Sunday, December 30, 2007

Think the TSA will go for this?

I fly back East on a red-eye tomorrow night. Packing shouldn't be a problem because I made sure there was extra space in my luggage and limited what I bought while I was here. . .

. . . wth one possible exception.

The Cuisinart grill.

I checked shipping rates and learned that the anticipated shipping cost via either UPS or the Post Office would essentially wipe out the savings gain from buying the grill at Costco at 50% off of retail.

Well, what would you do?

I took the grill out of its packaging, swaddled it in clean clothes, and tightly packed it in the smaller of my two bags so I can send it along in my checked luggage. I hope the security folks who will surely open my bag after it's X-rayed at least get a laugh out of it.

PS: I returned the dress, so that's $84.50 back in my pocket. I decided it looked much too much like a prom dress and at my age, that ain't all that cute anymore. I am dressless for two black-tie events a little over a month from now, but I feel much better already.

Onwards and upwards, and back to New York and onto 2008!


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Interview with Geezeo and the holiday roundup

First things first: thanks and appreciation to the good people at Geezeo, who posted the first half of a two-part interview with yours truly. Tune in for Part II tomorrow, where I might stand on my head and play the harmonica or something!

Christmas is over. For us, it was just another day for the most part. We got up, drank coffee, ate fresh scones, and hung around most of the day. We outsourced dinner (around here, a hundred big ones gets you a really nice turkey dinner that just needs 45 minutes in the oven to be ready, with lots of leftovers for the whole next week), so the most strenuous thing I did was to get back out running a few miles, snorking the whole way.

I'm better now, thanks.

I'm headed back East on Sunday, which means it's time to take a good, hard look at what I spent during the holidays. Here's how it shook out:


  • Plane ticket to the West Coast: $354, bought in September

  • Costco, the happiest place on earth
  • Cuisinart Griddler Gourmet grill: $79.99
  • Colgate toothpaste (5 for the price of 4!): $9.99
  • Two large tins of Almond Roca (gifts): $19.98
  • Gourmet drinking chocolate (gift): $9.99
  • Cat toys (gifts): $10.00
  • Calcium, 500 tablets: $8.99
  • Coffee, 2.5 pounds: $9.99
  • Almonds, 5 pounds: $17.98

  • Clothing
  • Tahari interview suit, reduced from $340: $139.99
  • Formal dress for two black tie events in February: $84.50, reduced from $169.99

  • Other
  • Restaurant gift certificates (gifts): $110

  • A few comments about the above
  • I'm having some angst about the dress, frankly, so I'm leaving the option to return it open. I already have two formals but I've worn them both over and over. Much more importantly, I'm sporting an extra ten pounds at the moment. This will self-correct as I really dig into marathon training, but until then I don't want to bet on being able to get into either one of the dresses I already have without disgracing myself.

  • I am an unwilling participant in gift wars with a couple of New York friends who view gifts as love and don't want to hear otherwise. I've tried fighting these battles before and not made much headway, so I've decided to go along with what makes these particular friends happy. It makes me very grateful for the majority of friends who don't have that mindset

  • The drinking chocolate is a token gift for a friend's birthday. She'll really like it.

  • The grill wasn't supposed to happen until after the mortgage is paid off, but I had decided on this particular grill some time ago. I had done all the pricing legwork and figured it would cost about $110 to $115 on special, so imagine my pleasant surprise when I found it at Costco for $79.99. At that price, I decided not to wait. (This is the kind of occasion that illustrates the importance of building a little slack into the budget: finding a better bargain than you expected is no good if you can't take advantage of it.)

  • The total cost of my holiday, assuming that I don't spend any more money other than the $1200 I'm dropping on dental work (which I'm not counting as holiday spending because there's nothing joyous about that) is $855.40. That's a little under the US average, but I don't know that I've ever totalled up the complete costs before, so it's a heck of a bigger number than I expected to see. Most of that comes from travel and a slightly smaller chunk goes to clothing (and you already know that that's bothering me). I don't think I made any truly dumb purchases, but what kills me is that it was so easy to spend all that money.

    I'm off to the dentist tomorrow for Part II of my new gold crown installation. How did your holiday spending turn out? How much did you spend and what did you spend it on?


    Sunday, December 23, 2007

    'Tis the season for regifting

    I'm sick. This is going to be a short post before I shuffle back to the sofa.

    This being the Christmas season, in which my immediate family no longer engages in gift-giving other than restaurant gift certificates from me and my sibling to our parents, we settled down the other night for an annual family tradition: we pulled together all of the gifts we received from other people to figure out what we're regifting to whom.

    Is regifting bad? I don't think so. I think it's a fantastic way of making sure that stuff that won't be used and loved by the original recipient gets used and loved by someone who will truly enjoy the gift.

    That's the key in my book: regifting only works if it's something that the new recipient will genuinely like and enjoy.

    As it turned out, most of the regift recipients will be people I know, and there really is a good fit between the dried fruit we'd probably otherwise use as a football and its new intended recipents, as well as between the candleholder and candle that are a little too shiny for anyone's liking around here and the person I know who really enjoys glittery stuff.

    I wrote up a few thoughts about the art of the regift a while ago, and I'll leave them here for you to read through if you're interested.

    As for me, I'm wheezing off to blow my nose again. Blagh.


    Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Waiting for the subway at 3:30 a.m.

    I'm headed out West for Christmas, so updates will be sporadic for the next two weeks. I'll check in when I can, but in the meantime, best wishes for a frugally festive end to the year.


    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Resisting the hard sell

    I think I've mentioned before that as part of the ongoing war against spending, I go to a really nasty gym. This gym is a national chain. I've heard that in many areas it's quite decent, even bordering on luxurious in some instances. In New York, however, it's definitely bottom tier. Once my apartment is paid off, I plan to upgrade to this shi-shi establishment; for now, however, Nasty Gym will have to do.

    I made my regular appearance at Nasty Gym the other night. Someone I don't remember having seen before was on the desk. She scanned my membership card and quickly looked over my account details. Then she informed me that my monthly membership fee is going to go up by 10% on January 9, but that if I signed up for a special offer that very day, I could save 25% off of the new monthly rate.

    Uh oh, I thought. Here it comes.

    And what would I have to do to get that discount? I inquired. She laughed and invited me back into her office. I shook my head, saying that I was on a tight schedule and would like to know the details up front. The saleslady then told me that if I paid a $75 fee that day, I'd be able to take advantage of the lower monthly price.

    I answered that I wasn't going to be a member much longer, so it probably wouldn't work for me. She asked if I was moving out of Manhattan, and I said yes (lie lie lie). She told me that I could sign up today, pay the lower rate, and then simply quit when it was time to leave.

    I told her I'd think about it and headed off to do battle with the microbes teeming in the filthy-nasty locker room. Behind me, the saleslady called out that I could only get the special price if I accepted the offer that day.

    Once I was safely ensconced in the germ factory, I whipped out a calculator and ran the numbers. With the $75 fee paid up front and knowing that I'm planning to quit the day I make my last mortgage payment, the discount would only be cost-effective for me if I planned to stay a member for at least five months AND wasn't required to sign the standard one to three-year contract that normally accompanies special discounts.

    No deal.

    f.z. 1, Pushy Sales Rep 0.

    Let's take a look at the tactics Ms. Hard Sell used on me in that short interaction.

    1. Isolation
    Ms. Hard Sell invited me into her office to talk about my membership issues. That environment works to her advantage: it allows her to focus all of her attention on me. A good sales rep will already have figured out arguments against any reason I have for not renewing. In addition, a good sales rep knows that lasering in on me with steady eye contact and a big smile in close quarters is likely to make me feel intensely uncomfortable about telling her I don't want to renew. That'll increase the probability that I'll cave.

    2. Limited-time offer
    The discounted offer for membership at that skank hole was good that day only!

    Horse hockey.

    What if I had come in for my workout the next day or the next week? Ms. Hard Sell probably would have produced the same offer. If not, that gym gives membership specials every couple of weeks. If I decided to pass on that particular offer, there would be a remarkably similar one only days later. (She must have forgotten to mention that part.) Making a severely time-constrained offer limits the opportunity for me to think about it and work out whether it really is to my advantage or not. The offer sounds good; if I don't get the chance to think it through, then I'm more likely to accept it so as not to miss out on a good deal.

    3. Omission of details/twisting the truth
    I can't be sure if Ms. Hard Sell actually used this one or not, but I'm pretty sure she did. She noted that if I took the special offer, I could just quit when my circumstances changed (e.g. when I moved out of Manhattan - which I'm not actually planning to do). Sounds good, right? It is, except for one thing: gyms aren't willing to take a 25% hit on membership fees without something in exchange. That something is usually a guaranteed revenue stream for a year or more. For a 25% discount, I think it's likely that the minimum membership period would have been at least two years, and that's well over a year too long for me. Ms. Hard Sell didn't mention that part. I think it probably would have come out in the sales pitch she was dying to make, but she probably would have glossed over it since I said I was moving out of the city. Alternatively, she would have pressed the national membership plan on me.

    Also, just because she said my membership was about to go up by 10% doesn't mean that it is. Why would I trust a total stranger? I phoned the national membership line the next day to find out for sure. They confirmed that my membership would be going up, stating that according to the details of my original contract (which I shredded long ago), my membership rate was static for three years and then would increase by $2 or 10% per month, whichever was higher. That's fine; I just don't accept statements like that on faith without checking into them further.

    I have nothing against salespeople; everyone's out to make a buck and I'm no exception. I don't like pressure sales tactics, though; I'd rather make up my own mind based on all the facts. Recognizing pressure tactics for what they are is the best way to resist them.


    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Frugal dilemma: report the undercharge or not?

    I've been dealing with an interesting dilemma over the past few days. Normally, my Blackberry usage charges hit my credit card on the sixth of the month. The bill comes in the mail a couple of weeks before. My employer pays the usage charges, so I simply submit them for processing and usually have the money in my account before my credit card billing cycle closes. I upgraded to a Blackberry Pearl for free last month, and between accidentally getting two handsets, returning one, and various credits and charges being applied, my account showed new charges of $384 and a credit of $373. My usage bill is normally about $102, so having an extensive credit like this definitely didn't look right.

    I decided it was my service provider's responsibility to take a crack at sorting this one out, and I figured they would do it by the time the charges were actually applied to my credit card. As a result, when the bill came a couple of weeks ago, I simply flagged the normal usage charges and submitted them with my expenses. They were duly reimbursed, and all was apparently right with the world.

    The only problem was that this erroneous credit simply didn't go away. I waited for the correction and for the right charges to hit my credit card, but they didn't: the sixth of the month came and went, and there were still no charges.

    This was really bothering me by the time I went into work today. On the one hand, having an $11 Blackberry bill instead of a $102 Blackberry bill was extremely welcome, especially since I had already been reimbursed $102 by my employer. On the other hand, a difference of that magnitude is a little worrisome. It would be an ethical lapse for me to accept the error and not say anything to begin with, but cheating my employer in the process brings with it an entire new set of problems. In a worst case scenario, it could actually be grounds for dismissal.

    I phoned my service provider today and explained what I think happened: I think I was credited twice for the returned handset. The service representative I spoke with checked and found a myriad of odd charges and credits. She called in a supervisor to help sort through the tangle, and they found that among other things, there had indeed been an extra credit for the returned handset. Between the two of them, the representative and the supervisor agreed that although the credit still fell in my favor (by a few dollars, not close to a hundred), they would call it good at that point. I could probably flag it to my employer as well, but I think I'm covered if a discrepancy in what they reimbursed come to light, because it's now logged in the service provider's records that I made a good-faith effort to correct a billing error that fell in my favor.

    I think karma's probably going to be satisfied with me on this one. Would I have spoken up about the error if there hadn't been some risk to not doing so? I don't know, honestly. It would have been the right thing to do, but it would have been so easy to keep quiet and enjoy the $89 windfall.

    What would you have done?

    By the way, grateful thanks to Indian cuisine blogger Indira from Mahanandi, who linked to my post titled Love song for Trader Joe's today. Mahanandi is an extremely popular blog and my traffic has skyrocketed today. Welcome to all the new visitors; I hope you stick around.


    Splotchy's story meme

    This is a new one: Madame X tagged me for Splotchy's Story Meme. Each tagged person needs to add to the story and then tag others, while linking back to all the previous contributions.

    Here's the story so far:

    I woke up hungry. I pulled my bedroom curtain to the side and looked out on a hazy morning. I dragged myself into the kitchen, in search of something to eat. I reached for a jar of applesauce sitting next to the sink, and found it very cold to the touch. I opened the jar and realized it was frozen. (Splotchy)

    I was used to the house being quite cold in the mornings, as the night log usually burns out around one AM when I am dreaming cozily under my covers, not normally waking to put a new one on until morning. I was surprised because on the rare occasions that it actually had reached sub-freezing temperatures in the house, I had awakened in the night to restart the fire. I would have been worried about the pipes before P-Day, but there hadn’t been running water in two years and that was one of the few advantages to being dependent on rainwater, no pipes. (Freida Bee)

    The nightmares began during the following spring. The apple trees came to life in my dreams. At first the trees spoke and I thought they were amusing. That changed when the messages arrived. Lately, their anger was directed at me. (mathman6293)

    I turned and stared out the kitchen window, past the frosty-lidded cistern to the orchard beyond. My trees, my beautiful fruit trees, stood leafless and dark. I wished with all my heart that this was just a normal winter thing, but it wasn’t.

    "Why are you blaming me, guys? You know I love you. You watched me go out and vote that last time, in the ice-storm. It’s not like I didn’t try!”

    I turned with a sigh and went to the phone to give Zaius a call. Perhaps The Good Doctor had made some incremental progress on his Long-Shot-Theory. (TCR)

    Unfortunately, the phone was dead. Not from the inclement frigid weather, but because I didn't pay the phone bill and my service was shut off. "Oh well, I'll use the cell phone," I said aloud to no one but myself. As fate would have it, the cell phone battery was completely drained. I never even heard the thing chirping during the night to remind me to charge it. Being somewhat annoyed by all this, I went back to the kitchen, grabbed an ice pick and began chipping away at the rock-solid apple sauce when suddenly there was a very loud knock on my door which startled me. (kona)

    In my surprise, I dropped the applesauce; no one but me had been on the property since Cordelia had died, not even Zaius. The frozen jar smashed into my big toe, which was inadequately protected by a worn green handknit slipper, one of Cordelia’s last gifts to me. Blood gushed from the crushed digit as the knocking escalated into insistent pounding. I moved from room to room in a frenzy, limping yet rushing, knocking over stacks of books and papers, blood documenting my every move. Where were my glasses? I had to have my glasses to see out the peephole. It hadn’t been prudent to fling open a door in welcome since the Winter Cleansings of 2018, just after the internet was shut down. Where did I put them? Just as I spotted the spectacles beside the fireplace, the pounding stopped, replaced by a most inhuman howl. (Bitty)

    The piercing, anguished cry made me shiver even more than the cold. "What do you want?" I cried, slumped against the drafty door frame, trying to see through the peephole with my scratched spectacles. In the old days, I would have suspected it was the bill collectors, up to their tricks. P-Day, the Emergency Measures Act, the power shortages, the collapse of the internet and transportation networks-- all these things had made it almost impossible to convey debts and payments in the usual ways. At first, those who controlled the remaining services hired roving bands of thugs to try to collect money owed. If a direct request to open the door didn't work, a ruse involving an injured animal was considered fair game. Soon, no homesteader would open the door for anyone, even if their own children were supposedly dying on the front steps. Tiring of the game, the gangs of ruffians moved on to other pursuits, and like all my neighbors, I stopped bothering to pay for phone service, heat, electricity and water. It wasn't long before everyone was used to living without them most of the time... except for Zaius, whose experiments had reached a critical stage. (Madame X)

    You knowwwwww what I wannnnnnnnt. . . a deep voice boomed back at me. I quaked in fear. This was no ordinary debt collector; on the contrary, it was Zoltar Thunder Guns, a mercenary who knew no boundaries when collecting a debt for his employer. Unlike the thugs sent by old-time loan sharks to break the legs of debtors, Zoltar Thunder Guns used the infamous weapons for which he was known to drive his victims across the boundaries of sanity, never to return. Victims of Zoltar's vicious assaults wandered the streets, raving and shouting at the sky. I knew that Zaius had had dealings with Zoltar's employer in the past, and in his effort to track the mighty Zaius down, Zoltar had come to me.

    Who wants to play? I'm picking on Escape Brooklyn, Mrs. Micah, and Mapgirl.


    Saturday, December 8, 2007

    The first generation to be worse off than their parents?

    When I was in my early twenties (a long time ago!), I heard a news report predicting that Generation X would be the first generation to have a worse standard of living over the long term than their parents. Early X-ers are now firmly ensconsced in middle age and the rest of us are arriving there sooner than we think. How's that prediction working out?

    I find it really hard to compare myself to my parents because our lives are so different. Still child-free at my age, they were just getting ready to pack up from rural Canada and settle in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, I live in New York City. They've been married for more than fifty years; I'm divorced. If you normalize salaries and standard of living some forty-odd years ago, I probably come out ahead on the overall financial scale. Part of that is because I have tax-advantaged investment options that weren't available to my parents when they were my age, like 401(k) and IRA plans. In other ways, however, you could also argue that my standard of living is behind in some ways. Case in point: I'm pretty sure my parents had television in the early sixties. I don't have room for cable in my budget and there's no way I can get reception without it, so I simply don't have it. I watch a little internet TV from time to time, but it's not exactly the same.

    In other areas, I'd say that I'm way behind because of the way the work world has changed. My dad worked for a single employer in Canada and a single employer in the US; although he went through reorganizations, I don't think he ever worried about layoffs or downsizing the way I do. He also has traditional pensions both from his years of work in Canada and from working in the US. Between that and Social Security, my parents have never had to touch their retirement savings. I have a traditional pension too, but it's nowhere near as generous as my dad's. On top of that, I'm not confident that the pension plan will last for the rest of my working career, and I'm dead sure that Social Security won't. I think I have higher overall salary potential in my career, though, so that helps close the gap there. I became a homeowner earlier than my parents did, but I own a one-bedroom apartment that faces a concrete wall as opposed to a three-bedroom house with a huge backyard. I might have a slight edge in that area just because I accomplished it when I was younger, but you could arge that point a multitude of ways.

    Overall, at this point in my life, I think it's a wash: I don't think I'm doing better than my parents were when they were my age, but I'm doing just about as well. They key point that this thought exercise brought out for me is this: The rules of the game have changed big-time. In the modern economy, the cards are stacked in such a way that if I'm ever going to be better off than my parents, I can't rely on employers or government to lend a helping hand as a reward for loyalty or years of service. It's definitely possible to end up being better off than my parents ever were, but I have to make it happen on my own.

    Are you better off or worse off than your parents were at your age? Do you think Generation X is going to be better off than their parents were? How about Generation Y?


    Thursday, December 6, 2007

    Just in time for the holidays

    A blog called The War on Bullshit published a handy reminder of why it's good to be a minimalist. There aren't any real surprises here, but during a very consumerist time of year, it's nice to see a reminder of why less is often more.

    With that, I'm on my way to a Christmas party. Enjoy!

    Now is the time to reduce your car insurance premiums by searching over 95% of the market


    Tuesday, December 4, 2007

    The airing of grievances

    Okay, I admit it: I'm struggling a little bit at the moment. I'm fighting off two demons, Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee and I-don't-wanna, and it's all got me a little bit tired.

    I walk up either Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue in the evenings a couple of nights a week, and I've been feeling really pleased with myself that despite the decked-out window displays, I haven't been tempted by anything in the last few months. I thought that holiday madness would trigger Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee so I was feeling pretty smug that that hadn't happened, although I think wading through the sheer fricken' number of tourists has dampened any urge to spend. Unfortunately, Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee has been sniping at me when and where I least expect it, and I'm not exactly prepared. Case in point: I ran thirteen miles with a friend on Saturday. After we got back to my place and cleaned up a little, she got ready to head off and get on with her day. As she was leaving, she mentioned that she was going to have a cup of gourmet hot chocolate on the way home.


    Suddenly, I wanted gourmet hot chocolate and I wanted it badly. Having PMS and the sugar cravings that go with it only aggravated the problem. I finally resorted into rummaging into my cupboard until I found an old tin of Ghirardelli white chocolate cocoa powder that I don't like all that much. (I really don't want to think about how long it's been in there; I think it might actually date back to when I was married.) I also dug out an old tin of unsweetened Hershey's cocoa powder of a similar vintage. They both looked and smelled fine and a taste test from a little on the top of my finger didn't make me sick, so I put on the kettle and dumped some of each into a cup with some real vanilla.

    I wouldn't call the end product gourmet hot chocolate, but it made Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee back off for the moment. It's been attacking me in the weirdest moments for the oddest things in the last week, though. Although I'm trying to appease it by substituting something free or nearly free and rationalizing why I don't need to spend money on whatever I want at the moment, it's been tough.

    I could deal with the Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee on its own, but it's also been accompanied by a fair amount of I-don't-wanna. I set aside a few hours to work on Sunday but when it came time to do it, I wanted to throw my laptop on the floor and jump on it instead. I ended up not working over the weekend, and this week I'm totally snowed under. It's not only work, too. Christmas cards to my former host family in Japan? I-don't-wanna. Go to the gym? I-don't-wanna. Go running? I-don't-wanna. All I want to do is see my friends, sit on the sofa and read, and drink my cheap-ass version of gourmet hot chocolate (Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee). The exercise I-don't-wanna is particularly problematic because over the past month-plus, I've been putting down the base work to start a marathon training cycle this coming weekend and there's not a lot of room to negotiate.

    I'm fighting I-don't-wanna by giving in on some things (e.g. not working on the weekend and doing only the bare minimum in the gym workouts), and getting a little backup on the others (putting the Christmas cards out RIGHT THERE on the countertop to remind me to do them, and recruiting friends to put in mileage with me). Overall, though, I'm really getting tired of fighting Gimmee-gimmee-gimmee and I-don't-wanna. It's draining.

    I'm taking a complete vacation from work for the last couple of weeks in the year, and I hope that helps. I'm taking other coping suggestions if you've got them.

    Anyone else have the frugal holiday blahs?


    Sunday, December 2, 2007

    Free lunch (at least to me)

    Today, I had a great lunch with a very close friend. On the way home, a woman on my block who was handing out menus for a new burrito joint in the neighborhood told me that the restaurant was giving away free meals from noon to five p.m. in advance of their official opening tomorrow.

    I was absolutely stuffed to the gills, but who can say no to a free lunch? I walked four blocks and found the restaurant, which was small but not especially crowded given that they were handing out free food. I put in a take-out order for a large chicken burrito, which was ready in five minutes, and then lugged it home.

    I'm still stuffed from lunch, but free lunch is destined to be free dinner.

    Don't ask me why I'm so inordinately thrilled about this, but I am.

    Moving home and looking for a mortgage? The Thrifty Scot has over 8000 mortgages to choose from


    Saturday, December 1, 2007

    Less than a year to go?

    Another mortgage payment went out, so according to the schedule posted up yonder on the left, I only have eleven more to go. I refinanced my thirty-year mortgage from 2001 to a fifteen-year mortgage in 2003. So far, I've paid off thirteen years of the fifteen-year mortgage in just over four years.


    As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm continuing to make progress on killing the mortgage off as planned; given the threat of recession, however, I'm staying flexible and ready for change.


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