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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Panic Once More: Let's Move to Languedoc

My father used to point out that teachers were involved in a trade-off: you traded high salaries for tenure, lifetime employment. So at the beginning of the economic downturn, I watched with lurching stomach the downturn in my retirement accounts. I solved that problem by not opening any statements EVER.

But then the scary statements about program reductions starting wending my way. Maybe my job IS in danger. OK: worst case scenario: unemployment in your 50s.

I wrote about this before, declaring that I'd rent out my house and move to Costa Rica. Now I have a longer list of places to go. I asked the library to order How to Retire Overseas by Kathleen Peddicord>

And the LOVELY bookbuyer did order it. And I'm reading it now. Predictably, the author of the book has lived overseas--and still does--and makes her money by running a website on retiring abroad.

What is useful about this book is that it contains numbers: how much it costs per month to live in various places. Buenos Aires: $2590; Paris: $2960; Morella (Mexico): $899; Abruzzo: $1405; and so on through other places. My current fantasy is Languedoc, coming in at $1495, which includes $300 for household help, which I am pretty sure I wouldn't avail myself of.

Isn't it nice--or nicer--to mix panic with wonderful--and apparently do-able--fantasy?

Where would you like to live?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Virgin Mobile: They Rescinded Their Offer of Compensation!

Blogfans: Don't even bother reading what is below, which is my newest communication with the Better Business Bureau. Short version: Virgin Mobile called this morning and the nice rep told me that her superiors would not permit her to offer us three months of service and so the offer was rescinded. She apologized for speaking too soon. Do you believe this?

A little while ago, I reported my lengthy, annoying experience with Virgin Mobile--this involved double billing, conflicting information from at least three reps and their supervisors, suspension of service, lack of follow through, being told to initiate a chargeback through the credit card company, being told the chargeback precipitated suspension of service, being told that reversing the chargeback would allow resumption of service, not having service resumed, etc. Eventually, I wrote a detailed report on all this on your site.
A few days later, I was thrilled to received a call from a Virgin Mobile rep, who acknowledged that we received incorrect information all the way through, apologized profusely etc. She offered us 3 free months of service. Though this did not compensate for the HOURS and HOURS we spent trying to resolve an issue that began with a double-billing, we accepted, thrilled that the company proved responsive.

This morning the rep called and said she had spoken too soon and that he higher ups did not allow her offer to go through. The reason? The phone had been locked. I pointed out that the phone was locked because the problem had not been resolved. (First call from us over double billing was at the end of April). I said to the rep: "So you are saying that this is it from Virgin Mobile; you are rescinding your offer; and that we will never use your company again?" She agreed.

This is doubly disgraceful. It would cost this company very little to make good on all their mistakes. To offer a "Carrot"--a few months of free service--is little enough. Then to rescind the offer...well, that is absolutely horrendous.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Our Summer Vacation: Money Out, Money In

Poor Mr. FS: he is in charge of travel reservations, which make my head spin. Each summer, we visit our remaining two parents--one on the west coast, one on the east coast. Like last year, the plans of our children limit our travel dates, so, again like last year, we will travel in a triangle: Louisiana to Massachusetts to California and home. We will be gone almost three weeks. The bill for plane fare plus car rentals in both places: $3000.00. Everything has gone up this year.

Yes, it is time for our annual scary credit card bill. Our upcoming credit card bill will be $4000.00! About half of that is plane fare for 4 people. Plus Mr. FS is rebuilding our garage, so lots of lumber yard bills.

I love reading extreme frugality blogs, with the writers living (very well) on $1000.00 a month or so. I guess I don't qualify.

Lest you feel sorry for us (and please don't), let me point out that our parents live in places people spend big bucks to visit. To visit my mother in Massachusetts, we get to visit a cottage on a lake near Tanglewood, Tanglewood is where the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays in the summers. (The link to the cottage on the lake is to a much fancier one I found on the internet. But even our modest house is wonderful.) The area is full of nature AND culture, with the great Clark Museum nearby, not to mention Edith Wharton's home, Herman Melville's home. Oh, I could go on forever.

The original owner of our house was my mother's uncle, Viktor Polatschek, who was with the Vienna Philharmonic and then, luckily for our family, with the Boston Symphony. When my mother and her parents came to the United States from Vienna in 1938, they lived with my great-Aunt and Uncle in Boston. Eventually, the house came to be owned by my grandparents and parents. Today it is owned by my mother. This is a place with tremendous emotional resonance for me; it is also a fantastic to visit.

We do not lack for things to do there. Still, that's a lot of money out in a single month. Wait! There is some money coming in. My mother's uncle, the first owner of the house, played the clarinet and wrote some exercises, which, I recently learned, are still in print.

My mother told me that she gets part of the royalties from Polatschek's work*: She said it's around $25.00/year and "Someday it will all be yours."

*If you buy through the Amazon link, my mother will get a few cents and so will I! Only if you play the clarinet, of course.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

BFS and BBB: New BFFs

A while back, one of my favorite bloggers, Budgeting in the Fun Stuff, wrote about her (bad) experience with Fedex. She complained to the Better Business Bureau, got satisfaction from Fedex, and even a gift card. I was impressed. I had always thought of the Better Business Bureau as a do-nothing organization (why, I wonder).

As you may know, I have been ranting and whining about my experiences first with Chico's (which was mainly annoying) and then with Virgin Mobile, which was truly a through-the-looking-glass experience. Last you all heard, we had--at Virgin's urging--reversed the reversal on our credit card, so that our daughter could get her service back. Well, of course she didn't. When Mr. FS called Virgin, the rep said there was no record of any of our dealings OR of our daughter's phone. THAT WAS IT! We called Amex and asked them to reverse the reversal of the reversal, which they did. (I love you, Amex.)

