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Monday, February 28, 2011

Frugal Cleaning Products

As always, I am inspired by Funny About Money, fave blogger, who put together a post on frugal and green cleaning supplies. Anyone who knows me is rolling on the floor laughing at the thought of my expertise in anything domestic: I am probably in the bottom 1% of the population in terms of housekeeping skills.

Still, no one would deny my reading skills. And it was a happy day when I discovered Don Aslett, cleaning expert and scourge of clutter. I find his books real motivators. Nothing like owning a cleaning service (as Don does) to make you see the true cost of clutter.

Don is also a wonderful writer. He has zillions of books now. In fact, my one gripe with him is that his numerous books (many on overlapping topics) constitute a kind of clutter in themselves. His two greatest are

From the first you learn to de-clutter. From the second, you learn how to clean. Don says you only need three products, all of which can be bought as concentrates and diluted.

He even sells the products on-line. Usually, I don't trust such products, but so great is my love of and trust in Don that I WOULD buy one of his cleaning kits. However, Mr. FS pointed out that you could get the same cleaners at Home Depot. Here is his Green Cleaning Kit (around $45):

* 1 Quart Foam N Flush
* 1 Quart Tub N Tile
* 1 Tub N Tile Spray Bottle
* 1 Quart Max Clean
* 1 Max Clean Spray Bottle
* 3-pack Window Cleaner
* Window Cleaner Spray Bottle
* Toilet Bowl Caddy - holds Foam N Flush & Johnny Mop
* 1 Johnny Mop
* 1 Shaw';s Pad
* 1 Grout Brush
* 2 Multipurpose Microfiber Towels
* 1 Large White Scrubber
* 1 Ready-to-Use X-O+
* Cleaning Caddy

Check out his mini-essays too.

I spend a lot of time reading, including much that is obscure and high brow. But there is a place on my shelf for Don Aslett. His books have probably done as much to enrich my life as The Elements of Style.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reuse, Recycle: Preservation and Aesthetics

Usually, I write about my little adventures: the canned tomatoes that were cheap at Big Lots, the neat sweater I got at Goodwill. I do think there's an aesthetic, as well as a financial, dimension to frugality, but that's a point that is sometimes hard to explain.

Here is an instance of frugality on that larger scale (too large to be practiced by the likes of me) in my very hometown. I still sometimes feel like an alien here even after 20 years. Yet I would never have seen such beautiful buildings and such a beautiful landscape had I not moved here with Mr. FS so many years ago.

Check out the pictures. Beautiful!

Are there any old buildings like this where you live?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Frugal Soulmates: Product Lifecycles

I started reading blogs a while back because I was in search of Frugal Soulmates. I only have one at work. I did have a frugal friend for a while, but I'm afraid she was frugal by necessity: she moved when her chronically underemployed husband got a lucrative job as dean somewhere. She is, as far as I can tell, frugal in name only.

My search coincided with the financial meltdown and frugality blogs were everywhere. Now not so much. We keep hearing about frugal fatigue. Financial pages report that consumers are a-spending again. Some of the frugality bloggers have hit it rich and a certain--I don't know--energy has seeped out of their blogs, which are going through the motions.

There are still so many blogs I love. And I was gratified to discover that the editor of Architectural Digest lunches on peanut butter sandwiches, same as I do. Now I've learned that some people don't replace products as quickly as they used to. Even sock darning is back (not by me; I am a non-sewer).

So check out this article: from the rich guy who doesn't replace his Jaguar as often, to the woman trying to rescue a blouse with soy sauce (overkill imho), to the people who keep their computers a bit longer than they used to: these are my people. Are they yours?

My history: a computer bought from now-defunct Swan company that lasted for almost 20 years (!), replaced because of lack of memory; our 1998 Toyota Camry, our "new" 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid; a few pieces of furniture that we bought for temporary use---in grad school. Oops. We tend to keep things too long.

Mr FS bought a shirt at Marshall Field's in Chicago when we were there for a job-hunting convention in the early 1980s. It finally started developing holes a few years ago and has become a rag. Mr. FS also has wool dance tights on which he spent a pretty penny when he took a dance class in Nice circa 1977.

