Yankee 2.0
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Yankee 2.0

  • Getting ready for a tag sale

     We're having a neighborhood-wide tag sale in a few weeks. At last year's neighborhood tag sale, I got rid of lots of stuff (including my TV and related accoutrements), and made about $200. I'm working on paring down the "stuff" in my life and am hoping that this will be my last tag sale ever, as I'll never again accumulate unwanted stuff. This might be wishful thinking.

    I've sold a lot of things on ebay and Craigslist since the tag sale and donated other things and given still more away on Freecycle and to friends. I don't miss anything. I haven't once thought, "where is X?" and I honestly can't even remember some of the stuff I've gotten rid of.

    So I'm going through every room in my house and evaluating the things I see. Do I use it on a regular basis? Have I used it in the past twelve months? Does it have sentimental value? If I answer yes to that one, I go back to the other questions -- do I really need a thing to evoke a memory? Can someone else actually make use of this thing that I'm hanging onto and not using? I have plenty of space to store things, but I think the idea of storing stuff for some unspecified time when I *might* need it is no longer an appealing idea.

    Sometimes I think "ugh, I paid $25 for this, I've barely used it, and I'll be lucky if I get 50 cents for it now." But that realization alone is, as they say, priceless. So I'll be gearing up for the next few weeks -- evaluating and pricing, boxing and packing. Whatever doesn't sell will go to a charity and whatever income I get will go towards that pesky credit card bill.

  • Material rewards for thrift?

    Is it a contradiction to reward yourself for reaching thrifty/frugal goals with material goods? I really want a "scooba" -- it's a robotic floor cleaner by the "roomba" folks. It sweeps and mops your floor all by itself. I've been enamored with it ever since I first heard of it a few years ago (when a student I tutor was assigned to write advertising copy for it as a school project). My kitchen floor gets quite dirty with pet food and pets and people coming in and out from the yard. The idea of waking up each morning to a sparkling floor (without my doing any mopping) is very alluring. It costs around $400, which is an expense I cannot justify while in debt (because I'm perfectly capable of mopping my own floor every night, it's just tedious).

    So my plan is to buy one when I have paid off my credit card. I'm not going to buy it with my credit card, but it costs a bit less than what I pay towards paying off my credit card each month (target pay off date is December 2011). So instead of charging it now, while I have plenty of available credit (that's what the old me would have done), I'm going to pay cash for it later, when my credit card is paid off (new me). 

    Is it weird to reward myself for breaking with consumerism with a consumer good? Is it even breaking with consumerism if I buy something? I don't know. How about you, DS readers? Do you reward yourself when you meet a frugal goal? If so, how? Or is reaching the goal reward enough?

  • Password Panic

    I was listening to the news last night and heard a story about gazillions of users' information being comprimised by hackers who got into Sony PlayStation user accounts. I'm not a PlayStation user, but for some reason, the story threw me into a tizzy. I may have over-reacted, but I went online and deleted a bunch of accounts and changed a bunch of my passwords. 

    I'd been looking into ways to make money online and had joined a bunch of web sites (including some of those profiled by another blogger here on Dollar Stretcher) and filled out a bunch of surveys in the past few weeks. I didn't make any money, but I did waste a lot of time and set  up all sorts of accounts for these web sites. And I got a LOT of junk mail. I have been using the same three passwords for the past ten years, and when I heard about the PlayStation hack, I worried that all that junk mail might somehow be carrying viruses or worms or spyware that would somehow hack into my computer and gain access to my bank accounts or other personal info.

    So I deleted all of those accounts that required me to log in and watch videos or complete surveys. I hit unsubscribe on all the junk email and deleted my trash email folder. And I went to the accounts I kept (email, blogs, banks) and changed my passwords. I decided to use the name of someone I know with a number on the end and alternating upper and lower case numbers. I wanted to remember it, but have it be unlikely to be cracked.

    I don't know why I had such a strong reaction about this, but I guess I'd been feeling like I was wasting time on all those survey and rewards sites anyway, so this was the nudge I needed to get rid of them. So far, so good. How about you, DS readers? Do you feel any increased desire for less of an online presence after hearing about the various server infiltrations in the news? Did you think, as I did, for an instant, "I should just get rid of everything and go totally off the Internet.?"