Then I read Fun Stuff's post and realized that I, so proud of my customer service spine, was actually kind of a slacker. Plus it was around Father's Day, and my late father, difficult to deal with for most people, was a scourge of bad customer service: he would NOT GIVE UP. So, in honor of Father's Day, I wrote a complaint on the BBB website about Virgin's service.

And guess what? Today we got a call from a lovely and competent Customer Service rep, who apologized profusely. At the end of our chat, shse asked me if I wanted my daughter's service re-connected. I said that, while I loved dealing with her, I would NEVER use Virgin again, unless they offered a free year of service. I told her that Mr. FS and I had wasted many hours dealing with incompetent people.

She called back 15 minutes later with an offer of three free months! We haven't decided what to do yet.

So, folks, use the Better Business Bureau. And thank you to BFS: you are my new BFF.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Macro Economics vs MYcro Economics

I wish I understood economics. I once had dinner (about 25 years ago) with an economist who taught at Indiana University. I told him I wished I understood the big picture of economics. He smiled magnanimously and said, "Ask me anything." So I asked him something, though I can't remember the specifics. I guess my question was so inane--or so remedial--that he just shook his head in pity.

That was the end of the lesson. Just this morning, I read that Obama wants the Europeans to spend their way out of the recession, while the Europeans are instituting severe cuts in spending.

In my own household, I guess I've always been European. But then, I don't understand which is better on the macroeconomic level.

It also occurs to me that European countries have social safety nets so that huge cuts would not threaten life and limb as they might in the U.S.

But then, I don't understand all this. At the dinner, we had wonderful lemon ice cream for dessert. It was made by Breyers, and was discontinued shortly after I had it.

Can you make any sense of the big economic picture?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Help Me With My Title: College Cooking

I am having so much fun testing recipes for my mini-cookbook. It turns out that it's very easy to create an ebook to sell on Amazon. Not easy for me. But Mr. FS, who also typed my entire dissertation into the computer as a SURPRISE many years ago, thinks that he's figuring it out.

I am a decent writer; titles, however, have always been a weak spot. I can think of only three good titles I came up with--that's over almost 40 years.

My readers ("fit audience . . . though few"*) are excellent writers. Perhaps someone can help me.

My concept is: College Cooking for Dorm Dwellers (and Others?)
No stove
(Almost) no time
(Almost) no shopping
(Almost) no prep
(Almost) no cleanup

No ramen
No Kraft Mac and Cheese

Any titlists out there? Any suggestions appreciated.

*Paradise Lost (Book 7)

Monday, June 21, 2010

College Debt: Is It Worth Taking on Debt for an Ivy Degree? Some Practical Advice

A while back, I wrote (yet once more) on the college debt situation, featuring the now-notorious NYU grad with $ 200,000 in debt. I received this response from a reader:

You know, I wish I was in the camp that looked at the financial situation before deciding on where to go to college. But what about those who realize they are getting themselves into an unreasonable amount of debt in the middle? There are perks in terms of facilities and recruiting (and internships which can lead to jobs). And is it worth transferring to a state (and I live in a state with a not so great school system) school after already going into so much debt?

I agree even after doing it that it is foolish to take out massive loans on the promise of a high paying job. But that promise does get more likely if you go to a school well known in its field.

So is it worth it to go $200,000 K into debt for a religious studies degree? Probably not. But if you want to go into say consulting or investment banking...

Oh, how horrible to feel the monkey of debt on your back. How horrible to be so conflicted about your choice WHILE you are in college.

Before I respond (not that I have the answers, needless to say), let's review the college scholarship reality. There are MERIT scholarships and NEED scholarships. Ivies don't give merit scholarships because they don't have to. My children got merit scholarships at schools that wanted them--where their SATs and National Merits were desirable.

Need is another matter. If you make under say, $80,000/yr--you can probably get a full need-based scholarship at any Ivy or other private school of prestige. If you are in the middle-class doughnut hole, between @100,000-180,000/yr--you will get nothing, even though an Ivy--or any private--education, may be more than 1/2 your take home pay.

My family is at the lower end of the doughnut. I realized that my kids would have received FULL SCHOLARSHIPS if one of us quit our job. Amazing! Some self-employed people of my acquaintance manipulated their income downward during the crucial pre-college and college years. While most of the kids receiving need-based scholarships ARE genuinely needy, there are ways--as a Wall Street Journal column recently put it--to "game" the financial aid system. The kid with the NEED scholarship may be the child of a cardiologist who has many business expenses--like a company car. Salaried people like us can't do that.

Anyway, the year before the big meltdown, the new prez of Harvard announced that families who made between $100,000 and $180,000 would only have to pay 10% of their income. I think Stanford may have followed suit. That would be quite a reasonable price for an Ivy education, one I could have easily fit within my frugal budget.

BUT not all kids--even the smartest and most accomplished--can get into an Ivy. I doubt my children would have gotten into Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, though they may have gotten into Penn or Cornell. Just don't know. Other private schools could not match the Harvard/Stanford plan, so those in the doughnut remained, facing a $50,000 bill.

Back to my questioner: what should a student do who has already completed one Ivy year and feels the hot breath of future debt on the back of the neck?

1. Transfer to a state school. This is not a great idea. Anyone who gets into an Ivy is wooed with goodies out the wazoo by state schools. These offers don't apply to transfers. So, you don't get the prestige of the Ivy, but you also don't get the goodies the state school would have heaped upon you as an incoming freshman.

2. People in business might disagree with the above. They would discuss the "sunk cost fallacy."

In economics and business decision-making, sunk costs are retrospective (past) costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken. Both retrospective and prospective costs may be either fixed (that is, they are not dependent on the volume of economic activity, however measured) or variable (dependent on volume).