I'm using my grandmother's linen dishtowels though they are more hold than towel.

From big to small, I love using things up--sadly, we use very little up nowadays.

What's your longest-serving object?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Psychomachia: Another Good Deal (from Chico's this time)

Sorry readers. I KNOW I have too much stuff. I KNOW that I don't need anything. I KNOW that spending does not really involve saving. I KNOW that temptation often puts super bargains in my path. I KNOW it's hard not to peek at emails offering good deals, even though I should delete.

You know: the little angel and the little devil from Tom and Jerry? That's a modern version of psychomachia, or the battle for the soul, from a medieval work of the same name.

If you took a British lit course in college, you may know it from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, where the good and bad angels make frequent appearances, and where Doctor F always chooses the WRONG PATH.

OK, I've given you enough time to choose the right path. But in case you need anything from the dreaded Chico's (where I have been subject to poor customer service both in store and on-line!), there is a good deal around. First of all, as stylish blogger DejaPseu noted a few days ago, the Chico's ponte pants that I like are on sale for $39. NOT BAD.

But, if you spend a total of $50 at Chico's (and they just reduced some of their sale items), you can use this code: 4373, which will give you $25.00 off a purchase of at least $50.00.

You do have to pay for shipping, if you are not in the Passport Club (which requires spending $500, a level I have not yet reached in 5 years). But WAIT! My mother is a Passport member, so if I use her number, I get free shipping. If you have a friend in the blessed Passport sorority order for you, you get free shipping too. I think the shipping charge is worth it though. I hate driving to stores.

OK, I succumbed. And I succumbed last week to the other good deal (though everything I got was for other family members).

It is fun to get new things, even if we don't end up looking like Helen of Troy (or a succubus version of her), as presented in these famous lines from Doctor Faustus:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

The code is only good till 2/27. btw.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

LL Bean 30% off EVERYTHING: Fair to Post?

Now that I've recovered from my multiple ailments, my mind is racing through things important (Shakespeare, Henry James), necessary (committee work), and trivial (frugal musings of various sorts).

A few days ago, LL Bean sent out a 15% off EVERYTHING code to a lucky few. A LUCKIER few got a 30% off EVERYTHING. There are numerous free shipping codes available too. I was in neither lucky camp.

Still, I read about it on a site I seldom look at: Slickdeals, which I learned about from a frugal colleague, and which offers deals mostly of the electronic variety. I checked Facebook to see if LL had publicized the code that way. No. A woman did write to complain that she, a good customer, got 15%, while her husband, who never buys anything, got 30%. LL responded that they were trying to entice people who didn't buy much.

Well, thanks a lot! I guess I fall into neither the buying nor the non-buying category, though I did spend a couple of hundred dollars there this year. In my fantasy world (promoted by Bean's publicity machine), LL offers FAIR everyday prices, with a FAIR profit.

If that's true, how can they fling around a 30% off everything code? Is it FAIR to LL to use a code you find posted on the internet? Is it FAIR to post the code? Is it FAIR to offer some customers a better price than others?

I know not the answers to these questions. I did buy Mr. FS a pair of boots and Miss Em a travel backpack for her trips this summer and beyond. I used the code.

It's good through today, I think. I am considering getting some of their sheepskin slippers! Oh, and how about a kayak? I've always wanted one to use in Massachusetts, where we have a house on a lake (we generally borrow the neighbor's kayak, but that is sometimes awkward).

FAIR to POST? If you want it, the code is JPA4393. Free shipping (if you don't have the Visa offered by LL) is LL3039329. FAIR? What is FAIR anyway? And how has FAIRNESS changed in the age of the internet?

And now for some beauty, via Shakespeare:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
that thereby beauty's rose might never die

or, more disquieting,

And every fair from fair sometime declines
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed

Can one even talk about FAIRNESS in the context of big business, marketing, consumer awareness, and so on?

Monday, February 21, 2011

No Posts: A Multiple Choice Exam and a Beautiful Sentence

Why no posts? In 25plus years of teaching, I have never given a multiple choice exam. Here goes. My first.

a. Because I was in California visiting my father-in-law.
b. Because there's no internet access.
c. Except at the public library.
d. The weather was cold and stormy.
e. I was VERRRRRY sick the whole time.
f. With various weird--and I hope unrelated--symptoms.
g. I could go on.

