November 2011 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

November 2011 - Posts

  • A Tale of Five Vehicles: Part 1, The Volkswagen Beetle

    Until she was 32, my sister only owned one car, the 1992 Honda Civic Hatchback she received brand new as a 16 year old and she then drove until the wheels just about fell off.

    During those same 16 years (and I was only driving during 13 of those years), I owned five (yes five) vehicles.

    I had no intention of being a car polygamist.  But each of my vehicles had something special to offer me.  I didn't want to cheat on my vehicular loves, but sometimes it just happened.  Like when one of them got smashed to a pulp (more on that with Part 3, The Civic).  So, despite being mechanically dis-inclined and frugal by nature, I have been in the position to buy, haggle over, repair, kick in frustration, and say goodbye to five different cars.  This is their story:

    1.  The Volkswagen Beetle

    It all started with this little beauty.  I've been a fan of the old style Volkswagens since before Bumblebee transformed into a robot.  (I'm sorry, but Bumblebee simply is not a yellow Camaro.  Who heard of a bad-ass car like a Camaro being called Bumblebee?  That's a name for a car that's also known for emitting an alarming number of clowns).

    When I was 12 or 13, I started saving for a Volkswagen of my very own.  (Apparently, I was somewhat insufferable. A common conversation would go thusly: "Let's go to the movies," I'd say.  "That sounds fun," my unsuspecting parent or sibling would respond.  "But you have to pay," I'd add.  "I'm saving for a car.")  By the time I was 16, I had saved just over $3000, which was enough to purchase my first car, which I named Fenchurch Audrey Volkswagen.  (See?  Insufferable.)

    My parents were thrilled that I was so interested in this car.  They thought it would help me to become more mechanical.  And truly, the car's engine couldn't be simpler.  Once, when a belt came off of a something-or-other on my way to school, making my approach to Owings Mills High even louder than my usual "wake-the-dead" put-put-putting, I was able to stick that bad boy back on without even mussing my clothes.  But the problem with the plan of me becoming more mechanical was my complete and utter lack of interest.

    Herein lies the difference between my husband and me.  His first car was also a Volkswagen Beetle.  He bought it for a lot cheaper than I purchased mine because his was completely beat up, and he proceeded to spend several weekends putting the thing back into working order so that he would have wheels for his date to Homecoming with a young lady.  (The young lady in question was rather less than impressed with their chariot for the evening, whereas I would have been thrilled beyond belief.  The Virginia Vehicle Emissions Inspection folks were also less than impressed with his work, but that's a side matter.)

    I owned my dear VW for just about a year, driving the tiny tin can through snow and ice of at least 0.025 inches (anything more than that grounded her for a few days), using a window scraper on the interior of the windshield on cold days (since the heat/windshield defogger was less than ideal), running completely out of gas on at least one occasion (since it was pre-cell phones, I had to go to the nearest house to call for help), earning extra credit on a Physics exam (Mr. Mose was so impressed with my vehicular choice which he had just seen that same day that I got an A- when by my calculations I had only earned a B+), and getting smiles and waves from all around when I drove my little ray of sunshine down the road (elementary school children on busses particularly love us).

    Unfortunately, those were just the good times.  Baby (as I called her, since who on Earth would call a car Fenchurch?) had mechanical problems on top of mechanical problems.  The alternator went out.  The transmission was wiggy, so I couldn't always trust that any particular gear (and there were only 4) would work.  Brakes and tires and other necessary aspects of the car left something to be desired.  Despite the parental hope that I would learn to become a grease monkey in order to take care of this car, I ended up putting it in the shop over and over, using up whatever other money I had for car care.

    Just before I started my senior year in high school, I called uncle on Baby.  I simply couldn't afford to keep the car that I loved on the road, and I didn't have the inclination to learn how to do it on my own.  So the dear VW was garaged (in the same way that older dogs are sent to live on a farm) and I had to move onto my next vehicle.  A little part of me died.  There's just nothing like your first love.  I still have a little sadness in my heart that I wasn't able to be mechanic enough for her, despite the fact that there was nothing remotely practical about driving a 1972 Super Beetle in 1995.

    With my next car, I started my love affair with reliability.  No, my next ride wasn't as flashy or sexy as a broken down Volkswagen Beetle painted bright yellow, but it certainly did offer the long term security and warmth that every 17-year-old driver is looking for.

    Tomorrow, I will tell the story of my first reliable car: a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier.  (And no, I'm not joking).

