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Monday, July 27, 2009

Frugal Scholar on Vacation: Things Seen and Overheard

I had a whole slew of apercus apropos things seen and overheard, but then was interrupted by family meltdown. And now I can only remember one.

Wellesley MA: Walking around waiting for mother's reunion to end. Walked by a store with riding stuff in one window. Other window had "Fox Hunting" equipment! As we walked by the door, the door opened. From behind we heard, "Of course, she winters in Gstaad."

I swiveled around and saw what appeared to be a mother-daughter duo, dressed in high prep. Nothing special. Wow.

Stockbridge MA: I just accompanied my mother to the town dump to drop off our trash. Massachusetts is so into recycling! It's great. My favorite feature was a little "Free Shop," where you could bring your too-good -to throw out stuff. There I saw some very snazzy clothing. The nice ladies offered me a Doncaster jacket, but I said my suitcases were too full.

That's it: New England high and low.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Frugalslacker? On vacation

The above nom de plume is what I almost typed as I signed in: yes, unlike responsible bloggers, I did not give a vacation alert. That is because I fully expected to be sending missives from New England and California. Maybe I will. But if I don't, I am having a good time.

Here's a frugal tip: if you are going to have to plan for yearly expensive trips to visit Aged P's (that's from Great Expectations, in case you're hoping for some literary content), at least have said P's live in places that are good to visit. We always say that we are going places that people actually choose for vacations.

So right now we are in western Massachusetts, in a little cottage on a lake, and we've already visited Tanglewood a few times and seen a wonderful Georgia O'Keeffe/Arthur Dove exhibit at the wonderful Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA.

Of course, frugal shopping opps are few and far between, so we have had a blessed respite from the lure of my wonderful local thrifts.

We did go to Wellesley for an afternoon. The four of us served as entourage for my mother as she went to her first high school reunion ever: Brookline High School, class of 1948. Aside from the usual stress of seeing how old everyone is (including yourself), my mother had the stress of seeing the fellow she almost married.

So we wandered through the wealthy town of Wellesley, where Miss Em and I broke off from the guys and entered a resale shop. They were having a sale of up to 80% off. So Miss Em acquired two Nanette Lepore items, 2 dresses, and one other thing I can't remember. I got some Eileen Fisher (the time has come) pants. Total was about $70.00! The owner told me that area women hit all the church and charity sales to find pricy stuff to consign. Wow!

Definitely an afternoon of prophylactic shopping, as we head to the temptations of San Francisco and environs.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Another Use of the Emergency Fund: Credit Card Prepayment

Has everyone noticed that your grace period before a credit card payment is due is getting shorter and shorter. I try to pay my bills the day I get them to avoid problems. I have heard all sorts of stories to the effect that, if your payment is due on the 15th, it must be checked in by 9 a.m. If the payment arrives later in the day, too bad. These companies are not your friends.

For some reason, my vacations always begin about a day before my bills show up. Therefore, I am always nervous about getting that payment in. Many companies charge for phone payments, so I continue to write checks from my money market account, where my emergency fund resides. A few years ago, I had the idea of paying what I estimated my bill would be (plus more) before I left: prepaying.

This caused a bit of distress because money market accounts were paying some interest then--like 5%. Now that they are paying almost nothing, even that bit of distress is gone. More important, the stress is gone!

And, how pleasant to get a bill that says your amount due is 0 or that you have a credit. Rather than paying for your vacation afterwards, you can pay for it a bit in advance.

This is another area where I am thankful for my emergency fund, one of the best stress relievers entirely within your control.

Any other nifty uses for the emergency fund, folks?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Thrift Shop Shoes: TOO Frugal?

I've occasionally mentioned, here and in comments, that most shoes hurt my feet. Not for me are pretty heels or wedges. No. While the ladies in the Foreign Language Department sport 4 inch heels (They're like house shoes!), I make do with flats.

Why thrift stores? because even purportedly comfy shoes hurt my feet. At $2.00 to $3.00 a pair for nearly new shoes, I can afford to experiment.