  • 8 Tips for elegant & frugal socializing

    I earn about a quarter of what most of my friends do. They're mostly couples and I'm single, and they're mostly in corporate 9-5 jobs and I'm a freelancer. Our earnings are different, and our lifestyles are different, yet we spend time together socially. I want to socialize with my friends, but I don't want to break the bank doing it. So how can a person manage to be frugal while entertaining with flair and elegance? Here are some tips:

    1.  Get generic goods and put them in pretty containers (or at least remove the labels). Hand soap, dish soap, candles, shampoo, food -- people judge the innards by the outer label. If you put some generic soap in a pretty container and stick it in your bathroom, no one will really know what they're washing their paws with.

    2. Do potlucks or home dinners. I do not go out to eat anymore. I just can't justify the expense. I love to cook. I'm a vegetarian and non-drinker. I can make a lovely meal for six people for about $20. When my friends go out to eat, they split the bill and it costs way more than that per person, so I decline those invites.

    3.  If you must go out, make it a coffee. Sometimes friends or business colleagues really want to have a meeting over food. I never schedule lunch, instead I say "let's meet for coffee." This is much less expensive.

    4. Freegan and 2nd hand everything. Where to get those elegant containers that disguise generic goods? The best place is free from Craigslist or Freecycle, the 2nd best is 2nd hand at a tag sale or thrift shop.

    5. Don't overdo #4. Simple and streamlined are elegant. I've never understood why people live with a milkcrate and futon while saving thousands for brand-new furniture when they could get lovely things for next to nothing second-hand. But, just because something is cheap or free doesn't mean you should get it. I've overdone it frequently (especially with the free stuff), then have the hassle of too much clutter. Not elegant.

    6. Thank you. When someone compliments furniture, dishes, or serving ware, I have to fight the temptation to say, "thanks -- I got it for free on the side of the road!". A simple "thank you" is much more elegant.

    7. Keep a lookout for gifts. I love to give gifts. I like to have something to give when I visit someone, and I like to give my friends gifts for special occasions. So as I'm going to freegan places and tag sales and such, I often pick up things to give to others, and have a gift shelf, so I feel prepared, and never have to panic to come up with a gift. It's also nice to wrap a gift beautifully, and many elegant gift wraps can be found at tag sales.

    8. Don't refuse a gift.I give gifts that I can afford, and I just have to assume that others do, too. If someone gives you a gift that cost $100, don't feel bad if you're giving them something you got for free. A gift is a beautiful act of love; be a gracious recipient (see #6 and #7).And if you hate it or can't use it, re-gift it to someone else in the future!

  • What I love (and don't) about Aldi

    An Aldi supermarket opened up in my city about a year ago. I had heard of the store on frugal blogs, but didn't know that much about it. The store has changed my food shopping life. They are in a big push to expand across the US, so you may have an Aldi in your neck of the woods soon, if you don't already.

    Let me start with the bad and ugly -- their produce is horrible. It's wilted, it's bruised, it's spoiled and unappatizing -- at least in my local store. I don't buy a thing in produce any more (although I tried it when they first opened). Instead, I go to a local fruit and veg place that sells wonderful (and largely local) produce for less than half the cost at a regular supermarket.

    But back to Aldi, and back to the good. I'm a vegetarian, but I do eat lots of eggs and milk and cheese. A gallon of milk at Aldi costs about $2.50 (that's the cost for a half-gallon at the grocery store). They were selling eggs for 39 cents a dozen for months, and have recently raised the cost to 89 cents a dozen. Their five-poind bag of flour costs $1.56 They have wonderfully fresh walnuts for $4.29 a pound. Their cheese is cheap and good, and they have terrific canned tomatoes for under 50 cents. Their frozen peas are 99 cents and frozen corn is 69 cents. Frozen cheese pizza (two servings) -- $1.25

    So for staples and minimally processed food, they beat the supermarket hands down. I also love their Meister Roth chocolate, and I buy my shampoo (I used to make my own, but it's actually cheaper to buy it here), face soap, and laundry soap at Aldi.

    Not to my taste -- their coffee (also just as expensive as a regular brand), their "multigrain chips" (imitation SunChips that were really gross), and their mayonnaise.

