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Monday, April 30, 2012

Learning from Students: Pay Cash for Your House

Even though I am about to have a meltdown from overwork, late papers, and crazy students, I love to teach. And sometimes I even learn stuff from THEM. Today, I inquired of my class about how much I should spend on a wedding gift for a young fellow I've known for...his whole life. Then I asked my sweet student who is about to marry her junior high school boyfriend what her plans were. She said: We're going to live in a trailer.WHAT???? For five years only.WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY???? So we can buy a house for cash after five years. I don't like debt. This girl has a 4.0 in her academic work. Also a 4.0 in frugality. Wow.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Good Idea from An Everlasting Meal: Precook Your Vegetables

I first read about this book in the Wall Street Journal. It was mentioned in a piece on leftovers, one of my favorite topics (no kidding). I put in a request at the public library, and--lo and behold--the nice bookbuyer ordered it. As it happens, there is only one idea in the book I really like: precook your vegetables for the week. I have been doing this for a while--caramelizing and freezing slow-cooker onions, roasting vegetables, making large vats of ratatouille--but I had never elevated it to a philosophy. What Adler points out is, that if you have a bunch of precooked vegetables, you can make dinner in a trice, since the vegetables are the hardest part, taking prep, chopping, etc. Her faves seem to be greens and roasted vegetables like cauliflower. You can make sandwiches with precooked veggies, throw cooked greens into a stir fry, and so on. She is especially fond of the sandwich idea, starting with toasted, garlic-rubbed bread Italian-style. WARNING: This isn't really a recipe book, but an idea book. There are SOME recipes. Adler takes as her model How to Cook a Wolf, by the great MFK Fisher. Maybe I've been reading too many student papers (make that definitely), but I have to say that Adler's prose doesn't do it for me. Her foreword is written by Alice Waters, famous foodie, and Alice presents these three sentences as examples of Adler's fine writing. Sentence 1 on eggs: Eggs should be laid by chickens that have as much of a say in it as any of us about our egg laying does. (REALLY? I don't have a say in whether I lay eggs or not.) Sentence 2 on leftovers: When we leave our tails trailing behind us we lose what if left of the thoughts we put into eating well today. Then we slither along, straight, linear things that we can be, wondering what we will make for dinner tomorrow. Sentence 3 on salting: The noodle or tender spring pea would be narcissistic to imagine it already contained within its cell walls all the perfection it would ever need. We seem, too, to fear that we are failures at being tender and springy if we need to be seasoned. It's not so: it doesn't reflect badly on pea or person that either needs help to be most itself. So, if you like the prose, read the book. In any case, PRECOOK YOUR VEGETABLES. THEN EAT THEM. (Sorry--still can't paragraph with the new template)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Words of Wisdom and Warning: Decluttering

As a messy clutterbug AND a teacher, I have a double whammy: teachers often let personal tasks pile up and get to them only after the semester is done. So, stuff and jobs have been piling up. Adding to the emergency is that Miss Em will be bringing home two people: her friend Mr C AND his twin brother, also Mr C. So, we have been cleaning. And, of course, as all teachers know, cleaning is a great way to avoid the real task: grading student work. For emergency assistance, I went to the library (note: LIBRARY, friend of frugal and messy) and checked out two books by my favorite clutter guru, Susan Pinsky. Here is the warning and, for me, motivation. According to Susan P, most of the clients who hire her for a hefty hourly fee do so for one task: to go through their STUFF and motivate them to get rid of it. She does not spend most of her time creating clever organizing systems. No: she holds up item after item and says Go or Stay? Susan P is not a big fan of frugality because she says it leads to clutter (and I gotta admit, she has a point). But I am WAY TOO CHEAP to pay someone to stand next to me and say Go or stay. So I'll do it myself. Here's the drill. Read a few pages of Pinsky. Put some stuff in the donation bag. Grade a few papers. REPEAT. How's your decluttering going? Or are you a paragon of no-clutter? If so, wish me luck.

Friday, April 27, 2012


A short post because I cannot for the life of me figure out how to PARAGRAPH with the new template that has been inflicted upon me. Yesterday, while noodling around the internet, I came upon a post that asserted that the Rachel Pally caftan was the BEST DRESS EVER. IN SOLID COLORS, of course. Oh my, thought I. I HAVE that very dress and never wore it. Dragging myself from some of the 300plus pieces of work I must process before my semester ends, I found the dress (black, so almost invisible) on the VERY LAST HANGER in my tiny closet. The dress really lacks hanger appeal. It languished for months at the Food Bank Thrift shop; I eventually tried it on during a half-price sale. It was $4. It does look quite snazzy! But I am wondering, apropos my title, if I sometimes don't properly VALUE things because I get them so cheaply. So, yes, it was a good VALUE, but really not, since I haven't worn it. Perhaps the full price model would be a better VALUE because I would VALUE it more. Has anything like this happened to you? P.S. I've discovered that adding the pics breaks up the text and thereby serves as a PARAGRAPHER.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can You Bargain on Furniture?

