Sunday, May 31, 2009

Victory is mine

I finally nailed getting homemade pizza crust to come out right on a baking stone. RA!

You were looking for something interesting? Move along, nothing to see here. Topic ideas welcome at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com.

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How do you make frugality fun?

Since we're about to spend a bunch of money traveling to Europe, my SO and I have been making a concerted effort over the last couple of months to have fun without spending a lot. Some of the things we've done include:

--Cutting back eating out in favor of cooking together.
--On the occasions we do eat out, we try to grab happy hour specials. If that doesn't work, we often have a glass of wine at home before going out instead of ordering it with dinner.
--As far as wine goes, I've largely converted him to Three Buck Chuck.
--Exercise dates of walking, hiking, or cycling.
--Borrowing DVDs from friends and watching them at home.
--Helping each other out on our respective home improvement projects. (Disclaimer: I tweaked a weakness in my back while helping to shift 800 pounds of sheetrock a few weeks ago, and it's still acting up.)
--Free concerts and museum nights.

What else can you add to the list, especially for kids?

As you can probably tell, I'm a little shy on topic ideas again. If there's anything you want to discuss in this space, feel free to email me at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

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Friday, May 29, 2009

But I'm a pretty, pretty princess

According to an article I read on MSNBC, princess fever is sweeping the little-girl demographic in the US. According to the article, media saturation of princess themes and images in programs and stories aimed at little girls is encouraging narcissistic tendencies at an early age. The article noted that parents can get caught up in the princess mentality, placing their little princesses on little princessy pedestals and bowing to their tender whims - an attitude that is distinctly out of line with the frugality that is becoming the new (I think temporary) prevailing mindset in the US.

Many parents feel that princess obsession is just a stage that little girls naturally enter when they learn to recognize their individuality and sense of self, eventually growing out of it. Other parents fear that an overindulgence in princessdom will encourage nascent entitlement tendencies that could morph into full-blown adult greed and selfishness, so they cope by either putting time boundaries around playing princess or by stopping princess play when undesirable behavior starts to erupt. Still others have adapted princess-world concepts into their parenting as a way to motivate cooperation or positive attitudes.

I remember having a very active imaginary life when I was little, although I think it relied more heavily on ducks than anything else. (What can I say? I liked ducks.) I don't think playing duck with imaginary duck friends left me with any lasting negative behavior or attitude issues. Of course, I realize that ducks don't have defined ideal qualities like compassion or kindness, and they also don't have any built-in expectations that are reinforced by media imagery, like beauty or wealth. It seems to me, though, that kids' play is simply kids' play, until it's not - and it reaches the point of not being kids' play when parents fall into the extreme of letting kids' play dictate how and with what level of authority they interact with their children. That's where I think the possibility of developing spoiled, entitled children becomes a risk.

What do you think of princess fever? Is it shaping the younger generation's expectations, behavior, and/or view of the world in either a positive or negative way? How?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The secret life of discount programs

A regular reader from Oz who wrote in with a topic question once before came up with another interesting topic idea, and I wanted to share it with you. Our reader writes:

I have been overwhelmed lately by the proliferation in "customer loyalty" programs here in Australia, and the pressure (blackmail?) retailers put on customers to join. Every time I buy something (clothing, shoes, bedding, a cup of coffee, a cinema ticket ... just about anything) the sales assistant asks if I'm a member of [insert name of retailer's] club or program, then tries to sign me up. I politely refuse, as I hate the idea of all these organizations adding me to their databases, tracking my purchases, and probably spamming me mercilessly. As I see it (and I may sound paranoid, but so be it!) "loyalty" programs are merely data mining exercises, aimed at finding out what makes customers tick so that they can be fleeced with increasing sophistication. Most people I know don't care (or don't know) about the data mining implications of signing up to these programs, and blithely accept every membership card going. Even small and seemingly unconnected businesses are getting in on the act ... the other day I bought some unscented shampoo from a little hippie-style health food shop, and they said "we have 20% off today for members ... want to join"?, and of course, looked quite shocked when I said no.