    Other fantastic products -- sour cream (99 cents a container and no funky stabilizers) and regular wavy potato chips.

    Aldi doesn't take credit cards (a big plus in my book that a store takes an anti-credit stance), or coupons (they don't usually have non-Aldi brands, but sometimes they do, and I wish I could use my pistachio coupon there). You have to bring your own bags and bag your groceries (not a problem). Their everyday prices are always so much less than grocery stores that it is shocking to me when I go to a grocery store and see the same item cost twice as much. 

    I used to buy everything at the grocery store and sometimes the farmer's market. I don't go to either anymore, and I am saving a lot of money. My weekly grocery bill averages $20 (this is for me, one person, and includes all meals and snacks -- I do not ever eat out). Not too shabby, thanks to Aldi! 

  • A letter to the employers of the world

    Dear Employers,

    In the past several years, you've received hundreds, perhaps thousands, of applications for every job that you've posted. Some of the people who've applied have been overqualified, some underqualified, and some perfectly qualified. Some applied to your company hopefully, looking for their first job. Some applied to your company humbly, having been laid off from previous careers. Some were looking to make lateral moves, some upward, some even downward. The people who've applied have been young and old and have come from near and far. What do they have in common? They're people -- we are people.

    We've taken the time to sign up for an account with your HR department, to create a user name and upload our resumes to your system. We've filled out screen after screen of personal information. We've emailed and we've snail mailed. Many of you have sent us back paper or electronic notification saying that you've received our application and you'll be in touch with us if you want to interview us. We appreciate that. It saves us the worry of wondering if the resume was lost in the mail or on the internet. We know you know how to reach us. We won't have to waste your time or ours in calling to confirm.Thank you.

    But to those of you employers who haven't ever had the courtesy to send an acknowledgement to the many people who have applied for jobs at your company, please remember that we are indeed people. Each one of us is a person, and if you don't think we're important enough to acknowledge, consider this: we know lots of other people. And if someone asks us for our opinion of a company that couldn't be bothered to send an acknowledgement of receipt of a job application (it is 2011 after all, and these things are easily automated), we will have to report that the company in question doesn't seem to respect people very much, and we'll advise the other people we know to take their business elsewhere. 

    Each one of us little people must not mean very much to you. But we remember you, oh employers of the world. Why, just yesterday I was chatting with some friends about local colleges. It turns out that three of us applied for (different) jobs at a local college in the past two years and none of us received acknowledgement of our application. One of the other friends was aghast and said it made her think twice about advising her children to consider attending that college.We then shared various tales of applications acknowledged and unacknowledged, and the parent of the college-bound children took it all in, thinking very much about the general atmosphere of each institution under discussion.

    You don't know the repurcussions of your incivility, oh you employers. But we little people remember you.

  • Make Do & Mend

    People who look at design magazines or web sites will have no doubt seen the ubiquitous "Keep Calm & Carry On" posters. These current consumer goods/decorations are reprints of WW2 era messages from the British government to its people. Another was "Make Do & Mend," though I don't see that message popping up in American glossy mags as much.

    Make Do & Mend is a more common message and poster in England and an article in the New York Times magazine yesterday talked about the "new British frugality." The article basically says that the Brits are better at belt-tightening than we Yanks because it's hard-wired in them from the deprivation and rationing in the inter-war years and beyond. I think on the whole, that's probably true, although here in New England, I do think we have a pretty strong frugal streak (and my parents definitely knew Depression rationing).

    It's certainly true that we have a lot more natural resources here in the U.S. (and we're such an enormous country, compared to the little islands of G.B.). Our housing prices and consumer prices are also much lower, and we have a long history of ready credit availability. I lived in England for four years (20 years ago now) and while I certainly had my basic needs met, if I wanted a little extra, I had to scrimp and save. No credit cards, no way that I could have afforded a house, and no hope of upward mobility. I was a waitress and I'd always be a waitress. I found it stifling. I wanted to earn more and make financial progress -- I wasn't satisfied with having enough.The thing is, though, that "enough" is guaranteed in England -- there's health care, welfare, and social services for all. I lived in England in Margaret Thatcher's day and she wanted to move the country to a more American-style free market system. She thought that knowing that basic needs would always be met made people lazy and kept them on the dole (welfare) with no incentive to find a job. So the system changed a little, but people's basic needs were still always met --food, housing, education and health care -- all in a basic, small-scale way.

