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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tip for Frugal Cooking: For One or a Crowd

I'm always checking the personal finance section at the public library. Even though most books say the same thing, I find that reading the books (same with blogs, actually) strengthens my frugal spine: I am not alone.

Recently, I perused Hot (broke) Messes: How to Have your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos.

The book is written for the 20-30something age group. It is of the genre of much powerful personal finance writing: the conversion narrative, from sin to salvation, with some backsliding. Oh wait: that's St Augustine's Confessions. The personal finance version is debt to prudence, with some backsliding, and loads of temptation along the way.

I'm definitely too old for this stuff, and I long ago made my peace with my frugality, but, as with every book, there's something good for every reader.

In the section on entertaining, the author quotes a friend who is a "frugalicious foodie." First under the principles of frugal entertaining is Burn Your Cookbooks. This is a ridiculous way to introduce a good point:

Don't look at a recipe and create a shopping list of items you won't use again.There is probably a lot you can do with what you already have...

Good point! Years ago, I almost had a heart attack when a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote about how he made the spice blend garam masala for an Indian dish and spent $20.00 on the spices. The recipe called for under a teaspoon. Really, I almost had heart palpitations, especially because I knew what garam masala is composed of. Poor Jeff (that is his name): he probably had most of the spices in his kitchen, PLUS, you can buy a blend.

So, use what you have. You can search for recipes online by listing your ingredients. Good things come up.

What have you made from your fridge or pantry stash lately?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Almost famous!

Well, I finally got up the courage to submit a post to the Carnival of Personal Finance. I wasn't very brave, since the editor, Budgeting in the Fun Stuff, is a friendly and amiable blogger.

Anyway, great stuff there. And I'm glad to have the chance to read blogs not normally on my radar screen.

Another thank you goes to the divine Imogen of the blog Inside Out Style. You see, Imogen mentioned my blog post of last Friday, and I got a whole bunch of readers. Thanks to the readers and, of course, to Imogen.

Those of you wondering why I am even mentioning a blog on style and image. Well, aside from the fact that I am grateful for the plug, Imogen does a lot of good in the world. For instance, she explained why I (an H body-type) hate tucking things in. I am so happy! I suffered needlessly.

So...Frugality, Personal Finance, Image Consulting--all trying to bring some good to the world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Another Budget Category: Community

There have been rumblings here and there on the topic of community, with the basic idea that supporting local businesses is GOOD and increases the quality of life for all. Once one tries to put such support into practice, things get more complex--local businesses may be more expensive than the big-box counterpart, to name only the most obvious objection.

I certainly don't know how to weigh all the facets of the issue against one another. One thing I've noticed though: sometimes local business is very personal. This may be more true for me because I live in a small town.

Here are some local business issues I have encountered.

A good friend opens a coffee shop in another town. It is located far out of my usual way. Plus, I seldom go to coffee shops as a general rule--unless I am in New Orleans or Paris. So, I don't patronize the business. After 5 years, she and her partner call it quits. Should I feel responsible--in a teeny way?

The husband of an instructor in my department opened a small restaurant near school. The husband was in my class ages ago. As a rule, I don't go out for lunch. In fact, Mr. FS and I have been lunching on peanut butter sandwiches for the last 20plus years. Should I go?

Then there are the zillions of other similar stories I could recount. Here is my idea: create a BUDGET CATEGORY for COMMUNITY. That would be separate from your food category (since you don't go out for lunch as a rule) and your giving category (since you are not donating anything). Perhaps we should (or I should) earmark a certain sum each month for patronizing community businesses or events that I might not otherwise.

What do you think of this idea? How do you weigh community concerns into your practices?

Friday, August 27, 2010

CPW and LBD: Some Thoughts

CPW=Cost Per Wear
LBD=Little Black Dress (LBD has just entered the dictionary, I read)

Sometimes I think the CPW concept just encourages overspending. All the experts--fashion mags, especially--counsel determining what's "worth it" by COST PER WEAR:if you buy a jacket for $1000.00 and wear it 1000 times, it only costs $1.00/wear, and hence is cheaper than the $3.00 yard sale sweater that languishes in your closet unworn. This seems to make sense.