The answer, as so often on such exams, is ALL OF THE ABOVE.

Since I didn't go anywhere, I didn't spend any money. Oh, by request, we bought Miss Em several giant chocolate bars from Trader Joe's.

As always, the best things in life are free: we saw a rainbow and my father-in-law, a very brainy guy still at 92, uttered the following sentence:

I like the Prokofiev piece even though it lacks the structural transparency and integrity of the Beethoven

Is it not worth a plane ticket and several days to hear a sentence like that one?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What I have in common with the Editor of Architectural Digest: Thrift!

Every now and again, I get a free subscription to this luxury magazine via unusable Frequent Flier miles. My subscription just ended, and I'm too cheap to subscribe; I can always read it at the library.

I was interested in this article about the chic and beautiful new editor, who is supposed to bring the magazine to a younger, hipper readership. I guess that is not me.

Read this piece on the New editor

Another frugal soul mate: I eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day.

Do you have a frugal soul mate?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Values and Values: Thrift Store Dilemma?

I LOVE thrift stores: let me count the ways. They are good for the community, good for the environment, and, not least of all, good for my mental and financial health. What's not to like?

As in everything, there is a dark side to thrift stores. I don't think I've ever written about this aspect of the thrifts; perhaps I will one day.

Today, I was reminded of the dark side and reminded too of the potential for conflicting values, even in thrift shopping. Since I had a library book to return, I went to the Food Bank Thrift Store, which is very close. This is an odd place, and has had the oddest series of managers. Still: who could argue with the mission? It funds the Food Bank and also a free dental clinic for the needy. So I like to stop by when I'm in the neighborhood.

As I gathered a few items, I heard one of the volunteers explaining to new recruits the items they discard: Harry Potter and other books of witchcraft. I realize this is a common (mis)belief. They were discussing the books in a jeering tone. I paid and left without saying a word.

What do you do when your values conflict with the values of an organization you patronize?

Poor books! I hope they found a home and were not relegated to the trash heap.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why Americans Can't Save

An interesting set of opinions on this topic in the New York Times. More interesting to me than the opinions of various experts was the following comment from an American who has lived in Europe.

Americans don't save, because there is so much great stuff to buy in the U.S. and because buying it is so easy! I'm American and have lived in western Europe for 3 years. When I go back to the U.S., I go on a shopping frenzy because:

-Shops are open past 6 pm and on Sundays
-Sales are not held just twice a year but nearly all year round
-Most goods are cheaper in the US due to the weak dollar or overseas production - that's why Europeans come to NYC to shop like crazy
-There are GREAT stores in the US - so good that we export them everywhere else
-Almost every store offers its own credit card or loyalty card, giving incentives to spend (and not just cash)
-Stores that offer multiple categories of goods under one roof (i.e. Target, Wal-Mart): when you don't have to visit 5 different shops to find gloves, a greeting card, duct tape, and groceries you tend to buy more
-Ubiquity of online shopping; it is not as common outside the US
-Ease of shopping: friendly sales people, sensible return policies, spacious stores, parking
-Easy credit for car leases and credit cards
-Overall consumer-friendly culture that emphasizes advertising and newness
-Large homes and cars that make it possible to transport and store purchases (compared to lugging them home on the subway to a tiny apartment)

A great example: when I lived in [small Western European country], I saved so much money simply because there was nothing particularly good or different to buy, and even then it was only convenient and POSSIBLE to "shop" on Saturdays when the stores were so packed that doing so was uncomfortable. Further, I had no car and so little space in my apartment that I had to think carefully about whether I had capacity for what I bought.

Do you think life in America is set up for over consumption?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Paying for Grad School: "Discounted" Tuition

There was another mediocre article today in the Wall Street Journal, this time about paying for graduate school. I'm not going to get into the usual discussions about should you or shouldn't you? or are humanities degrees worthless?

I just want to point to a tuition trick I've seen before. Trick is probably a harsh term. Scheme? Whatever.