    Twenty years on, back in the US and slogging away at a bunch of freelance jobs (no benefits, health insurance that I buy myself), I think that knowing that we would all have "enough" would be great. We have so many homeless, sick, and poor people here; just imagine what a relief it would be to know all our citizens had their basic needs met. But what so many people aspire to isn't having enough, it's having too much -- a fancy television, a fancy car, fancy clothes, a big fancy house with enormous washing machines. Those definitely used to be my dreams, and that's why I was dissatisfied with living in England.

    My own idea of how to live, what's enough, and how to relate to money has changed immensely (dare I say matured) in the past twenty years. I'm a big supporter of the "Make Do & Mend" philosophy, maybe in part from my time in England. I think it's a mindset we could use importing.


  • How to get rid of "stuff"

    Over the last few months, I've been getting rid of stuff that I don't need or use. At first, I was worried that I would miss the stuff, or that I would need or use it later. However, I've found that once the stuff is gone, it's out of sight and out of mind. I started out by looking around my (big) house room by room and identified things that I hadn't used in the past 12 months or more. I asked myself "Do I use this? Do I need this? Could someone else use this?" 

    First, I started with actual money -- old coins and bills that had been sitting in a box. Every few years, I would take them out and look at them, but really, they were just sitting there. So I researched the sales prices of these coins and listed them on ebay. The face value of the coins was $10.41 and I made $200 on them (after ebay and paypal fees). Some didn't sell, so they went back in the box, which I'm going to give to a friends' young boys who like to travel (they're foreign coins). I brought the bills to a dealer, and he paid me a bit over face value for them.

    Then I looked around for precious metals. I had some dinged up old silver candlesticks and other odds and ends. Sold them all on Craigslist and eBay. I was starting to get the fever for selling. I looked at my jewelry box. I don't wear that much jewelry, but I had a heaving box of stuff I didn't wear, and the things I really did wear got lost underneath the other stuff. I also had my grandmother's engagement and wedding rings, as well as two other old rings of hers. They were beautiful and so small they wouldn't even fit on my pinky. They'd been sitting for ten years unworn and unappreciated. So I took them to a jewelry store (with a lot of other stuff) and they told me they'd melt everything down. I didn't want that -- the rings were beautiful and would be appreciated by someone, I was sure, so I found an antique dealer through Craigslist who bought them and assured me that they would be sold intact. My jewelry box is considerably more spacious now, and I've been wearing my jewelry much more, because I can find it!

    The closet was next. "Have I worn this in the past twelve months?" If the answer was no, I put it in a bag for either Savers (if it was casual) or Dress for Success (if it was professional). Now, I can see all my clothes, and it's much easier to get dressed for work each day.

    Decorative things followed -- were they just collecting dust? Could I whittle down a set of four jars to just one? Did I have things stashed in a closet for "when I get a summer house?" (ha!). Yes, yes, and yes. Sold, sold, and sold. 

    How about the stack of paintings sitting in an empty room? I'm awaiting word from an art dealer about those as I write.

    All told, I've made close to $2,000 on stuff that I was not using or appreciating. I have fewer things around me now, but each is something special. I feel much less burdened by things, and all the sale money is going towards paying down my one remaining credit card. 

    I'm piling up the things that haven't sold in anticipation of a summer tag sale, which I hope will be my last. I've had tag sales nearly every year, but have kept acquiring more "stuff." During this current phase of decluttering/destuffing/streamlining, I've greatly reduced the flow of stuff coming in, and am being much more thoughtful about each purchase. I don't miss the specific items I've sold or given away, and I don't miss the volume of stuff in the house. I'm really enjoying the vast areas of space and swaths of bare walls. 