I thought about a potential CPW fallacy when I was in a three-generation shopping excursion with my mother and daughter in Lenox Massachusetts. As a "resort" area, Lenox sports boutiques that tend to have very nice items and that tend not to have sales. I'm not too comfortable in these boutiques, but my mother likes the people who run one, and so buys a few things a year.

While we were there, Miss Em tried on a Michael Stars dress--just cotton, with some modal, and a bit of spandex--that was around $100.00. It was my fault, because I showed her the dress. Of course, being 19 years old, and extremely tall, Miss Em looks good in almost everything. I thought the price was too high for what was really an elongated tee shirt.

Miss Em exclaimed, "Think about cost per wear! I could wear this every week for a year!!" And, "I don't have an LBD!" And, "I need an LBD!"

I got all crabby and at the end everyone was mad at me: Miss Em and my mother, not to mention the store owner my mother likes so much. We did buy Miss Em a nice cotton gauze tunic, which she has worn a number of times.

I knew I had an argument, but I couldn't formulate it. Then, after a few days, it hit me! The CPW concept ONLY works if you have ONLY a few things.

If you have a closetful of stuff (all nice, by the way) as Miss Em does, by wearing the LBD once a week, you are displacing other items from your rotation. So, at one a week, the LBD would have a low CPW, but the other items would end up having a higher one.

Therefore, the CPW concept only works for those disciplined enough to have a very streamlined wardrobe. You can't stuff an expensive item into a full closet and talk about CPW, can you?

Interestingly, our next stop was Northern California, another very affluent area with a resort component. We were in Sonoma, where there is an excellent thrift store, The Church Mouse. There Miss Em found a Susana Monaco--you guessed it--LBD for $10.00. It was nicer than the first LBD.

Miss Em didn't want it, but I made her buy it. She recently thanked me for pushing it on her. The CPW is down to about $1.00!

What do you think of the CPW concept? Helpful? Or a marketing ploy?

If you're ever in Sonoma, stop by the wonderful thrift.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Monks and Coffins: A Free Enterprise Story

A free enterprise story from my little town has made the Wall Street Journal. If you haven't seen it, here it is. Goliath (Louisiana Funeral Industry) vs. David (monks trying to earn some money by making coffins).

I taught Shakespeare at the college attached to the monastery for a few years. Although I quit the job and said farewell to the students without a backward glance, I LOVED the monks, especially the Abbot mentioned in the article.

Are you on Team Funeral Industry or Team Monastery?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Consumption Smoothing: Financial and Gustatory

More meditations on Funny About Money's succumbing to temptation--in the guise of a hotdog. My first response--echoed by several others--was carry something with you!

I myself was last on a diet, back in the late 60s. EVERYONE was on a diet then, including my parents. The diet of choice was Atkins, which involved consuming huge quantities of meat. Since everyone was doing it, I did too. I got so dizzy, I tripped down a flight of stairs and realized I was not the dieting type.

Interestingly, my mother, now 80 years old, is STILL on a diet. She has been on diets ever since I can remember. My late father, who was a tubby child, was also always on diets. My mother's weight goes down now and again, but then goes up--higher than it was before. Her diet of choice is the modern incarnation of Atkins.

I too have been gradually gaining weight--first in my 40s and then a bit more in my 50s. But I am still OK. I am afraid that if I go on a diet, I will end up weighing as much as my mother, who is 4 or 5 sizes bigger than I am!

Sometimes I think you should just eat what you eat, if it is fairly healthy, and forget about it. That seems in line with something I read about finance by an academic, Lawrence Kotlikoff. He recommended "consumption smoothing." Here is his book for the non-expert, which I took out of the library a while back.

His basic point (I THINK) is to maximize the "use" of your resources through your life--but in a "smooth" way. So, you might not have refinanced your house during the boom years to buy a boat and a designer kitchen. You might have smoothly spent your way through--perhaps--a period of unemployment.

I guess Kotlikoff reveals the wisdom of Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics) once more: to try to get to the point between too much and too little.

So too with dieting.

P.S. Granola bars, as my readers noted, are really candy-substitutes. My "granola bars" are usually peanuts and raisins in a zip-lock bag.

