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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Squeam Factor and Thrift Shopping

A tip of my hat to Amy Dacyczyn of The Tightwad Gazette for the term "squeam factor." Squeam as in squeamish. As I recall, Amy recounted a conversation with a neighbor. Spying the neighbor tossing out an apple with a single bite, Amy intervened with a rescue recipe: a single baked apple! The neighbor recoiled with an "Ewwww. I couldn't keep that germy apple!"

I thought of this scenario when I was procrastinating by reading frugality blogs. There was a list of "What not to buy at Thrift Stores." This included various things that I have bought--and will continue to buy--at thrift stores.

One was bedding. If you have a taste for 200 thread count combed cotton sheets as I do, you pretty much have to go the thrift store route. The high thread count mania has led to the availability of (to me) slimy sheets made of inferior cotton. See Cheryl Mendelson's great book Home Comforts if you don't believe me. In fact, thrifting also enables me to buy bedding I would never buy owing to the expense: like an Yves Delorme sheet of exquisite quality cotton. I might even buy a replacement for $140.00 when this one wears out; it's that good. I get lots of great sheets and pillow cases for very little . . . because of the squeam factor.

Another was underwear. Oh Frugal Son, I hope this doesn't embarrass you. When Frugal Son was in 4th grade he declared that he wanted boxer shorts like the other boys were wearing. I rolled my eyes, but I always try to accommodate desires when possible so as not to raise twisted materialistic children. I first discovered that kids' boxer shorts were expensive! Then I discovered that boxers from the Gap and Old Navy went for all of $0.25 at thrifts. There was a huge selection because kids outgrow things quickly and . . . because of the squeam factor.

Some things that everyone wants are ridiculously expensive at thrift stores: corning ware, tupperware, pots and pans, all these have prices matching or even even exceeding the new cost. At least where I live. But items with a squeam factor attached are plentiful and ridiculously cheap. Honestly, all it takes is a trip though the washer and dryer to remove the squeam.

Even I sometimes succumb to the squeam factor. Just the other day, I ran into a thrift acquaintance. Nancy was ecstatically rummaging through a drawer that I had never noticed: bras $1.00. She had a huge load of bras with price tags still attached. She confided, "I get all my bras here because no one ever looks into this drawer." You go, girl! Good job.

So Readers: would you, could you, do you buy squeam items? What, for you, is acceptable? What is "beyond the pale?"

Happiness vs Goodness: The Frugal Connection

Since the economic meltdown, I find myself perusing the online Wall Street Journal. Although I have a good handle on the very micro-economics that is my family budget, anything more macro than that is pretty mysterious to me, never having had an economics course. So I find myself drifting away from economic news, and reading things like book reviews.

Hence it was that I saw this review of Seven Pleasures: An Essay on Ordinary Happiness by Willard Spiegelman. It may be my imagination, but there has been a spate of writing on similar topics. Even one of the laid-off former kings of Wall Street had a blog post titled something along the lines of "money doesn't matter." Spiegelman's pleasures are reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. Hmmmm. Mr FS and I really need to learn to dance. Otherwise, this is our lineup, with the addition of gardening for Mr. FS.

What I wonder, however, is whether these give everyone happiness? If so, being frugal wouldn't be very difficult, because these are all frugal pleasures.

I read another book review last week on parenting. I can no longer locate it (help if you can.) The gist of the two books under review is that parents of my generation have messed up our kids by having the goal of promoting happiness rather than promoting goodness. Happiness is defined in material terms. I think I may be less guilty of this than many. But I wonder what came first: my frugality or my belief that goodness is more important than material happiness.

This book review also reminded me of a common sentiment of many bloggers and blog commenters. Often, comments about giving up material pleasures now in order to save for a future goal are met with responses like "What if you die? I want to be happy now." And even frugal bloggers often enumerate their purchases. (I have done this myself on occasion).

Once again, I am lucky. But still I wonder if I am so frugal that I promoted goodness only because it coincided with my frugal nature.

So, Dear Readers. I know this is somewhat "out of joint" (quotation courtesy of Hamlet): what think you of the relationship between happiness and goodness? And kids?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NPR's How Low Can You Go Cooking Challenge and Me

I love the concept: great family meals for 4 for under $10.00. I heard the first one, chickpeas and spinach, on the way home from work. Sounded great! Here is the recipe:

9 ounces dried garbanzos (chickpeas)
Pinch bicarbonate of soda
6 garlic cloves, peeled and whole
1/4 cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces white sliced bread, with the crusts removed
2 tablespoons pimenton (Spanish sweet paprika)
1 pinch Spanish saffron
2 tablespoons Spanish sherry vinegar
1/2 pound spinach, washed and cleaned

1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and white pepper to taste

The day before you cook, soak the chickpeas in cold water with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. The next day, drain and rinse the chickpeas.

In a big saucepan, combine the chickpeas with 2 1/2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for two hours, until the chickpeas are tender. Every 10 minutes or so, add 1/2 cup of cold water to slow down the simmering. By the end, the water should have reduced so it is barely covering the chickpeas. Turn off the heat and let sit.

In a small saute pan over medium to low heat, brown the garlic in 1/4 cup of the olive oil. When the garlic is browned, after about 3 minutes, remove from the pan
and set aside. Add the bread and brown on both sides, about one minute each side. Remove the bread and set aside.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Add the pimenton and saffron to the saute pan, and the sherry vinegar immediately afterward to prevent the pimenton from burning.

In a mortar, smash the reserved garlic and the browned bread to make a very thick paste.

Bring the chickpeas back to a low boil and add the spinach. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pimenton mixture along with the garlic and bread paste, to create a thick, stewy sauce. Simmer for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

Jose's Tips

When the chickpeas are soft and cooked, only about one finger's depth of water should remain in the bottom of the pan. If there is more, remove some water from the pan before adding the rest of the ingredients. By the way, if you're in a rush and want to make a successful dish without cooking for two or three hours,
you can use good quality chickpeas from a can or jar.

Recipe adapted from Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America by Jose Andres, published by Clarkson Potter.

If I hadn't made Mark Bittman's chickpea soup a few days ago, I would have made this one right away. Honestly, though, just under $10.00? Oh....the saffron. Without the saffron, this recipe would come in at under $4.00 and that's a stretch.

Really, the stretch often is to spend $10.00 on a home cooked meal. Tonight I am having Thai curry with shrimp. I explained how to make this earlier. I am also using a pack of frozen Asian-ish veggies that has been in my freezer for a while instead of my usual fresh. This will serve the two of us twice. Here is our cost breakdown:

shrimp (10 count is on sale for $3.80/lb!): 2.80
veggies (Steamfresh): 1.00
coconut milk: 1.00
Thai curry paste: 1.00
rice (a guess): 1.00

Total: under $7.00. Now I know I am always showing off about the low prices for fresh shrimp around here, but I also know you can get bags of frozen shrimp pretty cheaply anywhere, especially if you don't want the big ones. So you can still pull this off for under $10.00.

I can't wait to see what else the NPR chefs will come up with, but home cooks know that home cooking doesn't cost very much if you stick to in-season items and stay away from exotic ingredients and convenience items. The money you save will fund nice meals out or expensive ingredients or a nice bottle of wine.

Bon appetit.