  • And I'm Supposed To Be Good With Money

    Much to my own surprise, I seem to have been making something of a living for the past year based on my general thriftiness/ability to handle money well.  To the point where I was actually invited to attend the 2011 Financial Bloggers conference in Chicago as a freelance writer specializing in the area of Personal Finance. And truly, I do have some definite skillz in the area of money. I can obsess over bank balances.  I can balance a checkbook while simultaneously consuming wine.  I can make a mean "debt payoff thermometer " on a dry erase board.  And I even spent 20 minutes wandering the aisles of the Hershey chocolate store in downtown Chicago this past Saturday without spending a single cent despite being both ravenous at the time and a chocolate fiend at all times.

    However, despite all of these excellent credentials, I have just recently discovered that I can be a complete money dunce.

    Let me back up and explain a few things to you about my psychological makeup.  (Don't worry, no one has to be lying on a couch).

    I do not like debt.  I like to know that whatever money I have coming in will be for me to use, rather feeling as though my bank account is merely a conduit to MasterCard or the agency holding my student loan. I am not so anti-debt that I wasn't willing to go to graduate school entirely on student loans back in 2005 which thereby doubled my student loan debt from $16,000 (or thereabouts) to $33,000 (or thereabouts), but I really do try to avoid spending money I don't have on things I want now.

    But I am anti-debt enough that I know I make irrational decisions about my money.  For example, if I were to get my student loan down to $4,750 someday and I had a grand total of $5,000 to my bank accounts, I would probably pay off the loan and be thrilled to know my remaining $250 was mine alone, ignoring the fact that it would not comfortably pay for anything I need in a month.  See, not rational.

    But I know that I'm irrational, so I figured it was all good.  Knowing one is irrational allows for much better rationalizations.  Like the following rationalization I've been making for quite some time:

    As of this past spring, I had about $16,500 left on my student loan.  The minimum payment for my student loan is $358 per month.  From the beginning, I've been sending $400 per month to that bad boy, figuring it would be good to be a month ahead every 9th month.  Once my husband had paid off his student loan in May, we decided to send the $200 we budgeted for his post facto education costs to my student loan, in good debt snowball fashion.  For those of you keeping score at home, that would mean we'd send $600 a month to my loan and have the beast with many greenbacks killed off sometime in 2013.  Woot woot!

    Then I wrote a piece on paying your student loan the minimum amount and sending the difference to your retirement fund.

    Of course, the research I did made it clear that each borrower should do the math to determine where the money will best be spent.  (And by the way, unless you have a terrible loan, your rate will probably be low enough that it doesn't make any sense to pay off the loan early if you have extra money that could be invested.  See, I get it for other people).

    Unfortunately, despite my research and my incredibly well-honed ability to tell other people what to do, my rationalization lobe was in overdrive.  I would invest the full $600 once the loan was dead!  Think of the savings in interest by paying it off early!  I don't need to do no stinkin' math!!!!

    Since this is a post about how I am a dunce, you can probably guess what happened next.

    This weekend, I finally opened one of the toys from the Blogger Conference swag bag.  The Personal Finance Calculator for Dummies makes it uber simple to determine how much you'll pay in interest, how much you'll earn in compound interest, or how many years it will take you to pay off a loan.  It's a very cool tool:

    It took only 15 minutes of playing with this calculator (3 of which were spent opening the clamshell packaging and 8 of which were spent looking up my specific interest rate [4.5%] and payoff amount [$13,169] on my student loan) for me to determine the following facts:

    1.  If I continue to send my loan $600 per month, I will spend approximately $582 in interest over the next 1.9 years.

    2.  If I send them $360 per month, I will spend approximately $654 in interest over the next 3.2 years

    3.  If I put $240 per month in a retirement account which earns 6% interest, I will have $10,132 at the end of 3.2 years, $916 of which will be earned interest.

    4.  I am a complete and total dummy.

    Needless to say, once confronted with evidence of my dunce-itude, I immediately called my lender and had them change the payment amount per month to $360.  I've got a call in to my friendly neighborhood financial planner to up my retirement savings by $240 per month.  And we're all going to forget that this little lapse in rational and intelligent behavior ever happened.