You may wonder: How do I find so many shoes? Well, it's partly because I have small feet (6.5-7), thanks to my dear Grandma Emma. I only have one competitor that I know of: Joan and I have agreed to share. It's also because shoes have the squeam factor. I wrote about this a while back. Your biggest selection at thrifts is of items with a squeam factor, the things where people say Ewwwww. I'd never buy _______ used.

So, here is what I've learned.

1. Wolky shoes are not as comfy as they are cracked up to be.
2. Mephistos are very good!
3. SAS sandals--true old lady comfort shoes--are comfy. the sandals have an ironic edge. The shoes, well, let's say I can't go there yet.
4. Donald Pliners are great! But I can't wear the wedges.
5. Arches are SOOOO cool looking. But they hurt my feet.
6. Your feet get sweaty in crocs.
7. Those boiled wool clogs by Haflinger and Giesswein are great!
8. Shoes from places like Banana Republic, Loft, and the like are sheer misery. Ditto Talbots.
9. Tevas work OK, but the more expensive Chacos do not
10. Eccos are pretty good.

But the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn are my Chanel loafers, bought in Goodwill in a karmic moment a few years ago.

Pure bliss. Brown leather. Size 37.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Frugal Miracle: Automotive Edition

Mr. FS and I always spend a lot in the summer. This is because we are teachers and the rhythm of our lives means that we do all the stuff in the summer that we don't have time to do during the school year. Some is necessity: visit to Aged P's on both coasts with children (around $6000/year for flights, car rentals, etc); fix roof. Stuff like that. Other expenses are optional, but eagerly anticipated, like my new kitchen cabinets of August 2008.

This summer is almost over for us. Then the IMA and Engine Lights went on in our Honda Civic Hybrid (2003). This was under my watch and I forgot to say anything! But Mr. FS noticed last night. So, he took the car in to Honda. When the courtesy van brought him back, he said, First the bad news. We need a new battery pack. They cost $2000.00.

Pause (a la Harold Pinter)

The good news is that the batteries are under warranty up to 80,000 miles.

Silence (a la Samuel Beckett)

And we have 79, 698 miles on the car!

Oh boy! What should I spend my $2000.00 on?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

May I be the Person my Blog Readers Think I Am

Update on dilemma. Duchesse asked that I update on my decision re Vera Bradley backpack (not a major world problem as we know). And, as Cubicle Wall notes, these popular and often garish bags are awfully pricey for potholders.

If not for Duchesse, who is sometimes stern in her comments, but obviously nice, I would have let this slide. That is because I am nice in my comments, but basically working on being nicer in what passes for real life. I said to Mr. FS, Oh no! What should I do? He, a fellow of great moral and ethical discernment, said, Lie.

That, of course, brings up the ontological status of the blog world, something I ponder frequently. I seldom lie, but whenever I do, it backfires. I am not cut out to be a liar.

So, for purely pragmatic reasons, I called M, mother of S, wife of Anger-Management-Problem A, hoping I could leave a message. But no, M picked up, and I blurted out my news. She kind of chuckled, but she did say That's so nice.

Maybe I am nice, in reality and in blog world.

This is the last day of the sale: on-line only on messenger bags and large backpacks. Make a college girl happy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Conundrum in Cosmic/Karmic Frugality

Oh, the little problems we invent. You may recall that I ran into an acquaintance who sighed--as indulgent mothers are wont to do--as she enumerated all the items required for her daughter's upcoming trip to college. This family has been known to have money/unemployment problems. At the time I wrote gratefully of Miss Em's scorn for the conventional trappings of the off-to-college rite of passage. You may also recall that I wrote of cosmic frugality--when you don't personally benefit from frugal choices or information. My example was of Frugal Son's circuitous drive so he could take a carload of kids to a barbecue. Funny about Money and Duchesse, two great bloggers, suggested the term karmic frugality, so I have added that to the concept.