We don't have coupons (that I am aware of, at least) in Australia, but in some ways I think that the numerous "loyalty" programs are much more insidious, as there is no way of taking advantage of them anonymously. If you want the discounts, you are expected to hand over all sorts of personal data. For my part, I am, so far, accepting that I'll sometimes have to pay higher prices, and that this a choice I make in order to maintain my privacy. Maybe not a frugal choice, but one I am more comfortable with, than sharing my personal details with all and sundry.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear what others think of these programs.


We also have these programs in the US, and they skeeze me out a little bit as well. I don't like the idea of offering up my personal data to make marketing more effective, but I do want the discounts. I have one loyalty card at the moment, and here's how I use it:

1.) I signed up using a fake name and fake demographic information. (I actually left most of the questions blank.) The clerk never even looked at my application.

2.) I never buy anything with the card unless it's already on sale. I like to think that that hinders the collection of useful data, but in all honesty I don't know if it does or not.

Do you use store loyalty cards? What do you think of the data mining aspect of these programs?

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Monday, May 25, 2009

You said you wanted pictures (updated)

Before


I know! I know! It's horrible!!! The only before picture I took was the worst corner, which had been badly attacked by mildew. None of the rest looked that great, but it didn't look this bad, either.

After


I'm happy with how it came out.

To answer a prior question: Yes, I had help from someone who knows how to do this. There's no way I could have done it alone. . . but I think I could now if I had to do it again.

I'll edit this post with more comments tonight.

More comments:
This was HARD and it took about two full days of work, but it was so worth it! Here's how we did it:

Thursday: SO and I spent the evening getting rid of the old stuff. I scraped out all the grout in the entire bathroom manually (and THAT is one mofo of an ugly job), and he dug out years and layer upon layer of caulk. The caulk was only about 30% done by the time the grout was all out, so we added more caulk dissolver and called it a night.

Friday: We went over the grout again for missing bits and scooped out more old caulk. Then, since there was still more old caulk left, we switched to actual grouting. SO did the heavy lifting with the grouting since I was too slow to keep the grout from starting to dry out. I cleaned up the haze instead. Friday night, I had another go at the caulk again. About 75% in total was out by the time I was done, so I put on more caulk dissolver.

Saturday: I got the rest of the caulk out (and cracked a tile doing it, unfortunately). Then I grouted down to the joins between the wall and tub.

Sunday: I sealed the grout with three coats of sealant. I left SO to do the re-caulking while I made dinner.

The entire project cost about $90 in supplies. (I'm not counting making dinner for SO or taking SO out for dinner and a movie in my total project costs.)

The larger bathroom project as a whole consists of three things: regrouting and recaulking (done), replacing the cabinetry, and replacing the toilet. I have a cabinetmaker coming on Friday to give me a first estimate on the cabinetry, and I'm buying a new toilet in the next three to four weeks.

This project is a good example of the Pareto principle in action. The Pareto principle is simple: it posits that for many events, 80% of the impact is triggered by 20% of the cause. In this case, 80% of the problem (bathroom hatred) is caused by 20% of the overall unappealing aesthetic. When I was first considering a gut reno in there, my list of things I want to change about my bathroom looked like this:

--Disgusting mildew problem in the grout and caulk
--Crumbling grout
--Sloppy caulking
--Very old toilet
--Flimsy, water-damaged cabinetry that isn't optimized for space
--No exhaust fan
--Want to switch toilet and sink locations
--Want to replace floor tile
--Want to replace wall tile

As I looked into my building's renovation rules, I learned that I can't put in an exhaust fan or switch the toilet or sink locations. As a result, I had to decide between a small project that would be cheap and solve all of the things I wanted to change except the floor and wall tile replacement, or do a big, honking renovation, take out an extra million dollars in liability insurance (!), and possibly have nowhere to bathe for months. On top of that, the cost of the small project is likely to be around $2000 plus a few days of sweat equity, depending on how much the cabinetry work is.

The cost of the large project? I figured on about $20,000.

