September 11, 2009

"I Deserve what I have because I work hard": Some Thoughts

Every now and then, there is a discussion in some blog or other about the correlation between hard work and (financial) success. Usually, the blogger declares that successful people work hard; the general assumption is that because "I worked hard, I am successful. And because I am successful, I deserve what I have." Then there is a flurry of objections by readers.

I myself think that the hardest working people are the working poor. I meet many of these people at Goodwill. Often, these women are wearing the badges of their place of employ: "First Name Only" followed by "Aide." I am lucky to have met these people; they are not shopping at Goodwill for sport as I am; and they remind me of the many gifts I have been given. Yes, I have worked hard, but--I venture to say--not as hard as they do.

So here is an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal. Not exactly a liberal rag, the WSJ presents a picture of a member of the working--now non-working--poor. She is 3 years younger than I am.

As the economy has shed jobs, many working poor who in better times used plentiful jobs and overtime to raise their living standards are falling back into poverty. The increase in poverty last year—2.6 million people—was concentrated among working-age families, with the poverty rate among people between 18 and 64 growing to 11.7% from 10.9% a year ago. Among the hardest hit were children: The child poverty rate was 19% last year, up from 18%. Poverty is defined, for example, as earnings under $22,000 for a family of four.

Colette Banks, 52 years old, this month exhausted her unemployment benefits after losing her $10-an-hour job as a hospital housekeeper in 2007. She has applied to several jobs but had no luck; recently Ms. Banks applied for four positions at the Prudential Center arena in Newark, N.J.—security, housekeeping, ushering and kitchen help—but hasn't heard back.

With a full work week and occasional overtime, Ms. Banks made about $21,000 a year when she had her job—just above the poverty line. She recently applied for food stamps, rental assistance and Medicaid to support herself and her 15-year-old granddaughter. Free television has become the lone form of entertainment in their household, and dinner often consists of rice and beans. "You have to pay a little bit here pay a bit there, just to stay above water," she says.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Required Reading for the Frugal: Grocery Ads

As an English teacher, I love to read. In fact, the more difficult and arcane the better. So, though my students in Milton are grumping out ("Why is he so hard?" "He makes me feel dumb"), I just say Bring it on.

Though I wouldn't say Areopagitica should be required reading, I would say that developing your grocery ad skills is a good idea. Definitely an element of life-long learning, which is one of the catch phrases in educational goal-setting.

Since almost all groceries have closed or fled in my area, reading the ads has been a dispiriting affair. Even though my politics are far far left, I know that competition is needed so that consumers can get good prices. (Note: I am not talking about health care here. Don't get me started. Health care is NOT simply a consumer product.)

But Albertson's has returned to the next town. They advertised eggs at 50 cents! And cheap chicken! When I went into my local store, there I saw a sign by the eggs: Unadvertised Special 46 cents! Ditto for the chicken! This is great. It will only last a little while, of course.

All the food frugalites out there will urge you to
1. Know your prices
2. Stock up on sales
3. Plan your menu around the sales

Truly, this becomes a habit. This week, I will be buying grapes, chicken breasts, and shrimp. Everything else is in the freezer and pantry. Oh yeah, milk. I still have 42 pounds of coffee from the summer.

What are you stocking up on?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What We Did that Made the Biggest Difference to our Finances

There's a rumbling through the media as we are--approximately--at the one-year anniversary of the financial meltdown. No, I'm not planning to listen to re-broadcasts of the news from last year. No, I'm not going to read the various post-mortems.

All I can say is OMMMMMMMMMM.

Doesn't every single self-help thing out there--whether for finances, relationships, addiction, whatever--exhort focusing on the things you can control?

So my anniversary will be marked by a list of the things we did that made the biggest difference to our financial lives.

1. We didn't avail ourselves of student loans in grad school. We lived like poor students.
2. When we finally got jobs, we didn't get a car right away. Mr. FS was sold a used car by a colleague for $200.00! We used it for several years. Then, my parents passed on an old Volvo, which we also used for several years. We didn't have 2 cars for some time.
3. We bought a house that was a bit too expensive for us. Interest rates were high at the time (10%!). So, perhaps counter-intuitively, we began paying extra on the mortgage, because we couldn't stand it.
4. Breastfeeding and cloth diapers. The latter, surprisingly, had a spiritual dimension.
5. Public schools.
6. Sheer luck. Both children were National Merit finalists and we sought out colleges that wanted these kids. Children DID participate in this choice.


What were your financial choices that had large impacts?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Frugal Shopping with Miss Em: At the Drugstore

I've been rather distressed to see that my recent posts have all been about shopping! So here is another one. But this is also about parents and kids, teaching them skills, and so on.