Do you agree with the concept of consumption smoothing?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What's Good for Weight, Mood, and Finances: A Granola Bar

Funny About Money started a new dieting blog. I'm not on a diet (too undisciplined), but I read it anyway. Recently, Funny succumbed to temptation and--starving--ate a hot dog. She was remorseful.

I have the solution! A granola bar, or similar. I tend to have meltdowns after being out and about for too long. Shopping makes me crazy (except at thrift stores). I seldom shop except when my daughter is around. She has learned to carry a granola bar and a bottle of water, so Mommy doesn't have a meltdown.

This is a family tradition. Mr. FS and I would take our little ones to the zoo or the aquarium on weekends. Then we would go to a coffee shop. After a while, the kids wanted more and more to eat. Then they would have meltdowns. Sometimes WE would have meltdowns because of a caffeine deficit.

So we learned to bring a thermos of coffee and a few snacks in the car. I suppose this practice has saved us, oh, $1,000,000.00.

Interestingly, Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, attributes the thinness of French women, in part, to carrying the secret granola bar for emergencies. (The other part would be all the walking that Parisiennes do.)

So weight control, mood, and finances? So much from a little snack.

Do you have any similar strategies?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gift Advice from the Duchesse of Gifts

Duchesse left a lovely comment the other day:

A dinner you make for a loved one as Funny About Money did is a gift; making a CD of an elder's favourite music, or restoring an old photo (not very expensive). Writing someone a poem, or playing a board game with kids until they want to stop... I could go on. It's not about spending money.

Now, if you read Duchesse's blog (on vacation now), you know that the gifts she selects are simply perfect. Really. She's got the gift.

Note, though, that her concept goes beyond buying. Mr. FS doesn't buy me gifts. That's because he knows I don't really want anything PLUS I'm too picky and he knows he could never figure out what I want.

Every now and then, he surprises me. Out of the blue, he'll say, "I finally got around to putting up that extra shelf you wanted." OR "I got some whatever so now I can fix the whatever you complained about." Half the time (nay, more), I don't even remember making the request. But he does.

He does the same for Miss Em. She is always creating artworks, some very large. He's always figuring out how to frame or display these sometimes oddly-shaped artifacts.

As Duchesse pointed out elsewhere, the key to gifts, whether in the material realm or outside it, is paying ATTENTION.

What's the best gift you've ever given? Gotten?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Can middle-income people retire in high-cost cities?

Poor Funny About Money. She wrote about her dream of moving to San Francisco, only to have her dream dashed when she realized that she had miscalculated her income.

But is this really true? A time-honored retirement strategy has been to sell the house in San Francisco or Boston and move to a lower-cost area. Can it go the other way? Are those of us who live in lower-cost areas doomed to never see the big city?

I mentioned to Funny that people rented garage apartments in Houston. I wondered if such were available in San Francisco. She was horrified. That's because she pictured living IN a garage. But the garage apartments I visited in Houston were ABOVE garages, behind very tony houses in good neighborhoods. The apartments were NICE. And very inexpensive.

So, readers: any ideas? San Francisco? Chicago? Philadelphia? Boston? Montreal? Toronto? Vancouver BC? Any way to live on a modest income?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Holidays vs Well, Everything

I was reading one of my favorite blogs Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. Her post concerns something she read on Yahoo--how to save $1000.00 for the holidays by cutting this and that: vacations, landline, movies, whatever. Like BFS, I went through the list too--you can't cut something you don't have or don't do, so these lists work best for those high on the profligacy meter.

So I was thinking and thinking...only to realize that I don't have to save $1000.00 for the holidays because I don't spend that much. The only recipients of holiday largesse are my two kids, neither of whom wants all that much, or so they say.

It's easy for me, because my family was completely lackadaisical about holidays and birthdays. Mr. FS grew up with blow out Christmases, but he has gradually converted to the lackadaisical.

I give this background to warn you: for me to give up the holiday blowout is like me giving up cable. I don't have cable. I don't want cable.

With my lack of credentials established, let me ask: why would you want to give up, say, a vacation in order to have a holiday giftfest? Isn't it better to have a nice pace of treats now and again, rather than scrimping to have a major over-the-top fest?