Anyway, one of the items on the "must-have" list of the indulged daughter (we have some history with this family and it is NOT pleasant, owing to the "anger management" problem of the Dad, which anger was once unjustly directed at an 8 y.o. Miss Em...I digress)is a genuine Vera Bradley backpack. Go to any college campus and you will be blinded by the bright patterns of these babies. Anyway, the backpack is $92.00. Today, I received an email saying that this very item is on a 3-day sale for $40.00!

Frugal conundrum. If I had the family's email, I would forward the notice, no question. But I don't. Should I call? I've never called anyone in this family. If I call. Best case scenario: "Oh, thank you Frugal Scholar! We were JUST about to buy one." Worst case: "Oh, we just bought one yesterday." Then irritation (remember, this mom was complaining about the expenses of college stuff) will be transferred to me and I may even get a comment like, "Oh, we don't really worry about things like that where dear child's desires are concerned. You are so cheap." Most likely scenario: will leave message and will not get any response.

What to do, what to do?
Any thoughts, Dear Readers? And, as always, may the karmic/cosmic force of frugality be with you all.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Keep it a Treat: A Key to Frugality

I don't know if I've mentioned quite how divine a daughter I have. Her current divine activity involves spending three weeks with her recently-widowed grandmother, who did not want to go to her summer house alone. I was under the impression that Miss Em's willingness to, as she put it, "be Grandma's boyfriend," was unusual, but many people to whom I've spoken have declared that their children--16-20--would do the same. So whatever this generation is called (Y,Z,AA???), what a wonderful bunch of kids!

Anyway, a certain amount of stress is involved, so we get daily phone calls. There are a number of areas where Grandma-family-values are different from our-family-values. One that has come up already is the issue of restaurant meals. Miss Em's grandparents were almost daily restaurant-goers in retirement. Our family, as my devoted readers must have noticed, is a cooking family. In addition to her job as boyfriend, Miss Em has contracted to do all the cooking for Grandma.

Miss Em called this morning, with the news that (surprise!) Grandma wants to go out to eat again. Miss Em said, "I want to cook tonight, so that when we go out again, it will be a real treat."

My wise daughter has hit the frugal nail on the head! If you go out to eat all the time, it ceases to be a treat. Somewhere in the Amy Dacyczyn oeuvre--aka The Tightwad Gazette--is a story that makes a similar point. Amy talked about how she took her kids out for single-dip ice cream cones. These evoked an ecstatic response. Amy said that many parents, seeing the ecstasy, would respond by taking the kids out for ice cream more and more, eventually graduating to double- and then triple-scoops. Amy took the opposite tack: she responded by not taking her kids out for ice-cream again for a looonnggg time, to keep it a much-awaited (rather than simply expected) treat.

I must say that I remain in awe of Amy's austere self-control in the frugal department. I can't quite pull it off. But I do try to keep things a treat. And it is interesting that my dear daughter is begging her grandma, "Please don't take me out to dinner! Let me cook. Let's keep it a treat!"

Dear Readers, do you agree? And, do tell, how do you keep it a treat?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fiscal Incompatibility: Parental Worries?

For those of you parents in the audience, here's a worry to add to the list. And for those of you still searching for your perfect mate, here's something to think about. Namely: fiscal incompatibility.

After a year of worrying about the economy, I have noticed that I am still alive. And, though my retirement accounts are in the dust, that doesn't really affect my daily life. Luckily, Mr. FS and I are still employed. We don't have a scary mortgage. So a new worry has cropped up.

I have written about our family's choice of low- (actually no-) cost college for our children. I've also written about our decision to give our children the money in their college accounts when they are in their 20s (assuming they are not drug-addicted wastrels).

A sudden thought! I exclaimed to Mr. FS: What if our children's beloveds turn out to be vastly indebted? What if they decide to fall in love with the kids who said, "But Daddy, I HAVE to go to NYU. I will DIE if I don't. I don't CARE if I have to take out loans. It's worth it."