I decided that changing the floor and wall tiles wasn't going to give me $18,000 worth of happiness. In addition, once I benchmarked both projects against the Pareto principle (which I use regularly in my job), I realized that addressing 20% of what I hate about my bathroom is going to result in about 80% of what I wanted.

For me, 80% is enough.

When has an 80% solution worked for you? (And how do you like my new grout?)

Now if you'll excuse me. . . I'm off to take a shower.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

And the skeletons come crawling out

Remember last week's rant about the New York Times economics reporter who made a couple of very bad financial decisions and is about to lose his house?

There's more to the story (and indeed the book) than it seems, and that additional part is not so very pretty. I mentioned in my post that author Edmund Andrews threw quite a lot of blame at his wife for not worrying about nickels and dimes when it came to Starbucks, clothes, groceries, and the like. It seemed a little unfair at the time, and I took him to task for it in my post.

According to new information since then, the Mrs. has not one but two bankruptcies on record. The second one was when she and Andrews were married, and neither one is documented in either the book or the article. Reading through the new information from the Atlantic, this paragraph jumped out at me:

Moreover, pesky bad luck isn't really the picture painted by either filing. Rather, Ms. Barreiro seems to have spent most of the last two decades living right up to the edge of her income, and beyond, and then massively defaulting. If you structure your finances so that absolutely everything has to go right, it's hard to blame the mortgage company when you don't quite make it.

If this analysis is correct, it looks like the Mrs. has some serious problems managing money, and that the couple structured the bankruptcy so that the Mrs. would take the dings on her credit (which probably wasn't great anyway) while the income generated by the Mr. was protected. Unless the couple declared completely separate assets in a pre-nup before they got married, this doesn't seem completely fair.

Setting aside the issue of fairness for the moment: As someone with a solid economics background, how is it that under these dire financial circumstances Andrews could have continued on blithely thinking that he could afford his house?

But wait, there's more!

Andrews provided a rebuttal to his critics. Here are a few of his key points and my responses:

These bankruptcies did occur, but they had nothing to do with our mortgage woes. They were both tied to old debts from before we were married or bought a house. They had nothing to do with my ability to get a mortgage; nor did they have anything to do with our subsequent financial problems.

Oh, rilly? Two bankruptcies and the financial events leading up to them isn't a great big fat ginormous warning sign that something's not right?

The first bankruptcy in 1998, five years before Patty and I got together. It occurred because Patty's former husband, a producer of TV commercials in Los Angeles, didn't file income tax returns for five years. Patty, who was a stay-at-home mom and wasn't earning money, was blindsided. She had been signing returns, but he hadn't actually been filing them. Because her husband's business income was reported on their personal tax returns, she had to join him in the bankruptcy filing.

Signing returns isn't enough. Why wasn't she involved enough with the finances to realize that they weren't either receiving refunds or sending money to federal and state governments? I might go down in flames for this, but I really believe that both partners in a relationship need to be able to account for household income and outflow. When the couple has a good relationship with money, it's a teamwork thing. If the relationship for money isn't so good, it's self-protection. How can one partner spot bad things from happening with household finances and take action if he or she is completely checked out?

Patty's second bankruptcy stemmed from a loan she received from her sister, while Patty was still living in Los Angeles. At the time, she was caring for four children, working for very modest pay, and receiving almost no child support from her ex-husband. (Despite multiple court orders, he remains chronically delinquent on untold thousands of dollars.)

When Patty couldn't repay, her sister followed her east and sued her. I offered to pay off the loan by withdrawing money out of my 401k, but I wasn't allowed to because the purpose didn't qualify as a "hardship." Without an alternative, Patty had no choice but to seek bankruptcy protection.


I can't really comment on this one because I don't have any knowledge of bankruptcy law or 401(k) withdrawl rules. The dates on this interest me, though: Andrews took out his monster mortgage in 2004. The bankruptcy happened in 2007. Did no one in that household contemplate the prospect of selling a house they couldn't afford in the first place to stave off a second bankruptcy?