You know what my answer is? What's yours? Are holidays a sensitive area for you?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Would I Want to Refinance a Paid-Off House: A Financial Fantasy

As an expansion of my last post, which struck many as mad.

Here is the fantasy. Let's just say I did a cash-out refinance* for about, ohhhh, 1/4 of the value of my paid-off house. Let's say, I just put it in an insured CD. At that point, I'd be paying about 2-3% on my loan, the difference between the CD and the super-low mortgage rate.

Let's say I kept rolling over the CDs as they matured. I have a feeling that rates are going to go up, at least some time in the next 30 years.

What is the origin of this fantasy? My parents got a 5% mortgage in the early 60s. Their Principle and Interest payments were minimal. In the 70s--when I was in grad school and had NO MONEY--interest rates went through the roof. My parents and many others were able to invest in newly-available bank money market accounts that were paying 20%. Even Treasury Bonds--risk-free then as now--were paying in the teens.

Still thinking about it, though I'm probably toooooo lazy to go through the process.

Does my financial fantasy still seem mad?

*Cash Out Refinance is when your mortgage includes CASH. My friends in the biz were urging such a refi during the housing bubble--for college savings, for kitchen remodels, and the like. If you've kept up with the news, you will see many stories of families that ended up owing $500,000 on a house they originally paid $100,000 for. The other $400,000 (based on the house's appreciation) went to vacations, tuition, credit card debt, Viking stoves, major remodels, SUVs, and Coach bags.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is It Time to Refinance?

I always seem to be out of sync with the financial cycles. When we bought our house, interest rates were 10%. Hard to believe. Equally hard to believe is that the money market account from which we drew our down payment was paying around 9%.

So horrified was I by the payments that I paid extra each month, and ended up paying off the house a few years ago. Can we say AHHHHHH? Meanwhile, and I suppose it was lucky, I missed out on all the cash out refis some of my "friends" in the mortgage biz were urging upon me.

But now...I read last night that mortgage rates are at historic lows--under 4% for 15 years. Now I don't have any immediate need for a big wad of cash (college costs are taken care of). AND I certainly can't get more than a 1-2% return on any sure thing. At the moment.

But surely interest rates will rise some time in the next 15 years, right? Or, even more surely, in 30 years. There is a school of financial thought that says "Always have a mortgage." Can you imagine how little my new mortgage payment would seem in 10-15-20-30 years? Heck, I might not make it that far.

I may do some more math on this. Would this not be a decent way to get some "income" in retirement? It would be cheaper than a pricey and complex reverse mortgage.

Any thoughts on this? Is it a crazy idea?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cheating! Good Deals for College Students Double Post

My first slacker activity of the new school year. I just posted this on the College Cooking blog. It's useful information, if you are or know a college student.

Sam's Club offers college students a $15.00 gift card with its regular $40.00 membership. Math majors: This makes the membership $25.00, right? You have to get this in-store, I think. Miss Em is going to join, with a parent as a co-member.

We don't buy much there, but it's worth it for cheese. Most of the goods are sized too large for college students.

Meanwhile, Amazon is working towards world domination by offering students free Amazon Prime. Needless to say, this is designed to get you to purchase your textbooks from Amazon. Prime means you don't need to get to $25.00 for free shipping. Plus, you get 2-day shipping.

So, students, in addition to whatever else you need: remember your rice cooker.

Monday, August 9, 2010

One Degree of Separation: WSJ and Fabric Flowers

Probably no one would be interested in this but me. Scooting through the Wall Street Journal, I saw an article on a business that made fabric flowers. I thought, "I remember a family two blocks away, where the Dad ran a company that made fabric flowers." He was silent and full of anger. This was explained to us: "He was in a concentration camp. He has numbers tattooed on his arm." I never saw them, because I never got that close.

Anyway, the company is now owned by his two children, both a little younger than I am.

Perhaps this should remind us to honor these old businesses that make things the old way.

RIP Harold Brand.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

College Textbook Prices and Big Pharma: International Editions

A while back, I was discussing the scary overpriced textbook trade and compared the industry to Big Pharma. An academic economist made the same point in the New York Times. I was so happy; I've never even taken Econ101.