To which Daddy replied, "I just want you to be HAPPY. And, besides, college debt is GOOD DEBT. So while you're taking out your loan, I'll take one out too. It's WORTH it if it will make you HAPPY."

Just something to think about, folks. Hope I'm not being too mean-spirited here. What do you think about fiscal compatibility in relationships?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Computer Woes: A Frugal Solution?

In addition to the usual summer slackerdom that afflicts us, we have been plagued by computer woes. Hence, no posts. Basically, our 4 or 5 year old Dell started melting down about 2 weeks ago. The dreaded blue screen kept popping up. Eventually, complete meltdown.

So: what's a frugal family to do? At home we have Frugal Son's MacBook, which is his alone. We also just bought him a teeny eeepc netbook for his semester in France. And we have some desktop in Mr. FS's study that is not hooked up to the internet. The teeny computer has been hooked up to a keyboard and a mouse, so I can type this post. Thanks family!

At first, Mr. FS thought we might take the melted down Dell to the Computer Geeks, where, for $250.00, they will restore the computer to its original state. We have all work saved on a flash drive. This would tide us over till we bought a new computer.

Then, Frugal Son exclaimed:

It isn't worth it to spend $200 (plus extra costs for parts and labor if there were any hardware problems), which is 1/5 to 1/4 the cost of a new Mac desktop, to prolong the life of an old desktop which will probably continue to give us problems.

I agree! I tried to avoid a huge dental expense by getting an expensive filling, which, of course, didn't work. This seems the same.

Anyway, we seek your comments on this. We will not be getting a Dell, because when we bought our current one, we received bad customer service from them. Like the Swedes in Beowulf, who waited 50 years for Beowulf to die so they could exact revenge, we have long memories, and vowed never to get another Dell. This isn't revenge, in my opinion, just an appropriate response to abysmal and time-consuming customer service.

Frugal Son thinks we should go with a Mac, mostly because they are comparatively trouble- and virus-free, but also because they are aesthetically nicer and take up less room on our desk.

So help, Dear Readers. What should we do?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Simple, Frugal Pleasures: The Tomato Sandwich

By Frugal Son:

In these times of economic uncertainty, I have noticed an increasing number of newspaper articles on the subject of simple pleasures. Usually, the articles profile a few of the formerly wealthy—almost invariably workers in finance or real estate—and the adjustments they’ve had to make since their jobs and savings collapsed along with the rest of the economy. It’s as though these articles are all cut from the same mold with only a few details changed; without fail, these fallen elite mention that the things that have truly brought them happiness were not expensive cars, luxurious boats, or opulent houses. Rather, the simple pleasures of life continue to steadily deliver even in the worst of financial scenarios. Things like taking a walk with your family, reading a book, or enjoying a piece of good Cabot cheddar are affordable even in the worst of times. And lest you think I’m preaching self-deprivation, there are frugal pleasures to be had even within expensive contexts. While a walk in the neighborhood is nice, a night stroll in a great city like Paris heightens an already enjoyable experience.

Believe it or not, this meandering post came to me as I thought about how much I enjoy eating sandwiches made with my father’s home-grown tomatoes on my father‘s (already blogged-about) bread. For the six weeks out of the year that our tomato plants produce--soil blight and the heat shorten our growing season--we have beautiful, fresh tomatoes every day. Rather than cook them and destroy the fresh flavor, our family’s preferred method of use is the simple tomato sandwich. According to my father, he developed our version of the tomato sandwich out of necessity as a way to use up the precious, but perishable, tomatoes. He credits the venerable BLT as the inspiration for his stripped down and tomato-centric sandwich. The sandwich is composed of just four ingredients: bread, mayonnaise, cheese, and tomatoes. After toasting the bread, I put a thin layer of mayonnaise on one slice of bread followed by a few thin slivers of Cabot cheddar. The raisons d’etre of the sandwich, of course, are the plump round slices of succulent tomato that I add last before closing the sandwich.

