Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Coupons and codes and sales, oh my!

From time to time, I come across stories on the internets that talk about how much money people save off of their grocery bills by using coupons.

I just don't see it.

I think there are a few factors at play that really diminish the value of coupons for me, so much so that I don't even look at them most of the time. In no particular order, here they are:

1. No stores in my area double coupons
A fifty-cent coupon becomes much more interesting if it can be doubled to a dollar. For a fifty cent coupon that's just fifty cents, I'm not terribly motivated to go to the effort of cutting it out and remembering to use it.

2. Most of the coupons I get are for things I don't buy
Pretzels are about the only kind of processed food that make it into my shopping cart with some kind of regularity. The rest is all fresh fruit, fresh vegetables (with the occasional frozen corn or peas), dried or canned beans, fresh chicken, and seafood. I also buy bread once in a while, but that's either the artisan kind without processed sugar or high fructose corn syrup, or the Trader Joe's high fiber whole wheat or multigrain, which, if I remember correctly, contains no sweeteners at all. That limits my coupon use to essentially cleaning and personal hygiene products.

Admittedly, I could probably benefit from coupons to some extent in those departments, except for one thing:

3. I heart Costco
Buying non-perishables in bulk on the West Coast rocks, even if I have to drag them back home on the return trip. I haven't yet run into a situation where the price differential from coupons outweighs the benefit of buying in bulk at Costco.

On the other hand, whenever I'm buying something online, I scour the internet for discount codes or promo codes from sites like Retail Me Not. Similarly, I always accept friends and family discounts from, well, friends and family who work for retailers. I've managed to significantly cut my costs when making non-grocery purchases like running gear or other clothing this way.

Do you have any tips or tricks of the trade in cutting your grocery bill or other retail shopping costs? Please share.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

They ask, you answer

Over the last couple of weeks, readers have posted a couple of questions that I thought were so interesting that they deserve a post of their own.

I'm So Pretty said:
It would be interesting to hear what even the most frugal shoppers look back on as a disaster (non-frugal) purchase even though it seemed to make sense at the time. Mine would be the roomba I bought years ago. It never did clean as well as I thought it would, and because the manufacturer introduces upgrades to it all the time, I can't even give my old one away on ebay now. Total waste of $200 that was SUPPOSED to save me all sorts of time every day :)

That's a fascinating question. For me, I guess the answer would be my old Palm Pilot, the black and white original model. I bought it retail without checking to see if there were any employer discounts available. I don't think it had email or phone functionality, and the stylus seemed to translate my writing mostly as nonsense or swears.

(Oh wait. Maybe I was actually writing nonsense or swears.)

In the end, I dropped over $300 on this idiotic machine that was supposed to make me uber-productive, but ultimately did nothing more than aggravate me.

Readers, what say you?

The other great question that came up recently was from goldsmith, who wrote:
Has anyone observed the phenomenon that men who apply for jobs and don't get them because they are not qualified enough (as in: falling short of requirements by several miles), file gender discrimination suits or at least think about it?

I work in a very male-dominated environment, but I haven't seen this. Maybe it's because we haven't been hiring lately. I did once rescind an offer because the candidate wasn't happy with the salary amount and hurled abuse at the recruiter. After I withdrew the offer, the candidate proceeded to email and telephone stalk me so severely that I actually asked for extra building security. That was a situation resulting from bad judgment on my part and anger issues on his part, rather than gender discrimination. (I ultimately hired a man for the job, and he's turned out to be a superstar.)

Other perspectives?

If you have any specific topic ideas or questions you'd like to see featured here, feel free to mail them in to frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

The bathroom of my discontent

My bathroom is gnarly.

When I bought my apartment in 2001, the whole thing was a showplace. The previous owner was an architect and renovating his apartment was his hobby. This is why I have concrete (as in sidewalk concrete) countertops, kitchen cabinets with touch-sensitive lights, custom built-in shelves and cabinetry work, and an open kitchen with plenty of workspace instead of a closed-in, windowless, claustrophobic nightmare like the other apartments in my line.