  • Road Trip Economics

    On Saturday, J and I packed LO in the car and drove the 2+ hours north to Chicago.  We both love the city and haven't been there since the peanut was born, so we wanted to take the time to enjoy some of the fun that Chicago can offer small town Hoosiers like ourselves.  Unfortunately, road trips are not cheap.  Here is a breakdown of our costs for the one-day trip to the Windy City:

    Tickets to the Museum of Science and Industry, plus special tickets to the visiting Dr. Seuss exhibit: $40

    Fershtunkiner "convenience charge" for buying said tickets online which turned out to be worth it because it meant we didn't have to wait in a miles-long line for tickets: $4

    Tolls there: $5

    "Boy, maybe we should stop at McDonald's because we thought to bring snacks for the baby but it didn't occur to us to make some turkey sandwiches for ourselves for the road, how dumb are we?": $6.25

    Caffeinated beverage for tired parents after several hours of science museum fun on top of a night when the munchkin didn't want to sleep plus a two hour car ride wherein said munchkin caught up on the sleep he missed but said tired parents were driving and talking and so energies were flagging: $2.75 (That was for one 20 oz cola, by the way).

    "You have got to be flipping kidding me!" parking charges for the Museum parking garage: $18

    Snacks to hold us over for the hour and a half wait time between when we arrived at Giordano's ("Famous Stuffed Pizza") and when our table/pizza would be ready: $1.52  (Officially the best bargain of the day!)

    Snacks to feed the baby when we realized we'd left the remainder of his peanut butter sandwich in the car in the second overpriced parking garage and he unexpectedly woke up from what we believed would be an epic nap since he'd tuckered himself out with science museum fun but the nap didn't even last until we made it into the restaurant so we needed to feed the child pronto: $2.09

    Large deep dish pizza with mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes, plus two Cokes since neither of us are night owls and it had been a long day and we still had a drive home, plus tip, although we probably could have gotten a smaller pizza considering we still have a mountain of Thanksgiving leftovers to eat through let alone enormous slices of pizza, but I believe J is regarding this as a fun personal challenge: $44

    Overpriced downtown parking garage that wasn't nearly as bad as we feared: $10

    Tolls home: $5

    Gas, which is a little difficult to determine since we started with a fairly full tank and we still had just under a quarter tank left over after the backing and forthing to Chicago so without having to gas up it can be tough to figure out how much you spent on gas but here's my best guess based on the last time I filled the tank:  $36.00 or so

    (Gas, which the mechanical engineer specializing in internal combustion engines with whom I live insists that I should figure out mathematically by adding the 300 miles of highway driving to the 20 miles of city driving at the rate of 30 miles per gallon times the price of $3.50 per gallon which comes out to pretty darn close to my guesstimation you'll notice: $37.33)

    Carefully packing our camera bag to make sure we record the memories of this fun family outing for years to come and then forgetting said camera bag on the living room floor despite the fact that I personally ran back into the house five (and I mean that number literally) times because of something else that I forgot before we were on our way Saturday morning and thereby having no pictures of this wonderful day whatsoever:  PRICELESS!

  • Things You Can Do Other Than Go Shopping on Black Friday

    1. Actually use the things you have purchased that are still sitting in boxes.  Install that stereo, put up that shelf, change your oil.  Don't bring new stuff into your house before you've used your "old" new stuff.

    2.  Take a long walk.  Someone's got to work off that turkey.  Why not you?

    3.  Take a nap.  Someone's got to sleep off that turkey.  Why not you?

    4.  Play cards.  You might be able to win enough playing poker with your family to pay for all their presents.

    5.  Eat. Don't tell me your refrigerator isn't stuffed with your body weight's worth of leftovers.

    6.  Make some handmade gifts.  Be sure to pick projects that can easily be accomplished in the time you have left before the gift-giving holidays.  (A side note--as a woman who completed a quilt 11 years after originally finding the pattern in a book entitled Quilts In a Weekend, don't always assume there is truth in project titling.)

    7.  Go to the zoo.  It'll be pretty empty of people, and you're likely to see better behavior there than you will at the strip malls.  Yes, even at feeding time.

    8.  Re-read your favorite book.  I don't have anything funny to add to this.  I'm just a big advocate of reading.

    9.  Make some amateur science experiments with the kids.  You know, like making the baking soda volcano.  Because your kitchen didn't get dirty enough yesterday.

    10.  Appreciate the good stuff you have in your life.  You really don't need anything new, do you?

  • A Thanksgiving Rant


    I love Thanksgiving.  It's one of my favorite holidays, partially because I feel like it really shows that Americans are mensches through and through.  Once a year, we stop what we are doing, make a communal meal, and give a big thank you for all the good things in our lives.  And we do this on a national scale.  How cool is that?

    But in my lifetime, Thanksgiving day has gone from being solely a time for family and giving thanks to a day of shopping and material (as opposed to food) consumption.  How did that happen?  Why is a day that is theoretically all about recognizing what abundance we have in our lives becoming just another day to want more of what we don't have?