The Joy of Cookbooks: Book Swap Edition

Now and again, bloggers extol the virtues of bookswap sites. and Bookmooch are probably the most successful. I have participated in both, but now only do Paperbackswap.(My problems and issues with Bookmooch make a sad story, not to be presented here. It's a good site, but not for me.)

With PBS, you list your books. Eventually, someone will request one. You ship it out and get a credit. See the site for more specifics.

This site has been a godsend for me, enabling me to de-accession much-loved but outgrown books for kids ages 6-17 and get books I want. For me, that is mainly cookbooks. I love reading cookbooks. There is a blog that began with the admission that its writer had over 100 cookbooks. I probably have over 300. And I love them all.

The best part of PBS is the wishlist. You wishlist a book and eventually--maybe--you will get it.

Rather than just talk generally about swap sites, I thought I would present a photo of some actual tomes I received via PBS. It truly restores my faith in humanity when I receive Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, as I did a few days ago. People are so generous. These are just a few of the more than 400 books I have received over the last few years.

The Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Part of the wonderful series by the Canadian husband-wife duo, who live a life of adventure, writing, and eating. I got this for Frugal Son, who fantasizes about such a life.

Lost Recipes by Marion Cunningham. All about the home. For me, this has been more a reading book than a cooking book. But I read it all the time.

Outlaw Cook by John Thorne. Thorne is the greatest food writer around, in my opinion. I gave my copy to my father-in-law and he DONATED it. Rather than getting angry, I put it on my wishlist.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten. I am not the greatest fan of Ina, but I like to look at the pictures of her kitchen, which sometimes appear in photos. There's just not that much bang for the buck in her books, but that's me. I like reading books more than picture books. I will be passing this on to one of my children, because they are interested in food presentation.

Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen
. No matter what, you need Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have a lot of bookmarks in this one.

Lord Krishna's Cuisine by Yamuna Devi. This is the one I can't believe someone sent me. A friend recommended it years ago. He had "borrowed" one from a friend. I think he "forgot to return it" for many years. Maybe he still has it. By all accounts, this is a masterpiece and I plan to work with it this summer.

1000 Italian Recipes by Michele Scicolone. Mostly I use my Marcella Hazan books. But this is great to have around. It reminds me of the simplicity of authentic Italian cooking.

World Vegetarian by Maddur Jaffrey. I just got this. I love Jaffrey's Indian cookbooks, one of which I have used for almost 30 years (and it's a sad spectacle of a book at this point).

Some of these books were on my wishlist for three years. Thanks to all for your generosity. To me, bookswaps (and cd swaps and media swaps generally) are all aspects of Frugality 101--saving money, saving the environment, and building community all at the same time.

Readers: Any cookbooks I should add to my wishlist? And, have you participated in bookswaps? If so, what treasures have you received?

Monday, April 27, 2009

All frugal families are alike

The title is a play on the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. .

So: All frugal families are alike; each un-frugal family is un-frugal in its own way. Un-frugal! Help me find a better word, readers.

I was thinking about this because of the recent visit of Mr. FS's brother and his wife. The visit precipitated massive decluttering, which is still not finished. But they were lovely guests, very easy going and low stress.

I had never thought of them as particularly frugal owing to their different life histories: while BIL went to graduate school, he was in biology and so didn't go through the lengthy period of poverty and uncertainty that we--in humanities--went through. I always felt they were frugal, but not pathologically frugal as I am, for better or worse.

Like many, the two are facing economic uncertainty: BIL's lab at a university is funded by the NIH. For the first time in almost thirty years, his grant was rejected (the NIH is experiencing budget cuts too). If his grant is not successful in his re-application, his university, which has hosted his lab all this time, will pay him 25% of his salary. Only with 50% of salary will he continue to receive benefits--like health insurance. SIL is self-employed part-time.

But I was impressed by their planning for various scenarios, from reprieve to disaster. Mr. FS and I engaged in such planning early in our careers.

And I was impressed too by random comments. Like us, they listen to books on tape during commutes. Like us, they borrow those tapes from the library. Like us, they are making sure their kids get out of college debt-free, having seen the consequences of massive education debt on the children of friends.

Like us, they plan for big purchases. Like us, they enjoy the waiting period of saving up. Like us, they never feel deprived.

Like us, they spend their big money on travel.

It seems to me that the key to frugality is intentionality and setting boundaries. BIL said that he wanted his kids to learn the true cost of small every day purchases, like lattes. I told him that that was the premise of David Bach's books, and that Bach had even copyrighted the phrase l____ factor. BIL had never heard of David Bach. Right before they left, SIL asked me if I had a novel she could keep so that she wouldn't have to buy a book at the airport. I was able to oblige, not with a novel, but a book by Bill Bryson.

It was a wonderful visit. In addition to a day at Jazz Fest, we had a frugal feast of Shrimp Creole and I taught SIL how to make a roux, a skill she will be able to bring to Seattle.

Do you agree that all frugal families are alike?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Zuppa Arcidossana: De-Accessioning my Pantry with Soup

Many bloggers of the frugal persuasion--Funny About Money comes to mind--are chronicling their efforts to build a pantry. Having stockpiled food minimizes your need to run to the store (a time and money consuming activity). Plus, there is a reduction in stress in knowing that--whatever else may go wrong--you at least can have something to eat. Funny, in fact, saved money beyond her expectations.

I've had an overstocked pantry for a while. Hence, I am engaged in the opposite task: unbuilding my pantry, that is, using up the stuff. Like many clutterbugs, accumulation for me is more fun than de-accumulation. Add to that the fact that my two children, with their big appetites, are not around too much, and we have a problem. I finally figured out that you're not saving money if you never use the stockpile!

So for the last 8 weeks or so, I've been trying to use what I have in the house and garden. this has meant a lot of eggplant eating (frozen from last summer) and greens (from the garden). It's taken longer than anticipated to make a dent In fact, I'm not sure if I've made a dent at all.

This morning, while looking at the New York Times website, I came upon a soup by Mark Bittman:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings

1 cup 1/2-inch diced carrots

1 large onion, chopped

3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped

Salt and black pepper

1 cup stale bread (use coarse, country-style bread), cut in 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 pound spinach, trimmed, washed and roughly chopped

1/4 to 1/2 cup ricotta salata, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (feta may be substituted)

1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley, optional.

1. Put oil in a large pot or deep skillet and brown sausage over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When sausage is cooked through and leaving brown bits in pan, add carrots, onion and garlic, and continue to cook until vegetables begin to soften and brown, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. Add bread to pan and stir for a minute or 2; add spinach and continue cooking just until it wilts, a couple of minutes.

3. Add about 2 cups water and stir to loosen any remaining brown bits from pan. This is more of a stew than a soup, but there should be some broth, so add another cup of water if necessary. When broth is consistency of thin gravy, ladle stew into serving bowls and top with cheese and some freshly chopped parsley if you have it. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings.

This soup required ingredients that were already in my kitchen: a good de-accessioning recipe. Plus, I love soup. It calls for a little sausage, dried bread (we are a baking household, so this is great), carrots (we have some that are getting kind of old), spinach (we can use chard from the garden), onion. It also calls for ricotta salata cheese, for which you can substitute feta.