When 24-year-old Kristi Roybal was choosing between graduate programs in social work and international studies, she picked one at the University of Denver, which offered her a $20,000 annual scholarship.

But with a $53,000 total annual tab, she had to figure out how to cover the rest.

About 5-6 years ago, a friend/student/neighbor suddenly decided that she wanted to get a Phd in Food Studies. At the time, I thought this was a bad plan because the person was clearly not cut out for academic life, though she was smart enough for anything. Anyway, she applied to the Anthropology Program at the University of Chicago, an august institution.

In reply, she received not a rejection, but an invitation to the MA Program in Social Thought or something like that. The letter had a perky tone: (paraphrase) "It must be strange to get into a program different from the one you applied for and with a scholarship at that!" She was offered $15,000 off of $35,000 tuition. And she actually thought about it for a long time, even though it would have involved a loan for AT LEAST $20,000.

I looked into the program and discovered that there were no designated faculty; there was no department. Students took various courses from various social science departments. In other words: a no cost program from the school. No wonder they could be so generous.

As for the young woman in the WSJ article: instead of thinking of the big discount from U of Denver (a private school), why not get your social work degree from your state school. You may not get a discount of $20,000, but you will be paying in-state tuition.

There are some cases where the prestige of the institution really matters: if you are seeking an academic career, the better the school (and that may even include undergraduate), the better your chances of being hired at a similarly prestigious gig. Law schools MAY be the same.

But social work? That's a vocational degree and I imagine that it's more important to emerge with few loans for what is likely to be a rewarding but low-paying job.

The scholarship tactic reminds me of stores: $100 off! I was thrilled by a scarf at an on-line catalog: reduced from $119 to $9 (!!!), I was swooning with desire. But I hesitated. And the scarf was removed from my cart. It had sold out. I realized that I already had scarves in the offered colors.

As always, it's not what you save, but what you spend.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Summer Budgeting

The other day, I wore my new boots. I received many compliments, and, since my reputation precedes me, some questions: Did you get those at a thrift store? Uh no, from a fancy catalog, over $100, even on sale.

One of my students was shocked. How come you brought us recycled folders so we could save 25 cents, and then you spend $100? That doesn't quite make sense, since I didn't save the quarter: each of my students did. But it does make karmic sense: how come I'm so obsessed with recycling folders (even taking discards from other teachers) and then am willing to buy the occasional pricey item? I guess my thrift is both karmic and pragmatic. I just have all these pennywise habits and it would be too much work to change them.

Unlike many bloggers, who exhort us to attend to the big expenses and not to the little ones, I believe that all the little stuff adds up. The big expenses are often ones over which we have little control.

When I think about my summer expenses, I am relieved that I've been practicing the little frugalities.

ITEM: Each summer, we spend about $6000.00 visiting parents, one on the west coast, one on the east coast. These are not fancy vacations: we have 4 plane fares plus car rentals on each end. We will continue to pay for our children's tickets even after they finish college.

ITEM: This summer, we plan a trip to Nantes, which will probably cost around $5000.00

Those last two are built into our yearly budget, though we haven't been to Europe for a few years. $11,000 on teaching salaries necessitates taking a pennywise approach for the rest of the year.

ITEM: This summer Miss Em wants to go to Italy to study art history. Cost is $4300 plus airfare. She will get $2000 from the scholarship she got as a freshman. Still, very expensive.

When I set out these numbers, I am shocked. In truth, I can hardly see how we do it. Many people assume we receive handouts from our families. I suppose our parents would help out if we asked, but we don't.

When I set out the numbers, I am also happy. Isn't it amazing how all the little frugalities add up to big treats?

In fact, I already have my Walgreens shop for tomorrow all planned: I will be buying peanut butter, honey, and eggs. Check your paper tomorrow. All those items will be verrrrry cheap.

Have you saved for anything big with little frugalities?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Anticipation: Nantes?

A while back I wrote about the possibility of going to Nantes and staying in the home of Frugal Son's favorite teacher, who travels during her summers. Well! It is starting to shape up.