Here is the comparison made yet again by an on-line seller of textbooks. Just as prescription drugs are cheaper out of the USA, so too college textbooks. You realize, of course, that these are the same books. Oh--the difference is that the International ones are marked International. Based on the comments, I would say that the textbook publishers tried to keep the international books from being sold in the US, just as Big Pharma lobbies to keep international prescription drugs out of the consumer's hands.

# Q: What's an International Edition Textbook?
A: An International Edition Textbook is simply the international counterpart to a US Edition. Most international editions have slightly different covers and many have different ISBNs on the outside covers (although some have the same ISBN as the US edition on the inside). These books were originally created to be sold in different regions, such as England. International edition textbooks have the same pagination and contents as the US Edition. All units and problem sets are guaranteed to be the same, or your money back!
# Q: Why are International Edition Textbooks so much cheaper?
A: Just like prescription medicine, textbooks are much cheaper overseas than in the US. gets a hold of these books and passes the savings on to you!
# Q: Wait a minute, is it legal to buy International Edition Textbooks?
A: Yes! Textbook publishers would love to have people think otherwise, but courts have time and again asserted your right to purchase international editions. Still unsure? The United States Supreme Court recently ruled on this issue. You can find a New York Times article about their decision here
# Q: Why do you sell International Edition Textbooks?
A: Disgruntlement over textbook costs has been growing in the United States as prices have risen. As veterans of the textbook industry, we've seen a massive increase in demand for both used textbooks and especially international edition textbooks by students who are tired of paying $95.00 for an economics book or $140.00 for a chemistry book. They're happier buying the same book for $50.00 in an international edition.
# Q: Do you buyback International Edition Textbooks?
Yes! Just visit our buyback page at the end of your quarter or semester, type in the ISBN of your book and select the international edition copy. We buyback all types of books everyday, and we even pay for your shipping!
# Q: What about CD-ROM's and online access codes? Do International Editions come with these?
A: In most cases, yes. In rare cases, the CD may not be included. If the CD is not included with the book, this will be made clear on the product detail page. If you are sure you're going to need the CD-ROM to complete your class and want to make sure the book includes it, drop us an email at to make sure. Most professors do not require these materials, since many used books do not come with them.
# Q: This all sounds great, but I'm still not sure because I've never bought an International Edition Textbook before.
No problem, we've prepared some side by side comparisons of the US editions and International Editions. Check them out below!

Note that Amnazon and do not allow international editions to be sold on the sites. Based on the above info, I would guess that the online computer codes may be an issue if your scholar wants to buy an international edition.

I myself have no experience with these. Frugal Son only had to buy one textbook during his year in France. It cost around $14.00.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Used Clothing in the Sixteenth Century

In the United States, once an article of clothing or a toy is taken out of the store, it depreciates by about 98%.

It was not always so. Here are the findings of Andrew Gurr, who writes on Shakespeare.

A pair of silk stockings might cost £2 or £4, depending on the quality and purchaser. A woman's gown might cost anything from £7 to £20 or more. The Earl of Leicester* paid £543 for seven doublets and two cloaks, at an average cost for each item rather higher than the price Shakespeare paid for a house in Stratford.

I got this paragraph from a wonderful book by Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass called Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory.

They detail the value of used clothing in the Renaissance marketplace. An amazing reminder of relative value and shifting value(s).

Friday, August 6, 2010

What's It Worth? Depends On Where it is.

Lucy Marmalade and I are still beaming about our trip to Buffalo Exchange. How nice to know that she has a gift card with $250.00 on it for the next year of shopping. We made a huge space in our closets too. Lucy says I'm not allowed to use the term feng shui--and mention that getting rid of stuff releases energy through one's environment. So I won't. But it's true.

One thing that always interests me is the question of value, what something is worth. Everyone who's ever known a dealer in anything has heard "It's worth what someone is willing to pay." In other words, value is determined not by the price tag on the item, but by what someone pays for the item.

Since I regularly go to thrift stores for relaxation and a spa-like feeling, I see lots of great stuff. Since I belatedly discovered the Buffalo Exchange last year, I often buy things that Lucy may or may not like: if she doesn't, I can take it to the Buf for credit. I also picked up a few things I thought we could get credit for: why not? My Goodwill is inundated with merchandise.