In addition to subbing chard for the spinach, I subbed regular old breakfast saysage for the Italian sausage. I can just imagine an Italian peasant saying "Oh, I need 1/4 pound of Italian sausage. I only have breakfast sausage. So I'll head over to the store. And leave my breakfast sausage to molder in the fridge." I also had some cooked chickpeas in the fridge. I can similarly imagine my peasant saying, "Too bad I can't use those chickpeas, but the recipe doesn't call for them."

Anyway, I just tested the recipe. Delicious! Check out the New York Times so you can see a picture of the soup.

Try it Readers!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Secondhand Chic: A Good Tip and an Admonition

Fridays: not the most inspired time. Luckily, I have something fun to read: Christa Weil's Secondhand Chic. But for those of you who want the Reader's Digest condensed version, here is a tip and an admonition.


In consignment stores, the finer belts are usually showcased under glass. In thrift stores, they're found on a rack at the back of the store, sportily mixed in with the vinyl. (192)


Nothing undercuts a great look faster than a schlepper totebag, which people DO notice, even when it's at the end of you arm. If you need to transport bulky papers to and from work or school, get yourself a stylish carryall. (196)

The belt tip is so true. Take a look at that rack, sisters. Everything is $0.99!

Totebag admonition. I guess I'd better resume my search. I had half-decided that the cough syrup stained boat tote had a certain flair to it. But I guess it does bring down my new Carlisle jacket.

Any good belts, Readers? And don't hesitate to recommend a tote. Still in search.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sentimental Education, Tactile Shopping, and Second-Hand Chic

First part of title is about me and my beloved Miss Em, for whom I am providing an education in thrift shopping, which, since it's full of feeling, is sentimental. Second part is the self-explanatory title of a book.

One side advantage of being a teacher who has to stand before over 100 20-somethings three days a week is that it keeps me from lapsing into total slob-hood. Those who teach at prestigious research institutions dress in very upscale clothing. Elaine Showalter of Princeton used to write about her high-end shopping for Vogue and I saw a spread a few years ago on the fashion sense of the McGill English Department. But those of us not lucky enough to teach in the higher echelons can tend toward the dowdy.

Recently, one of my students said, "You dress a lot better than most teachers." That doesn't sound so great, but it's high praise. If I look OK at all, it is because I seldom buy anything without the permission of Miss Em, who has unerring style sense.

But when we brought our stuff to Buffalo Exchange, the tables were turned. Miss Em noticed that a much greater percentage of my stuff was taken. Most of hers was rejected. She also noticed that the uber fashionable and often pierced managers of Buffalo enjoyed yakking with me, even though I am about thirty years older than they are. One manager and I even discussed the possiblity of my being their first middle-aged employee! (No, I like my current job. But I would be good.)

So Miss Em and I discussed my history--how in the depths of graduate student poverty I found vintage clothing to sell at the Eye of Osiris, a vintage shop in Bloomington Indiana. Even though I have very few talents--I am an excellent reader and a good cook and that's about it--I was instantly successful in the vintage biz. For some reason, I immediately figured out that you find vintage and designer clothing by quality fabric. You don't look at the clothing; you first run your hands along the rack. Indeed, if you see anyone doing this at a thrift store, you will know that you are in the presence of a picker.

I promised Miss Em that I would teach her the secrets of tactile shopping. She is kind of a beginner, having refused to set foot in a thrift store for much of her childhood. (She would walk into Goodwill and ostentatiously hold her nose!) But, trust me, she is a fast learner and a person of great visual discrimination.

But what if you don't have a mom like me to help you undergo your rite of passage into tactile shopping? There is a book that tells you very clearly how to evaluate clothing for fine fabric and fine construction.

I mentioned this book, which I had borrowed from a former friend many years ago and whose title I had forgotten, in a post a while back. I googled "consignment shopping guide," and amazingly the book came up: Second-Hand Chic by Christa Weil. Even more amazing, there was a copy in my library system and I am reading the book with great pleasure. This is a 10 year old book! It is a testament to its timeless information on fabric quality and clothing construction that it is still in print. The sections on how to shop second-hand are dated, of course, because the book has nary a mention of on-line shopping. But the rest of the book is excellent.

Check it out, if you have a chance.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Potato Love Encore: Easiest Scalloped Potatoes

Thanks to my post of a few days ago, I've been thinking of potatoes more than usual. I even remembered a very weird New Yorker story about a man who went to a bed and breakfast and ended up turning into a potato. I googled the keywords and nothing came up. Anyone??

Potatoes are kind of creepy, as in that remembered story. But they are so good. Almost as good as mashed potatoes are scalloped potatoes. But I have poor knife skills and am impatient, so I seldom made these. Then I found the easiest and best recipe.

Even better, some good reading came along with the recipe, which is in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. Colwin was a novelist and short story writer. I always found her novels a bit lightweight (albeit fun), but I loved her stories, which I read in The New Yorker.

More Home Cooking
, along with the earlier Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, consists of essays/recipes that Colwin published in Gourmet.

These two books have provided me with hours of pure bliss. Here are the potatoes, presented in Colwin's distinctive voice. I am typing this from a page I clipped from the February 1992 issue of Gourmet.

Scalloped potatoes go wonderfully with roast chicken. In the old days I took great pains with these, and they never came out the way I liked them. I have since learned a trick from a now-unrecalled magazine article, and I make them in a trice. If you have a food processor, you can make them in less than that. The potatoes--say about 2 1/2 pounds--should be cut 1/8 inch thick and then plunged into cold water. Bring 2 1/2 cups milk to a boil in a large saucepan, pat the potatoes dry, and boil them in the milk until they are barely tender. Add salt to taste and then tip the whole affair--the sludgy milk and the half-cooked potatoes--into a buttered dish. Add garlic if you like it--if not, not--scatter breadcrumbs on top, and bake the potatoes in a 400 degree oven for about fifteen minutes, or until they are bubbly and brown. (You will have to soak the saucepan for quite a long while--that's boiling milk for you--but it's worth it.)

My faithful readers no doubt know that I always make even easy recipes easier. So, I just slice potatoes haphazardly with a knife, don't soak in cold water, and hence don't dry. I do add extra sharp cheddar. And I don't usually put on breadcrumbs.

Colwin presented this as part of an easy dinner for guests, featuring roast chicken and ending with Katherine Hepburn's brownies. But for potato lovers like myself, this dish plus a vegetable would more than suffice for dinner.

Of course, you could make the chicken and all, because then you would have more potatoes for you. I used to perform this trick when cooking for my family. It didn't work because both my children became potato lovers, perhaps because of the quantities of potatoes I consumed while they were in utero. When I met Mr. FS, he was indifferent to potatoes; he was a rice person. But now he has come to broaden his horizons and embrace the potato (and occasionally pig out) with the rest of us.

Colwin, by the way, died suddenly at age 48. I hope everyone has a chance to read her work.

Any great potato dishes, Dear Readers? Any great food writers?

Thrift Store Meditations and Frugal Son's Financial Adventures

The thrift store meditations are mine; the financial adventures belong to Frugal Son.

I've often thought that I go to thrift stores for the opportunity to philosophize as much as for the sense of community, fun, and, of course, the stuff. So what is a fancy label if no one recognizes it?

Today I stopped by the Food Bank Thrift ostensibly to donate a few items, but really to look around. They have started to price items individually, so the pace of putting new things out has slowed considerably. Not much of interest, but I did spot a top and capris by the label Per Se. It was an outfit, but the parts were not together.