In spite of my frugal ways, I am not good at bargaining. I guess I have a fear of rejection! I've heard here and there that it is possible to bargain in furniture stores. As an early-bird planner, I am already thinking about the couch I will buy in a year or two. So far, I like one at Crate and Barrel. When we were in Boston, we walked right by a CandB. We went in and tried the sofa. We liked it. The nice sales guy (Kenny) said that, instead of buying on-line, I should give him a call. The shipping is shockingly expensive, so I'm hoping for a deal of some sort. So the question is: can you bargain at a store like Crate and Barrel? Yay or Nay?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Excavations at the Thrift Store: Inside the Suitcase

It is probably no surprise that I find consumption habits fascinating. Perhaps this is because my father was in market research. Perhaps this is because one of the few books in my house when I was growing up (I was the only reader in the family) was a cheap paperback of The Status Seekers, a huge best seller in the 50s. I suppose I am a bit of a statys seeker myself, as I seek nice things at thrift shops! Anyway, I made a hefty donation today and, of course, had to take a peek inside the store. I thought the thrift store gods had rewarded me for the donation by giving me a somewhat beat up Mulberry bag. Alas, I'm pretty sure it is fake, but still nice for $3.00. I also bought a big suitcase by Hartman. Why, I do not know. Inside, I found the real treasures: the detritus of the suitcase donor. And perhaps I found the answer to the mystery: why would someone donate an almost new suitcase to Goodwill? Inside one of the pockets, I discovered the tag and spare button for a pair of Bussy pants by Chameau. And a Wesport chemise by the same maker. Then there is the fancy tag for a tie by Beretta. And a tag for something by Barbour--maybe a jacket? So...who is this outdoorsy, probably wealthy person, who brought back all these items from the eurozone? Checking a big bag like the Hartman costs a pretty penny also. Did this person buy all the stuff in Europe and then need to buy a big bag to bring it home? Did he then donate the bag because he already had too many suitcases? What do you think? Do you like thrift store mysteries and excavations?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eileen Fisher Washable Crepe Pants at an Almost Frugal Price

I know, I know, mindless consumption. Actually, I am on a quest to help Miss Em, beloved daughter, find an EF coat she craves. So, I was looking at Nordies on-line Rack section. A very limited selection, and I fear Miss Em may have to wait for the expensive coat, perhaps forever. While I was looking at the tiny selection, I noticed some of my fave pants at 60% off. Less than I paid for them a few years ago, gritting my frugal teeth and girding my frugal loins. The EF washable crepe is fantastic: elegant and easy care. There are two choices in limited sizes. Here and Here Remember, free shipping and returns with Nordies!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rescue Missions: Frugal or Insane?

Everyone I know seems to have a rescue dog. My sister-in-law cares for (rescue) feral cats. These are worthy endeavors.

I have rescue stuff. Thrift store shopping is by definition a rescue mission. I am drawn to the imperfect rejects: the cashmere sweater with a tiny hole, the cookbook with stained pages. How could someone cast off something with such a minor defect? I suppose I am thinking of my own defects and imperfections: minor and not so minor.

A recent rescue: At the New Orleans Airport, we were sitting neat a few business travelers, all male, with that aura of success. The one with the most obvious aura got up, said loudly "After 25 years, it's time to say good-bye." Walked over to the trash and dramatically threw out a small travel bag. It looked nice to me.

I figured his performance was public, so I said Why are you throwing it out? He said The bottom split. Do you want it?

I said I have a tendency to rescue things, so OK. He went back to the trash, fished it out, and presented it to me.

It was a Ghurka bag, a bit stained, but still nice. Kinda like this, only without the outside pocket. I told him we would try to fix it. He seemed happy. He told me he had carried the bag on trips for 25 years, many to Europe.

As the concept person (see my post on harder-than-they-look window treatments!), I rely on people with know-how to get things done. Enter Mr FS. He glued the bag from the inside. He used PL Loctite Sealant.

Honestly, the bag is so neat that I would duct tape it from the outside if necessary.