That is why I picked up a pair of men's SAS shoes that had never been worn. These are comfy shoes generally worn by old people. They cost around $100.00. I didn't think the Buf would bite, but I bought them anyway. They had been at Goodwill for more than a week. No one seemed to want them.

I also bought a pair of leather pants by Shin Choi, which sported a $538.00 price tag! These turned out to be too small for Lucy. I was sure the Buf would bite.

I usually don't watch when the buyer inspects my offerings: I turn into Chatty Cathy and get annoying. I did see the skinny and ubercool male manager ask the tattooed and also ubercool female other manager: "What are SAS? " "Comfort shoes," she replied, "30." So Lucy got $15.00 in credit. Neat!

When we got home, I looked through our bag of rejects. There were the leather pants, unloved and unwanted. Evidently, they are worth nothing.

Anyone know the technical terms for all this? Any economists out there?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Swap Your Closet and Other Frugal Tips

Like many others, we are cleaning up and cleaning out. Back-to-school time seems to inspire the task, especially for us, all in school in one way or another.

Yesterday, Mr. FS and I accompanied Lucy Marmalade to her yearly appointment with Dr. Guarisco, dubbed "my ear's father," since he performed two lengthy and complicated operations on a dangerous condition.

FRUGAL TIP #1: If you have to drive an hour to the big city for an appointment, at least try to do something else while you are there. We decided to have some family time.

FRUGAL TIP #2: After the appointment, we headed on over to Buffalo Exchange with 4 bags of stuff. We got a choice of $150 in cash or $250 in credit. Instead of taking the cash as we usually do, we took the credit to fund future shopping trips for Lucy. This is in line with our vow to buy mostly second-hand this year. Instead of shopping our closet, we are swapping our closet! Cool!

FRUGAL TIP#3: We then headed over to the New Orleans Art Museum, which has free admission for residents on Wednesdays. There are so many free and low-cost things to do in every community. Seek them out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Depreciation Appreciation

A post on depreciation at Early Retirement Extreme got me thinking on the topic of depreciation. Never borrow for depreciating assets is a personal finance truism I've read more than a time or two.

As usual for me, my success with the big stuff has been minimal.

CARS: We used to buy used cars--believing the oft-cited "It depreciates by 20-30% once it's off the lot. We did the math on our used Camry and discovered that we had, in effect, paid for the first owner's depreciation! Desirable cars retain their value and don't depreciate as much as you'd think. We've bought two new cars: a 1998 Camry and a 2003 Civic Hybrid, both still chugging away.

With the small stuff, we've done well. Consumer goods depreciate immediately after purchase and basically retain that value...forever. Unlike the proprietor of ERE, we do not live a minimalist lifestyle. We love owning books and CDs and have a fashionista daughter.

BOOKS: We used to patronize wonderful used bookstores in the various university towns in which we resided. At the time, we thought 50% off books was great! Now, we rarely spend over $1.00, and that's for a hardcover. I guess if we wanted to have a yard sale, we could sell all our 25 cent books for 25 cents. But usually we donate them back.

CDs: These used to be a major expense, but (affiliated with has been a blessing.

CLOTHING: Even fashionista college students can find most of what they want at a good thrift store (luckily, we have one). "Mistakes" can be donated back or--sometimes--swapped at the Buffalo Exchange, which has been around for years, but which we only recently discovered. Lucy Marmalade used credit garnered at the New Orleans store to buy a pair of Frye boots at the San Francisco store.

Oh, how we appreciate depreciation. Do you?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cloth Diapers and Education Funds?

I said to my son this evening: Using cloth diapers was the start of your education fund.

He scoffed, but then asked, "How long are kids in diapers?" I gave him the bad news, especially for boys, and multiplied by the two children in our family.
Four total diaper years X the $700/year that plastic diapers cost.

$2800 total or $1400 per child.

Not a bad beginning.

Unlike many writers on frugality, who recommend saving on the big stuff, I think savings accrue from a zillion little decisions.

Do you agree? If so, what were your most effective little decisions?