I would never have heard of this label had I not read a piece last fall in the Wall Street Journal. The writer talked about how she spent big bucks on a St. John set and discovered that this non-trendy outfit garnered her R-E-S-P-E-C-T in upscale restaurants and shops. I, of course, was motivated to test this out and within the week found a St. John jacket at Goodwill for $3.50. I wrote a post about this. (Note to devoted readers: No, I have not had the zipper fixed yet. I will have it done this summer.)

I even added a comment to the WSJ article. Others wrote extolling the similar effects of Carlisle clothing, sold by socially connected women in their homes. Motivated once more, I have been collecting these too at the thrifts and, indeed, two of the jackets elicit compliments.

Per Se is an offshoot of Carlisle. As it happened, the two pieces were a bit small for me (size 6). The pricers marked each piece at $3.00, so obviously they come off as nice, but nothing meriting a higher price. Yet knowing that together the pieces sold for at least $400.00 was a temptation, especially since the pants did sort of fit me. But I resisted. I haven't visited that thrift for a week or so (yes, I am an addict), and I bet the outfit has been passed by more than once. So the set had value to me in large part because I recognized the label.

I wonder if my Carlisle jackets, which are both Chanel-style, elicit the compliments because I know that they were super-expensive. An instructor in fact asked me if one was a Chanel! Is it the jacket that gives off the aura or is it me?

So...if an expensive item is at a thrift store and no one recognizes the label is it still expensive?

On to the financial adventures of Frugal Son. Frugal Son has a lot of freedom financially because, as I have written before, he selected the state university, which handed him a tuition, room, and board scholarship. Last summer, he went to Korea for a month with some friends who had family there. He also worked for 3 weeks in a summer academic program at his beloved residential high school.

He only earned $1000.00, and he just put that into a Roth IRA. He avoided the fees levied on low balance accounts, because he is under our family umbrella at Vanguard. Because he had so little to put away, he was limited to the STAR fund, which, coincidentally, is the fund my own first IRA is in.

His second financial adventure. He wants to buy GE stock! I have never bought an individual stock myself. I am proud of his spirit. It turns out that you can buy GE stock directly without a broker. I said, "Go for it." He has little to lose and much to gain, including knowledge.

Any thrift store philosophy, Dear Readers? Any advice for Frugal Son?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Elizabeth David's Potato Tomato Soup

I mentioned this soup in a response to my blogbuddy Chance's post on growing potatoes. I love potatoes. Generally, I think nothing beats mashed potatoes and that most other concoctions are not worth the time and effort. Sometimes when I am blue I will eat a giant pot of mashed potatoes all by myself. One way to get on my good side is to offer to perform a task I loathe: peeling potatoes.

Now that I have established my potato creds, I will present one of the few exceptions to my "nothing is better than mashed" credo: Elizabeth David's potato tomato soup. This is from French Provincial Cooking. I have an old bedraggled paperback, whose decrepit cover was replaced by Mr. FS with some red cardboard. I will type this right out of my copy, enjoying David's prose and general aesthetic. David, as will be clear, does not present recipes in the manner of American cookbooks.

The white part of two leeks, 1/2 lb. tomatoes, 3/4 lb. potatoes, 1 1/2 oz. butter, a little cream, chervil or parsley.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan; before it has bubbled put in the finely sliced leeks; let them just soften in the butter. Half the success of this soup depends upon this first operation. If the butter burns instead of just melting or the leeks brown the flavour will be spoilt.

Add the roughly chopped tomatoes; again let them cook until they start to give out their juice. Add the peeled and diced potato, a seasoning of salt, and two lumps of sugar. Cover with 1 1/4 pints of water. After the soup comes to the boil let it simmer steadily but not too fast for 25 minutes. Put it through the food mill, twice if necessary. Return the puree to the rinsed-out saucepan. When it is hot, add about 4 oz. cream.
. . . .

For all its simplicity and cheapness this is a lovely soup, in which you taste butter, cream, and each vegetable, and personally I think it would be a mistake to add anything to it in the way of individual fantasies

You can see the bits I left out (oops! like adding chopped chervil or parsley at the end) on Googlebooks. Can you get a sense of her perfect and austere palate?

I don't follow this to the letter. I seldom have cream, so I add milk and some butter at the end. I also puree with my stick blender right in the pot. The soup is a beautiful salmon color. David cautions against making this too thick. Note also the water (rather than stock) base, typical of French home cooking. Elsewhere in the book, David mentions that leeks are really essential. I agree.

I hope you try this Chance! Anyone have any fabulous and simple soup recipes? Please share.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Frugal Weekend in My Little Town

While I yearn for the museums and music of big cities, I have to admit that there is lots of free and accessible entertainment in my little town.

So Friday night, we went to the Concert at the Landing, a monthly event from March to November. Listening to the band, usually jazz, against the backdrop of the Bogue Falaya River. Beautiful for all the senses.

Then, Sunday night, the monthly Third Sunday Concert at the Episcopal Church. Tonight we heard a comic opera by PDQ Bach. These concerts are followed by a reception, with wine, cheese, fruit, and little sandwiches.

Both events are totally free, supported by grants from arts organizations. Both are within walking distance of my house, so getting there is green...and a pleasure.

I grew up in gruesome suburbia. Surely, there must have been many cultural opportunities, free for the asking. But I never really knew about any, and even if I did, they were probably far away, as almost everything is in suburbia.

I am lucky that there are so many civic-minded people here, who put these programs together and write the grants.

Mr. FS and I spend time now and again, trying to figure out where we will live when we stop teaching. Right now, we are trying to make the most of what we have here.

Next time, I'll take some pictures so you can see how beautiful it is here.

Dear Readers: do you take advantage of events in your town? Do share.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Susan Boyle, Emily Dickinson, and Success

Forgive me, Dear Readers.

First, for being a slacker and not posting. Miss Em is home on Spring Break. We even took a trip to Baton Rouge and had a dinner en famille--at the LSU Dining Hall, thanks to Frugal Son. And a delicious dinner it was too, featuring sushi and vegetable tempura, followed by mango ice cream.

Second, a pre-emptive apology. This post is not on frugality. But I love literature even more than I love frugality (and that's a good thing). The recent Susan Boyle sensation (no link needed, I'm sure), makes me think of Emily Dickinson and her poem on success. You no doubt were supposed to have read this during your school career.

I was a latecomer to the Youtube video of Boyle. By the time I saw it, there had already been almost 20,000,000 views. And, being a reader, I have spent some time perusing the commentary that has mushroomed. Many writers talk about "success" and how Boyle gives us all hope. Hope that even a homely (I see the word "ugly" thrown around too) woman, of middle age, with big eyebrows, can succeed.

Maybe. I don't know. Of course, her looks had something to do with it. Miss Em has a lovely friend with a lovely voice who has performed that very song from Les Miz. If she had been on the show, she would not have caused the sensation.

But aside from that, I think the looks are important. If Boyle is "homely" or "ugly," then so is about 98% of the population. It is the three judges--with their obviously processed looks on top of lucky genetics--who are the "freaks." Perhaps just as we ordinary folk (Americans, at any rate) are ready to kill, not all the lawyers, as Shakespeare put it, but all the Wall Streeters and other privileged "freaks" who manipulated the financial markets or benefited along with those that did, we ordinary folk in the appearance department are likewise ready to side with our peers, rather than with the privileged "freaks" of beauty.

