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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Frugality and Ambition: An Inverse Relation?

Sometimes I wonder. Mr. FS and I developed our frugal practices in graduate school, where we not only faced poverty but a very uncertain job market. Then, having gotten jobs, we still faced an uncertain future, so we continued frugal practices. Then, we were concerned about education costs and, not wanting our children to take on massive debt, we continued even more.

The best part of frugality is that it minimizes (though it does not eliminate) stress. I can't imagine facing unemployment without an emergency fund. I can't imagine facing an economic downturn with credit card debt. And I didn't want my children to go into adulthood bearing the burden of education debt.

However, since I can be a little--no, a lot--on the pathological side, I tell my kids to lighten up and have fun too. So far, they seem to be doing OK.

My daughter, of the untended blog Lucy Marmalade, just got back from a leadership conference for college students in DC, sponsored by a nice group of philanthropists in Alabama. After telling us of various sessions, she exclaimed "Everyone there was so rich!"

Rich as in iPhones, de rigueur designer bags, and so on. She said, "Everyone looked airbrushed." One participant displayed her "ghetto phone," explaining--with a laugh--that a more upscale replacement was imminent.

Lucy M, as often happens to ME, was a kind of impostor: she didn't LOOK that different from the other participants, but her clothing was thrifted and otherwise scrounged, her phone was not a prestige model, and so forth.

One thing Lucy noted was the sense of entitlement most of these people had. One participant said that her father had loaded up her debit card before her trip. Then she found out that he had only given her $150.00. Thanks Dad, she said, with sarcasm and heavy eye rolls, to a laughing crowd of girls during a side-trip to H&M.

While I'm glad that my children are more grateful than that person, I started to wonder...I presume that most of these people--mostly in private colleges, mostly in sororities and fraternities--will make sure, through career choice or marriage or both--that they can live the privileged lifestyle to which they are accustomed. That does breed a certain amount of ambition, doesn't it?

Sometimes I worry that the ambition may be bred out of people who know how to be frugal. Should I be worried? Do you think there is an inverse relation between frugality and ambition?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Textbook Computer Codes

I mentioned the other day that my daughter had to buy a $100.00 computer code for her French class to go with the $75.00 used book. The new book-natch-was $175.00. I didn't mention that her math teacher had the class purchase codes, but told them not to bother with the text. the text PLUS code was only a little more than the code alone.

Funny About Money
plaintively inquired:
Computer access code!? Heaven help us.

That is inexcusable. Is there any reason classmates can't be put in groups or group themselves informally so they can all access the computer using one member's code? What if each kid in the group paid the person who sprung for the new textbook $10 or so? That would bring down her cost and let the students who can't afford to spring for $175 for a French text(!!!!!!!) save their money.

She probably wasn't plaintive, actually. It's a good question.

Not being in the textbook biz, this is what I think. Anyone who knows better/different, do not hesitate to set me right on this.

I think this is a way the publishers keep students from buying used or sharing. The codes provide access to all sorts of material for students--in that sense, offer extra value. BUT BUT BUT the codes have to be-I think-unique, because they are linked to quizzes.

The quizzes are--again, I think--composed, graded, and recorded BY THE TEXTBOOK PUBLISHER. This is a way that publishers market their books--"Look TEACHER, we can save you the dreary work of composing and grading quizzes."

Anyone care to correct me on this? Really, I'm just surmising. What do you think of the practice?

If I'm right, what is for sale is a unique code. The text itself is just gravy.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Karmic ROI: Relief


A few days ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about depositing $600.00 into my karmic savings account: that's how much a thrift store acquaintance said I'd saved her when I recommended thrifting a tux set for future proms. The tongue-in-cheek part came at the end, with the query: What should I spend my $600.00 on?

I hope that writing about my karmic moment--which just happened--will not bring bad luck. Knock on wood for me.

On the last day of our almost three weeks of visiting our relatives in Massachusetts and California came some disquieting financial news. Because of Frugal Son's--what shall we call it--flakiness, he did not have a dormitory assignment. (See last year's post on French visa for similar event.)

Now, students can always live off-campus. But Frugal Son has a ROOM AND BOARD SCHOLARSHIP, which does not transfer to off-campus housing. He called and discovered that he was number 10 zillion on the waiting list.

Anyway, through some parental ADVICE and PRESSURE, and the aid of an administrator in navigating the scary bureaucracy of a large school....he got a room! I guess a lot of people drop out at the end...and the administrator said they DO try to accommodate students with scholarships.

The savings: $6000.00, exactly 10 times my karmic investment.