  • Student loan payoff begins

    I have a LOT of student loan debt. My parents insisted that I go to college, but they didn't have any funds saved, so I started out my undergraduate experience by signing up for loans. At 17, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I'd gone to public school all my life, so I didn't really have any concept of paying for schooling. My parents lived paycheck to paycheck and never really discussed money and had no savings (see lack of college fund for only child, above). When I realized I could take out additional loans, I went for it. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew that a loan meant I'd have to pay it back, but the future seemed so far away. Well, it took me ten years to finally get that Bachelor's degree. I'd take time off (some of it financed by loans), work, pay a little of my loans, go back to school, travel. I did a lot of things in those ten years! Then I finally got serious about finishing and got my degree. 

    My degree was in Philosophy, which has no financial relevance to anything. Sure, I think like nobody's business, but there aren't a lot of jobs (outside of waitressing and bartending, which is what I was doing for work) for a Philosopher. So I went back to school. I got a Master's degree in Education, figuring I'd get a job teaching in the community college. And also knowing that my undergrad loans would be in a state of limbo while I was in school. The school I chose to go to didn't offer any graduate assistantships, so I took out more loans. I did, indeed, begin teaching community college, but as an adjunct. Adjuncts do all the things full-time faculty do, only we get paid about one-fourth of what full-timers make, we have no benefits (like health insurance), we have to join a (pretty useless) union, and we have very little job security. 

    So then I heard about another Master's program in a liberal arts field that is my passion -- translation. I did get an assistantship for this degree -- yay -- which meant I "only" had to pay the fees for my schooling. Well, the fees were more than the tuition. How did I pay? Student loans.

    So now I have three degrees in very low-paying jobs and a mountain of student loan debt. Despite those great thinking skills I gained in philosophy, I kept putting off the student loan repayment, thinking the government would come up with some forgiveness plan. This was a prime example of magical thinking.

    I was earning so little money as an adjunct professor and itinerant translator that I managed to defer payment year after year. Interest accured, but that "later" day when I'd begin paying the loans off just moved farther and farther into the future. Last year, I heard about the Income-Based Repayment plan for student loans. Your lender (mine is Sallie Mae) calculates your payment based on what you're earning. Great! I signed up, and instead of the impossible $495 per month that they originally wanted, my payment is now $66 -- at least for the next twelve months. 

    The Income Based Repayment plan is calculated each year, based on the previous year's income tax returns. As long as I continue to be a pauper, my payment continues to be affordable, and I can actually pay towards my loan instead of ignoring it. Great! And even better news, is that after ten straight years of (a) paying the loan and (b) working for a non-profit or educational institution (yes, I do), the balance of the loan may be forgiven -- my dream come true!

    Today I wrote my first check for my new, reasonable monthly payment. It felt good -- like the first step on a ten-year journey to getting that debt out of my life. Do I wish I understood more about money when I first entered college? You betcha. Not only did I rack up big student loans in college, I also got my first credit card -- on campus, with the university's blessing. I had nooo idea what I was doing with money at that time. I'm extremely grateful for my education, but I do wish that my financial education hadn't been entirely self-taught.




  • What is my freedom worth?

    I saw a post on Craigslist recently that offered "up to $2,400" for participation in a research study at a reputable university. I called for more information, and the study (which is for NASA) involves several day visits/tests (blood tests, coordination and skills tests, interviews) and then culminates in a 13-day stay in their lab to have your sleep patterns monitored. The subjects who do the 13 days are in "isolation suites" where they can't know what time it is, have no access to computers or phones, have no windows, and where the lights are turned on and off at strange times, to see how the human body responds to such cues. People can write the subjects letters, but they'll be reviewed by research staff and redacted if they mention dates or times. Sound like prison? The "up to" payment is becuase you can drop out or be dropped at several points leading up to the 13-day stay.

    While the idea of the cash is appealing to me, the idea of being stuck, isolated, in a lab under the control of space scientists is less appealing. $2400 would pay for the plumbing work I want to do in my house this summer, but in the end, I don't think being in that situation is worth it to me. I thought a lot about the project and the recompense, and what motivates people to participate in this kind of study. And then I wondered what my own price is. How much money would make it worth my while to spend 13 days having my sleep monkeyed with and being isolated from my home and normal life? Would I do it for $5,000? Maybe. For $10,000? Definitely. I think. I would think of what I could do with that $10,000, (get a new roof and storm windows) and that would motivate me, but then I'd think about the conditions of the research project and might reconsider. Is there a dollar value that's worth it to be a prisoner for 13 days? I don't know.

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