That's one thought. My other thought is about success.

I've seen some rapturous comments on how Boyle's sudden success shows that there is always hope. And that with hope will come success.

But we might turn to another unmarried woman to learn more of the truth about success: the great Emily Dickinson. Here is the first stanza of her famous poem:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

This is not a message we want to hear. I know this because when I teach the poem, I ask students to paraphrase the stanza. Invariably, most say "You learn what success is when you fail a lot. Then when you succeed, it is more meaningful." Even after I say that the key word is "ne'er" or never, students continue to repeat the first paraphrase. Of course, what is important is that many people--most, perhaps--never do succeed. At least not in the arts or in performance or in writing. Dickinson knew this; it is the dark side of the "American Dream," which extols hard work and promises eventual success to those who keep at it.

Susan Boyle is now on the other side of the divide. Some of her neighbors said, "We all knew she could sing. Now everyone knows it." Susan always knew she was good. I am not an expert of Dickinson's work or life, but I've always thought that Dickinson was well aware of how good she was. Now, of course, she is a great "success." But I've always wondered how she viewed her life and her work and to what extent she counted herself a "success."

So, Dear Readers, that's it. Is it OK if I go off topic on occasion? I am making two interesting-sounding soups that feature chard. I will report back on them if these frugal creations are a "success."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Death and Taxes: Meditation and Confession

An embarrassingly predictable and prosaic title, it is true.

First DEATH.

Since my father died 5 months ago, I check the obituaries each morning on the New York Times website. I'm not really interested in who died. But there is a general feeling in my family that my father was cheated out of his lifespan. He was 80, it is true, but his father lived to be 99 and his mother lived into her 80s.

He wasn't sick. In fact, he was hale and hearty, a very tall, big, LOUD, talkative fellow who had gone to aerobics that morning. He died while watching a movie on television with my mother: he said "My head hurts" and "That's Tom Hanks." A blood vessel had burst in his brain. I guess he really died a few days later, about nine hours after we had the life support turned off.

Reading those obituaries increased my sense of unfairness. So many 98 year olds! Even 88 year olds! Today, I saw that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had died. She was a very famous literary scholar. Her most famous work is called Between Men and it is about homosocial (as distinct from homosexual) desire. This is something of a development of the work of Rene Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which is about triangulated desire.

The point here, looked at in the context of literary works, is that the relationships that count often are not the ones between men and women, but rather those between men. The men are battling it out for honor, prestige, or whatever. Just read the beginning of the Iliad and you'll know that is true.

I didn't use Sedgwick's work too much in my own teaching or studies. But I've got to say that it helped me understand the dynamics of my own little world at work. Thank you, Eve Sedgwick. You were only 58. You definitely didn't get the lifespan you deserved.

Now for TAXES.

Yes, it is April 15. I've always done the taxes, though in a very time-consuming, inefficient, and probably costly way. I even did the taxes for Mr. FS before we were married.

But this year, I can't finish. What pushed me over the edge was the fact that I had to cash out the UGMA accounts I established for my children. I put in about $3000.00 for each of them. Ten years later, that's about what was left. TIAA instituted fees for accounts with low balances, so, to avoid the fees, I cashed out. This was lucky because it was right before the really big stock decline. (Too bad I didn't cash out of my bigger accounts at the same time!).

Anyway, I have no idea how to do this--gain, loss, what is it? Frugal Son also earned $1200.00 last year. I told both kids I would figure out how to do the taxes for them.

While I was flipping out about this, I neglected my own taxes, which involve only slight complexities--a little self-employment income for each of us. Since paying off our house, we don't even do a long form.

A five minute computation indicated that we will be getting a refund. I do this every year, and I am always right within $50.00. Nevertheless, I have to slog through the forms, which takes hours. Even though I like doing computations, I am disorganized.

So--extensions for all! I am thinking of sending in a small check for each child just in case a small amount is owed.

Dear Readers: Please say it's OK for me to get an accountant! Mr. FS has been begging me to do this for years. And--how does one find an accountant anyway? Help.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shopping with Miss Em and Great Shoes (Sanitas) at the Buffalo Exchange

Everyone should have a teenage daughter. I never go shopping without mine at hand. Only a teenage daughter has the mix of scorn, honesty, and love requisite for a good shopping companion. Also, since her money is my money and my money is her money, there is none of the encouragement to overspend that often characterizes "friends."

Miss Em only comes home once a month, so we usually shop then. It does seem that she gets too much, but she is in the acquisitive age, and I always said I would save on her clothing when she was little (and didn't really care) so she could have what she wanted when she did care. That would be now.

So yesterday, we went to Ross and TJ Maxx and Target. She got what she "needed"-a new bathing suit and Converse sneakers. Then she helped me pick out some flattering sunglasses. I discovered that there are tote bags aplenty and that leather bags are incredibly heavy. A good lesson.

Today, on to New Orleans. She is going to stay over and see two friends. We went to Whole Foods and bought some picnic items and ate by the Mississippi. Then we went to Buffalo Exchange for our second trip. We got almost $80.00! (That's cash too--more in credit). We also walked around funky and chic Magazine Street and explored various boutiques.

Buffalo Exchange HOT TIP. The New Orleans store has loads of new Sanita clogs (Funny, are you there?), shoes by Think! (Deja, are you there?), Mephistos (the pair I tried on was uncomfortable), and others. These were from "a store in Oregon," whose patrons have no idea where all the neat shoes went. Prices ranged from $20.00 to $38.00.

If you have a Buffalo Exchange near you, I would suggest calling and seeing if they have any of the cache of new shoes.

Miss Em wouldn't let me use any of the credit for shoes, so we took the cash and left. We stopped at a famous Italian bakery called Angelo Brocato's for a cannoli and then dropped Miss Em off.

Results: Buffalo took about half the stuff we brought it. Blissful decluttering. The woman behind me with the Orla Kiely tote (wish she'd exchange that and solve my tote bag problem) only got $20.00. So all is democratic at Buffalo.

We ate some pate with bread by the river and luscious cannoli at the bakery.

A beautiful day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Things I Don't Do Because I 'm Frugal

No, this is not an essay on all the things you must give up to pay off your credit cards, or--worse--because your job has evaporated. So, no, this is not about giving up Starbucks, especially the dreaded latte, meals out, vacations, nice clothes, whatever. It is about how, if you are frugal, you can give up lots of things you don't like to do.

The main one for us is summer teaching. Because we are frugal, we do not have to teach in the summer. As fairly senior people in the departmental hierarchy, we are "entitled" to summer courses, at least now and then. Summer classes have been cut in past years, and may be cut more in the new economic climate. Colleagues who depend on that money get a panicky look when they learn that they cannot count on summer employment.

My mother-in-law, who taught in a junior college, once pointed out that the greatest luxury for teachers was time. She was right. Yes, we could make a good hourly wage for summer teaching, especially on-line, where classes are limited in size and many students drop. But I don't have to justify anything. I don't feel like teaching in the summer.

On the trivial end, I have been saving money and participating in a fun community by swapping books on But sometimes I just dread packing up books to send. I need to amass credits because Mr. FS has been stealing--err, transferring--book credits to CD credits on Then we discovered that you can BUY credits, either from the site, or, a little cheaper, from swappers. We patronize a fellow who calls himself Crabby Doctor. Usually, I'll mail books, but sometimes I just don't feel like it.