Monday, July 26, 2010

College Textbook Costs: Yet Once More

Yet once more* the college textbook cost theme. Funny About Money wrote about it; I have taken on the issue several times. Now the New York Times has taken on the issue, with opinions from many experts.

Why are textbooks so expensive? Because they can be. Because the price is lost amid other expenses. Because people might be paying with borrowed money, which, sadly, may be seen as "funny money." (It's not.) One of the experts in the New York Times piece compared the textbook industry to BIG PHARMA: the people who "prescribe" (doctors, teachers) have no idea what the item (drug, book) costs. The purchaser (patient, student) has to suck it up. Well, guess what! I made this analogy on this very blog ages ago. And I'm not an emeritus professor of economics. I feel so, well, thrilled.

I may have an unusual perspective: I am a teacher, but my school has a rental system: students pay only $18.00 per course, for up to two textbooks. So I am NOT GUILTY! I am also a parent of two college students, however, and their schools do not participate in the rental system.

I have discovered that trying to save money on textbooks is like aiming for a moving target. All the strategies work--sometimes, sort of, but don't count on it.

--Buy it and sell it when you're done: Good idea, but textbook publishers try to circumvent the used book market. I bought a 2008 Art History text at Goodwill a few days ago as a test case. At a quarter, it was not a big investment. This book sold for $115.00 new. It is now in a new edition. New editions also often come out in October or February, thereby making your recently purchased text worthless.

--Buy on Amazon: Textbook sellers are not dumb. Unless the book is getting near its new edition date, it is likely to be pretty expensive.

--Rent from Chegg: If you look at their rental prices, you will see that this is not a cheap route.

And so on. I have spent HOURS trying to get books cheaper, with little success. Here is one example: My daughter needed a French book last year. It was $175.00. I found a used copy at Powells for $75.00. Did I save $100.00? Guess again.

On the first day of class, the teacher announced that students needed a current computer access code for the text. These came with the new books. For those who bought used...the code cost $100.00!

I have loads of similar stories, which I will bore you with only on request. It is a dreary tale. Just don't believe all that cheery advice on "buying used" and "renting from Chegg." If my experience is any indication, you won't save much money.

So...what am I doing this year? Well, the tax code changed in 2009. The first $2000.00 in educational expenses gets a tax credit. For most people, this is eaten up by tuition and fees. However, if you are on tuition scholarship (Hope in Georgia, TOPS in Louisiana) or at a junior college with low costs, you can now--as of 2009--get the tax credit for books. Thank you Congress! Feel my love.

*Yet once more: The opening words of Lycidas, a pastoral elegy by John Milton, which has an academic theme.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Our New Blog!

Well, not much ON the new blog, but check it out: College Cooking Crash Course. Frugal Son and I have been testing recipes and hope to figure out how to make our concoction into an ebook.

Though we conceptualized this for the dorm dwelling student, our "system" would be great for anyone who would like to cook with no trouble--not to mention, no stove. We've come up with a plan that requires one shop for more than a week of meals, one rice cooker, little prep, little cleanup. We're assuming little storage space too, as befits the dorm focus. And of course it's CHEAP. Really cheap.

Of course, with all the restrictions, you're going to get a one-dish supper--not a three course meal. Tonight we had an Asian rice dish topped with Thai-inspired peanut sauce. Not too shabby.

Any questions? Any interest? Any ideas?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

$600.00 Deposit to my Karmic Savings Account

As you may have surmised, I've been on the road. Much of the road did not include access to the internet, though we discovered that if one sat with a laptop by my father-in-law's mailbox, one could pick up access from a neighbor. Still, it's hard to keep up on a tiny EEE computer, with its tiny keyboard.

Things I will not report include many stressful on-going dilemmas. Also, you will not be hearing about our night in the Atlanta airport, caused by running out of fuel while circling, being diverted, and having to wait 5 hours for another crew. OOPS! Well, Delta will be hearing about that one.

To ease back into my writing life, I will report on an event. I went to the grocery for some milk and, of course, nipped into Goodwill, right next door. As always, the workers asked about my vacation. Then a customer-pal said across the room, "You saved me $600.00."

REALLY? what did I do? It turned out that I mentioned to this mother of two boys that it was a good idea to acquire a tuxedo and accessories before the prom season. Each of her boys went to 3 proms, leading to a savings of AT LEAST $600.00.

I had forgotten all about giving that advice, though I have mentioned it a few times in this very place.

A tuxedo is a necessary purchase also for musicians, as I learned when I worked in a vintage shop in Bloomington Indiana, home of an acclaimed music school.

It is easy to find a tuxedo EXCEPT when you need one, so I suggest you start looking now. $5.00 spent on a tux will save $100 in rental fees, an excellent return on investment.