Are rescues an inherently virtuous activity? I don't know. They can lead to clutter. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Garnet Hill: Free International Shipping till July 2

Wowzer. International Peeps: Free shipping at Garnet Hill for $100plus orders through July 2.

Garnet Hill has a lovely aesthetic and--though I am loath to encourage mindless consumption--if you NEED something (Eileen Fisher? nice bedding?), this is a good time!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Frugal Tip for Travelers: Oatmeal!

Mr FS and I went to a conference in the great city of Boston. Our conference--scruffy academic types--coincided with some others: Jesuits (definitely not scruffy and boy did they have opulent food buffets!) and marathoners (boy did they look great!). Also, medical equipment (boy did they look rich!) and endodontists (had trouble telling who the endos were). I love analyzing the aura of the different groups. And I must say that the Jesuits looked the best in their uniform, outshining the lady in the lobby with the giant gray Birkin bag.

Mr FS and I were--as always--seeking to stretch our money in our frugal way. We don't get a food per diem in these hard economic times. I had an idea! INSTANT OATMEAL PACKETS.

These are pretty cheap, especially when they go on sale. I have a lot because 1. I thought Miss Em might want some (she doesn't) and 2. I got a bunch of freebies when both kids brought home boxes abandoned by their dorm mates.

We stayed at the pricy Marriott (conference rate!), which, like most fancy-ish hotels, lacks a microwave. Nevertheless, we could make our oatmeal when we heated water for tea. We used the little half and half in the coffee service for milk. Even without the coffee maker/water heater, you could do this with hot tap water.

The Starbucks in the lobby sold oatmeal for $2.55. Room service (yeah, right!) had it for $9.00.
The real luxury was not having to venture out for breakfast. We haven't yet decided what to use our savings for.

Do you have any frugal and easy travel tips?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Frugal Valances: And A How Much Fabric Query

Even though I am a Plain Jane as far as window treatments go, I have for a while had a hankering for fabric covered valances. My mother has some, designed by the decor-guru Susan Heller, who suggested paint colors for me. They were SOOOOOOO expensive.

The hankering has returned. This is because I have some transoms in my living room that hit 10 feet. My three beautiful windows are nine feet. After I got some cheap but chic burlap curtains for the windows, I realized that I should have gone up to 10 feet to make an even line all around.

I explored curtain-lengthening options. ERGH. And, of course, I am a non-sewer. So my thoughts returned to valances that I could put over the top of the nine foot windows making a faux ten foot window!

Those valance boards are pricy, running around $150 EACH at Joann Fabrics.

Then I found this: DIY.
That's for a valance--or cornice--or pelmet--made of wood. There's also a genius DIY-er who has made some out of insulation board!

Mr. FS is--as always--eager to take on this project for me. How I dote on the fellow! He will make the boards. Miss Em--the only family member with fine motor skills and general handy-girl confidence--will help me figure out how to wrap with fabric. (SHHHHH. I haven't revealed this to her yet.)

Question to sewers of handy-people: how much fabric for a 12-16 inch valance with side pieces of about 5 inches? Joann Fabric says I need 3 yard each, but that seems like a lot.

Anyone know?

And how 'bout those DIYers?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First Quarter 2012

After a rather lengthy hiatus--since 2008, I've thrown my financial statements into a box and said OMMMMMMMM--I just opened up a few. Well! My very conservative retirement account went up 6% in the first quarter. My go-go smaller retirement accounts went up as much as 18%--in just one quarter. Sounds great.

I notice, though, that the go-go account is about where it was in 2000, the time of the tech bubble bursting. So I have not achieved anywhere near the 26% annual returns (that would double your money every three years) that the Romney boys have made in their gift accounts over the last 15 years.

So I guess I have to keep saying OMMMMMMM, thank heavens Mr FS and I are still working, give a big thank you to Frugal Son and Miss Em for choosing state universities that wanted them badly enough to take them for free and throw in room and board, and a bigger thank you to my frugal forebears for instilling me with a frugal ethos.

I don't think I will ever recover from 2008!

Have you recovered? Do you open your statements?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Potato Love

I just made a confession to Mr FS. I was cooking dinner: that wonderful vegetable hash you can find in Deborah Madison's The Savory Way. It consists of potatoes, greens, and tomatoes. My version also included a few slices of rendered bacon. This is a clean out the fridge recipe: I used up the remains of a bag of potatoes, 1/2 large can of Big Lots-sourced Muir Glen tomatoes, and greens from the garden. The bacon was brought home by Frugal Son, who rescued it from being thrown out by a friend who was moving.