Similarly, I have a bunch of stuff I could sell on eBay. I used to find that fun. No more. I hate it, in fact. So I gathered up all the stuff and will take it, first, to Buffalo Exchange. This is mainly to put some exchange credits in Miss Em's little hands. Also, it's fun to see what they will take.

Other things I hate doing include using grocery coupons (overrated as far as saving money goes, not to mention messy) and having yard sales (overrated as a way of making money). So I don't.

I guess that means that much of what I do is because I like it: I like cooking at home; I like nosing around thrift stores, and so forth.

To my mind, frugality is as much about NOT doing things you don't want to do as it is about deprivation, giving up things you want.

So here's to my summer, which will be spent visiting family on each coast and reading some of the books amassed through swapping and thrift stores.

Frugal Readers: what don't you do because you don't feel like it? And Frugal-in-the-Future Readers: what do you look forward to giving up?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tote Bag Search Encore: Progress Report

My faithful readers may remember that I sent out a call for help on a tote bag a while ago. Unfortunately, the problem remains. In fact, it is a critical problem, because, when I was sick a while back and dragging myself to work, I decided I should have a bottle of daytime cough medicine at the ready.

I suspect that you already know how this story will end. I put the bottle into a plastic grocery bag (just in case!) and put it in my aforementioned LL Bean tote (with vile architect's logo) along with folders of student work. Naturally, the safety cap was not secure AND the plastic bag had holes in it. Hence, many student papers and the tote bag itself (not to mention the carpet on the floor of the car) ended up soaked in viscous red liquid. The students were very forgiving. The tote bag is a mess.

When I posted about my desire for a new tote, two commenters suggested that I make one. That would be nice if I knew how to sew. I remember with pain the humiliation of being the WORST student in home ec back in eighth grade. Everyone was putting in zippers, while I was still basting. Then the home ec wing burned down. What a relief. I still got a C in home ec.

In my fantasy world, I will acquire some iconic tote bag. This fantasy was strengthened after riding the shuttle last summer at the San Francisco airport in the company of Mr. FS, a bunch of normal mortals, and a stranger whom I dub Mr. Iconic, after his clothes and luggage. I may write a full description of this fascinating fellow some time, but suffice it to say that everything on or near his body was recognizably super expensive, with and without logos. I have never seen a man decked out in such an array of designer duds; at the same time, the effect was not--as it often is on women--that of the soi-disant "label whore." This guy definitely had an aura. So much so, that even Mr. FS, oblivious to clothing in general, and who only recognized the somewhat worn Vuitton garment bag, was aware of it. He said "That guy looked really rich. I really liked his little orange suitcase." Uh, can we say Hermes?

Along with the Hermes, Burberry (coat and scarf), and Vuitton, he carried a beat up leather tote bag. Obviously expensive, but with the je ne sais quoi of wear. Indeed, I read somewhere that, owing to the number of fakes in circulation, the only Vuitton with any cachet at all, is worn Vuitton (perhaps because the fakes don't hold up?).

So, for a while, I thought about a leather tote. Then, my mother gave me some leather briefcases that had belonged to my late father. Very funky. But also very heavy, even with nothing in them.

Lightweight AND iconic. That must be the famous Longchamp Pliage bag, carried by everyone in Paris. But even in my fantasies, I am a cheapwad. So, although I can say I will pick one up next time I am in France, the truth is I will never actually spend over $100.00 on a nylon bag, even if it has leather trim. So unless one goes on sale, I know myself too well to ever do this.

Another tote bag, not iconic, is this sophisticated looking tie dye number. I hate tie dye as a rule--those garish colors. But this tie dye, by Bodkin of Brooklyn, an eco-fashion company, is beautiful. I read that the dye is all natural and made of blueberries and such. It is also dyed in the bathtubs of upscale artisan types in Brooklyn, rather than in third world countries or at summer camp. Well, all that is too chichi for me. My eco-fashion comes via thrift stores. Also, $80.00! It would be one thing if I could pull it off. But I know that if I lugged it around, with my messy hair and general air of disarray, it would look like something I picked up at Walmart for $12.99. So I have to confess that I myself would nullify what is special about this bag.

Back to LL Bean. I must admit that I am swayed by the free shipping (and return shipping) and free monogramming that come with my charge card. I get sidetracked by the leather tote once more. Especially since a romp through the internet suggests that no-name classic bags are trumping ostentatious "It-Bags" in the age of austerity. The LL Bean bag comes up often in such discussions, along with similar bags from Pendleton. But I am annoyed that the price went from $99.00 in December to $129.00 in January. And it seems heavy.

Back to the boat and tote bags. What could be more iconic? But--ugh--that cream canvas covered with red blotches. And there is the monogram issue discussed earlier. (If I am entitled to a free monogram, because I have the LLB charge, by golly I will get one).

Then I turn to "other" in the tote department. There is the hunter's tote. Not canvas, but nylon. Waterproof. Ecstatic reviews. Only $29.00 for the large size. I love words like "utility." The one woman reviewer bought the camouflage pattern. Hey! Camouflage is iconic! I run this idea by Mr. FS. He does not think a camouflage tote would "read" as ironic and post-modern.

Okay, what about olive drab? Then I can get a monogram with my awful initials, but it will hardly show.

I have plenty of time to mull over this major decision. It occurs to me that in around 5 weeks, I will begin my three months of summer break. Thanks to my extreme frugality, I do not have to teach in the summer, nor does Mr. FS. So I don't need a tote bag for a while.

Needless to say: your opinion Dear Readers? Any other good candidates. I have THREE MONTHS to think about this.

Work Clothes Revisited

By Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar.

I was amazed and honored by how many people found it worth responding to my humble meditation on an equally humble topic. I was going to answer the various comments individually, but I realized that with my tendency toward prolixity (an occupational hazard, I suppose), I’d better just give in and offer a collective response here.

First: the Duchesse raises the issue of smell—a delicate issue indeed. There is a distinction between something that smells (perfume, sirloin steak), and something that stinks (you supply the examples). Now, what is on my work pants is soil, not dirt. My pants are soil-y rather than dirty, and if one enjoys the rich smell of loam then perhaps it is not entirely sophistical to argue that my pants have their own earthy perfume.

I admit this is a stretch, and is somewhat compromised by the Duchesse’s observation that the soil is probably mixed with sweat, though most of this is absorbed by my shirt (changed regularly), which is tucked into my pants and which, along with my underwear (also changed regularly), forms a prophylactic (that word again!) barrier against the sweat. I also hang the pants in the sun after each use, which seems to kill most of the odor.

However, all of this may seem empty conjecture; what I need is some hard, scientific, experimental evidence. For this, I enlisted the sensitive nose of the Divine Miss Em, who is not only a connoisseur of scents but is also quite willing to express her unedited opinions. So I watched with bated breath as she brought her nose closer and closer to the soil-iest part of my work pants until it was a scant ¼ inch away. “Papa,” she said, her face lighting up in a beatific smile, “it hardly smells at all! It just smells a little like soil!” I kid you not . . . . although her smile might not have been beatific, and she might have said “dirt” rather than “soil,” not being as sensitive to the political connotations of these words as I am.