As part of the renovations, the architect yanked a very 1980's vanity out of the bathroom and replaced it with a wall-mounted sink and a custom cabinet made of nice-looking but cheaply constructed wood veneer and particleboard. He also covered up mildewed grout with a fresh, nice-looking dose of caulk.

The bathroom looked nice before I moved in. I'm no handywoman myself, but even I realized fairly early on that the previous owner did a pretty half-assed job on it. The veneered wood in the bathroom was never sealed, the importance of which I discovered only after a sizeable patch of mildew had developed. I borrowed a sander in hopes of sanding down the spot, and that's how I discovered that the top was veneer and that there wasn't much of it.

The end result was significantly worse than the original mold. I didn't have many options (spending money on it was out of the question), so I sealed the whole thing, ugly spot and all, and left it.

It's a classy establishment I live in, all right.

Meanwhile, the nice-looking caulk peeled away not long after I moved in, uncovering some unpleasant-looking mildew stains which have since worsened. No amount of Ajax and effort with scrubbing brush have made more than a temporary and very minor difference.

All in all, seven and a half years after moving in, the bathroom is pretty grotty-looking and I'm a bit embarrassed. I've been hesitant to do anything major about it both because of the horrendous cost of renovations in New York and because of the fact that a bathroom is, well, important. . . and I only have one. I can shower at the gym for a week or two, but I am way too type A to be very flexible about the other main reason for having a bathroom.

I finally hit my breaking point earlier this week when I read a New York Times article noting how far home renovation prices have fallen. This being New York, a full bathroom renovation even in this economy would cost about $20,000, but I decided that if that's what it took to bring the bathroom up to the level of niceness that the rest of the apartment is, I'd pay it and do my part to get the US economy moving again.

The next step was to ask for guidance from my building's management agent, and that's what freaked me the hell out. Understandably, for a full-on gut renovation of one or more rooms, the building has some fairly stringent requirements and liability protections. I wasn't really planning on stretching my budget to include an architect, but that's one of the many unexpected cost centers that can and probably would send my costs through the ceiling.

This is where being frugal helps: I made a list of things that I want to change about the bathroom and prioritized them. It was pretty clear up front that although a gut reno would be nice, I probably don't need a full one in order to make the place much more attractive and livable. I'm not wild about the floor tile, for example, but it's an okay neutral and I can live with it. I don't have the space to shift the layout around, and I actually really like the wall-mounted sink and was planning on keeping it anyway. The final renovation list looks like this:

1. Re-grout the wall tile
2. Replace the cabinetry with a custom job - preferably hard wood, but not necessarily if there's a better option given the high level of humidity in there.
3. Replace the toilet

My SO knows how to do numbers 1 and 3 and beamed when I asked him to teach me, so we're going to have a crack at doing the work ourselves over Memorial Day Weekend. Number 2 is a little more complicated, but given how small the space is, I can't imagine that even a custom job would cost more than a thousand dollars. All in all, I think we can make the place much nicer and significantly less gnarly for about ten percent of the original cost estimate I came up with, and that makes my money-saving heart sing with joy.

Renovations: Any horror stories or DIY nightmares you want to share before I take the plunge?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Winners and losers

Okay, it's official: The winners of the f.z. free printing giveaway are as follows:

One thousand standard size business cards: Julia!

Five hundred standard size brochures: Daphne Chan!

Julia and Daphne, please shoot me an email at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll get you set up with your prizes.

Are you a business with something neat to give away?
I'd be glad to help.

In less thrilling news
We had a third round of layoffs at work. This time, an entire division got the boot. I was expecting this one; there was a persistent rumor that it was happening, but the date I kept hearing was June.

I'm glad it's not me. I'm sorry for the folks who got cut.

