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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Apology and Gift: Sanita Clogs (Dansko twin?) at a good price

Dear Readers: I have not yet recovered from processing 200plus pieces of work. I completed the task, but remain wiped out. That is why my responding to comments left by my wonderful readers has been so slow. I respond in my head, but typing is soooo much harder.

I will respond! In the meantime, good deals of the consumption sort keep wending my way. I will not succumb, at least not right now. First I will make more progress on my decluttering/donation project.

So here's the good deal, for those whose feet hurt and whose closets are not overflowing with stuff. Footprints, a lovely business, has Sanita professional clogs for under $70. You can also get adorable sandal clogs for even less! Sanita and Dansko are--or used to be--related, though I can't remember how.

If you have teeny feet (36!), you can browse the sale section and get Camper shoes for reallllly cheeeeeeep.

Hope someone can make use of this tidbit.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

We're going to Nantes for a French Vacation

Sooooo, our tickets have been bought. Poor Mr FS (or, should I say, pauvre M FS?) has been toiling away communicating with our hosts and dealing with transportation and hotel issues. When we met, I found his knowledge of French swoon-worthy. As it turns out, that knowledge has a pragmatic element as well.

To wit:


Nous sommes très contents de faire bientôt votre connaissance.
Pour nous, il n’y a aucun problème quel que soit le moment où vous arriverez, voyez ce qui est le mieux pour vous. Vous nous direz quand vous aurez décidé.

Je vous donne tout de suite notre numéro de téléphone, ainsi vous pourrez nous appeler de Paris s’il y a un retard ou changement.

Now I can read that, but it would take me ages to produce the email that elicited that response.

As for the French vacation. I picked up (at Goodwill, natch) one of those "inner French girl" books, a veritable genre. There was a section on French vacations. The American vacation is short and very intense. The quintessential American vacation would be a few days at Disney, with all the trimmings. Very expensive too.

The French vacation is five to six weeks. It can't be intense or super-expensive, at least not for most people. The quintessential French vacation takes place at some family house in the middle of nowhere. Daily activities consist of walks, lounging about, reading, cooking, and so on. So said my book (which unfortunately I misplaced). My French friend confirms the accuracy of the picture.

Although Mr. FS and I are teachers and have long breaks akin to those available to everyone in France, we have tended to be pretty intense. This will be our first conscious effort at a European-style vacation.

Ah ha! This is the book. Not a great purchase, but an OK library acquisition.

Have you ever had a French-style vacation?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Customer Service and two bits of Consumption News

MAny moons ago, I wrote about writing to the Asics shoe company about some shoes my son had that fell apart. Then I wrote about how they never responded (neither did the other company--Asian Food Grocer--I had a gripe with about short-dated food).

Eventually, Asics did respond. The rep invited me to return the shoes for inspection with the caveat that the company is the sole and final arbiter on the issue of whether the shoes fell apart too quickly. And no, they would not send me a pre-paid mailer. And no, they will not return the shoes (shredded as they are) if my plea is turned down.

Well, of course I am wary of spending $8-$10 to ship the shoes under such conditions. Companies set such terms so that you won't return an item.

So, in memory of my good consumer father, I'm sending the shoes back. What do you predict Asics will do?

Just in case you want to spend some money, the OTHER company that gave me bad customer service is having a good sale via a code. I am, of course, talking about Chico's. With code 4505, you get $25 off $50 and FREE SHIPPING. I don't think I'm getting anything, but they may have some of their ponte left. You can use it on sale items too, which makes for a tempting deal.

LL Bean is trumpeting its free shipping to US and Canada. I've gotten free shipping with their Visa--the visa lets you return for free.

That's it on consumer news for the day. I'm going to do a little spring closet cleaning instead.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Frugal Day Every Which Way: Library, Cabbage, Cookbook

As I think of my little adventures, I realize that frugality is woven into my life. This morning, I headed to the public library (very close) to return a few DVDs. While there I picked up a few books that were being held for me. I also perused the Cook's Illustrated that was on the shelf.

Hmmmm. II wonder if one can compute the savings from this one errand.

DVDS: save $7.50 on 3 rental fees.
Books: I requested two books on braising, and the accommodating book buyer, bought them! Let's see how much they are on Amazon: Molly Stevens: All About Braising.