In years past, the family has embellished the sandwich with lettuce, adding a pleasant crunch, or a few leaves of fresh basil, for a burst of herby freshness, but we always end up going back to the original, simple sandwich. Something about a fresh tomato sandwich, the lingering warmth of the toasted bread meeting the cool tomato slices, is supremely refreshing on a hot summer’s day. The experience, for me, is almost Proustian and reminds me of summers long ago spent playing in the rows of tomato plants. Conversely, when I think of summer tomato sandwiches are one of the first things that come to my mind.

Though our tomato plants have a fleeting production cycle, they yield copious amounts of fruit for a few brief weeks, and, during the times of tomato plenty, each person in the household eats two sandwiches per day, if not more, lest the tomatoes start to go bad. The tomato glut has other strange effects on our eating habits; the six brief weeks of tomato sandwich season account for well over half of our yearly mayonnaise consumption. So, as the world faces its problems and I my own (a particularly unpleasant visa situation for my upcoming study abroad experience being my latest fiasco), I take great comfort in the fact that I can stop for a few minutes in the mid-afternoon to relax and remind myself of the simple pleasures and beauties of life in the austerity of a tomato sandwich.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Contextual Value: Thrift Stores and Literary Studies

When I was an English major in college, we learned how to do "close readings" of literature, analyzing the intricacies of language and structure. I am soooooo good at this! Little did I know, till I got to graduate school, that my teachers were rather behind the times; percolating away in literary studies was heavy-duty contextualizing, whereby we are to look at a literary work in its various cultural contexts. This so-called New Historicism is no longer new, but still has something of a death grip on early modern studies.

Anyway, close analysis and contextualizing can apply to anything, another lesson of literary studies: everything is a text. Hey, that would include thrift stores, my favorite recreation.

In thrift stores, context matters. I was reminded of this when I ecstatically bought my authentic Longchamp Le Pliage bag, which retails for almost $100.00. When I got home with my treasures, I glanced at my receipt and noticed that Ms. Peaches, the cashier, had charged me only $0.99 for the bag, rather than the $1.99 most bags cost. Oh, that's because to her, it looked like a "cosmetics case."

A few days ago, a pristine and current Carlisle silk jacket and shell made their appearance. Sadly, a size 2. I know that this set would retail for about $700.00. I toyed with the idea (quickly suppressed) of selling the set on Ebay. When I got home, I checked the prices and indeed I could probably make a bit on this item. Interestingly, one Ebay seller of Carlisle items wrote that she bought the clothing at "trunk sales" in her area. These are invitation only sales, usually at the homes of friends or friends-of-friends. She wrote "The pieces are extremely well made, beautiful and extremely overpriced. I swear they pump some type of 'stupid gas' into the air to make usually sane women think they should pay hundreds for a turtleneck...even if it's a great turtleneck!! My recurrent stupidity is your good fortune! I have found stacks of Carlisle, some Worth, St. John and Double D to sell."

I guess I'm lucky that I do not run in the social circles that would snag me an invitation to one of these shopping events. What is interesting is that the set remains at Goodwill, a week later. Out of its original context, no one is interested.

Even though I did not succumb to the Carlisle, I did succumb to an amazing pair of Max Mara beige leather pants. The leather is so soft that it doesn't feel like leather! These would probably fit me (an 8), but, honestly, I would never wear these. Uhoh. I get some well-deserved scorn from Mr. FS when I bring home such items. But I bought these with a plan. I thought I could probably unload them at Buffalo Exchange, which I discovered--belatedly--a few months ago. I figured I could get some credit for Miss Em to use.

Gee, I wonder how much credit I will get. Max Mara leather pants retail for about $1200.00. On Ebay, there are some listed at $299.00 with no takers. Other pairs have sold for $30.00-$40.00. I would guess that the Buf, as Miss Em and I call it, would sell the pants for about the Ebay price, which means we would get maybe $15.00 in credit. OR about $10.00 in cash if she can't find anything.