Now, having said that: Andrews and Barreiro loved the house, and I can see why they wouldn't want to sell. Nevertheless, I don't think Andrews is telling the whole story here, either. Let's go back to the story that outed the bankruptcies:

The bankruptcy code requires filers to wait 8 years after a previous Chapter 7 discharge. Barely four months after she became eligible, Patty Barreiro filed again. And the filing shows some suggestion of strategic debt management.

Ms. Barreiro filed separately from Andrews, and had to amend the filing to include Andrews' income after a complaint from a creditor who wanted to force her into a Chapter 13 repayment plan. She filed when her income was at rock bottom, consisting only of unemployment; the timing may have just excluded having to declare $5,000 in freelance editing income Andrews mentions in the book. And she shed what appear to be jointly incurred debts, such as a Comcast account. Comcast does not service the address listed on the 1998 filing, but as I can attest (to my sorrow), it is the main cable provider in Silver Spring, where she moved to live with Andrews in 2004.


Do you see anything about a sister suing for loan repayment in there? I don't, but I do see that a creditor - presumably not the sister - was trying to force Barreiro into Chapter 13. It sounds like Barreiro was seriously overextended and that the the sister was merely one creditor out of a bunch.

I was disgusted when I read Andrews' original article. Now I'm vitriolic. Does the new information (including Andrews' response) make you see his story any differently? Why or why not?

Adventures in DIY/grout update next post.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I'm goin' in

When the toilet in Carol Taddei’s master bathroom began to break down a few months ago, she decided it would be cheaper to buy a new one than pay for repairs. Ever frugal in this dismal economy, Ms. Taddei, a retired paralegal, then took her economizing a step further, figuring she could save even more by installing the new toilet herself.

Initially, things looked good with the flushing and the swishing. That is, until the ceiling collapsed in the room below the new (leaky) toilet. Rushing to get supplies for a repair, Ms. Taddei clipped a pole in her garage. It ripped the bumper off her car, and later, several shelves holding flower pots and garden tools collapsed over her head.

“It just kept getting worse,” Ms. Taddei said, ruefully describing what came out to be a $3,000, three-day renovation at her suburban Minneapolis home, finished by a professional from Mr. Handyman, a home repair service that takes emergency calls.

With the sour economy has come a class of ambitious do-it-yourselfers who are tackling things that, before the days of rampant penny-pinching, might have been left to paid professionals. An unlucky few like Ms. Taddei have learned that being thrifty sometimes comes at a high price and can bring along with it a new scourge of the times: saver’s remorse.


Memorial Day weekend is fast approaching, and that means that tomorrow I start digging grout out of the bathroom tiles.

I felt a lot better about the prospect of doing this until I read this article in the New York Times about other people who tried to renovate on the cheap and made a horrific mess out of it.

I'm marching forth tomorrow night anyway.

Wish me luck.

I'm gonna need it.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The ripple effect of one bad decision

Hat tip to Madame X for finding this first: The New York Times Magazine published an article this weekend written by a guy with a story that's all too common these days: He bought too much house at the height of the market with a questionable loan, and ended up looking down Foreclosure Alley.

The kicker? He's a reporter. An economics reporter.

I read the article three times, trying to figure out how someone who absolutely should have known better ended up in this mess. The salient decision point that started the whole landslide was obviously the choice to buy a $460,000 house with a stated income loan - and then, when the stated income loan didn't pan out because of too much existing debt, ignoring the clanging alarm bells and taking out a loan that didn't require an income declaration of any kind.

Object lesson: If you can't qualify for a mortgage on your income, you probably shouldn't be taking one out.

There were several drivers that helped the author get to this lousy decision. A few of the ones that jumped out at me were:

Not running the numbers
At a gross salary of $120,000, spending 28% of his income on housing (the maximum amount that anyone should spend) works out to $2800 per month. With a thirty year mortgage at a conservative 6.25% rate, the author could have afforded a mortgage of $457,000.

That's all well and good, but not if you factor in his divorce. The author was paying $4000 per month in alimony and child support, or 59% of his $6777 take-home pay. That's a total of $48,000 per year, which drops his income of $120,000 per year down to $72,000. At a reduced gross income of $72,000 and assuming 28% of that gross income available for housing, the author could only afford to pay $1680 per month at the most on a mortgage. Backing those numbers into the same calculation as before, the maximum mortgage amount the author could afford was $275,000.