    It has bothered me for years when stores would open on Black Friday at 5 am and earlier, because it meant that some families had to cut their celebrations short in order to get up for the deals.  But now some retailers are opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, meaning that their employees can't celebrate with their families--and that retailers are bringing consumerism into the only national opportunity for gratitude that Americans observe.  This just isn't right.

    Let's all be mensches this year.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving feast.  Smile tolerantly at your uncle who likes to needle you about politics.  Give thanks for all the wonderful opportunities and blessings you have.

    Save your shopping for tomorrow.

    If we refuse to let materialism encroach on one of the sweetest days of the American calendar, retailers will stop opening on Thanksgiving.  And for at least one day a year, we can focus on what's really important: stuffing ourselves silly.

    This (aspiring) mensch hopes you have a very happy and meaningful Thanksgiving!

  • The Tyranny of Television


    On Monday night, my husband came home from work and suggested that we try something truly shocking.

    He wanted to play Trivial Pursuit.

    I should probably first explain that I'm something of a Know-It-All.  As I like to tell people when I trounce them at trivia-related games, spending $100,000 on a private liberal arts education means that I kill at games testing knowledge of minor and irrelevant arcana.  My marketable skills are a little shakier, but who cares when all the Trivial Pursuit pie pieces are yours for the taking?

    Generally, J does not like playing these games with me.  Mostly because his memory isn't that great, but partially because I'm a little insufferable when I know things that other people don't.  (Okay, switch those).  In my defense, it is nice to know that spending four years studying the literature of British Imperialism, as well as French poetry about fauns and madeleines has prepared me for something outside of the ivory tower.

    Needless to say, I was quite surprised that J was interested in pitting his knowledge against mine in a Trivial Pursuit challenge. 

    "I'm just so sick of the TV," he said when I expressed my surprise.

    Well, yes.  It's very easy for us to get into that terrible screen habit.  Many nights, you'll find one of us engrossed in something enlightening, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, while the other watches YouTube videos of sneezing cats and honey badgers on the computer.

    Part of the issue with evening TV is that I am a born television multi-tasker.  I will work on a crossword puzzle or some sewing while the television drones on in the background, which makes J believe that I am actually doing the active pursuit.  When he tries to change the channel, I huff that I'm watching whatever program.  Because I am.  I'm just also doing something with my hands while I do it.  I prefer to have the illusion of company while I work.  And for an introvert like myself, it's fabulous that this illusory company doesn't require me to speak.  (That is, unless we've put Dora the Explorer on for LO).

    But as the weather gets colder, we tend to spend more and more time bathing our brain in some warm TV.  While I don't think of television as the greatest evil of all time, I do recognize that it can be a huge timesuck. (As one of my best friends once put it back when we were poor 20-somethings without cable: "So let me get this straight: I give the cable company money, and then they steal all my time?")

    So we played a couple of rounds of Trivial Pursuit on Monday night.  It was very exciting to remember that I know things that don't have anything to do with reality television.   And J tends to know about the stuff where my knowledge is lacking.  If we could find another trivia-loving couple, he and I would make a great pie-piece-gathering duo.

    Still, I could tell that J's heart wasn't really in the game.  I decided we should try to find some board games that play to both our strengths.  Or take up some new hobbies.  In an email to J yesterday at work, I suggested the following:

    We could do craft projects!

    Or learn cake decorating.

    Or origami.

    Or teach the dog tricks (other than laying down and sleeping in between very brief moments of running).

    Or learn Urdu.

    Or take up landscape painting.

    Or take over the world.

    Or build a fort.

    Or teach ourselves magic tricks.

    Unfortunately, none of these activities occurred last night.  After LO went to bed around 7 pm, J and I each stretched out on a couch and were snoozing long before 8.  (The joys of early parenthood!)  Which was still probably a better use of our time than watching the tube.

    In any case, we do want to try to break the tyranny of television over our time.  It's not very mensch-like to become glassy-eyed zombies every evening watching programs we're not even interested in.  There are so many things we could do instead of learning who will be America's Next Top Model.  Like becoming experts in arcane trivia!

  • Penny Wise and Pound Foolish


    When I was 15 years old, I worked at a local bagel bakery and deli in Pikesville, Maryland, one of Baltimore's most affluent suburbs.  It was a great starter job, as it taught me a lot about irrational behavior.

    One of my favorite ridiculous moments came from my first month of employment there.  The price of dairy products had gone up, and the deli was forced to raise the price of butter from $0.10 to $0.15.  Granted, it was a 50% increase in price, but it was still only a nickel more.  An elegant matron dressed in fur from head to toe and wearing diamonds that could easily have put several doctors through medical school came in to order a bagel with butter.