I was cooking; Mr FS was gardening. When the concoction was done, I tasted it. Within a few minutes, I had eaten half. You cannot leave me alone in a room with a potato dish.

I confessed. Mr FS pointed out that a spouse who couldn't control herself around potatoes was a pretty inexpensive spouse to have around.

Luckily, there is enough for Mr FS and I am too full to eat his share. I have been known to do that.

What's your can't control yourself dish?

1 pound mixed greens -- approximately
2 medium-sized potatoes -- scrubbed,
quartered and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chilies -- (1 to 2)
seeds removed and torn into pieces
OR 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 medium sized fresh or canned tomatoes -- chopped
2 garlic cloves -- minced
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated or sliced hard cheese such
as Parmesan or Asiago or Romano
extra virgin olive oil -- to finish the dish

Madison provides very detailed instructions, which I don't follow. I chop the potatoes and boil them for a while. I add the washed and chopped greens to the pot with the potatoes. I try to use very little water.

When they seem about done, I dump them into a pan in which I have sauteed either garlic and red pepper flakes OR bacon and the preceding. Mash them up and add some canned tomatoes.

I see that as usual I forgot to sprinkle with olive oil or add cheese. Oh well. Too late.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Frugal Kitchen Tool: Kitchen Shears

Yes, I own a Cuisinart Food Processor (actually, a Robot-Coupe, which is the precursor). No, I do NOT use it very much.

I am here to sing the praises of kitchen shears, a tool underutilized in these United States. These first came on my radar a few years ago. Frugal Son had come back from a summer in South Korea, where he stayed with the relatives of friends. He told me to get some shears. He said everyone used them for cutting scallions and bacon. You can cut right into the pot!

Eventually, I bought some at Goodwill for $1 (I later discovered you could buy the same exact ones "at retail" for $2). I kept forgetting to use them. Finally, I cut some scallions. Great!

Today, I put them to the ultimate test. I cut some bacon into a pan. Greater! No icky fatty cutting board to wash.

I told Frugal Son that I had really junky shears and should probably get some more befitting my status as serious (sometimes) cook. He pointed out that the many shears he saw in use in Korea were probably of the same quality as the ones I had.

Do you use kitchen shears? Am I the last person to get with the kitchen shears program?

Should I get some snazzier ones? Like these red ones?

Friday, April 6, 2012

The NEW GIMMICKY Credit Union??

Many of the finance stories of the past few years present BIG BAD BANKS vs LITTLE VIRTUOUS CREDIT UNIONS. One area credit union even runs an ad saying, "People not profits." Yeah, I'm a fan.

But a recent experience makes me wonder if the credit unions are going the way of the big bad banks with confusing products, over-complexity, and incompetent reps.

Both my kids have checking/savings accounts at a credit union. I opened these to accommodate the dribs and drabs of money they occasionally received as gifts. I also appreciated the FREE CHECKING. So this is what they have.

Here is the latest missive. LACAP will no longer offer the FREE CHECKING. As of May 1, you will be automatically transferred to an XXX account. Checking will remain free if you have 10 NON-ATM Debit transactions per month or Direct Deposit. If you don't use your debit card enough, you will be charged $8.00/month.

Well, guess what? Frugal Son can't have his French salary direct-deposited! He needs the debit card for occasional cash withdrawals.

Miss Em doesn't have an income to be direct deposited. And she doesn't need the hassle of keeping count of her debit transactions.

So I called. The first rep suggested that I set up a Direct Deposit from MY checking account for them--say $5/month. Good idea! Of course, when I called back the next day, the new rep said that would not be permitted.

She referred me to their range of checking accounts. All were of the DO THIS AND YOU GET THIS, but if YOU DON'T DO THIS, YOU GET THIS (GREATER) PENALTY.

My head started spinning. This is a sign of over-complexity and deliberate efforts to confuse.

My favorite is their IRA. WITH A 7% RATE. The small print says the 7% rate is good till the end of 2012--so for 8 months. After that--still tiny print--it reverts to the regular rate of .5%. That's POINT 5, not 5.

P.S. Don't tell me I'm being a helicopter! Frugal Son is in France and can't deal with this. Miss Em is in Alabama and working hard. I'm hoping they will return the favor* when I'm too old to manage.

*Example of returning the favor: Frugal Son will be meeting his Grandma in the Vienna airport in a few days. They will be visiting the city of her birth. He has planned the whole trip, made all the reservations, and will be taking her around with his German friend Floh.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

DESENCOMBRER: French Lessons and Memories

That's the word for declutter in French. Accent on first e. Sorry beloved French teachers of my past.