I also picked up Jean Anderson's Falling Off the Bone.

As usual, I am drawn to the cheapest recipes. While I may make duck ragu one of these days, right now I am putting this cabbage recipe on the menu. Molly Stevens calls it World's Best Braised Green Cabbage.

Total time: 2 1/2 hours

1 medium head green cabbage (about 2 pounds)

1 large yellow onion, peeled and thickly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch coins

1/4 cup chicken stock or water

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a large gratin dish or baking dish (13-by-9-inch works well).

Peel off and discard any bruised or ragged outer leaves from the cabbage. Cut cabbage in half, then into 8 wedges. (Don't trim away the cabbage heart.) Arrange the wedges in the baking dish on their sides, overlapping a little but trying for a single layer. Scatter the onion and carrot over the cabbage. Drizzle with stock or water and oil. Season with salt, pepper and pepper flakes. Cover tightly with foil and transfer to the oven.

Braise for 1 hour. Uncover and gently turn the wedges with tongs, keeping them as intact as possible. Add a little water if pan is drying out. Cover pan and return to oven. Bake 1 hour.

Remove the foil, increase the heat to 400 and roast until vegetables begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Not only is braised cabbage the cheapest of the cheap, but also I still have 4 cabbages that were thrown to us during the St Patrick's Day Parade.

I guess I saved a bunch on the cookbooks. My cabbage dish will be almost free. Molly Stevens is an eater after my own heart: she suggests serving the cabbage with mashed potatoes as "an appealing vegetarian supper."

The Cook's Illustrated had this on the cover: Is a toaster oven really worth $250.00? You may remember my toaster oven dilemma, followed by a toaster oven disappointment. According to the magazine, the desired-by-many Breville toaster oven is indeed a wonder. Can't wait till the death of my Black and Decker.

My little adventures, which involved less than $1.00 in gas, should, if I put the savings in a jar, add up to that expensive toaster oven in a year or so.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Root Canal: Whatever: Frugal Ratios

For some time now, I've been dreading an inevitable event: my latest root canal. It's not the pain, since, unlike in days of yore, root canals are now relatively pain free. No, it's the money. About $1200, I think. That's without the crown. Luckily, as my dentist said, I already HAVE a crown on the tooth in question, so that's a savings (so to speak) right there.

Of course, my flex account will be out of money, because we had to contribute for 6 months only this year. I don't know if I can hold out till July 1 (when I may be in France! Maybe I should have my root canal there).

So, why does the cost of dental work make me so miserable? All my acquaintances are resigned to the inevitable. I am miserable BECAUSE I am frugal. Yes, dental work wreaks havoc on my frugal ratios.

To wit. A normal person rents a tuxedo for son's prom. Cost: around $100.00. The ratio of tux to root canal is 1:12. that seems right.

I, in contrast, got that tux at a thrift, and spent $20.00 on the whole outfit. Therefore, my tux to root canal is 1:60.

Then, I got my daughter some Citizens of Humanity jeans for $5.00. Retail is about $150.00. So, while the regular ratio is 1:8, my ratio is 1:240.

Even food gets into the act. I've been spending only about $100/month on food, since I am still trying to use up all my stockpiled foods (plus, we have garden greens). I can buy a YEAR OF FOOD for the price of the dental work.

And, saddest of all, I don't even want to think of how many hours I must work to pay for the procedure. It seems that my frugality on zillions of little things makes the cost of things that are out of my control (and for which there is no easily available frugal substitute) seem even more expensive. Oh, misery.

Do you ever figure frugal ratios? Watch out. It's addictive and--sometimes--dispiriting.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Food Inflation: Any Strategies?

Even I, the Pollyanna of inflation, see the dreaded signs. Mostly, I see that the advertised sale prices are what used to be regular prices. Now I remember, from my reading of that inspirational tome Your Money or Your Life, the idea that we need not fear inflation. The authors said we were SMARTER than inflation: if apples go up, eat oranges. Changing behavior can help to a certain extent.

I also remember that the authors said that merely being conscious about spending would save the average person 20%. Well, I already am conscious. Do you think that being even more conscious will save me an additional 20%?

Right now I am insulated from food inflation because I have amassed about 40 packs of coffee, 15 jars of peanut butter, 20 cans of tomatoes, and more. But when I run low, I will have to use my wits.