    I explained to her about the change in price, pointing to the sign the owner had posted.

    The elegant lady curled her lip.

    "15 cents for butter!  Why that's outrageous.  I'll eat my bagel dry.  Humpf!"

    Part of me wanted to pay for the extra nickel myself.  Part of me wondered if paying attention to five cent changes adds up enough over a lifetime so that you can eventually afford fur coats and diamond jewelry.  But mostly I just wondered if the woman knew how cheap she looked.

    Have you ever caught someone acting penny wise and pound foolish?

  • Exercises in Maturity

    My reaction to the discovery that our internet was down?

    Jumping up and down emitting high-pitched four-letter words that I'd prefer LO did not repeat.  (This is why he's in daycare during my work time).

    My reaction to the internet continuing to stay down despite router fiddling, computer restarting, modem cursing, and more jumping up and down?

    Zen-like acceptance as I drove to the library to do my writing for the day.

    I'm totally kidding.  You probably want to stay out of my way today unless you are a Comcast representative capable of fixing my MIA internet connection.

    Seriously, I'm on a rampage of maturity.

  • A Week in the Life


    "I'm not sleepy...zzzz"

    I would like to know what the heck this "work/life balance" is that I keep hearing about. 

    I'm not so good at balance.  I do nothing by halves.  When I taught high school English, I was either in utter and complete work-your-tail-off, these-kids-are-counting-on-you, my-goodness-the-future-of-America-is-in-your-hands mode or collapsed in front of the tube watching America's Next Top Model marathons and eating Marshmallow Fluff directly from the jar with my finger while essays in need of grading lay fallow on my living room floor.  (I'm only exaggerating slightly).

    This tendency is part of why J and I decided I should stay at home with LO.  The poor child would get whiplash trying to follow my unbalanced ways if I were still teaching.

    But of course, I still find ways to be all or nothing.   Some recent examples:

    Monday, I ran two miles at the Y, came home and wrote three articles for my freelancing gigs, ran to the bank for an errand, picked up LO at the Y, put him down for a quick nap while I cleaned the catboxes and started a load of laundry, planned out our meals for the week, played and read with LO when he woke up, baked two loaves of wheat bread, sat down to dinner with my family, wrote a fourth article after LO's 6:30 bedtime, tried and failed to restrain J from mustaching a turkey, folded a load of laundry, and went to bed.

    On Tuesday, I discovered that I quite liked the show My Boys that is streaming on Netflix.

    Clearly, I need some help with my time managment.  Many of my Mondays are similarly brimming with activities.  I'm excited to hit the ground running early, but by the middle of the week (and yes, in this case we're defining the second day of the workweek as the middle), I've lost momentum.

    Anyone else have this kind of trouble pacing yourself?  Because I seem to have passed this trait on to my son.  He'll play until he falls asleep where he is. 

    No transitions for this family.

  • Mensch vs. Grinch


    Photo courtesy of Cayobo

    We all want to save money over the holidays.  But just as there is a fine line between being frugal and being cheap, there is a hair's breadth of difference between being a mensch and being a grinch when it comes to gift giving.  Double check your "creative" gifting plans to see if you are heading towards grinch territory.  Here's a handy guide:

    Mensch-Like:  Giving your nephew the antique clock that belonged to your grandfather.

    Grinch-Like:   Re-gifting the light-up Rudolph sweater to Aunt Ella, who gave it to you last year.

    Mensch-Like:  Giving your best friend two tickets to her favorite local band.

    Grinch-Like:   Giving your best friend two tickets to your favorite local band.

    Mensch-Like:   Making a coupon book of chores that your spouse can redeem any time over the next year.

    Grinch-Like:    Making a "World's Best Spouse" certificate for your sweetie.  In crayon.

    Mensch-Like:  Searching for great deals on Black Friday.

    Grinch-Like:   Trampling over other shoppers, employees and little old ladies on Black Friday just to play tug-of-war over the last $3 crockpot in the store.  And you're not even sure who you plan to give the crockpot to.

    Mensch-Like:  Knitting a scarf for dear old Mom.

    Grinch-Like:   Knitting a scarf for Mom when you don't know how to knit so that the scarf unravels when you remove it from your needles and the only yarn you have is an odd oatmeal color that would look terrible on anyone but you know your mom will have to ooh and aah over it because she's your mom.

    You, too, can have a mensch-like season of giving as long as you remember that it's the thought that counts.  Unless the thought is "She won't notice that it's an irregular sweater." 

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