I wrote a post a few days ago on decluttering my inbox. Unsubscribing. Much to my dismay, I discovered I had written almost exactly the same post in 2009. Of course, I had no recollection. Obviously, the lesson did not stick, since my inbox has been gradually filling up again. UGH. Will I ever get this stuff under control?

French Lessons. In spite of the lack of graphics, I have been having a lot of fun with the FREEEE Foreign Service language lessons. I open two windows and have the text in one and the audio in the other. I actually have a good foundation in French and it's IN THERE SOMEWHERE. I don't know how the program would work for someone who is starting from scratch.

The best thing about it: it is fun when I am too tired even to read. I have been sick for over a week now and I am sooooo tired. And my accent--which I used to get so many compliments on--is so bad.

I'm hoping that I will be able to speak a bit more on my next trip to France. I only came up with one good sentence last summer. Apropos my organized daughter, I said Elle fait ce qu'on doit faire. (She does what she has to do/what needs to be done). My own jaw dropped when I said that.

Later, I realized why that excellent and idiomatic sentence emerged from the depths. In college, I took a very difficult course: French Romantic and Symbolist Poetry. With my favorite teacher (who no doubt has no recollection of me, his admiring student) M. Samuel Danon. Oh, the material was so hard.

In the little Apollinaire book we had for the class, I found a simple poem.

Avec ses quatre dromadaires
Don Pedro d'Alfaroubeira
courut le monde et l'admira
il fit ce que je voudrais faire
si j'avais quatre dromadaires

Guillaume Apollinaire

For some reason, I memorized it. If you take a look, you will see the template for my one good sentence of Summer 2011.

One thing about trying to resurrect my French: it's a no-clutter activity!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learning Language with the Foreign Service: FREEEEEEEEEEEEE

My colleague Merton--a linguist and all-around frugal guy--told me a while ago that Rosetta Stone--the ubiquitous language learning program--is based on material in the public domain: the language learning programs developed by the Foreign Service. Merton even dug out his old copy (looked like the dittos of days of yore) that he got in his Peace Corps days in the 1960s.

I've been sitting on this for a while. I really should practice my French. It is lurking just below the surface of consciousness. Mr FS listens to French radio, but his French is a lot better than mine, having lived in France for several years in youth and young adulthood.

I found the site that has the Foreign Service lessons. It looks like an on-line ditto! You can look at the book and listen to the lessons.

Does anyone know how this compare to Rosetta Stone? I've never looked at their materials.

The left-hand column gives you quite the assortment of languages from which to choose. In the meantime: Asseyez-vous!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Decluttering Your Inbox and Minimizing Shopping

Ah, the olden days: when you went shopping (with your mother or your girlfriends) a few time a year. The rich girls went at the beginning of the season. Most of us went at or near the end, so we could get things on sale. For blackbelt shoppers like my parents, there were also perhaps two trips a year to Orchard Street in New York City, noted for its discounts. The tiny shops had mean owners, who would badmouth the customers in Yiddish (my mother--a German speaker in childhood--could translate the insults.) We were once kicked out of a shop for not buying anything quickly enough! The abuse was part of the experience. And, of course, we would get a sandwich after the ordeal at the famous Katz's deli. which had--and still has as it happens--salamis hanging from the ceiling emblazoned with streamers:"Send a salami to your boy in the army."

In the old days, shopping was contained! Then came catalogs, some of which presented pastoral worlds where everything matched or everything was eccentric. At least you could throw them out after mooning through them.

But now! I hardly need to tell you that in internet has broken all boundaries. So even if you never set foot in a physical store, you can shop all the time. And--if you ever recklessly sign up for email so you can get free shipping or a discount--well, your inbox will be full of offers.

I recently realized that I seldom set foot in a store these days, with the exception of thrift shops. But I--perhaps from those Orchard Street days--am hardwired to check out the bargains. So I have removed myself from almost all email lists: good-bye J Jill, Gumps, Banana Republic, Pier 1, and the rest.

The only ones that remain are LL Bean and Garnet Hill. I shop at those stores now and then because of their unconditional guarantee.

This boundary-violating is a real problem. I find myself answering desperate emails from students on weekends. This weekend, for instance, one student asked me when the paper was due. UHHHH, look at the syllabus, which is on-line. I don't mind responding to student requests on weekends (although I often refer them to the syllabus!), because then I don't face a crew of students on Monday having major meltdowns.

But honestly, I already have too much stuff. And, as we learned in the olden days on Orchard Street, even if you miss a bargain--or even if you get kicked out of the store--there's always one next time!

Have you decluttered your inbox? What's left?