We were honored with a visit from Miss Em this weekend, her first since she became a bona fide college student. Since we like to pamper our beloved princess, we made her a giant pot of her favorite: Thai shrimp curry, which I have posted about before. The veggie base consisted of onion, eggplant (from our garden), peppers (ditto), and some amazingly inexpensive shrimp ($2.99/lb with head on!). With the shells, we made broth, in which we cooked some rice.

Then, Miss Em and I went shopping. This creates a bit of mother-daughter bonding. We do not (I swear) overdo it. Plus, it's all a learning experience. Mr. FS and I were never into hair shirt deprivation for our children. Children of 12 and up are into consumption. We tried to work with that, rather than go against it. It seems to us a natural stage. At least in the USA!

We did make a point of visibly searching for a frugal alternative for their various desires. So Frugal Son accepted an alternative to the Air Nikes all his friends were getting; Miss Em was happy with a Target version of the hideously overpriced American Girl Dolls. They were happy to have something as good as what their friends had, only different.

Once Miss Em was into shampoo, and conditioner, and make up, we learned to shop at Walgreens and CVS. That is how I learned about all the rebates these places offered. So Miss Em learned the important frugal lessons: stock up if it's free**** and WAIT till something is on sale. When she was in junior high, we spent many a blissful time poring over the Sunday ads to see what--if anything--was worthy of our attention. All this gave her a sense of frugal abundance, rather than of frugal deprivation.

Miss Em and I headed out to CVS to get some deodorant and some hair stylers. All were pretty cheap with their rebates. I like to use my rebate money immediately, so we found some great tinted moisterizer reduced from $12 to $3!

Then we went to check out. We were overcharged for the deodorant. This was corrected. Then we didn't get the rebate. Hair products rang up OK. The cashier had to create a rebate for one that didn't work.

Then we tried to buy the moisturizer. Wrong price. Then that was fixed. Our exit was in sight--then I noticed that we were charged $2.00 sales tax on $6.00. I pointed out that we don't have 30%plus tax. Then that was fixed. All very tedious. I asked Miss Em: "Would you have noticed all those errors?" She said she would have.

Hope so. Anyway, the lesson is have a total figure in your head for each part of the transaction. That way, you will notice any errors. In my years of error catching, I have only spotted a TINY percentage in my favor; about 98% have been against the customer.

****Frugal lesson: If you have 3 lipsticks stocked up, don't get another one EVEN IF IT IS FREE. Overdoing it is NOT frugal. Share!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Customer Service: Am I too Picky?

Ask. Ask. Ask.

That's the frugal mantra. If you need something, ask around. An acquaintance may have what you're looking for. If you have a problem with a store or the like, ask. You may get what you want. Or a rain check. Amy D. of Tightwad Gazette fame has a chapter on it. My frugal Dad always asked. This practice generally has a good time to savings ratio, at least in my experience.

Plus good customer service usually makes you a customer for life. When I sold things now and again on Ebay (a LOONNNGGGG time ago), I responded to the slightest complaint with a full refund. And, given the low volume of my sales, I wasn't expecting any return customers. It just wasn't worth setting into motion the bad customer service karma.

Places where I've had good customer service: Walgreens (managers often compensate for flaky employees), Belk (on my single purchase), LL Bean (shouldn't be a surprise).

So today, I decided to put my customer service chops to the test. This was inspired by a post on Ann Taylor at Une Femme d'un Certain Age (see blogroll to the right), which featured a very nice scarf. One commenter noted that the website didn't specify the fabric blend, so i decided to call the 800 # and ask. And I could not get through. And I tried twice. ByeBye Ann Taylor. Fix your phone system. There was no way to get an operator.

Then, I tried Garnet Hill. Miss Em and I wanted to buy a dress that is on special till Sept 15 from $68 to $48. This dress was very popular last year; it sold out, and there were many laments on-line: please bring back the dress! So I checked and discovered that "Yet once more" (quoted from the pastoral elegy "Lycidas" by John Milton) the dress was sold out in black and gray. And, no, Miss Em and I do NOT want rhubarb or blue. The site said "Limited to stock on hand." OK, but I just got my catalog with the sale price a few days ago.

So I tried the on-line chat. First try: disconnected. Second try: operator said that they were sold out with no back order date. I asked for a "rain check," saying that I knew it had sold out last year and that the sale price was good till Sept 15. I said I knew this was not their normal practice, but that the dress sold out within just a few days, blahblahblah. Answer: Sorry, we don't give rain checks.