Like: drink less coffee? That's the only thing I can think of right now.

What are your strategies? I need to expand my consciousness.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Living like the Wealthy and Influential

I love to read a column in the New York Times that details the weekend activities of the wealthy and influential. To wit: Paul LeClerc, head of the New York Public Library. Yes, Mr LeClerc and his spouse (head of a foundation) have the sheen of wealth, influence, and culture, and no doubt live in an unattainable apartment in New York City; nevertheless, we can emulate their weekend activities.

Yes: he cooks from Marcella Hazan (ME TOO); he bakes (Mr. FS does that); he watches Netflix movies (WE DO THAT TOO); he moseys around a bookstore (DITTO); he reads (WEll, YEAH). Other luminaries I've read about take walks. You won't see me and Mr FS dressed up in formal wear at various functions attracting the powerful, but still . .

Yesterday, Mr. FS and I endured our 12-hour at work day. Sadly, we were away from Miss Em, who is home on break. She emailed us with an account of her day: going to a downtown coffee shop, where she got started on a paper. Then she did something M. LeClerc et femme (he has a doctorate in French lit!) probably don't do: headed to our wonderful Goodwill where she scored a blouse by Elie Tahari.

If you want to live like the influential Mr. LeClerc, you can get a Marcella Hazan book too. He recommends the pasta with cauliflower.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Personal Finance and Disaster: Opportunity and Responsibility

Having gone through a decidedly lite version of Hurricane Katrina, I can guess that the people of Japan and elsewhere can hardly think of anything resembling "normal life." You really get focused on the unbelievable prospect of "the new normal."

As I mentioned, 4 large trees though the roof and no power for a month was not that big a deal in the grand scheme. The Red Cross showed up with food and ice after a few days and we had running water. I hardly thought about the 'outside world"except when I had to teach after a week and got to see the news reports of what was going on in New Orleans. Now, I can hardly process what is going on in other parts of the world.

And yet. I received an email from someone that said--"Hey, with the stock market plummeting, would it be a good idea to invest right now?"

Probably it would be a great idea, financially. Don't people always say to invest when it seems everything is falling apart? Yet a part of me still thinks that it dishonors the victims to think of such things. Is that ridiculous? Probably the victims look forward to a time once again (should it ever come) when one can ponder the trivial and not-so-trivial concerns of everyday life.

So, am I crazy? Does it dishonor those who suffer to think about one's investments?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Worried About Rising Food Costs: Go to a Parade and Make Colcannon

Miss Em came home yesterday and the first thing she said was "I want to go to the St Patrick's Day Parade." Mardi Gras may be over, but we have another parade.

And guess what? You don't get beads and (if you're lucky) plastic spears, footballs, and underwear, you get cabbage! potatoes! carrots!

Luckily, Miss Em is not only tall, but has red hair, courtesy of Revlon. The marchers always ask her if she's Irish. Of course she says yes. I anticipate enough for colcannon, favorite dish. It's cheap, even if you have to buy the ingredients.


* 1 pound cabbage
* 1 pound potatoes
* 2 leeks
* 1 cup milk
* salt and pepper to taste
* 1 pinch ground mace
* 1/2 cup butter


1. In a large saucepan, boil cabbage until tender; remove and chop or blend well. Set aside and keep warm. Boil potatoes until tender. Remove from heat and drain.
2. Chop leeks, green parts as well as white, and simmer them in just enough milk to cover, until they are soft.
3. Season and mash potatoes well. Stir in cooked leeks and milk. Blend in the kale or cabbage and heat until the whole is a pale green fluff. Make a well in the center and pour in the melted butter. Mix well.

As it happens, the parade route is near Buffalo Exchange. So Miss Em and I will wander in with a bag or two and try our luck. I figure getting a cabbage is luck enough; anything more is lagniappe.

Erin go bragh!

Do you have a favorite cabbage dish?

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Do You Think of Defaulting to Reduce Debt encouraging headline from the Wall Street Journal: Debt Levels Lowest in Years! Then I read the accompanying article, whose first sentence attributes the happy news to a combination of defaulting on debt and saving more. Strange bedfellows? Or am I missing something?