This is a great reminder of the critical importance of having a well-stocked emergency fund. The conventional wisdom before the economy went down the crapper was to set aside three months of expenses at a bare minimum, and preferably six months. Now, however, most of the recommendations I see suggest holding at least a year of cash reserves on hand.

While I would never ordinarily suggest that anyone stop investing for retirement, if you're at risk of layoff and your emergency fund isn't too healthy, this would be a good time to divert 401(k) and IRA money into cash savings for a while. Missing out on investing opportunities hurts but it sure won't hurt as much as selling underwater investments, cashing out retirement funds, or racking up credit card debt to make ends meet.

If your emergency fund is low, this is also a good time to re-evaluate your lifestyle and think about where you can realistically cut back. Obvious things to chop include cable TV, the gym, and eating out. Less obvious things require a little more thought and creative substitutions, like buying more beans and less meat or getting out a needle and thread to mend holey socks instead of buying new ones right away. If nothing else, it might make you feel more motivated and a little less stressed. Doing something to help your own situation is always better than doing nothing at all.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours
My emergency fund right now is $33,000, which is enough to cover about a year and a half of expenses, possibly up to two years if I cut right to the bone. I don't believe in leaving much to chance in this economy, so I'm continuing to add to it while dumping money into longer-term investments.

How much is in your emergency fund right now, and how long will it last if you need to tap it?

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Odds and ends, and Citizen Zeitgeist

I'm just back from a very short but very fun few days on the West Coast. Thanks to well-organized kindness and hospitality from a number of different people, it also happened to be a very frugal few days, too. A flurry of lunch invitations, dinner invitations, a spare room and the loan of a bike meant that the only costs for a long weekend out West were:

--Plane ticket
--Transportation to the airport
--Lunch out one day (in which everyone paid for themselves)
--Dinner out one day (in which I treated my host as a thank-you)
--A pound of coffee for my SO
--Cookies from a well-known New York bakery featured on the Food Network, which I gave out as thanks to everyone else's hospitality

The plane ticket was $299.00; the rest of the weekend came in just under $100.00. That's my kind of travel!

As a side note for travelers, flying has gotten decidedly unpleasant. Between reduced flight schedules, reduced legroom, and people dragging everything they possibly can on board to avoid baggage check charges (understandable), the crowding is severe and I noticed this time that tempers were getting quite frayed in both directions.

Until fairly recently, as a small woman often traveling alone in an aisle seat, I've occasionally been asked by other passengers to trade seats. Before the legroom situation got so dire, I usually traded on request; now, the requests happen at least once per trip and I always politely decline.

I don't feel guilty about this.

On this trip, the trade requests set a new record: On the outbound flight, a tall man asked me to swap his window seat for my aisle seat. I politely said that I'd rather not, and then listened with great amusement while he informed his wife, who was sitting between us, that I was a mean, nasty bitch. (The wife was horrified and responded If I were her, I wouldn't trade, either!) On the return flight, a man asked for my aisle seat so he could sit by his family. This was an interesting reason to ask for a trade, since the family was two rows behind me but also two rows ahead of the requestor's assigned window seat - so his net gain would have been zero, except for the nice perk of sitting on the aisle. Meanwhile, the woman next to me had a son sitting in a middle seat behind her. She plaintively sighed to her other son that it would be just great if they had been able to book the aisle seat as well, and then looked pointedly at me.

A middle seat?

I smiled vaguely and opened a magazine.

In short, if you're going anywhere in coach class by air anytime soon, be sure to bring your own food and as much patience as you can muster. You'll need it. If an aisle seat is important to you, as it is to me even with my stumpy little legs, then please don't count on the kindness of strangers: there isn't much of that on planes these days, so be sure to plan accordingly.

And finally. . . I was as pleased as all get out this weekend to discover that on April 17, I woke up Canadian. Did you?



I'm applying for my citizenship card next weekend. Dual citizenship is a beautiful thing.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chase those spending blues away

I usually write about frugality from the perspective of saving money, but that's really only part of the picture. Frugality is about living below one's means, no question about it, but it's also about spending mindfully and in accordance with one's values. Frugal living is no shame, no blame: if you spend less than you earn and only spend on things that are meaningful and important to you instead of frittering away money on the dreck of the moment, there's not a whole lot to feel guilty about.