Vous êtes donc les bienvenus à Rezé l’été prochain si vous le souhaitez. Et qui sait ? La Louisiane nous attirera peut-être un jour ….

So happy! We assumed we would rent, but D. said "non." Even so, this will be an expensive proposition: tickets for 2 are, at this writing, $3000.

Does anyone know how one would budget for the rest of the trip? Also, what kind of gift would be a good one for super-generous hosts?

à bientôt

Friday, February 4, 2011

Warm Baths and Downy Beds

You can probably surmise from the title that I am thinking about the cold weather, which has traveled to my area. It seems unlikely that anyone would disagree that "warm baths and downy beds" are the best antidote to cold weather, especially the downy beds.

Yet someone has. Yes. The Wall Street Journal ran a column in which their style editor urged us to get rid of the down comforters and re-learn hospital corners and tightly made up beds. Why is the writer against down? Because it looks "messy" and because it's "hot." Commenters rightly pointed out that if you are hot under your comforter, turn down the heat and save the planet (a little). As for "messy"--who's coming in your bedroom to inspect it anyway?

My mother was born in Vienna and so I brought down comforters into my marriage. The acrylic blankets and foam pillows of Mr. FS's childhood were no match for the cozy comforters and feather pillows of mine.

In the 60s or 70s, down comforters were brought to US consciousness by--I think--Terence Conran, who brought style to the masses. I remember seeing ads titled "the 30 second bed" showing that you could shake your comforter and lay it on the bed. Who cares if it's lumpy?

I notice that the controversial article on down was published in early January. I hope people weren't too quick to donate their down comforters before the cold winds blew in.

While I haven't weighed in on the ridiculous "Tiger Mother" "controversy" (engineered by the media, no?), I feel that the down comforter controversy is too important. So I have spoken out.

By the way, the title of the post comes from a translation of Homer's Odyssey. Alcinous, ruler of Scheria, kind of an earthly paradise where Odysseus washes up, says this:

we set great store by feasting, harpers, and the grace of dancing choirs, changes of dress, warm baths and downy beds

Are you a down lover? How are you keeping warm?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pasta from the Pantry with Mark Bittman and Arthur Schwartz

Two events converge. First: there is terrible weather in much of the country. Second: Mark Bittman is giving up his Minimalist cooking column in the New York Times.

The first event means that you don't want to go out. It may be DANGEROUS to go out. Therefore, cooking dinner from the pantry is in order. The second event means that there's a Minimalist Nostalgia Fest going on at the New York Times.

Here's one of my favorite Minimalist columns: it features Arthur Schwartz aka The Cooking Maven and pantry cooking.

Here's something I make all the time.


Time: 20 minutes


1/2 pound thin spaghetti

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or lard

2 large cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled

4 eggs

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, optional.

1. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil. Start the sauce in the next step, and start cooking the pasta when the water boils.

2. Combine garlic and 4 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic, pressing it into the oil occasionally to release its flavor; it should barely color on both sides. Remove the garlic, and add the remaining oil.

3. Fry the eggs gently in the oil, until the whites are just about set and the yolks still quite runny. Drain the pasta, and toss with the eggs and oil, breaking up the whites as you do. (The eggs will finish cooking in the heat of the pasta.) Season to taste, and serve immediately, with cheese if you like.

Yield: 2 or 3 servings.

Here's something I'm going to make. This takes ingredients that are probably in everyone's cupboards.


Time: 20 minutes

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, or about 2 pounds peeled fresh tomatoes

Salt to taste

1 pound linguine or spaghetti

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Red pepper flakes to taste

3 tablespoons minced basil or parsley.

1. Cut tomatoes into strips, discarding seeds and juice; place in a strainer to drain while you bring a pot of salted water to the boil for the pasta. Start the sauce in the next step, and start cooking pasta when water boils.

2. Combine tomatoes, oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a 10-inch skillet, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook briskly for about 5 minutes (8 minutes for fresh tomatoes), stirring occasionally. The tomatoes should remain in pieces, and there should be no liquid remaining in the pan other than the oil.

3. Toss the pasta with the sauce and the basil or parsley, and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

And here are my favorite cookbooks by Bittman and Schwartz.

Thanks guys.