Behavioral economics recognizes that sunk costs often affect economic decisions due to loss aversion: the price paid becomes a benchmark for the value, whereas the price paid should be irrelevant. This is considered non-rational behavior (as rationality is defined by classical economics). Economic experiments have shown that the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion are common; hence economic rationality — as assumed by much of economics — is limited. This has enormous implications for finance, economics, and securities markets in particular. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in part for his extensive work in this area with his collaborator, Amos Tversky.

Still, an Ivy has some value, though what the value is, no one knows for sure.

3. Assuming the person wants to continue at Ivy U, what to do? Well, here are my frugal tips. Do not change your major! In fact, try to graduate in 3 years. It would be more cost-effective to take a few courses at Local State U than to work in the summer. You need to make sure your college will accept these credits BEFOREHAND. Colleges are often reluctant to accept transfer credits.

4. DO NOT do Study Abroad. With Study Abroad, you pay your school's tuition and fees. Hence, my son spent a year in France. He paid the state tuition, fees, room, and board. Guess what? These were covered by his scholarship! The other people in the program paid between $10,000 and $50,000 a year--for the same program. You can do your year abroad AFTER college, paying the program costs out of pocket. These are--based on my son's investigations in France--less than half the cost of private US college tuition. room, and board.

Can anyone think of anything else?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

For those of us who may have had difficult relationships with our fathers: Jill Tamaki.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the Backs of the Vulnerable: Debt Relief

I read this in the New York Times this morning. Then I saw Funny's post on the same concept, so this is a sister post.

Sometimes I think I must be crazy because I never see anything on this topic: trickle up economics. The Times article is about companies that offer to help you out of your credit card debt. In spite of being on a no-call list, I get an occasional robocall, with a concerned voice saying something about how many people are in debt blablabla.

This is how they work:

In the typical arrangement, the companies direct consumers to set up special accounts and stock them with monthly deposits while skipping their credit card payments. Once balances reach sufficient size, negotiators strike lump-sum settlements with credit card companies that can cut debts in half. The programs generally last two to three years.

“What they don’t tell their customers is when you stop sending the money, creditors get angry,” said Andrew G. Pizor, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center. “Collection agents call. Sometimes they sue. People think they’re settling their problems and getting some relief, and lo and behold they get slammed with a lawsuit.”

In the case of two debt settlement companies sued last year by New York State, the attorney general alleged that no more than 1 percent of customers gained the services promised by marketers. A Colorado investigation came to a similar conclusion.

And look who is in the biz:
Cody Krebs, a senior account executive from Southern California, manned a booth for, whose Internet ads link customers to debt settlement companies. Like many who have entered the industry, he previously sold subprime mortgages. When that business collapsed, he found refuge selling new products to the same set of customers — people with poor credit.

“It’s been tremendous,” he said. “Business has tripled in the ” last year and a half.

And look how they sell it:
“We negotiate the past while you navigate the future,” read a caption on its Web site, next to a photo of a young woman nose-kissing an adorable boy. “The American Dream. It was never about bailouts or foreclosures. It was always about American values like hard work, ingenuity and looking out for your neighbor.”

So the money trickled up from the poor to the real estate agents, builders, etc and waaaay up to Goldman Sachs et al, all for the American Dream of an ownership society.

Now the money is moving up through these debt relief businesses.

And it continues to move up from the student loan borrowers...

I think I'm going to return to my rice cooker.

Friday, June 18, 2010

College Dorm Cooking: Advice Please

I have really and truly appreciated the advice that has been coming my way on my project. And, I promise, I will respond to all comments one of these days. I have been cooking away with the rice cooker: Thai pumpkin soup, mushroom and bread soup, Moroccan vegetable stew. And more. I am so glad I didn't spring for the expensive faux-pro stove 2 years ago (I came THIS close to a Wolf or Bluestar), because I think 90% of my cooking will be in the rice cooker henceforth.

Anyway, here is the latest evolution of my project. I would like to get something up before school starts. That desire is complicated by the fact that I will be on the road for much of July, and big sections of the road do not have easy access to the internet.

20-25 ingredients
2 weeks of dinners (and not stuff like I've listed above; this will be more basic). Equipment will be rice cooker, knife, and stick blender as before.
Recipes will not require chopping or any complex prep.
Recipes will not require shopping, once initial pantry set up complete.
Recipes will not require a stove--just rice cooker and micro.
Minimal clean-up, owing to above factores.

So: no shopping, no equipment, no knowledge, no cleaning...

If I do this as an ebook--which sounds fairly easy to set up, especially since I'm going to have someone else in my family do it--I can put it on Amazon! Do you think anyone would pay, say, $2.00 for such a useful tome?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thrift Stores and the Public Sphere: Hot Topic

In an effort to jazz up my posts, I will advert to an academic topic: the public sphere, as articulated by philosopher Jurgen Habermas. If you're too wiped out by the heat to look at the Wikipedia essay, here is the beginning:

The public sphere is an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. It is "a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment."[1] The public sphere can be seen as "a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk"[2] and "a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed".[3]

The public sphere mediates between the "private sphere" and the "Sphere of Public Authority",[4] "The private sphere comprised civil society in the narrower sense, that is to say, the realm of commodity exchange and of social labor."[5] Whereas the "Sphere of Public Authority" dealt with the State, or realm of the police, and the ruling class,[5] the public sphere crossed over both these realms and "Through the vehicle of public opinion it put the state in touch with the needs of society."[6] "This area is conceptually distinct from the state: it [is] a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state."[7] The public sphere 'is also distinct from the official economy; it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theater for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling."[7

I've been trying to figure out if two of the places I frequent--the public library and Goodwill--would qualify as public spheres. Not much talking in the library, that's for sure. i think Goodwill might qualify: there is a disregard for status: boundaries between workers and customers are regularly crossed. Also, among the customers, there is a crossing of the boundaries between wealthy and poor, not to mention black and white (and now, post-Katrina, Hispanic). Strangely, the thrift store also meets the criterion that it not be a place for buying and selling. I've seen both the current mayor (who averts her gaze) and the former mayor (a hale and hearty fellow) shopping.