Flushed with victory, I ran to find Dr. F.S. and asked her to confirm the Divine Miss Em’s judgment. I regret to say that Dr. F.S.’s response strayed considerably beyond the bounds of polite discourse, and included certain gestures and phrases that cannot be mentioned in a family-oriented blog such as this. Of course having someone thrust a foul-looking garment in your face as you are trying to grade papers is itself probably a breach of some rule of decorum (I’m not up on all the fine points, so I can’t say for sure). In any case, I think Miss Em’s testimony is enough: minimal smell, and no stink.

And even if it did stink, no one in her or his right mind would come within ten feet of someone who looks like I do when I’m gardening, unless it’s a fellow fanatic who understands the visual vocabulary, and knows that the soil-encrusted lunatic brandishing a hoe is actually a gentle cultivator of the earth.

Second (sorry for the long first): while it may be harder to wash clothes that have had soil ground into them for months, washing is optional. My pants are the lowest of the low, have done honorable service in various capacities for years, and after weeks or months of garden duty often go directly into retirement (the garbage can). If I do wash them, I first give them a good hosing down outside, which gets rid of the heavy incrustations. And since I’m not going to wear them only for more gardening, any stains that remain after laundering I think of as marks of a long and worthy career.

Third: the slippery slope (similar to the old domino theory): unwashed garden clothes lead inevitably to an unwashed life. I think that in fact my gardening clothes work as a sort of safety valve, allowing me to indulge my primitive needs in an acceptable way. In this sense, my cruddy old clothes become the guardian of civilization; they allow me to be a happy citizen and sweet-smelling spouse without the slightest chance of going postal.

Fourth: gender. I always thought that men, more often than women, would wear clothes (even non-gardening clothes) until they glowed in the dark. Certainly Frugal Son seems to confirm this view, which would make men genetically (or culturally) more frugal than women. So I was very pleased to hear Chance, Vicky, and Reggie Girl say it’s not a gender thing at all, that there’s a sort of fraternity (and sorority) of the unwashed out there that I can lean on when the going gets rough. Thanks to you all ( or y’all, as we say down here) for the support and encouragement!

Here's our old friend again, after several more muddy days' use, and in the condition that the Divine Miss Em, in the spirit of objective inquiry, investigated with her sensitive nose. But I think retirement looms.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Frugal Fanatics: Is There Any Limit for Work Pants?

By Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar.

Dr. F.S. is taking a well-deserved break, so she said I could post one of my marginally helpful musings on frugality.

Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether I have gone over the line from frugality to psychopathology. And it doesn’t help that so many others are eager to vote for the latter, even my beloved frugal spouse, who thinks that some of my habits and routines are immoderate. But frugality is not just about saving money, it’s also a sort of mental discipline: Zen frugality.

Case in point: my work clothes. My work clothes belong to the lowest of complicated clothing cast system, and are generally culled from the third and final tier of my “general house and lounge-about” attire (not to be confused with my “go to your average store” attire). Work pants, I think we can agree, are for working, and as such I see no point in washing them—at least not until they can stand up by themselves.

Here’s my argument: when I garden, or do any other sweaty, grubby work, the pants get dirty. If I put on a new clean pair the next time I go out, they too are going to get dirty each and every time. However, pants that are already dirty will stay relatively clean—relative, that is, to their initial condition. So what’s the point of wasting time, water, electricity, and effort to wash work clothes after one, two, or more wearings when re-use contributes to the cosmic cleanliness quotient? (I just made that phrase up.) When I garden, I am the king and only subject of my domain: it’s not as if I’m going to an important meeting or can offend anyone but myself. And once I put my old clothes on they feel just fine, however disreputable they may look. And I don’t see how one can object that used work clothes are danger to one’s health. (Paradoxically, donning such clothing might even promote good health, since, as medical researchers have found, keeping children too clean prevents them from developing antibodies, and I don’t see why the same should not apply to adults.)

I have to admit that I like putting on my used clothes. As my friend Henry David Thoreau says in Walden, “Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies.” (Sometimes, after a few weeks of hard use, it does seem as I’ll need medical appliances to get them on—and off.)

So am I a fanatic? I think not, since I’m not only saving myself time and money, but I’m helping to save the world as well. An overstatement? Perhaps, but I’ve done some quick calculations, which demonstrate conclusively that if everyone reused work clothes the way I do we would save enough energy to light Tickfaw, Louisiana for 625 days. So why not be the Mother Teresa of your garden as well?

Bonus test. See if you can put the following photos in sequence. One is of my work pants after two wearings, one after ten wearings, and one after another 15 hours of very hard use (spring work: on my knees weeding and digging and grubbing happily around).

Answer (I know this part should be upside down): the first is after two wearings, the second is last, and the third is the middle. (Pretty sneaky, hunh?!) So how much longer do you think I can keep going?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My Burden: Four Hundred Books

First, some random musings. I am definitely learning humility in the blogosphere. I wrote what I thought was a funny post (at least the title was funny) and only got TWO comments. Perhaps people thought my title--"Prophylactic Shopping"--indicated an, errr, erotic subject matter. Not at all. The primary definition of prophylactic is protective.To wit:

Greek prophylaktikos, from prophylassein to be on guard, from pro- before + phylassein to guard, from phylak-, phylax guard

1 : guarding from or preventing the spread or occurrence of disease or infection
2 : tending to prevent or ward off : preventive

Plus, I need to apologize for my erratic (again, NOT erotic) posting. I'm getting into the end-of-semester slump. I should revive over spring break.

Now, to my burden topic. Even though I mostly write on frugality, my real problem is clutter. I am perfectly happy to blab at length about all the little money saving tricks that I engage in. However, I get heart palpitations just thinking about posting photos of some of my clutter spots.

It is interesting that some of the greatest successes in personal finance blogging are people who had to--with great difficulty--pull themselves out of debt. Similarly, the people who are best at helping clutterbugs like me are the people who had the same problem. So the sisters who wrote Sidetracked Home Executives were lifesavers for me. They were also the inspiration for the hugely successful Flylady.

Since my problem is on-going AND I will be having in-laws coming in a few weeks for a several-night stay, the motivation is high. I also am blessed with a functional back-building of about 300 square feet. When we bought the house, this was the owner's junk room. We didn't have any junk to put in it at the time, but, over the years, it has filled right up.

Many years ago, my son decided he wanted the space for his friends. We cleaned it up. He had a party complete with a black-light. Then it was abandoned and it filled up again.

Daughter decided she wanted it for her friends. We cleaned it up and she didn't even have a party. Filled up again.

Now, Mr. FS decided he wants the space for a study. What a great idea! Then we can use his current space for the television, which now resides in a closet. What is in the little house now are books books books. Some used to be for sale on Amazon, but are no longer worth enough to bother selling. Some are swappers for Most are bedraggled.

We consolidated all the books and discovered that we are using 300 square feet for about 600 books, 400 of which are nothing special or formerly special. Other stuff includes mailing supplies, linens the kids take to camp when they work there, and . . . the embarrassment continues. When you count up what stands between you and what you want, often the barrier is just pitiful.While searching for some inspiration/motivation last night, I came upon Julie Morgenstern's newish book. She wrote an organizing book a few years ago that was a huge best-seller; it was also completely useless for me.

Her new book is on hold for me at the library. But I glanced at it on googlebooks. She has her readers count up their burdens.