My only question is What should I spend my $600.00 on?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

College Debt and College Prestige: From a Student/Entrepeneur

Dear Readers: I have been on the road. For today's post, I am stealing a comment left by Logan Leger, a fellow I met (in real life) a while back. He wrote in response to one of my no doubt tiresome ruminations on college debt. Anyway, here is a rumination from an actual student. One not related to me.

I've been meaning to respond to this article for a while. I don't have any advice for the reader, but I would like to talk about my situation.

After high school, I had a lot of choices, including some big scholarships at some great schools. Unfortunately, my family also falls in that doughnut and couldn't afford to cover the remaining expenses. Moreover, my parents were adamant about not taking any loans and graduating debt free. This left me only one choice: state school, where nearly 100% of expenses were covered.

Now, I'm in the position of graduating in three years with an engineering degree from a school that has a national name, and debt free to boot. At first I was angry my parents wouldn't cosign a loan and felt trapped. Now, however, I realize how good of a decision it was. Not having any debt and having financial freedom really opens me up for a lot of opportunities.

This brings me to my final point. I was born an engineer, but I was born an entrepreneur first. Being at a state school opens my schedule up to pursue many ventures. Had I gone to a more prestigious school, I would never have had the time. And, after I graduate I won't have to work in the system because after three years of hard startup work, one of my startups will reach profitability, enough to sustain me because I have no debt.

I have a great degree I can use to make good money in my life. But because I ended up at the state school, I can pursue my dream.

July 5, 2010 3:58 PM

A very impressive fellow, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Costs of Living Overseas Redux

I mentioned a few days ago that--should the worst case scenario play out and we find ourselves unemployed*--we would light out, not for the territory, but to Languedoc. I had been reading How to Retire Overseas, and was thrilled to see that the author gave actual numbers.

As usual, I didn't explain myself fully. Funny responded that no way could she afford it. Shelley said the numbers seemed too high. I think both readers assumed that the numbers were EXCLUSIVE of housing.

Au contraire, my friends. The Languedoc number of $1495/month includes $650 for an apartment rental. The almost $3000 for Paris assumes you will spend $1500 on rent. Morelia (in Mexico) comes in at $899, which includes $300 for rent. The numbers also include household help (!), food, entertainment, transportation, utilities, and the like.

Not included: health care and transportation to and fro.

Now I don't really want to retire abroad. I would, however, like to live in all the above spots for, say, 6 months each. Not to mention the other enticing places discussed in the book.

It is a thrill to know that I could live in Morelia for less than I could rent my house for. In fact, I could save a bit to splurge on a few months in Paris. I love having the numbers right there, because they show me that extended stays in wonderful places are totally within reach for a middle-class girl like me. Isn't that wonderful to know?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Frugality and Destiny: Thrift Store Compliments

Yesterday, I wrote about my efforts to depart ever so slightly from the frugal path, only to realize once more that it may be my destiny. This was brought home to me YET AGAIN at Goodwill.

I was cruising the racks in my usual blissed-out way. Another woman was doing the same, only she had a shopping cart (or buggy, as one says here) with two little kids in it. She suddenly burst out. "You're so lucky!" I snapped out of my reverie. She continued, "You're so thin! You can wear anything!"

I was wearing, if you must know, my Lands' End tunic, which I got on sale for about $11.00. It is sold as a beach cover-up, and has since gone up a few dollars. Still quite reasonable, I think. With it, I sported a pair of Athleta capri sport leggings, which I had gotten at GW.

I thanked her and we separated. We met up again. She said, "I had two babies after 40! It's so hard to find clothes." I commiserated and said that my younger child was born when I was 38. Then she said, "I love your look. You look so European chic."

I kid you not.

Compare to my experience, recounted yesterday, of my miserable time in the dressing room, trying on bona fide Euro chic clothing.

Frugality as Destiny, once more.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Frugality And Destiny: Jeans and Elm Edition

Yeah, so I'm obsessively frugal. Whether this is a matter of nature or of nurture, I do not know. The other child in my family is obsessively NOT frugal, which does not settle the matter one way or the other.

It is a sad truth that every time I TRY to splurge or even depart so slightly from the frugal path, I am thwarted. Two recent examples serve to reinforce this truth.

Jeans: I love thrift stores because I can test drive items or brands that I would not otherwise. I just got my first pair of Not Your Daughter's Jeans, a brand aimed at the middle-aged. The previous owner had cut out all labels (ERGHHHH. Hate that), but I knew the brand from the embossed button and they seemed to fit OK, though perhaps a bit big. When I got home, Mr. FS (who seldom notices anything I have on) said Those look nice. Are they new?