If the author had spent just a few minutes going through that exercise before committing to a $414,000 mortgage on a $460,000 house, he would have realized that there was no possible way to make it work.

Just because the bank says you can afford it doesn't mean you can!

Assuming that a second income would make up the shortfall
The author assumed that when his new wife got a job, she would bring in enough money to cover the shortfall and remaining expenses. Apparently, both the author and his wife didn't consider the fact that she had been out of the work force for nearly twenty years. It took much longer for the wife to find a job than she expected, and when she did, her income wasn't enough to close the mortgage payment gap and allow a reasonable standard of living.

Not paying attention to spending
The hole the couple was in was too big for sensible spending to cover, but this couple didn't believe in saving pennies. Buying upper-middle class clothing, Starbucks, and organic food was a priority for them (although the author blames it all squarely on his wife), and that's all well and good - if you can afford it. This couple couldn't, but they went on as though they could for quite some time.

Once the hammer inevitably fell, this couple did something that I think is really shameful: They took out a monster mortgage for the purpose of paying off their credit cards, refinanced it to one with a more reasonable interest rate once their credit improved, and then quit paying the mortgage in hopes of benefiting from a government bailout.

I can't work up any sympathy for this one. Can you?

Can you pinpoint a specific decision in your own life that resulted in severe economic repercussions?

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coming up for air

The family shipped out today. I vacuumed, ran the dishwasher and four loads of laundry, put all the side tables back where they belong, and surface-cleaned the bathroom. It feels like I have my home back now. Did you have fun while I was away?

This place being under 600 square feet, packing a total of three people in for a week was interesting. Here are a few suggestions for both hosts and houseguests that popped up over the course of the week:

Money
Houseguests aren't cheap, so if you're having people come to stay, plan your finances accordingly ahead of time. My biggest cost center was food: my family isn't into the unprocessed, natural food thing as much as I am, so I ended up buying a fair amount of processed junk that I would ordinarily never bring into the house. In total, groceries for the week cost about $300. I also invited ten friends out to brunch with my family and picked up the check for everyone, so that was another $220. The total cost was about what I thought it would be, which was great. If I hadn't worked it out in advance, though, I think ringing up charge after charge on my credit card would have been stressful (even though I never carry a balance).

Having said that, houseguests don't really end up with a free vacation either. A gift for the host is always a nice gesture, and chipping in to help cover the costs of the visit is probably universally appreciated. Since my mom's not mobile enough for subways or buses, we took cabs everywhere throughout the week. She insisted on paying for that, as well as for all the meals we had out except for the brunch with my friends. I think she ended up spending about the same amount I did. She also planned ahead, though, so this didn't faze her at all.

Space
If you have enough space to comfortably accomodate guests, that's great. If your place is small, it can become unlivable quickly unless everyone helps out. Doing it without being asked is a sign of a marvelous houseguest!

In this visit, I scuttled around picking up dishes and newspapers throughout the week to keep the place manageable. At first, my sibling didn't do any more than putting bedding away in the mornings, but eventually (after I asked for it), there was more help and that made things much easier. My mom didn't help much, but she's 83 and struggles to get around: I didn't expect or want her to lift a finger.

Time
This is always a little sticky for me when I'm staying at someone else's house: How much time should hosts and visitors plan on spending together? I need space to be alone and I tend to assume that other people do as well (although this is by no means the case for extroverted people), so when I'm visiting other people, I'm happy to do my own thing for part of each day. For this visit, that meant a couple of hours nearly each day to go running and go to yoga class. My sibling and mom each disappeared into the other room for some alone time when they needed it, and that seemed to work out well for all of us.

Those are my thoughts. Any other suggestions for being a good host or a gracious houseguest?