Honestly, no one cares whether you buy anything or not. It is so hot here. Both the library and Goodwill have excellent air conditioning. You can sit as long as you want. Both have comfy chairs and lots of things to read. At Goodwill, however, you can chat.

The only long-term sitter that inspired some concern at Goodwill was a hugely pregnant woman who was taking advantage of the ac. There was some worry that she would go into labor then and there. I don't know about political discussions though: all we talk about in the public sphere (if it is one) is how hot it's been.

Hope you're all enjoying the summer. I'm not.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

College Dorm Cooking: The Good, The Bad, The Dangerous

Should I continue with this project? Should I--as blogbuddy Chance suggests--write an ecookbook? So far, I have started a pantry, including a freezer pantry, suggested some essential equipment, notably, a rice cooker, and test-driven a recipe-less concoction in the rice cooker. So far, so good.

I continue to look around for helpful sources. I was in Barnes and Noble last week and saw a slew of slow cooker cookbooks, with nary a rice cooker book. I check around the blogosphere. Let's go through my subtitle in reverse order.

THE DANGEROUS. There are many blog posts that suggest going against dorm rules so you can keep a toaster over, a Foreman grill, even a hotplate in your dorm room. Many of these have a jeering tone: "Hey, I'm an adult. Can't I be trusted with a hotplate?" Uh, no. I remember reading about a dorm that burned down because a student tried to dry her underwear with a blow dryer. And I remember being in college myself, trying to stay up all night, and falling asleep over my books.

Some of the posts advising hiding proscribed appliances in your closet are written by PARENTS. Please, parents, your child is just as likely to pass out as the next kid.

THE BAD. I've already described some of these: ramen stroganoff, velveeta nachos, and the like. One recent discovery (no link--find it yourself if you want it) gave directions for microwave meatloaf, which consisted of 1/4 lb of ground beef cooked in a mug with various meatloaf ingredients. To me, this is simply useless. Assuming you don't have 1/4 lb of hamburger in a defrosted state, you need to trudge to the grocery, purchase your quarter pound of meat, pay, return to the dorm, and concoct your meatloaf.

The GOOD. Well, it doesn't exist. There are decent college cookbooks out there, but they are not dorm cookbooks. One I flipped through at Barnes and Noble gave the useful (I'm being sarcastic) suggestion that if you don't have buttermilk to make your muffin batter, you can sub yogurt. Gee, that's helpful for the average dorm dweller.

So this is what I think would be good.
First, a PANTRY. I've already started this. With basic ingredients, you can make any number of things quickly. It's the haphazard shopping that is a time-waster.

Second, a FEW recipes. Many blog posts on the subject advise buying your scholar a basic cookbook. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is often mentioned. That's a fine suggestion for someone like me, who loves to peruse cookbooks, but that sucker is over 900 pages long. I can just see your scholar flipping though, trying to decide. Remember: PARADOX OF CHOICE. So let's limit the choices.

My cookbook is written for my darling daughter, so my recipes will be her favorites. I remember reading Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cookbook, a fun read, though I never did cook anything from it. Anyway, she said: no one needs more than 28 recipes (or was it 30?). Well, I think that the college student needs even fewer.

These will be mine, decided on in consultation with my dear Lucy M.
1. African peanut soup
2. Thai coconut curry (shrimp, chicken, or vegetable)
3. Shrimp and corn soup
4. Burritos
5. Chilaquiles
6. Chile (beef and vegetarian)
7. Red beans and rice (of course!)
8. A magic spinach/ricotta dish that can be Italian or Mexican, depending.

None of these needs the stove; some can be put together and then microwaved. These--along with the rice cooker basics--provide plenty of variety. They are mostly one-pot meals. I seem to remember Peg Bracken also saying that you don't need to get all your nutrients in each meal; you can spread them out over time! Good point.

Anyway, I would be appreciative of any other ideas. Be looking for further development through summer.

Newsflash: Peg Bracken's book is being republished in a 50th Anniversary edition. Bracken is a great writer.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Polenta in the Rice Cooker: It Works

Soooo, I've already advocated polenta in the slow cooker. Now, fickle me, I am putting aside that cumbersome appliance for my new bff in the kitchen: the rice cooker.

Of course, I did this for my daughter's cooking adventures in the dorm next year. I was skeptical, but since cornmeal costs about 50 cents/lb, I figured I could take a chance. I put in one cup of cornmeal and two cups of water, stirred, added some salt. Turned it on. It was bubbling like crazy. I decided that maybe I hadn't added enough water, so I added another cup after a bit. Stirred again (watch out for the splattering polenta--it burns).

Much to my surprise, it was fine AND it stuck to the pot less than it sticks to the slow cooker insert. Mr. FS complained mildly about how long it took to get the stuck polenta off the slow cooker insert. (Yes, he does most of the dishes too.)

The reason I was skeptical is because the rice cooker goes against polenta rules. Polenta rules state long, slow cooking at barely a bubble, preferably for hours, preferably by your nonna, preferably in a copper pot. The slow cooker actually fulfills the first rule. Rice cooker cooking fulfills none: it brings the polenta to a boil very fast, then cooks furiously, then switches to warm. Who cares? It worked, no lumps, and no sticking.

By the way, in the interest of frugality, you don't need to buy that pricey grain labeled POLENTA. You can buy cornmeal.

I have a feeling that my rice cooker experiments will transform my cooking life more than my daughter's.

Any good toppings for polenta?