Here's the vignette that most caught my eye:

Morari Shah, a 59-year-old Miami entrepreneur and real-estate investor, is among those taking a radical approach to reducing debts.

Since late 2008, he and his wife have slashed their total debt from nearly $1 million to zero by walking away from the mortgages on four rental properties and paying off two others, all of which lost about half their value in the housing bust. He's no longer taking up to $4,000 from his monthly income to pay mortgage interest that the rental income didn't cover.

Instead, he and his wife are fulfilling their goal of building a new $350,000, four-bedroom home in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, where they plan to retire. "It's a big relief," said Mr. Shah. "We went through some rough times, but now I'm comfortable and don't have to worry about my retirement."

What a role model! I still worry about my retirement, so I seem to be doing something wrong.

Am I being too puritanical in my response?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Flexible Spending Accounts: Better to Overfund than to Underfund?

Oh the whining over FSAs! A Wall Street Journal writer bemoans the ineligibility of over-the-counter meds under the new law and so has decided not to do the FSA. The writer--along with many in the comments section--is also bemoaning the fact that her family overfunded the account. Well! I guess the writer has good benefits. Here in the land of FAMILY of FOUR with NO DENTAL INSURANCE I am happy to have the FSA account available. And while I liked being able to use the FSA for aspirin and cough medicine, I am OK with those very inexpensive items being on the prohibited list.

But what of the overfunding fear? Many of my colleagues--like the commenters in WSJ--don't participate because of that fear.

As you may know, I am an English major. So please point out if my math is flawed. I believe that it is better to overfund than to underfund the account--to a certain point of course.

Here's the math. Because FSAs are tax-free money, the more you make, the more you save. Those in the 28% bracket save more than those in the 15% bracket. These funds are free of state taxes too.

Let's say, you fund for $1000 in expenses. Let's say you are in the pretty low 20% bracket for federal and state taxes.

--If you hit it on the nose, you "really" only paid $800 for the services, since you only net 80% of your incomes.

--If your expenses are $1200, the first $1000 cost you $800 as above. The other $200 (after tax) costs $250 (before tax).

--If your expenses are only $800, then you have in effect broken even. Get another pair of glasses to make up the difference.

--Here's another way to look at it. I have a feeling my math is flawed. The $1000 in FSA costs you $800 (what you would have gotten after after taxes). Using regular, taxed income for the same expenses costs you $1250. So the spread is bigger than one might think. And the spread is magnified if you pay more than 20% in federal and state taxes.

It is easy to anticipate certain expenses: glasses, orthodontia, and the like. The zingers are the sudden pains that signal the incipient root canal. Sadly, we have never overfunded! That is an indicator of our poor benefits.

OK. Can you FIX MY MATH, readers? Please. I keep thinking there is a mistake here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

College Debt Once More: Worth It?

I haven't written on this topic for a while. Then I got a comment on an oldish post. Rather than answer there, where it will languish in obscurity, I thought I would appeal to my readers for some more responses. From Alyssa:

Though the debt is daunting, as a senior in high school hoping to major in Anthro and Archaeo with an acceptance into Oxford (which will only give me a scholarship if I'm from a third world country) tucked under my belt, it seems worth it. However, struck by the thought of so much debt (with the current $ to pound exchange rate the tuition + room + board + extra expenses is about $43,000 (25000 pounds)) my parents forced me to apply to UIC. UIC does NOT have an archaeology program, only an anthropology one. Trying to explain to my parents (who did not go to college during the worst bubble for higher education in history) that debt may be my only viable option for succeeding in my major (compare UIC's lack of an Archaeo program to Oxford tons of onsite excavations and 6 world renowned museums) is near impossible.

For the average student, debt is horrendous. Humanities and Social Science majors on average do not make enough to cover for such costs, but ironically, theirs are the majors that are dependent on the school's resources the most. So when is it worth it? Pay the extra when you have a degree that pays off, but when you didn't really need to pay the extra? Working part time to pay off $130,000 (3 years at Oxford) doesn't frighten me as much as going to a school with a 54% graduation rate just to commit an act of "financial responsibility" does. Though the maxim "a good student does well anywhere" may be true, anyone who has seen a public high school juxtaposed against a magnet high school can attest that such "good students" are still limited by the opportunities within their environment, no matter how gifted they are.

Some of my thoughts.