A few days later, the elegant and witty blogger Deja Pseu wrote in praise of these jeans.
I decided I wanted some straight legs too, so I hightailed a half-mile downtown to a local boutique that carries the brand. I rationalized: I am helping a local business. Blahblahblah.

I tried on several styles and several of the same size within each style--and NOTHING fit as well as my thrift store model, which is not--obviously--of the current season. Even jeans of the same style and the same size fit differently. Perhaps the quality control is not so good? Farewell to the $100.00 jean.

ELM Design: This is an Icelandic line praised by the elegant Metscan of Finland. Amazingly, my favorite liquidation store, the super chic United Apparel Liquidator, sent me an email announcing a shipment of this very line. Also, amazing, my fashion consultant (my daughter) had just gotten home from her summer job, so we hightailed the 1 1/2 miles to the local outlet.

Anything you buy from UAL is technically frugal, because the prices range from a few dollars to way up there, but all is about 75% off retail--before further markdowns. We spied the ELM rack. The clothes are absolutely beautiful. They are made--so they say--for the over-40 woman. And they looked abysmal on me. Every last thing. So bad that I felt tears of horror in my eyes: who is that ungainly being in the mirror?

All was not lost, however. We found another Scandinavian line--Odyn jeans. My daughter had bought some a few months ago; they are long enough for her almost 5'11" height. The few remaining pairs were marked down to $2.50. So she bought some. Perhaps frugality is her destiny too.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Frugal Travel Tip: Rental Cars

With the advent of travelocity and the like, it is supposed to be easy to save tons of money on travel. Just go on-line, compare and contrast, and bingo: you are a frugal traveler.

For us--and we travel a lot, owing to the locations of our surviving parents--it hasn't quite worked out that way. Mr. FS spends HOURS on line, watching prices go up and down (in no discernible pattern), changing dates a bit, and we end up spending...what we spend. All that work! No big savings on airfare.

However, it is worth checking and re-checking on car rentals. The prices change a lot. Unlike plane reservations, where you pay a big penalty for changing your dates, car rentals are no-penalty. You can change all you want.

Mr. FS has been quite morose because our car rental in Massachusetts was more than double what we usually pay. He first made a reservation in May: $549.91. He looked every few days, and then got a new reservation in June: $468.79.

Then he tried again. In the past, prices went up as the summer progressed. But this time, not. July: $234.66!

It's a bit cheaper at Dollar, but we are boycotting that company FOREVER, due to abysmal problems a few years ago. (Details on request.)

Question: did we save money or not? The price is what we are accustomed to paying, but it is $300 less than the first reservation. Whatever.

Do you have any good tips for frugal travel?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Paula's Choice Sunscreen Sale: Shameless Commerce

OK, I have long sung the praises of Paula's Choice skincare, especially her sunscreens. I have written many a post on her line. For a cheap---err, I mean FRUGAL person--the fact that I buy this stuff myself at full price says something. At least, I think it does.

A while back, I signed up for the Paulas's Choice affiliate program, but then never posted the link. I mean, frugality is all about NOT buying stuff you don't need.

I was inspired to post the link today, because Paula is having a 50% off sale on sunscreen! It is so reasonably priced. I already bought some (at full price grrrrrr), but may stock up.

Paula's Choice Skin Care

If you want to try this, now is a good time. If you don't want to go through my link, that's OK too. Just make sure you use full-spectrum sunscreen.

I also use her AHA lotion. My daughter uses her BHA lotion and toner. Free shipping if you spend over $75.00 and all is guaranteed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

For my Fashionista Readers Only: ELM

So fashionistas: a while back I wrote about UAL (aka United Apparel Liquidators), which, I aver, is the best store in the whole world. Amazing that it should be in my town. I seldom go. In fact, I NEVER go by myself, but wait till Lucy Marmalade is home. UAL has a group of nice salespeople, but a very hard sell, since they get commissions.

Does everyone remember when the divine Metscan wrote about a line called ELM, which is little known in the United States?

Look at the email I got from UAL:
Nobody does a sale better than a liquidator. You will leave stunned at the deals you've been given...everyone does.

Each UAL is stuffed full of already-great deals at an extra half off retail! Look for sales in all your favorites: Dallin Chase, Christopher Deane, Michelle Jonas, Sanctuary, 2b.Rych and so much more. Guys--we didn't forget you. We have sales on men's apparel and shoes too, in select locations.

Additionally, you MUST come in and take a look at all the fabulous newness we've been getting. The new Reykjavik line ELM will knock your socks off.

I'll let you know what they have.