Friday, June 11, 2010

How Making Bread and Yogurt REALLY Save Money

A few of my readers opined that yogurt-making is not a huge money saver, because you can get it cheaply at Trader Joe's and the like. Would that Trader Joe's* would open here.

I usually accede to the wisdom of my readers. But then I wondered: If it doesn't pay to make your own yogurt, how come my food costs are so low, lower even than the Food Stamp allowance, I believe. I don't use coupons; we eat very well; we are picky about quality, especially of cheese, and so on. No junk food or faux food for us.

Eventually I realized that, like Dorothy, I had the answer in front of me all along. In my very own post about how gardening saves money. In that post, I argued that we saved money with gardening because we ate a lot of, say, kale, and the kale displaced other things we might have bought.

Mr. FS and I (and our dear children, when they are home) consume tons of delicious bread and yogurt. Who wouldn't?

I just consulted with Mr. FS, who makes the bread and the yogurt. He says he makes yogurt twice a week--that would be 4 quarts. He bakes once a week--that would be 3 loaves plus two baguettes.

You may picture us eating yogurt upon yogurt, joylessly looking at our bank balance. Or piece of bread upon piece of bread, ditto.

But no. Right now, I am looking at a cookbook (a favorite pastime), daydreaming about what I will be cooking. The cookbook under my gaze is Joyce Goldstein's Solo Suppers:

I am considering making the Persian meatball soup on page 50, since I have some frozen meatballs: meatballs, chickpeas, other stuff in yogurt-thickened chicken broth.

Or maybe the chicken and bread soup on page 43, a delicious sounding soup, thickened with bread.

And we still have lots of greens. How about white bean guazzetto with shellfish and greens on page 47?

And that's just in the soup chapter. The book has the Search Inside feature I love so much, so you can check out Goldstein's recipes yourself.

Not ONE of these recipes will require a trip to the store for me: everything is in the pantry, freezer, fridge, or garden. More savings--of time, not to mention the planet.**

We don't eat much dessert, but if you blend frozen bananas with a little yogurt and a dash of vanilla in the food processor (stick blender doesn't work here), you get something very like soft-serve ice cream. I learned that trick from Martha Shulman's Fast Vegetarian Feasts.

No dreary dinners for us.

*Mr. FS grew up in Pasadena, site of the very first TJ's. There really was a Joe.

**We went to a wonderful concert last week, featuring Don Vappie and his band and Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet. Many cracks were made by the musicians concerning the latest environmental disaster. Michael Doucet said "BP stands for beaucoup pissed-off."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Making Yogurt: Worth It?

I got a comment a while back from a new-to-me reader: Is it worth it to make yogurt? Unlike a lot of things, where you must weigh time, money, health, and convenience, I think it is definitely worth it to make yogurt.

Of course, as with many things (like bread baking): easy for me to say, since Mr. FS does it.* In both tasks, I was the first to make the effort. In graduate school poverty, many things are "worth the time," because you don't have any money to seek out other temptations. With the bread baking, I was a bust: lack of coordination, plus small hands. I made yogurt for many years. So I know it is easy.

*Mr. FS has a tendency to take over tasks because he can do them better or faster. I try not to take too much advantage of this tendency.

The money aspect is clear: we make yogurt with a 50/50 mix of whole milk ($3.30/gallon) and powdered milk (about $2.20/gallon). Thus our yogurt comes to $2.75/gallon or around $0.70/qt or around 18 cents for 8 oz. Of course, you have to add sweetener: jam or honey or what you will. In France, they add sugar.

Now and then, yogurt is the loss leader and you can get it for between $0.25 and $0.50 per cup. The cups--formerly 8 oz--are now mostly 6 oz.

The taste aspect. I first tasted yogurt when it was a still curiosity in the USA. My great -aunt Fritzi was interested in the beginnings of the health food movement. In those days, Dannon yogurt was plain with jam at the bottom. It was soooo good. Over the years, yogurt has become more of a junk food item, with thickeners and other vile things. I like the yogurt of my childhood better.

You can still get yogurt like that, mostly in health food stores, where it is expensive. And now there is a craze for Greek yogurt, which is either yogurt made with Greek cultures, or yogurt thickened through dripping some of the liquid out (this is done in many cuisines, not just in Greek). At my local little grocery, I saw Greek yogurt for around $2.00/cup. That can be an expensive habit. We make this ourselves now and again. Use a paper coffee filter.

The labor aspect. Till recently, we used the Salton yogurt maker I bought in graduate school (circa 1975). This looked like a boat. It had 5 (6 oz?) cups with lids, lost through the years. We eventually gave it to a friend, because I found a monster version--same thing with bigger cups--at Goodwill. These STILL show up at thrift stores. I think that these were the most unused appliances ever--most still have the little booklet.

You can buy yogurt makers. OR you can make it in a thermos. I've even seen recipes for making it in a slow-cooker. As Mr. FS says: "It can't be that complicated. This is food that was made in the desert, before refrigeration, as a way to preserve milk." Good point.

Is it work? Well, I did it for many years, so it can't be that hard. Like other tasks, you can incorporate it into the rhythm of your life. If Mr. FS was abducted by space aliens, I would start making yogurt again. I probably wouldn't make his bread, but would learn how to do the famous no-knead bread.

***Tips: If you have a Salton maker from days of yore, and see one in a thrift: buy it. You can use the replacement cups! If you lose the cups, you can use others. Mr. FS uses the plastic cups from sour cream and the like in ours.

A search through Amazon reveals that Salton still makes a yogurt maker, but it no longer looks like a boat.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Dollar Stores Are Popular: A Good Reason and A Bad Reason (Innumeracy)

Dear Readers: I promise I will respond to your many wonderful comments eventually. Soon. (Except for the robot whose comments I delete. These are the ones with Asian characters. My son couldn't believe I didn't know these were--p-----gra---. Do not click on them.)