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Where the numbers only lie if you want them to

When I was flinging money against my mortgage in an effort to pay it off ahead of schedule, one of the most helpful tools at my disposal was my trusty old HP financial calculator. I first got the HP in grad school, where I finally confronted basic economics after having dodged it all the way through college. We spent quite a lot of time on learning the actual formulas for compound interest, future value, present value, and internal rate of return. We also worked low-level equations out on paper, and I thought it was a great way to get a handle on the mathematics driving expectations. (If you want to see some of these formulas for yourself, visit your good friend Wikipedia for reference.) I also thought it was amazing that there was actually a way to work out projections for what might happen to my finances based on a wide array of possible scenarios.

I've relied heavily on my financial calculator ever since. I use it for everything from retirement planning to convincing myself not to spend money on something frivolous by calculating out the potential opportunity cost. At least as far as planning my finances is concerned, I know I'd be lost without it.

With the evolution of technology and by special virtue of the internets, anyone and everyone has access to financial calculator and guidance on using it without having to go through all the drudgery of learning the formulas. I'm of mixed opinion on this: I think not learning the philosophy behind where the numbers come from somehow lessens the value of being able to simply fiddle around with the technology. Having said that, if you ask me to articulate why or how the value is lessened, I can't. It's possible that I just want to justify my fancy-ass education, and that's not a bad thing as long as I recognize that possibility. On the other hand, I think putting tools in people's hands to help them better manage their finances is empowering.

If you want to explore the wonderful world of financial calculators on the web, I can show you a few that I really like:

1. Moneychimp has a variety of calculators, including compound interest, debt payoff, Roth IRA limits, and more. I've only used a few of these calculators, but I compared the results of the ones I tested with my HP calculator and they look accurate.

2. Mortgage Professor was absolutely invaluable in motivating me to suck it up and dump more money into the mortgage faster. The calculator for making additional payments to principal allowed me to fine-tune my contributions on a month-by-month basis, and it was really easy to see the impact of changes to my action plan.

3. Lastly, blog friend Shadox rolls his own: Shadox developed and has published a series of fascinating calculators for personal finance dorks like myself, including the all-important Latte Factor, Hybrid Car Value, and Crossover Point.

Next time you have a few minutes to kill, I'd urge you to take a look around at the calculators that are available and see how they might help your specific financial questions.

The more you know, the more powerful you become.

Do you use online, spreadsheet, software, or hand-held financial calculators to help manage your finances? If so, what do you use them for?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When school fundraisers go to the office

Remember school fundraisers? When I was a kid, we had to sell overpriced, poor quality chocolate bars to raise money for the track team. On three or four other occasions I remember, we did general fundraisers for the school as a whole. My parents refused to let me go door to door: they always bought about ten dollars' worth of stuff and called it good, so I was never in the running for the shiny bike or the other prizes for good little saleskids. I don't know what the other kids did, but in my family, I don't think the prospect of either my dad or mom taking the order forms to work entered into anyone's mind. In my parents' view, it just wasn't done. Somehow, I think I learned by osmosis not to ask.

How times have changed.

Apparently, the school fundraiser has joined Girl Scout cookie sales as an annual event, often conveniently scheduled to coincide with the winter holiday season, where people clearly need to spend money on overpriced gift wrap, ornaments, festive holiday treats, and other crap. I don't know that my office has an official policy on this, but the acceptable approach seems to be to bring the forms to the office with a post-it from the parent, who then leaves the forms in the break room for people to sign up (or not) at their convenience.

It used to be worse. There was a time in which eager parents bounded from door to door and then stood there patiently while the often-unwilling recipient paged through the catalog and then guiltily ordered something just to get rid of the parent. I think someone complained a few years ago, because the appearance of the magic fundraising forms suddenly started getting a whole lot quieter and more discreet.

Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message. When fundraising time rolls around, one junior employee from another group sends out email announcements of the fundraiser to everyone he can think of, and then buttonholes people when they aren't in meetings or on calls. He either stands beaming in the entryway of his prey's office or cube, or simply sits down with his prey and makes himself comfortable while he's waiting.

I do signups on the break room forms every year and that's no problem, but supervised extortion annoys the bejaysus out of me.

Unfortunately, I don't feel like I can throw this guy out of my office for two reasons: First, I'm in senior management, so I don't think it gives the right impression of encouraging teamwork and employee morale if I opt out, especially since the junior-senior thing suggests that I can afford to help out because I get paid on a higher scale.