--Many students don't end up doing anything directly related to their majors. Archeologists: jobs in academics, museums, what else? How do you KNOW this is what you want to do?
--Why UIC? Is that University of Illinois at Chicago? A while back, Stanley Fish was Dean there and did some pretty fancy hiring. In fact, I read that the quality of faculty far exceeded the quality of students! So it may not be such a bad option. I'm sure many students go to grad school in archeology with anthropology degrees.

--What about University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana? That's the flagship?

--Here is my favorite. As a frugal gal, I try to think of OTHER WAYS TO GET WHAT I WANT. So, why not go to a state school and DO AN EXCHANGE PROGRAM AT OXFORD or similar? It should be better known, but, in exchange programs, you often PAY THE FEES OF YOUR HOME INSTITUTION. My son spent a year in France. The Americans from private schools paid $30,000-$50,000; the Americans from state schools paid their in-state fees. FOR THE SAME PROGRAM. In fact, I would check on the exchanges available from state schools before making a decision.

--Summers. With the money you save by going to a state school, you can do summer archeology programs. My cousin leads such programs in Israel and Turkey from his state school in NJ. You could go to Greece too!

Any other thoughts, Dear Readers?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Warehouse Store vs Amazon vs FS

The New York Times has once again done us all a service: it ran an article comparing prices for non-food staples at Costco and Amazon along with some rumination on the value of your time, since Amazon delivers. The winner was Costco, but with time factored in, the writer opines that Amazon, via Subscribe and Save, may be the winner.

This is pretty useful, I guess. I've been using the Amazon more and more this year for food items. I've bought oatmeal for Miss Em.

Just the other day, I got quinoa for a little over $2.00/lb (that deal is expired, sadly) and I've sent Miss Em tea and other things.

But what of the items the NYT writer bought? Here's a partial list: My Costco list included the following: Huggies diapers, Tide powder, Bounty paper towels, Swiffer refills, Clorox wipes, Ziploc sandwich bags and enough Duracell batteries to power multiple electronic devices for many months.

There was also Dove soap, Lubriderm lotion, Tampax, Mach 3 Turbo razor blades and enough house brand ibuprofen to kill off hundreds of headaches, among other things.

Hmmmm. Well, I was a militant cloth diaper user, so I never was a regular buyer of the evil disposables. But I don't use more than a roll of paper towels/year (I use washable microfiber and terry). Ditto for Clorox wipes. As for the Tide, we all know, from my previous blog post and Funny About Money's comment on it, that we only need to use a tiny, tiny amount of detergent anyway, maybe 1/8 of the recommended amount.

As for the other stuff, I realize I mostly get the items from Walgreens or CVS, when they have a killer sale. Often, the stuff is free. It takes me about 5 minutes to peruse the weekly ads. The stores are within a miles of my house. I have so much stuff that I never NEED much of anything. In fact, I have 10 (free) toothpastes; about that much (free body wash), lots of (free) pain reliever, and so on. I got about a 6 month supply of toilet paper too. Lots of almost-free razors. And I don't even use coupons. The writer spends about $200plus on these items PER QUARTER. UGH. (Actually, I don't think that number reflects the cost of those evil diapers.)

So, my advice is to check out your drugstore, if one is nearby. And don't use so much environment-killing stuff, if you can help it.

So, yeah, I love the Amazon program, but mostly for food. And I wish I had a Costco, though mostly for cheese. As always, check your prices. And, as the article says, factor in your time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Big Lots Coupon! Parades! Smiley Faces!

It's hard to post when you have more than 200 THINGS to grade, check in, or read. It's hard to write comments to nice blog readers when you have zillions of comments to write to students. Luckily, I found my "Great Work" Smiley Face stamp that went missing. It is a great hit with students. Do you think it's weird that a college teacher resorts to such rewards for students? At my previous places of employ, such rewards would have been seen as diminishing the gravitas fitting to my profession. Whatever.

Anyway, I am mired in all the stuff mentioned above. I am also off for 11 days because of the convergence of my schedule and the Mardi Gras break. Lots of time to do work and to hit at least one New Orleans parade: my favorite, Proteus. Look at the beautiful floats.

Even though you can't come to a parade with me, we can meet in a virtual way at Big Lots, which has a 20% off coupon for Sunday. Here's a coupon for you.