The comments piling up on my last post--on dollar stores--are mostly in the YUCK category. Really, folks, Big Lots is great for food.

GOOD REASON. There is a good reason to go to dollar stores--one reason I myself go in now and again. If you need something, say aspirin, you can get some in the dollar store for cheap and get out of there quickly. Your other options are drugstore chain (ridiculously expensive, unless on sale) or the dreaded Walmart (huge store with long lines and slow checkout). I once read that dollar stores contain some large percentage (the usual 80% of the Pareto principle perhaps) of the items for which people must make a special last-minute trip to the store. Things that have fallen into that category for me: poster board, construction paper, salt, Santa hat. I have two dollar stores closer than Walmart, by the way: I wouldn't drive 10 miles for that Santa hat. I am a great stockpiler, so I seldom run out of crucial ingredients like baking soda or baking powder or things like toothpaste. But lots of people do.

BAD REASON. Now for the bad reason. This is not the result of any scientific or other research. Just a hunch. I think the reason the "Everything for a Dollar" stores are popular is because of growing INNUMERACY. You would think that, as an English teacher, I would be writing about illiteracy. Both forms of literacy are of concern. When I tell my students that a test is 10% of their grade, out come the calculators. When I just put the 10% number on the exam, to ease their life, they say "What is a 7? Is that good?" I have had students truly shocked at failing a course: when I explain that a 40% on the final, which is worth a good chunk of their grade, can knock their grade to an F, they simply cannot believe it. So-to return to the subject-I think that dollar stores may appeal simply because customers can add up their purchases. No surprises. Easy math.

I will refrain from going on a tangent about how innumeracy may be why people take out loans that are too big (especially when a bank is willing to lend)...oops. I will cease.

Do you see any instances of innumeracy?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dollar Stores: Worth It?

Fortune mag on-line has a story on Dollar General and how after being taken private by the famous (in other words, I've heard of it) private-equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis,Roberts in 2007 was re-offered to the public in 2009; since then, the stock has more than doubled. Well, it's pretty funny that Henry Kravis, whose houses, art collections, wives, and philanthropy have been featured in tony mags over the years, should spot the investment opp in the "new frugality." Fortune mag suggests that the stock may--even after its recent doubling and the improvement to the economy (I hope)--still prove a good investment. Well, it figures that the uber-rich have already made scads and that the regular people, late to the party as usual, may have a few crumbs. MAYBE.

My interest today is more prosaic and appropriate to those of us whose frugality has led to the increase in the vast fortunes of Kravis and his peers: do the various dollar stores offer good value? I am always game for checking out the possibilities for life in the frugal lane. Most things in dollar stores are NOT worth a dollar! Food is often in mini-packages or packages somewhat smaller than the norm. Also true for many health and beauty items.

Dollar General: The one whose stock has soared. Most things are more than a dollar, by the way. The one where I live is so disorganized and dirty that I don't bother. I used to buy big packages of sponges here. I also used to get Alpha Hydrox lotion. UGH.

Dollar Tree. Everything IS a dollar. I wouldn't make a special trip, but it's in my lineup (Rouses, Goodwill, Big Lots). I buy frozen fruit here: 10-16 ounces of frozen fruit for a dollar is a good deal. I've seen Muir Glen tomato sauce here; quart aseptic packages of soymilk and regular milk. Good ingredient sunscreen was here for $1/6 oz. I bought the 8 that remained. You can get 10 crummy toothbrushes for a dollar--good for travel. And toothpaste (no, not the Chinese kind with antifreeze: Aim).

Big Lots. This isn't really a dollar store, but it is responsible for my grocery savings. Lots of organic items from Muir Glen, lots of Italian artisan pasta, lots of aseptic Pacific soups. Most people are buying snack items and cereal, which are usually not that well-priced. How do you know when something is well-priced? When there is a big space where the item used to be. There are many savvy shoppers in my area, some of whom are the dreaded shelf-clearers. If something is a good price, it will not be there for more than a day. I bought 9 packages of Quaker oat groats: 24 oz/90 cents! It was cheaper than regular oatmeal. The groats are denser and so the package was smaller and the pricers were tricked. Two days later--all were gone.

So my basic purchases are organic food, "gourmet items," and generic health and beauty--who cares if you're buying name=brand vaseline? or ibuprofen?

Do you frequent the dollar stores? What do you buy?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Unconditional Guarantees: Worth It?

Reading Funny About Money's budget-busting travails with her vacuum-cleaner made me think about guarantees, of the unconditional sort. Funny bought a vacuum from Fry's, which she hates, and replaced it with a vacuum from Costco. I breathed a sigh of relief, because I know that Costco has an unconditional guarantee: if Funny hates THIS vacuum, she will be able to return it. Sadly, Costco does not have a branch in my state.

It occurs to me that perhaps I should try to limit my buying--aside from thrift store purchases, of course--to such stores. It might be worth the extra cost--if there is an extra cost. My late father, an astute consumer and analyzer of marketing and consumer behavior, used to say: You pay a lot for an unconditional guarantee, so you should use it. (Of course, he wasn't talking about ABUSING* it, which some people do.)

I don't buy that much in the regular retail market: my own vacuum, for instance, was a purchased from Goodwill; we bought it as a stopgap when our previous vacuum broke. That was more than 10 years ago. And, unlike Funny, I will never be annoyed with this vacuum, because I NEVER VACUUM. (Mr. FS does this task.) But I have spent a fair bit of time in enraged conversation with stores over defective products: a former car repair shop, Virgin Mobile, and others I will not dredge up from my memory.

Perhaps it's worth buying appliances and the like from Costco (and I think I can do that, even though there is not one in my state), and the various goods from LL Bean, and Lands End simply to reduce future stress. Here are the guarantees of those stores.