Things that I think are worth my frugal dollar include:

--Good coffee
--Fresh fruit and vegetables
--A glass or two of red wine per week
--Good running shoes and athletic wear
--Membership at a very nice gym
--Fresh flowers
--Appropriate, conservative office attire
--A Bose Wave II music system
--Nice-looking bed linens

None of these things have to break the bank. Here's how I save money on each and every one of them:

--Coffee: I buy it in bulk at Costco when I'm out West and store it air-tight and in a cool, dry place
--Fresh fruit and vegetables: I buy in-season, sale items (sometimes organic, but not always) whenever possible and make a point of using them up in lunches and dinners.
--Red wine: Three buck Chuck is fine for my personal schnozzle. There are many good Australian wines for under $10 per bottle, and that's what I buy for guests.
--Running shoes and gear: I've figured out the general product life cycle for the shoes I like, so I buy four pairs at a pop online when they become discontinued. That's enough to last a year or more. I'm a sucker for cute athletic togs, but I've found a couple of good online sources of discounted athletic wear, and I use what I have until the stank doesn't wash out any longer.
--Membership at a nice gym: There's no way to keep this cheap other than to make sure that I use it enough to justify the cost. . . and I do!
--Fresh flowers: In spring and summer, this is about a once a month indulgence. My price limit is $6, and that's enough for a beautiful spray of tulips in season.
--Office wear: I always buy suits on sale. I keep my jackets in my office so I can just throw on the right one to match whatever skirt or pants I'm wearing. (Not commuting in my jackets saves on dry cleaning.) I buy all of my work shirts at Target and iron them myself instead of sending them out.
--Bose: The Wave II was a gift, but I definitely would have bought one myself. I use it daily, and after eight years it's still going strong.
--Bed linens: I usually buy a duvet cover and pillow cases at Crate and Barrel when they go on sale. Instead of buying matching sheet sets, I buy complementary plain sheets at Target for much less money.

There are ways to save money on just about anything that's not strictly a necessity but important to you all the same. What sorts of non-necessities brighten your life, and how do you keep them from breaking the bank?

I have a chaotic couple of days coming up, and then I'm off to the Left Coast for a long weekend on Thursday. Check back here for a new post on Sunday or thereabouts.

Enjoy your weekend. I plan to.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Advice to the next generation

The sun is shining, spring flowers are in bloom, and graduation is just around the corner for high school and college seniors alike.

The class of 2009 is getting a pretty raw deal this year, don't you think?

The New York Times offered some interesting advice to college seniors today. There were no real show-stoppers, but the good-sense tips included thinking beyond Wall Street for finance grads, leveraging the career services office on campus, volunteering or doing internships if paid work isn't available, using online resources, and taking whatever job one can get (latte-maker and all) to ride out the recession.

That's all well and good for college seniors, but what about the younger folk?

I don't know any high school seniors personally, but if a high school student facing graduation asked my advice, I'd probably say something like this:

Go to college
A middle class lifestyle is harder and harder to obtain without at least a couple of years of college under your belt. Education is a tremendous virtue in its own right, but it'll also help you get your foot in the door with many employers.

If college isn't for you, then get a trade
Some trade jobs can't realistically be outsourced. We don't have much in the way of manufacturing in the US anymore and it's hard to make a buck with many service jobs, but skilled tradesmen like plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics will always be in demand.

Don't create an enormous debt burden while you're a student
There are many ways to make college more affordable. A great many students start out at community colleges and later on, transfer to four year schools. Others work part time all the way through school. (I did. At a bare minimum, it'll make you a really good time manager.) Still others go to schools where they land scholarships, or even attend universities abroad, where non-citizen tuition is still cheaper than the average university education in the US. Student loans can hamstring your finances for decades. Keeping them as low as possible will make a huge difference to your financial future.

Of course, it should also go without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that you should avoid carrying credit card debt like the plague, and please: Don't take out student loan money and go shopping with it.

Start thinking about your career now
Don't wait: start taking advantage of any opportunities you can to tie your education to your interests, and be open to exploring fields outside of your major. Internships and part-time jobs aren't the only way to to do this: talking to the parents of your friends or friends of your parents about their careers is a great way to get a sense of whether you could see yourself doing the same kind of work someday. If you get an invitation to visit someone's workplace for a day, by all means take it.

Live abroad
This is a personal bias of mine: I think everyone should spend at least six months in another country, preferably on a homestay program. There is no greater opportunity to open one's mind, broaden one's horizons, and challenge one's beliefs than to live in another culture and learn another language. This is one of the experiences that help shape and develop a young person's character, and I think the immediate post-high school years are the best possible time for this kind of learning, growth, and adventure.

Those are just a few suggestions that I'd offer to the high school class of 2009. Based on where your life has taken you since you were eighteen, what kind of advice would you give?

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Revising expectations downwards

Last week, I posted about a scary financial dream that really shook me up. A number of commenters mentioned having similarly stressful, anxiety-ridden dreams about the economy. It turns out that we're part of a much larger phenomenon: The New York Times published an interesting article today about how people in relatively stable financial circumstances are experiencing rising anxiety over the state of the economy.

I think the heart of the anxiety for many of us is rooted in the fact that expectations for the future have drastically changed, and mostly not for the better. Job losses, melting 401(k)s, and declining home values are changing the shape of retirement expectations for many. In terms of the immediate future, the tightening of consumer credit has resulted in a rude awakening for people who carry credit card balances: as credit limits have dropped, more and more people are finding that previously low interest rates are suddenly exploding through the roof and exacerbating economic pain.

My expectations for the immediate future haven't changed much, other than having a somewhat lower sense of security than I did a year ago.

Retirement, however, is a different story.

Before the recession, I saw my retirement looking something like this: retire at 60 with a decent pension and considerable savings, and then spend my golden years bopping between homes on two coasts and traveling gloriously around the world for months at a time.

And what about now?

I think my retirement will be smaller than it is today. I still want to retire at 60 and I'm aggressively saving to support that goal, but I think it's reasonable to expect some trade-offs: Most likely, my retirement income will be less than I originally thought. I still want to have homes on two coasts, but they're likely to be condos instead of houses. I hope I can still travel around the world, but it'll probably be coach instead of business class and bed and breakfasts instead of nice hotels.

In other words, instead of being bigger and better, I think my standard of living in retirement is likely to look very similar to the life I have today.

I'm actually pretty okay with that. In fact, after seeing how expectations have changed for the worse for so many other people, the prospect of maintaining my current standard of living over time is encouraging.

Have your short-term or long-term expectations for the future changed as a result of the recession? If so, how? If not, why not?

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The first f.z. giveaway

Free is a very good price and if you need printing done, it doesn't get better than this.

The good people at UPrinting.com are offering two great prizes for f.z. readers: One thousand FREE standard size business cards, and five hundred FREE standard size brochures. For either prize, you can choose any of UPrinting's standard stocks. Winners in the US or Canada qualify for free shipping; outside of the US and Canada, shipping fees apply.

But how do I win?

It's easy: Just leave a comment on this post indicating which prize you want and describing how you'll use it (creativity encouraged!), and make sure you submit your entry before 5:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, April 21. I'll announce the winners that night.

It doesn't matter to me whether you're branding your business, branding yourself, or just want cute new cards for giggles: all entries are welcome.

Good luck!

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Monthly roundup: the sunscreen edition

I busted out the sunscreen this morning for my gallop around Central Park. What a gorgeous day! There's nothing quite like going out and enjoying the sunshine, especially since it doesn't cost a frugal cent.