Honestly, labor costs are so low that I bet GH makes a big profit even when the dress is on sale. So, for a rain check the company could have had my undying gratitude plus a 2 dress sale. Plus future sales. Did I go too far in my request? Should GH have accommodated my request?

Bad customer service from Hamilton Books a few years ago led to a complete boycott on my part.

Ditto for Dell Computer. I will NEVER have anything to do with that company again.

I don't think my Garnet Hill chat qualifies as bad customer service. But it does not qualify as good customer service. What do you think? Was I too demanding? Were they too inflexible? Did GH miss a chance to go the extra mile? Just wondering....

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Student Debt and Marriage: Scary Stuff

My aversion to debt is pretty apparent to anyone who's read more than a post or two. Student debt is a vexed issue, because it is a necessity for some. All I can say is "Live like a student!"if you are borrowing money and THINK before you decide on pricey private education over a public option.

But what of those who have already borrowed large amounts. A few days ago I read about law grads from prestigious institutions who cannot find the corporate job they were counting on. Today, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, we hear of people putting off life cycle events (home purchase, marriage) so burdened are they by debt.

Here is one fellow:

Zack Leshetz, a 30-year-old lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has $175,000 in student loans from his seven years in college and law school. Lately he has had his eye on the real-estate market. "Everyone says that it's a great time to buy a house," he says. But that is not an option right now, he says, thanks to $800 a month in payments—and another chunk of student loans in forbearance, which means payments are halted while interest accrues. "I find myself living paycheck to paycheck," he says.

He has also been engaged since March, but has held off on marriage. "There's no way I can pay for a dream wedding, or even just a regular wedding," Mr. Leshetz says. "I feel like I'm putting my entire life on hold."

What I am about to say is probably predictable. OK. I understand about the house purchase. But the wedding? The big American wedding is a "tradition" of very recent vintage.

My own wedding cost under $50.00 and the most expensive component was the German measles antibody test required by the state of Indiana. But I acknowledge that I am a scrooge of festive parties like weddings. Still: how about a pot luck dinner? a barbeque at a park? Even a dinner at a nice restaurant for a select few. I'm sure that others of a more festive nature can improve on my suggestions.

The great Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin of Your Money or Your Life list lots of frugal dating ideas and then opine, "The best part of dating is free."

So true. Same for marriage.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Update: French Fashion Frugality is, shall we say, tres difficile

So I boldly posted on my vow to embrace French fashion frugality and buy only a few things, as long as those things were just what I wanted. That's similar to what Duchesse wrote about this morning. YESYESYES, I thought as I read her post. (Click on the link to the right). As I said, I even unsubscribed to those pesky emails, which alerted me to tempting sales.

This morning, I just took a peek (SORRY) at the Garnet Hill site, to see (SORRY) if the pants I bought ever got further reduced. Not only did they not get reduced further, they are gone. (And the Chico's pants my mother bought me are totally out of stock in black and out of stock in my size in all colors).

But Garnet Hill is having their Labor Day sale! Stuff is as low as $6.00. Even stuff I liked when I looked at the catalog. Oh yeah, and GH sent me a coupon for $20.00 off when I bought my pants. Notice how the boundaries are being violated: the sales come into your house. It's not enough to "stay out of stores," that staple of advice to the frugal neophyte. Now you must stay off the internet and throw out all catalogs and coupons that are left in your mailbox (physical and virtual).

So I figured that as long as I was writing this post, I was not filling my shopping cart. Perhaps by the time I finish, the things I liked (and the BEST bargains) will be sold out.

French fashion frugality=difficile.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Frugal Fitness: Free

Unlike Mr. FS, I am not one who finds it easy or fun to get exercise. I really have no aptitude for sports, and spent many years in high school getting to the end of the line or choosing an outfield position to save myself from humiliation. In college, I was subject to s state requirement of several years of PE. After failing several classes (failure was triggered by missing a class), I discovered my "sport": yoga! i loved getting into position and holding it . . .sometimes till I fell asleep.

After that, I remained in decent shape by not having a car. I do love to walk! Walking all the time is why--as the book says--French Women Don't Get Fat. We do live in a nice-to-walk-in neighborhood, but it's hard not to saunter at a relatively slow pace.

My devoted readers know that 1. I have an aversion to gifts, and 2. I have gained some weight, precipitating the purchase of pants with stretchy waistbands.

Then, Mr. FS gave me a great gift. Even though he rides about 100 mile a week on the Rails to Trails path near our home (The Tammany Trace), he volunteered to walk on the Trace with me. It is not sufficiently populated for comfortable walking alone.

After a 40 minute walk for each of the past 4 days, I feel so much better!

Thank you Mr FS for giving me JUST WHAT I WANTED.