Lands End: Guaranteed. Period.

LL Bean: Guaranteed. You have our word.

Costco: We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund. The following must be returned within 90 days of purchase for a refund: televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, iPOD / MP3 players and cellular phones.

*Example of abuse: I saw a woman pick up an LL Bean item at a thrift store and exclaim to her companion, "I can return this and make some money!"

Do you know of any other stores that offer good guarantees? Do you think they are worth the extra cost?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Student Loans and Bankruptcy

This is an issue taken up in today's New York Times. Over the past few years, there have been scads of articles featuring hapless recent grads of expensive private colleges, shocked at their loan burden. Interestingly, several of these students are grads of NYU.

Of course, this is an issue close to my heart, as my children regretfully declined acceptances from private colleges--complete with merit aid--and chose state institutions.

So I was inspired to pen a comment, which I am copying below. I wrote this in the heat of emotion without re-reading, fyi. So no guarantee of completeness or coherence.

I'm of several minds about this. Both my children got into prestigious private colleges--small liberal arts colleges. My husband and I had always dreamed of sending them to Oberlin, Kenyon,Reed, and the like. Yet when it came down to it, each chose a no-cost state institution--even at full-cost the price would have been very low.

Yes, teenagers are naive about money and the burden of interest payments. Yes, parents are complicit in urging the teens to go to a "top college." Yes, colleges have raised tuition in part BECAUSE of the ready availability of loans. And, as we found out last year, some college financial aid officers were receiving kickbacks from "preferred" lenders.

But I believe the laws were changed, in part, because graduates of law schools and med schools were declaring bankruptcy UPON graduation!

So I would suggest that colleges/banks be required--as credit card companies now are--to show what the payments will be down the road. But I also believe that families and students should take more responsibility about their college choices, especially when considering a private college. Tuition at private colleges has gone up at twice the rate of inflation.

Perhaps the ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy will make the banks wary about lending vast sums of money to naive teenagers.

I think we've all seen the need to teach basic math skills and consumer awareness. I have heard from my own students, "I thought that it was an OK amount of debt because the bank said I could borrow it." Shades of the housing bubble.

What think you, dear readers? I said to Mr. FS--somewhat facetiously--that if we had known the laws would change we could have saved less money for the kids AND encouraged them to go for the prestigious college.

Frugal Note: Since I have copied and pasted this from a comment that will--perhaps--appear on the NYT website, I have created a twofer situation: two comments for the labor of one. This is more commonly known--in extreme couponing circles (of which I am not a part)--as a BOGO: buy one, get one free.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Wonderful Decluttering and Organizing Tool: Flocked Hangers with Hooks

Another post that sounds like an infomercial. I suppose you all have those flocked hangers, right? The ones that don't let clothes slip off? I was late to the party on these, because they were kind of expensive in their first incarnation: eventually, I bought a set at Bed Bath and Beyond (not a store I like, particularly), then some at Big Lots, and then at Dollar Tree.

These hangers--aside from keeping things from slipping off--supposedly let you get more in your closet because they are "slim" as opposed to "fat" like regular hangers. More closet space may be a mixed blessing. When I moved to the basement as a teenager, my parents (shopaholic mom, packrat dad) took over my closet. Then, when I left for good, they took over the basement closet too. The walk-in bedroom closet in my mother's condo is bigger than all my closets put together. I think that big closets encourage you to fill them up, hence my feeling that they are a mixed blessing.

Still, my current closet is small: I have a single 50 inch hanging rod--for everything. Then I get a share of a 36 inch hanging rod that needs to accommodate all our outerwear.

So usually we have some kind of closet crisis going on, the most recent precipitated by Lucy's return from college and the return of the items she borrowed from me. Plus, anyone who is a teacher knows that your summer vacation is when you do all the tasks you couldn't get around to all year (because you spend your weekends and evenings prepping and/or grading).

On our way to the airport to pick up Frugal Son, we stopped at Bed Bath and Beyond, so I could get another pack of hangers, meant to be split with Lucy M, who has an aversion to tubular hangers. Well! BBB has a new kind of flocked hanger, with a hook, so you can cascade your items.

This is good not only because it gives you more room, but also because, if you cascade with any degree of organization, you will see how many you have of certain things. So: no more black cardigans. No more black tee shirts. I have three nice red tops, but perhaps should only keep the two best.

Many (most?) American women have the problem of buying the same thing over and over. We all vow to be "French-" or "European-" style shoppers, who buy only a few items per year. Somehow, most of us never do it. I'm as bad as the next person. Nay worse, given the example of my parents. If I buy less than my peers, it's probably because I am a total cheapwad, because the selection of acceptable-to-me items at my chosen shopping venues is necessarily limited, and because I have a closet rod of only a little over 4 feet.

OK. Here is the link to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond hangers I bought. If you really want to waste your day, you can watch the little video. I swear I do not have any stock in BBB. But I do wish I had bought Talbots stock when I wrote about it: it was $1.60. I would have almost octupled my investment.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

College Cooking: Smoothies with Your Immersion Blender

Now that it's June, my little project is taking on some urgency. You've all acquired an immersion blender, right? Smoothies can be made in regular blenders, but the clean up is a pain. With an immersion blender, you can just rinse off the blender and your container. I know that for harried students, even that can be too much sometimes. But yucky blenders are the worst!

Smoothies: These are ridiculously expensive in shops. One hardly needs a recipe: we use yogurt, frozen banana, and whatever other fruit we have that seems promising. A little sugar or honey and you're done.

For the dorm cook, even the simplest concoction comes with roadblocks. What if you don't HAVE a frozen banana (because packing bananas for the freezer is a pain)? What if you don't have fruit? What if you don't have yogurt? Besides, yogurt can get expensive; we make our own chez frugalscholar, but that would be too much for most students.