So what are they worth? In their first context, $1200.00. On Ebay, a lot less. At Goodwill, $3.49, like all the other pants. They didn't even get plucked for the "Special Price" rack which sports all the higher priced stuff--like Ralph Lauren and various army clothing. If you get something really nice, Ms. Peaches, who is the most chatty cashier, will admire the item with great enthusiasm, often displaying it for the rest of the customers on line. Like my Longchamp bag, the Max Maras merited not a second glance from Ms. Peaches.

So, as I ponder the question of value in relation to context, I also wonder: who would buy a pair of $1200.00 pants, not wear them, and donate them to Goodwill?

Any thoughts, Dear Readers?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cosmic Frugality: When You Don't Benefit From Your Choices

As usual, a terrible title. This one doesn't even say what I mean, so if any of you constant or occasional readers can offer an improvement, let me know. What I want to talk about is the kind of frugality that doesn't necessarily benefit YOU financially, but is still the frugal choice.

I've been thinking about this ever since I commented on a blog (can't remember which) about how it's not frugal to mooch off people; i.e. making people pick up your lunch check is not truly frugal, even though you benefit financially. I didn't explain myself very well in whatever I responded.

But I have a good example now. Frugal Son is going to a barbecue in Bayou Gauche (about 40 minutes outside New Orleans proper). He will go about 20 minutes out of his way to pick up two friends in New Orleans. Then he will repeat on the way home. Since these are starving students, I don't expect them to chip in for gas. I always make Frugal Son chip in for gas in similar circumstances, however. In the grand scheme of things, this is frugal in terms of energy and efficiency, even though Frugal Son expends more in time and energy than he would alone.

But sometimes this backfires or causes problems. I am always exhorting my children to be frugal without the pathology. Often, I feel as though I've crossed the line into mania. Today, Miss Em, who is visiting her grandmother, called to say that it bothers her to go out to yet another mediocre meal with visiting relatives. Of course, she will be treated by whomever picks up the tab. Still, she is part of a cooking family. Except for really excellent restaurants, or restaurants that serve an ethnic cuisine not in our repertoire, we generally would prefer cooking at home and using the money we save for say, a trip. Because of our ingrained frugality, it bothers her to waste money on mediocre food even when someone else is paying for it.

She mentioned that she enjoyed a recent restaurant meal with a friend even though the food was over-spiced and over-priced, because they went on their day off from their camp counselor job. This is a meal that is "worth it" even though it isn't frugal in a traditional sense. Many restaurant visits, however, including the one that the Divine Ms. Em is dreading, are visits of habit. People go out just because that is what they do. These family meals, she has noticed, are often stressful and chaotic (details not forthcoming). So we told her to suck it up and try to make pleasant conversation.

But still....cosmic frugality can be a good thing, or it can be a problem.

Any similar examples, Dear Readers? And do you have a better term than cosmic frugality?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Frugal Family Fun Fajitas

While cooking at home is frugal in general, Mexican cuisine lends itself particularly well to those who are looking to eat exciting food on a budget. One of the great things about Mexican food, aside from its thrift, is its versatility; once you have the basic framework of a meal you can supplement it with almost anything you have leftover in the fridge. Even better, if times are lean, it won’t be terribly compromised if you leave the extras out. I think that the key to imparting a “fajita flavor” is squeezing the lime over the chicken. Something about the saltiness and tang of a lime really brightens up the fajita flavor. Another way to easily improve your fajitas is to use a lot of onions. The caramelized onions might just be my favorite part of fajitas and I’ll snack on any extras I have left over at the end of the night. Fajitas can be the centerpiece of your meal but don’t forget the all-important side dishes. Once you’ve added beans, rice, and perhaps chips and salsa you’ve got a restaurant worthy Mexican meal for well under four bucks per person. So, frugal readers, tell me about your forays into the land of frugal fajitas (or any other frugal food for that matter)!

Making Fajitas: The Frugal Scholar Blog from SLF on Vimeo.