In this month's roundup, here's what went on in the Frugal Blog Network:

--Kelly at Almost Frugal brought up a topic that will be a great help to many who are struggling right now: building a successful budget.

--Frugal Babe found a non-scammy way to get her credit score for free.

--The Frugal Duchess muses about a second life, and she's not talking about the computer world.

--Dana at Not Made of Money knows that eating on a budget doesn't have to translate into the Dollar Menu.

--Tight Fisted Miser also did a review of his 2009 goals after the first quarter of the year. Here's how he did.

I don't know about you, but I'm going back outside. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

The tax man cometh. . . and leaveth

This year, I put off getting my taxes done until the end of March. I did this for a couple of different reasons: First and foremost, I didn't want to pester my late accountant's family about my records so soon after his death. (I've been in touch with his daughter, but only to express condolences and fond memories of her dad.) Second, after two big raises in two years and half a year without a mortgage, I figured I'd owe the IRS an arm and a leg and I wanted to put the reckoning off as long as possible.

I finally had my taxes done a week ago with the firm that assumed my late accountant's practice. This is a two-man outfit, and I like them tremendously: they're licensed CPA's, former IRS employees, and very down to earth New Yorkers who respected my unwillingness to get creative with deductions. They also came up with a pleasant surprise: I'm netting a little over $3000 in refunds.

My first thought: TRAVEL!!!

I specifically opted not to take a vacation anywhere over the last few years because my family needed me before, during, and after my dad's death. This is nothing new; my last vacation that didn't involve trooping out to visit my family and help out around home was seven years ago.

I've lived abroad and traveled a lot internationally for work, so I've managed to bolt a day or two of sightseeing onto to a business trip pretty frequently. I've also taken a number of weekend trips for running events or just for fun, but thanks to family obligations my only strictly-fun travels as an adult that have lasted longer than two days were a trip to Ecuador and nine days in Paris to celebrate my friend's wedding.

Remember, I'm forty. That's two real vacations in eighteen years.

Meanwhile, my SO has been agitating for us to take a trip together for the last two years, and late last year I promised that we would do it sometime in 2009. He's from Europe and really wants to show me his homeland (which I've been to before, but only three days in the capital for a meeting). A month or so ago, we picked a week in July and booked free (!!!) flights on our air miles.

I've quietly agonized about the cost of this trip ever since, especially since the dollar continues to get spanked abroad. Most of my concern was focused on the fact that I couldn't see any way of taking this trip without cutting my savings goal for the year, and I really hated the thought of doing that.

When I found out I was getting a sizeable refund, I was giddy with relief. For the first time, I feel like I can really, finally, unreservedly look forward to a week of complete and total freedom on a real growed-up holiday.

Booyah!

Are you getting a refund this year? If so, what are you doing with it?

Whether you get a refund or not, are you taking a trip this year? If so, where are you going and why?

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Horrible financial dream

Last night I woke up at 4:00 am, thanks to a nightmare. I dreamed that my role at work had been phased out (which is nice-speak for firing someone and dressing it up like a layoff) and that I had no severance and no savings.

I know where the dream came from: a friend got laid off yesterday, and I heard about an employee at my workplace in a different location who was eased out the door in exactly the way I dreamed just a day before that.

The dream was so vivid and so powerful that the first thing I did when I got to work was check all of my bank and investment accounts to prove to myself that I'm not broke. Despite the recent stock market rally, I still have very bad losses in my portfolio.

But I'm not broke. Not even close.

The bossman took me out to lunch today to talk strategy. When I had the chance, I did a temperature check on my performance: Are you getting everything you need from me? Did the budget numbers I gave you make sense? How's the level of communication? What kind of feedback are you hearing about the team?

The bossman is really happy with how things are going, and there's no sign just yet that the next layoff wave (which may or may not happen, but I think it's more likely than not) will hit our group directly.

Even with all of these reassurances, I'm still feeling a little affected by the nightmare.

Welcome to the new economy. Has it made its way into your nightmares yet?

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