I love this word! If you've read Pilgrim's Progress, you may recall that the pilgrim, whose name is Christian (not a very subtle allegory!), journeys with his burden. He loses his burden only when he reaches heaven.

If you've read Little Women, you may recall that Jo and her sisters play Pilgrim's Progress. They wear little backpacks, climb up the stairs, and take off their burdens when they get to the attic.

So far, I've bagged up and donated about 200 books (that was before the 400 number). Now I have 400 to go. For a book-lover like me who wants to give every book a home, this is very painful. But I will not sink into the Slough of Despond (another Pilgrim's Progess reference). No, I will hurry back out and fill up ONE MORE BAG.

Stay tuned. What is your burden, Dear Readers?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Prophylactic Shopping: Thrift Store Inoculations

How's that for a snazzy title? I do this all the time and I guess I'm wondering if anyone else does. If it's new to you, it may constitute a helpful tip in the on-going wars against overspending.

What is prophylactic shopping? It is shopping to keep you from shopping. Let me explain. As we all know, frivolous people (like me) sometimes shop for sport and stress relief. I know, I know, we should be above this. Especially me, since I am a high-brow type. Truly though, there is nothing wrong with a little sport and personal adornment. The new hair shirt frugality that is au courant is, I think, dispiriting. I wrote about this a while ago in an essay that quoted the famous lines from King Lear: "Oh, reason not the need." That was one of my favorite posts and it received not a single comment.

Now that we have established my fundamentally frivolous nature, let us turn to my equally fundamental frugality. I really hate wasting money. I hate malls. For me, danger sometimes comes via the internet. Today, I received an email announcing even further reductions at Talbots and FREE SHIPPING. I took advantage of a similar offer a week or so ago, and all the stuff has been returned to the store.

I felt myself weakening. This Talbots sale was even better than the other one. And I've been sick. And, while all my students are lazing about, I've been slogging through their papers. Poor me.

So this morning, I indulged in some prophylactic shopping, at, you guessed it, my local thrift stores. This is not really a waste of gas, because I traveled no more than two miles. And, as for wasting time, well, I consider this therapy.

So what did I get? I'm assuming that the thrift store gods (or goddesses) felt how weak was my spirit. Therefore, with their usual sense of humor, they provided me with a pair of new linen ballet flats--from Talbots! Thanks!

They also provided me with a linen and leather Kate Spade handbag (I think it's real too, unlike most of the specimens that make their way to thrifts).

So far, I'm out $5.00. I also got some books, including one I gave away a long time ago and have been wanting to re-read. My spending of about $10.00 inoculated me against spending about $80.00. It would be funny-money to say that I "saved" $70.00, but I kind of did.

If any of the acquired item turns out to be unwanted, I will donate it back. So my money went to a good cause and any mistakes go back to be sold again.

Please don't think I am always rewarded in this way. But prophylactic shopping works even if you don't find anything. That is because you see so much stuff, so much nice stuff, even some new stuff, that you realize that the thrift store universe is a place of abundance. There's always something next time.

So, readers, do you engage in prophylactic shopping? Do tell?

And, are you as sick as I am of the new hair-shirt mentality?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gender Studies: An Apercu or Two

Once again, I will preface my remarks by noting that I have about sixty papers to slog through. These are left over from last week--I couldn't handle grading with that awful cold. So an apercu or two. (Note: could somebody tell me how to put a cedilla in? I feel the spirits of Mr. Giordano and Mr. Moore wielding their red pens.)

Talbots encore: A few weeks ago I boldly declared that I thought it would be a good idea to buy Talbots stock. Even though the Motley Fools classed Talbots as their scary Halloween stock, I was intrigued by Talbots' new aesthetic and my feelings were confirmed by comments around the blogosphere by various women of a certain age. I even bought a few things at a fab sale.

Upshot: I ended up returning everything I bought, because, as my daughter said, nothing was a significant "upgrade." BUT I checked the stock today: when I first looked at it, it was $1.80; now, a few months later, it is $3.80. I was only going to buy 100 shares, and, believe me, a $200.00 profit is not even a dust mote against the losses in my heretofore hefty retirement funds. I only hope the "experts" that run TIAA, Vanguard, and a few other companies whose names must not be uttered were sharp enough to pick up on the same vibes as the smart women of the blogosphere.

Boston Gal's Open Wallet, a blog that obviously has at its helm a woman, linked to an article about three who have made it big as bloggers. These are the usual suspects and they pull in between $60,000/year and $120,000/year. These sums have enabled all three to leave their prior places of employ and blog full-time.

I wrote a comment wondering why the three biggies were all male. Could it be because they were all early adopters of technology? I also wondered if all three could continue their success, which was based on getting out of debt. They are now heading into discussions of investing, an area in which they are neophytes.

What say you Dear Readers? Do you detect some gender-savvy in the Talbots story? Do you see a gender issue in the story about the full-time personal finance blogger story?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Eat Like an Italian Part 2: Don't buy that Shallot

The flip-side of eating what you have--in your garden, in your fridge, in your pantry--is NOT eating what you don't have.

My sister-in-law, who hates to cook, is now the cook for her own family of two (her child is away at college) and for her father, who lives nearby. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, she probably spends ten times as much time cooking as I do, and I like to cook. During our last visit, she made an eggplant stew with polenta topping. Delicious. She also made a salad with shallot dressing. Delicious.

Both recipes were clipped from the newspaper and she followed them to the letter. She made a shopping trip in the morning to amass the ingredients. At dinner time, she discovered that she had forgotten to buy a shallot. I suggested that she use a garlic clove or chopped scallions, both of which were in the house. This was not acceptable. She sent her daughter off to get the shallot and she returned, twenty or so minutes later, with a shallot.

Each meal starts similarly starts from scratch. Shopping and cooking take a long time.

I, by contrast, am a lazy-ish cook. Tonight I made a potato pie from the potatoes and caramelized onions I had. I added some eggs and sour cream and topped with breadcrumbs and then baked in my trusty toaster oven. Total prep time--10 minutes. Baking--around 40 minutes. Of course, we had some greens with it!

An Italian peasant--from the scenario recounted in yesterday's post--would surely not make a trip to buy a shallot.

Of course, it has taken me years to get lazy. Like many people my age, I learned to cook from cookbooks, laboriously following Julia Child's recipes, perspiring all the while.

But there does seem to be a change afoot. The Wall Street Journal, whose food articles are often very good, had a piece yesterday on improvisational cooking. The piece featured cooks who urge us to figure out how to use what we have--

Among them: Marc Matsumoto, a freelance writer and marketing consultant, who launched the Web site a year ago. The site's motto: "No recipes: Cooking is more fun without them." Mr. Matsumoto focuses on technique and inspiration, rather than detailed instructions, when he writes about his off-the-cuff creations that include spicy lemongrass soft-shell crab, and shrimp and duck gumbo.

Lest it seem that my ego is running amok here, let me say that my sister-in-law is an excellent housekeeper, who probably looks with horror at my inefficient and futile efforts in that department. I probably spend more time than she does at housekeeping and, trust me, my house looks a lot worse than hers does. If only we lived near each other! I'd be happy to do all the cooking and I hope she would help me out with my weak spots.

Dear Readers: any tips for improvisational cooking? How do you make one meal into more? Any clever substitutions? Do share.