This morning I conducted an experiment: regular unfrozen banana, handful of frozen blueberries, powdered milk, water, sugar. It was just fine.

Then I tried a trick I read about recently: I put in a handful of regular flaked oatmeal and blended it in. It worked!

So here we have a healthy smoothie with roadblocks minimized.
1. You can use a regular banana.*
2. You can sub powdered milk and water for yogurt.**
3. Fruit is a problem area, because it's heavy to lug home from the store, fragile, and has a short lifespan.*** I suggest adding FROZEN FRUIT to your freezer pantry. The cheapest place in my town is Dollar Tree, where I can get blueberries, peaches, and strawberries. The fruit comes in bags, from which you can take what you want and then re-secure, either with a rubber band, a scrunchie, or a paper clip.
4. The oatmeal is a great add-in because it functions as a thickener, is VERRRRRY healthy, and gets around the problem of "I don't like oatmeal because it's slimy."

*Would it be unethical to snitch a banana from the cafeteria when you eat there? If not, you could use that banana.
**Same as above, except for yogurt. For some reason, I think the banana is OK, but the yogurt is not.
***For a wonderful children's book on mortality through the example of a peach, see

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Having Your Fancy Restaurant Meal at Home

I've been mulling over an appropriately frugal topic all day, but have been stymied by the fact that I've been swooning over the meal I produced last night. It's been a long time since I cooked anything that good. And I suppose it was frugal, since, in a restaurant, what I cooked would have cost at least $20.00/person. Probably more.

What I made wasn't all that hard, but you, my far-flung readers, may not be able to get one of the ingredients. You'll know it when I get to it.

My dear children seldom reside chez nous, so when they are at home, I go into a frenzy of cooking. Dear Lucy Marmalade had her beloved shrimp and corn soup for 2 days. Then Frugal Son returned from France and we had a big pot of gumbo (not up to my usual standards, I'm afraid). One day remained, before both kids went off to their jobs as Residence Assistants at the Advance Program, at the site of their beloved high school, Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts.

What to cook for their last night at home, after so few? Also, in spite of the many virtues of the school, the food is pretty bad. I happened to see a small piece of TASSO REDUCED FOR QUICK SALE.

KARMA. I realized that I could make a recipe I jotted down from a library copy of Susan Spicer's cookbook. Spicer, who is now a consultant for the show Treme, and was written about in the Wall Street Journal recently, owns the restaurant Bayona.

Since I jotted the recipe down, I don't have proportions. The dish is shrimp in tasso cream sauce on cheese and pepper grit cakes. Wow! That sounds fancy and too hard for mere mortals. Not so.

First, for the grits, I subbed polenta, which I made in the slow cooker. I mixed in cheddar and canned roasted peppers when it was done (leaving out milk, home-roasted poblanos, etc). I couldn't make the cakes because I goofed and added too much water to the polenta. It was still good.

The tasso cream sauce called for a roux with onion, green onion, celery (none of which I had, so I used leeks), with cream (used evaporated milk instead). Oh-and a little shrimp stock, which I also didn't have, since I was using frozen shrimp. Then I added the strips of the tasso.

Shrimp-frozen I hardly ever use frozen, but there was a price war when a new grocery opened and frozen largish-size shrimp were $3.00/lb. (I know, I know, but we won't be having shrimp much longer [BP], and it won't be cheap, so don't be jealous.)

So--a beautiful pool of polenta, with another beautiful pool of shrimp in sauce, with plain garden greens on the side to ward off the crise de foie that can come from such rich food.

The dinner itself was very pleasant, except that Frugal Son passed out from jet-lag exhaustion right as we were setting the table. His place was taken by a friend of his (who keeps saying we adopted him), who had a similar dish at a fancy restaurant in honor of his college graduation. He said ours was AS GOOD!

We saved a plate for Frugal Son, who staggered in after we finished.

No pics; we ate it all up.

Frugal Point: The food was great, the company was good, Frugal Son's collapse was accommodated, as was the presence of an unexpected guest, the cost was low.

As for Susan Spicer, here's her book:

The recipe I made isn't included in the Search Inside feature, but look how cheaply you can get a used copy ($7.50). I may buy one myself. There are lot of goodies in the book.

Do you cook anything that makes you swoon?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Frugal College Cooking: My First Rice Cooker Success

I was cruising through Roger Ebert's rice cooker blog the other day and discovered some words of wisdom. He was discussing Asian dishes, and said that, no, you can't make a stir fry, but you can throw a bunch of Asian type stuff in the pot--he specifically mentioned pineapple--and see what you will see.

As I had half a can of pineapple in the fridge, I was inspired to try, especially since I knew the pineapple would be en route to the compost pile pretty soon.

Here's what I put in: about 1 cup of rice, 1 1/2 cups water, small handful of chopped leeks we have in the freezer. A little salt. Turned on the pot.

After a bit, I added 1 chopped pepper from the garden, some of that moldering pineapple, and some of that Asian mini corn that comes in cans. I had an open can of that too, from the clean out the pantry project I've been discussing for several months now. I added a bit of soy sauce and some hoisin too.

The switch flipped to warm, and I had an idea: why not break an egg over it, as in that Korean dish whose name escapes me*. So I did. I flipped the switch on again.

I checked to make sure the white was cooked and hoped the yolk would be runny. Then I bestowed the dish on Lucy M, the reason for all my experimentation. The yolk was runny.

We added some of that neat hot sauce with the rooster on it.

And, Readers, it was good!
Thank you, Mr. Ebert, you are right. The pot knows what to do.

P.S. Lucy said the only part she didn't like was the pineapple.
*The Korean dish is called bibimbap.

P.P. S. I've already linked to this, but will do so again, in case you missed it. My mentor has a cookbook coming out: