Sunday, November 30, 2008

Weekend roundup: The 'tis the season edition

Just a day or two after Thanksgiving, it looks like Santa's workshop threw up all over Manhattan. Red, green, and tinsel are everywhere, and all the Christmas carols playing in the stores seem to be featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks. There's an air of sweaty desperation in the retail world over the economy, so the next three and a half weeks are going to be an all-out onslaught against your wallet.

Here's what's going on in the Frugal Blog Network this week:

Kelly at Almost Frugal went to Ikea! I hope she didn't get the raging frontal lobe aneurysm that I usually end up with on the rare occasions I go.

Frugal Babe spent Thanksgiving Eve showcasing her green lifestyle in a wonderful evening with friends.

The Frugal Duchess takes on the travesty that is office and hotel coffee and shows you how to make it more palatable for free.

Dana at Not Made of Money is ready for the holidays with tips on how to keep your spending in check.

Tightfisted Miser tells you the easiest way to save money on that craptastic pseudo-holiday known as Black Friday: stay home.

Read more...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

One quick and easy way to reduce your food bill

This is a throwback to something I first learned as a broke-ass grad student in New York: If you want heavy duty nutrition for not a lot of money, rice and beans is a great way to go.

When I first moved to New York in 1993, I learned early on that if I didn't want to end up paying off my education for thirty years, I'd better make as much money as possible and cut my cost of living wherever I could. The income part was pretty straightforward: between internships, admin work on campus, and teaching assistantships, I worked one to three concurrent part time jobs along with taking a full load of classes each semester. I did a great many things to reduce my cost of living at the same time (including renting a room from people with a lot of cats). As part of the cost-cutting, I decided early on that meat was a luxury I was going to have to pretty much do without, so I went full-on vegetarian with brown rice and a variety of beans as a main staple.

This eventually backfired: My cholesterol was outstanding but I developed severe anemia, so by 1996 I started eating moderate amounts of chicken and fish, which I still do today. Even if you find that strict vegetarianism isn't the right way for you to go long term either, eating rice and beans a few times a week can do amazing things for your budget as well as your health. On top of that, beans freeze remarkably well: one afternoon of cooking can stock your freezer for weeks. Finally, beans also combine well with a multitude of flavors, so the variety is nearly endless.

Here are a few handy tips I've learned over time for making rice and beans a regular part of your menu:

Use dried beans, not canned
The price differential is huge. The price of dried beans in a bag and cooked beans in a can is about the same, but once dried beans are cooked, they roughly double in size and weight. That makes them roughly a quarter the price of canned beans and without any added sodium, high fructose corn syrup, or other nasty stuff. It means a little more planning and cooking time, but over time the payoff is worth it.

Look for the rocks!
Dried beans come with occasional little bits of debris. It takes one rock to cause a dental calamity, but it only takes a minute or two to check through the beans before you soak them.

Quick-soaking is fine
If you don't have time for overnight soaking, you can do this instead: Boil some water and dump the beans in. Let them boil for two minutes, then let them rest for one to two hours. They'll be ready to cook.

Beans, beans, the musical fruit
Most people can ingest several cups of beans in a week; it just takes a little time for your system to get used to them. If, after a few weeks, beans continue to make you (and everyone else around you) suffer, there's a pharmacy product called Beano that supposedly blocks the enzymes that cause you to offend. I haven't tried it myself, but I'm told it works.

Onions, garlic, and tomatoes are your friends
All of them freeze really well in bean dishes, along with corn, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, and peas. Tomatoes often have to be blanched, peeled, and seeded for bean recipes. Do it if it makes you feel good, but I usually stock up when the giant cans of tomatoes are on sale.

Some vegetables don't freeze well
Green peppers, broccoli, celery: It's cheaper and easier to stir-fry them and add them to a defrosted bean dish than it is to pick out the sorry result once they've been cooked and put in the freezer.

Lemon juice helps fix mistakes
If you overdo it on the spices (which I do once in a while, since I don't usually measure), adding a few splashes of lemon juice will reduce the bitterness. In general, however, eating your mistakes is a great reminder not to overspice.

Brown rice contains more vitamins than white rice
Brown basmati: two thumbs up. Also, some of you might find this gross, but I don't rinse rice before I boil it. I think it washes away too many nutrients.

Chili is one of the cheapest and easiest recipes on earth
Really, it is. Here's how I made it yesterday:

2 pounds of soaked, cooked black beans ($1.29 x 2 = $2.58)
3 28-oz cans of tomatoes ($1.59 on sale x 3 = $4.77)
4 large onions (about $1.00 total)
2 tablespoons chopped, minced garlic (pennies, since I buy big jars at Costco; roughly $0.10)
Oregano, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper to taste (pennies since I buy it all in bulk: let's say $.050 total)
2 tsp olive oil (about $0.10)

Chop the onions and tomatoes coarsely. Stir-fry the onions on high heat until they start to caramelize; then add the garlic and cook for a few seconds longer. (Garlic turns bitter when browned, so don't overdo it.) Add the chopped tomatoes and their juice and lower the heat to medium. Cook the tomatoes and onions for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, and then add the spices. Cook the spices for another 15 minutes or so, stirring periodically. When the tomato mixture has turned into a tasty chili base that you're happy with, add the drained beans and top it up with some of the water you cooked the beans in. (Be a little careful - it's easier to add slowly and taste periodially than it is to fix it if you put too much bean water in.) Let the chili simmer for 10 to 20 minutes longer, and then it's done.

End result: 16 servings (that can be stretched out farther with added vegetables later on)
Total cost: $9.05, or $0.57 per serving.

Dump it over brown rice, and that brings you up to about a buck for a heart-healthy and filling vegan meal.

If beans aren't your thing, you might be interested in this series of videos from a 91-year-old lady who learned a thing or two about cooking on the cheap during the Great Depression:

Pasta and peas
Egg Drop Soup
Poorman's meal

I'm sure there are tons of other tips and tricks for cutting your food costs. Got any you want to share?

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Tying up loose ends

I hope all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I left a few loose ends hanging before the holiday, so this is just a quick one to tie them up.

New York mom
She's out of intensive care, but she had such a bad day yesterday that I was concerned that she was headed for a serious decline. She has an infection in the incision, and what's left of her intestine began leaking blood and other very bad stuff into her stomach. She's much better today and was the most lucid and awake I've seen her since this whole saga started, but she is still very sick. She's going to be in the hospital for quite a while yet. Thank you for your continued kind thoughts and good wishes. Every little bit helps.

New winter parka
It arrived a couple of days ago, and it's like wearing a portable heater. Two thumbs up; wish I had bought it years ago.

Thanksgiving stuffing
Very well received by my friends. I noticed that everyone who had seconds had seconds of stuffing, and several people had seconds only of stuffing. I am most pleased.

For minty, here's the recipe: You'll need 5 1/2 cups of cooked rice, plus one to two pounds of Italian turkey sausage, celery, onions, fresh parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and two tablespoons of poultry seasoning. Cook the onions until they begin to caramelize, and then add the turkey sausage. After the turkey sausage is mostly cooked, add the celery and cook it until it's just barely cooked. Add the parsley and seasonings, and then add the rice. This year, I made it with about eight cups of rice, three pounds of turkey sausage, 1 1/2 heads of celery, six onions, a whole bunch of parsley, and I'm not sure how much salt, pepper, or poultry seasoning because I didn't measure anything. It lends itself to experimentation, so have fun with it.

Food drive: Just short of the drive midpoint, we are 81% of the way to our fundraising goal.

Check back tomorrow for a tip on making the most of your frugal food dollar. In the meantime, how did you spend your Thanksgiving?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Going into hibernation

I'm done working at my job-job for the next five days, so I'm essentially going into hibernation. Tomorrow, I'm making my mom's most excellent stuffing; on Thursday, I'm hauling half of it over to a friend's house for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. There's some running and yoga in between there, but it's mostly going to be some much-needed downtime.

I'm celebrating Black Friday by not going shopping. Are you going to hit the stores on Friday? If so, what are you looking to buy, and how do you plan on dealing with the crowds?

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Weekend roundup: the froze my ass off edition

Good people, it is COLD in New York City. Here's a little something to warm your soul: the weekend roundup from the Frugal Blog Network.

--Kelly at Almost Frugal gives us an inside look at her everyday life.

--Frugal Baberescued a discarded coffee table from the thrift store and gave it a brand new life in her house.

--The Frugal Duchess has some handy tips for protecting your job in today's economy.

--Not Made of Money is gearing up for Black Friday, and she's helping you do the same.

--Tight Fisted Miser has some great ideas for scratching the spending itch without throwing your master plan out the window.

Hopefully, my new coat will be here by Thanksgiving. I think I'm going to hibernate as much as possible until it shows up.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Frugal is as frugal does

So, between buying suits and four pairs of running shoes and workout clothes and a big-ass winter coat (at full price! The horror!), I suspect my frugal street cred has dropped for some people. I think many people (most people?) think of frugality and simple living as just pinching pennies until they scream. Personally, I think there's much more to it than that. In no particular order, here are some characteristics that describe what frugal living means to me:

1. Living within one's means
That's an easy one: it simply means that for frugal people, the income inflow is greater than the outflow. No surprises there.

2. Planning
Frugal people are more future-oriented than present-oriented, and that's reflected in their spending and savings choices. They also tend to be organized: frugal people don't like wasting money on the Stupid Tax, so they track what money is coming in against what's going out to make sure that they don't run up interest-bearing debt or punitive fees for account transgressions like bouncing checks.

3. Spending mindfully
Frugal people think through through purchases carefully and make sure that they're in line with their values as well as their budget. Frugal people see to it that every purchase brings satisfaction, not guilt.

4. Considering opportunity cost
Most of us live in a world of choices dictated by scarcity: we can't possibly afford everything we might want. Before frugal people spend, they consider not only the cost of the purchase but also what else could have been done with the money, aiming to get the most bang for the buck in terms of upping their satisfaction quotient.

5. Balance
Frugal people are not stingy. Stiffing hard-working wait staff or shorting the group check in a restaurant isn't being frugal; it's being selfish, cheap, and obnoxious. On the contrary, frugal people work to balance the feeling of having enough (but not too much) today against preparation for the future, all the while without forgetting to give according to their values and ability.

6. Imperfection
Despite their best intentions, frugal people fall off the wagon sometimes. They don't spend a lot of time agonizing over it; they just pick themselves up and move on.

That's how I look at frugality and simple living. How is your perspective similar or different?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The great coat debate

It's been a rough day. My New York mom was hospitalized for intestinal bleeding on Monday. She appeared to be responding to treatment until last night, when she experienced a sudden and massive loss of blood. Her husband (my New York dad) had to decide on the spot whether to have her colon removed in emergency surgery or let her bleed out. He agreed to the surgery and called me a few minutes later. He was a wreck, so I went over straight away and was up all night doing what I could to help. Thankfully, my New York mom survived the surgery. She was able to have visitors briefly tonight, so I went to see her. I'm glad I did: she's not out of the woods yet, but I think there's a much better chance now that she'll pull through than there was last night.

I finally got to look through the comments on the great coat debate. I also got some private emails on the subject. What a great response; thanks to everyone who weighed in with thoughts and questions.

Before I tell you what I ultimately decided, I'll take a crack at tackling the questions. Here they are, more or less combined and paraphrased:

Will you get enough use out of it, or are winters in New York too short?
Winters vary in New York, but the miserable ones are cold and rotten for three months. Also, I spend a lot of time walking outside since (like most people here) I don't have a car.

Can you find the same thing at a thrift or consignment shop?
Probably. Truthfully, though, I don't have time to go out shopping. The vast majority of clothes shopping I do happens either online or when I'm visiting my mom in the Pacific Northwest.

Can you try the coat on at Sears locally before you buy it?
Not without a long field trip outside of Manhattan. No thanks.

Ebay has a bunch of coats exactly like it for a lot cheaper. Why not buy one of those?
According to the sizing recommendations, I need a Small. The only ones on Ebay were Medium or Extra Large. Also, most of the ones in the photos were photographed lying on some stranger's carpet, which might or might not be clean. That kind of skeezes me out. (Yes, it's a personal quirk.)

Wouldn't it bother you to look like a brown marshmallow?
Nope. (And it would be a black marshmallow, not a brown one.)

Why not buy something more versatile?
I've tried that with the cloth coats I've had over the years. Versatile outerwear and New York City winters don't really play in the same sandbox too well.

Haven't you spent a lot of money on clothes recently?
I have, and let me explain that one a little more. I know that four pairs of running shoes sounds nuts, but I've worked out the general product life cycle for the shoe model that works best for me, so when they get phased out in favor of the next model, I can usually pick up some great bargains. I buy four pairs at a shot because that's about what I use in a year; by the time I'm done with them, the next model life cycle is fading and it's bargain time again.

As far as other athletic clothes go, other than free shirts that I get in races and a couple of cold-weather running shirts and tights that I bought out of desperation two years ago, I haven't replaced my running clothes in seven years. Seven years of regular exercise makes for some serious stank that will no longer wash out. Trust me, upgrading my exercise duds was a public service. I also picked everything up at 65% or more off of retail, except for a few Boston Marathon-branded items that I bought from the Adidas website when they went on sale for 40% off. I'm done shopping for exercise gear for quite a while now, and at this point I'm just waiting for some cold-weather running gloves to arrive so my poor hands don't get quite as frozen this winter.

Finally, people who have been reading for a while will know that I did a major upgrade of my work wardrobe over the past ten months or so. The background on that is that my SO gently pointed out that although our workplace is technically business casual, the senior leadership has been getting much more formal over the past year or two. He reminded me that I was likely to be up for promotion and suggested that I start dressing to reflect that, especially since my work clothes were decidedly showing signs of age. Right around that time, I also read Madame X's excellent advice to dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Over time, I bought six suits and about a week and a half's worth of both short-sleeved summer shirts and long-sleeved winter shirts. For me, it worked out to be a good choice: I like looking more professional, and having a narrowly defined work wardrobe means that I don't have to waste time thinking about what I'm going to wear.

So yes, I've spent a lot of money on clothes this year. I don't think that has any bearing on the coat question as far as I'm concerned, though that's certainly a valid way to look at it.

Can you stay warm by layering?
Not very easily given that I wear suits every day. Suit jackets don't fit nicely over sweaters and vice versa. It's true that I leave most of my jackets in my office, so I suppose layering sweaters over my work shirts would work. Comparing that against a one-time outlay of $125, though, I don't think I want the hassle.

I have that coat in an Extra Small. Wanna buy it?
If I stuffed myself into an Extra Small, I'd probably be arrested for public indecency.

What about that bag you bought? How did that come about since it was a want and not a need?
It was actually a planned want. It came out last spring, but I didn't want to pay through the nose for it; instead, I figured out what to look for to make sure I didn't end up buying a fake and waited for it to pop up on Ebay. It took six months of Ebay presence before I was able to make an offer at the price I wanted, and the timing coincided with a 10% off Ebay coupon that brought the price down to 33% of retail (including the shipping cost!) once the seller accepted my offer. I have not seen one identical to it that has sold for less on Ebay since I started watching, so I think I did pretty well.

As for why I wanted it in the first place: It's that whole professional image thing again, that's all. I don't feel like I can carry a backpack anymore.

You probably figured out what I did in the end, but here's how it happened: I came home from my New York parents' place at 9:00 this morning after zero sleep and fully convinced that my New York mom was going to die. The walk home was freezing. I walked in the door, called the bossman, booted up my PC, logged in, and bought the coat. I don't have any debt and I'm ahead of where I planned to be at this point on topping up the emergency fund, so I am not going to shiver through another winter.

If you've stuck with me this long, here's a little something that I hope you find amusing: it's an artist's rendering of yours truly as a black marshmallow.


Thanks for playing along and sharing your thoughts, and I will surely tell you what I think of the coat when it comes.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thinking about buying a coat: talk me down

Yesterday and today have been far colder and windier than normal for New York at this time of year, and I don't like it. Both days, the cold whipped right through my cloth winter coat and I felt it in my bones.

I'm on my third cloth coat in fifteen years, and I've more or less given up on the idea that I'll ever find one that'll be warm enough. I have a very old down parka that I bought on closeout in 1989 for my first winter in northern Japan, but I think it's reached the end of its useful life. (I thought that before my colleague told me last year that it makes me look homeless, but that certainly didn't help.) Its utility is limited anyway because it's only hip-length; on really cold days, that isn't even close to being enough.

(How's that rationalization working for you so far?)

To cut to the chase, I'm thinking about sinking $125 into this.

One of my friends doesn't think it would be flattering; a couple of others think it would work out really well. Personally, I'm torn: a winter coat is a need rather than a want, but I could make the current cloth one do if I put enough layers under it. That makes this coat a want, not a need.

I think the reluctance I'm feeling stems from the fact that I've been doing quite a lot of shopping lately: in addition to replacing essentially all of my running gear (which involved buying much more than I had initially planned), I recently bought a new carryall bag for the office (65% off but still expensive; most definitely a want, since I have one that's perfectly good), along with four pairs of discounted running shoes (a need given how important running is in my life. Four pairs will take care of my running shoes for an entire year.)

Good people, I have to decide by tomorrow night if I want to get free shipping, which will otherwise be $14. What say you?

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Food drive update

I finished setting up the online food drive on Saturday, and I dropped $500 in to start. Another person on the governing board of the organization I'm working with dropped in $50, so we started with $550.

We went live on Sunday at noonish. 31 hours later, we have just over $1250.

$700 donated in 31 hours.

We are already 42% to goal.

I'm speechless.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Conspicuous consumption is no longer cool

The New York Times published an interesting article in today's paper about how conspicuous consumption is suddenly gauche. In hard times, showing off the latest and greatest trendy gear now smacks of showing etither a distinct lack of common sense or gross insensitivity to people who have lost their jobs and are really struggling.

This has happened before. According to the article, frugality was in after the stock market collapsed in the 1980's, and it briefly reared its head again after 9/11, at least until our fearless leader exhorted us to all show our patriotism by going shopping. In those instances, however, the change to a more frugal mindset was a blip on the radar, not a lasting social change.

It was different in 1929. For some people, the changes they made to survive lasted for the rest of their lives. The article noted that many people who came out of the Great Depression developed and firmly clung to a mindset that one doesn't flaunt one's success, and one definitely doesn't waste money or resources, no matter what.

Coming of age in the late 1980's and being an adult in times of massive conspicuous consumption, I would find it hard to believe that people could live with this mentality, except for one thing: the New York Times' description of the Depression mentality is a bang-on description of my parents. I wrote about what this mentality is like before, so I won't cover old ground. What interests me is whether the mindset I described in that post is likely to become the norm again, as it was in the thirties and during World War II. I'm not so sure it will, to be honest. I think we're just seeing the beginning of Great Depression-like suffering; if things get better in the relatively near term, I think most people will shake it off like a bad dream and go back to their old habits. If things stay bad for a very long time, though, we might see the new frugal mindset become more ingrained. In other words, it's too early to tell.

As for me, I learned from two frugal masters and started practicing simple living myself as a broke-ass grad student, so I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing for the most part.

Tell me about how the economic crisis is changing your outlook on your lifestyle. Are you making major changes now? If so, do you think they'll remain part of your life even when times are better?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Weekend roundup: the rainy day edition

Most of the time, I like rain: it reminds me of home in the Pacific Northwest. There are time I can do without it, though. Being out for a run several miles from home without any money or a Metrocard is one of them. It's been almost twelve hours and my clothes are still hanging up wet in the bathroom.

Without further ado, here's a rainy look around the Frugal Blog Network:

--Kelly at Almost Frugal has a really good guest post up about whether losing weight has a frugal component to it.

--Frugal Babe rocked the thrift store with some great toy purchases.

--The Frugal Duchess has her dream home strategy all worked out.

--Not Made of Money had some good (and timely!) tips for dealing with financial stress.

--Tight Fisted Miser muses about the feasibility of living life on a budget of $500 per month or less.

That done, I'm off to hulu.com for some dry, indoor R&R.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

What I'm doing to help this holiday season

Whenever I have a good idea, invariably someone else thought of it first. For that reason, I don't usually act on ideas right away, especially if they involve asking other people for help or cooperation. As I was planning to donate money to a food bank this holiday season, it suddenly occurred to me that if one donation is good, a whole bunch of donations is better.

A whole bunch of donations pretty much looks like a food drive.

It seemed like a really simple and obvious idea, especially since I belong to a large, commmunity organization that is pretty good about responding to things like that.

Since I thought of it, of course, I figured someone else had thought of it first. . . so I waited.

A couple of weeks later, I still hadn't heard anything about this organization doing a food drive, so I put some feelers out.

As it turned out, this was one of those rare occasions where I really did think of an idea first. At first, the response was a little tentative, so I sat back for a bit and then prodded harder. As of tonight, I officially have approval from the organization's governing body to go ahead with it. Willing volunteers to help organize and coordinate (and hopefully donate as well) are suddenly popping up out of the woodwork, and that's really encouraging: as a result, the money and canned good drive starts on Sunday. I'm dumping $500 in personally, but I'm hoping to raise a lot more than that.

What are you doing to help others during the holidays?

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Frugal tip for online shopping

Two words: discount codes.

Anytime I buy anything off of the internet, I make a point of googling the retailer's name plus either "coupon codes" or "promo codes". Tonight, I hit the jackpot: a coupon for $10 off of a $30 dollar purchase that was supposed to expire on 31 October actually worked.

Cool!

Online coupons don't always work but when they do, they can pay off nicely.

Responses to prior post comments tomorrow. Also, check back in the next day or two and I'll tell you what I'm doing to give a helping hand during a rough holiday season.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

When the bell tolls, maybe it tolls for thee

Recently, I touched briefly on the topic of keeping your job in these hard economic times. Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that layoffs are going to hit hard over the next twelve months. How do you reinvent yourself if you're one of the unlucky many caught up in the wave? Read this guest post by Sean Cundall to learn about your options.

When a person is caught in a layoff, they usually seek to replace their job with another like it. But what if there are no similar jobs? What if you really weren't happy in your old job? There are layoff strategies that can help you deal with situations like these. It might not be easy, but there are ways to reinvent yourself as something you have never been before.

1. If you have been laid off, make sure you receive documentation so you can claim unemployment compensation. Chances are that you will lose your group health insurance coverage and need to look for affordable health insurance coverage while you pay for interim coverage through the COBRA health benefit. Take advantage of all the aid that is available through the Employment Development Department (EDD), such as receiving free retraining for a new profession, help writing a resume, and doing job searches.

2 Take stock of what you have. Consider all your work experience. Experience gained from hobbies or public service. Anything like time management, communication ability or specific skills you think a new employer might need can help.

3. Also, consider your cash on hand. Money will be important for a couple of reasons. It tells you how long you can go without a job. Do you have to work right away, or is there time for retraining first? Money also plays a role in the type of retraining available to you.

4. Once you understand your resources, decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. What do you want to be when you grow up? Don't skimp on these first two steps. Take a few days, or if necessary a few weeks, to be sure you're headed in a good direction. Just realize that nothing is forever. Taking action is probably more important than analyzing at this point.

Then it's as simple, or as hard, as drawing a line between the two points of where you are and where you want to be. This could be easy if the two fields are similar – law enforcement and probation, say. Or it may take a little more effort. Still, everybody has transferrable skills.

What have you done that will help you in your newly chosen career? A minister, for instance, might make a good salesman – or vice versa. Especially if the salesman has been active in church affairs, such as teaching a Sunday School class. Management in one field is, in certain respects, like management in any other. Repackaging your skills may be all that is needed to head you down another path.

But probably not.

You may need a whole new education to move into the field you desire. Or you may just need a little patchwork. If the latter, you may find a community college or professional organization where you can take the courses you need.

Adult learners have become commonplace in all educational venues. If money is tight due to the layoff, options are available for that as well.

In today's education world, all kinds of financial help are available. Contact the schools you're interested and just ask about financial aid, scholarships and loan programs. Classes are available on all kinds of schedules and you can even use the Internet or mail service to get the education you need on your own schedule.

It may not be easy, and you may have to pick up a job that is less desirable while you retrain. But with the right layoff strategies you can be pretty much anything you want when you grow up. . . even if you've been a grownup for forty years.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Weekend roundup: the weekend at home edition

I was supposed to fly out to a conference on Sunday, but on Friday afternoon the leadership decided that all non-essential travel is cancelled, effective immediately. I was secretly pleased: I wasn't really looking forward to this one, and I haven't had enough weekends at home lately.

While I was playing should-I-stay-or-should-I-go, here's some of what happened in the Frugal Blog Network this week:

Kelly at Almost Frugal wrote about getting the most from your appliances.

Frugal Babe saved a few bucks in baking when she went medeival on a coconut.

The Frugal Duchess celebrates Barack Obama's victory by telling what Barack Obama taught her about personal finance.

With the calendar year winding down, Not Made of Money lists out financial things you need to do before the end of the year.

Finally, Tight Fisted Miser shares his Election Day experience with y'all.

That's it for today, and since I'm not clambering onto a plane today, I'm shuffling off for a nap.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Talking to your parents about their finances

I wrote a while ago asking readers what you folks are saying to your children about the economy's version of the green apple two-step. Things are getting bad enough that now I'm wondering what you're saying to your parents. The New York Times published an article today with some thoughts on how to open a very difficult conversation.

As for me, I did this twice fairly recently, once with my own mom and another time with an elderly woman locally who likes to think of herself as my New York mom. My own mom is in good shape: she is off the frugal charts, which she attributes to growing up in the Great Depression. She has half of my dad's Social Security, half of his pension, and her own Social Security as income, and that's worked out to be enough that she doesn't need to touch her investments, which are right down the crapper along with everyone else's, except for some bonds. Even better, all of her income is indexed to rise with inflation. I offered to send her money for extras as a one-time event or monthly as she preferred, but she firmly (and proudly) declined.

My New York mom's situation isn't that good. She's on retirement disability owing to a work-related accident years ago that took one knee entirely out of commission. Her husband (my New York dad) has a business bankruptcy on record: He lost his business in the eighties following a robbery in which he was shot and left to die. Both are in their seventies; even if they were more than marginally employable, it wouldn't be realistic to send them back into the workforce. They sold their co-op apartment right before the housing boom took off, and with one grifting adult child on the dole each month from them, I think they've eaten right through their capital. They have no other investments. One year, my New York mom asked me for a loan of $300 to cover back taxes, and I gave it to her as a gift.

In this dire situation, my New York mom called me a couple of weeks ago to ask if I needed any money. I told her that my job is safe (which it is, for now), that my living expenses are low since I no longer have a mortgage, that I just got a huge raise (which is true), and that I have cash saved up. I then asked her if she needed any money, and she said no.

I don't believe her, and I don't quite know what to do about it. Her husband would be too proud to accept money from me (he never knew about the $300), so I can only help them through my New York mom. I am thinking about slipping her an envelope with $500 when I see them next, but I'm not sure which it would do more, help them or hurt my New York mom's feelings.

I'd be much obliged if you could contribute your thoughts. What would you do?

Have you talked with your parents about their money? If so, how did you approach it and how did it go?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

When the going gets tough, the tough get working

The stock market's meteoric rise on Election Day and subsequent sickening thud back down today came as a stark reminder: the new President-elect needs to get out of the starting gate quickly, because this country's economy is in a shambles. To put it bluntly, I think the wave of layoffs we've already experienced is heading into tsunami territory.

I thought about jotting down some tips for keeping a job and throwing them into an article, but before I got around to it I discovered that my blogger buddy Shadox at Money and Such had already done it. His crack at illustrating common-sense job logic that most of us need to consider came out far better than mine would have, so I'll just tip my hat to the master on this one. Here's a link; you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to read it.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's over

[I removed the widget; NBC cleared the data, so it was crapping out.]

THANK YOU, AMERICA!



Now let's get busy and FIX IT!

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Monitoring your accounts pays off

I'm pretty easygoing about most things, but I carry a Type A streak that manages to manifest itself in a few weird and wonderful ways. My apartment, for example, is almost always very neat. Lining up my silverware with the edge of my napkin gives me immense satisfaction. More importantly (and hopefully it's also less irritating to boot), I check my savings, checking, and credit card accounts every day to make sure that all my transactions are captured properly. I've never had any surprises on that front. . . until today.

When I looked at my checking account this morning, I saw that a check I had deposited on Saturday not only had failed to clear, there was no record of it having existed in the first place.

Eek. Not good.

As you might guess, I called the bank straight away. I always make a point of being really nice to customer service people, and generally it pays off. In this case, the bank found the missing check and credited it to my account within two hours. All's well that ends well, but what if I hadn't checked on my transactions today? Chances are, I'd be out $131 and none the wiser.

In this economy, losing money hurts, all the more so if it's avoidable. All you other folks who are wound a little tight about your finances, I hope you celebrate your compulsion for what it is.

Once in a while, it pays off.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

On election eve

I have no doubt that many of you are as sick of the election as I am, if not more so. I'm not going to waste your time or mine on a long polemic about who to vote for and why. All I'm asking is that if you are a US citizen and a registered voter, vote your mind, vote your conscience, vote your values, or vote your anger.

Just vote.

Thank you.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Weekend roundup: the marathon edition

Sunday is the New York City Marathon, and this year I'll be volunteering on the course. My shift is during the time when the elites come through, and that's always especially exciting.

Here's what happened on the Frugal Blog Network this week:

Kelly at Almost Frugal is taking green a step further with a handmade holiday season. This week, she featured guides on making your own gift bags and wrapping paper.

Over at Frugal Babe, the holiday theme continues with a great post about frugal costumes, some of which even make the grade for everyday wear.

This week, the Frugal Duchess saves money by buying big.

Not Made of Money celebrates the end of harvest season with a list of the meals that will give you the most bang for your buck as autumn begins winding to a close.

Finally, Tight Fisted Miser wrote a post lamenting his habit of procrastination and asking readers to chime in with their own bad financial habits. There are some interesting responses; it's worth checking out.

Best of luck to all the marathoners on Sunday. They only issue ponchos at the finish line and I won't be there, so please don't puke on me this time.

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