(In other words, saying no also makes me look cheap.)

Second, since it's for the chillllllldren, I think refusing to play would mark me as a big meanie child hater, which I'm not, even though I self-selected out of the gene pool.

The end result of either fundraising method is that every holiday season, I have a load of crap to pawn off on other people where possible, but one is definitely less irritating than the other.

What do you think about taking school fundraisers to the office? Do you participate as a parent, buy stuff you don't need or want to support some greater good, neither, or both?

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

The best email ever

Selling products and services is all about one thing: making money. It's a total no-brainer that advertising is chock-full of feel-good, happy sentiments that are designed to make us want to buy the product or service that produced the positive reaction.

Sometimes, however, advertisers miss the boat.

Completely.

The appended email came to me from a friend last week and I almost made myself sick laughing over it because I had the same sense of irritation the author describes when using the exact same product after it acquired a new marketing slogan. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

This is an actual letter from an Austin woman sent to Proctor and Gamble regarding their feminine products. She really gets rolling after the first paragraph. It's PC Magazine's 2007 editors' choice for best webmail-award-winning letter:

Dear Mr. Thatcher,

I have been a loyal user of your 'Always' maxi pads for over 20 years and I appreciate many of their features. Why, without the LeakGuard Core or Dri-Weave absorbency, I'd probably never go horseback riding or salsa dancing, and I'd certainly steer clear of running up and down the beach in tight, white shorts. But my favorite feature has to be your revolutionary Flexi-Wings. Kudos on being the only company smart enough to realize how crucial it is that maxi pads be aerodynamic. I can't tell you how safe and secure I feel each month knowing there's a little F-16 in my pants.

Have you ever had a menstrual period, Mr. Thatcher? I'm guessing you haven't. Well, my time of the month is starting right now. As I type, I can already feel hormonal forces violently surging through my body. Just a few minutes from now, my body will adjust and I'll be transformed into what my husband likes to call 'an inbred hillbilly with knife skills.' Isn't the human body amazing?

As Brand Manager in the Feminine-Hygiene Division, you've no doubt seen quite a bit of research on what exactly happens during your customer's monthly visits from 'Aunt Flo'. Therefore, you must know about the bloating, puffiness, and cramping we endure, and about our intense mood swings, crying jags, and out-of-control behavior. You surely realize it's a tough time for most women.

The point is, sir, you of all people must realize that America is just crawling with homicidal maniacs in Capri pants . . . Which brings me to the reason for my letter. Last month, while in the throes of cramping so painful I wanted to reach inside my body and yank out my uterus, I opened an Always maxi-pad, and there, printed on the adhesive backing, were these words: 'Have a Happy Period.'

Are you f------ kidding me? What I mean is, does any part of your tiny middle-manager brain really think happiness - actual smiling, laughing happiness, is possible during a menstrual period? Did anything mentioned above sound the least bit pleasurable? Well, did it, James? FYI, unless you're some kind of sick S&M freak, there will never be anything 'happy' about a day in which you have to jack yourself up on Motrin and Kahlua and lock yourself in your house just so you don't march down to the local Walgreen's armed with a hunting rifle and a sketchy plan to end your life in a blaze of glory.

For the love of God, pull your head out, man! If you have to slap a moronic message on a maxi pad, wouldn't it make more sense to say something that's actually pertinent, like 'Put down the Hammer' or 'Vehicular Manslaughter is Wrong.'

Sir, please inform your Accounting Department that, effective immediately, there will be an $8 drop in monthly profits, for I have chosen to take my maxi-pad business elsewhere. And though I will certainly miss your Flex-Wings, I will not for one minute miss your brand of condescending bullsh*t. And that's a promise I will keep.

Always,

Wendi Aarons


Are there any advertising campaigns that really, really made you hate a product this much? Please share.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Whereabouts and whoabouts

Folks, I'm on vacation and my family is descending upon me tonight for the next week. I won't be blogging during that time because we'll be too busy going out and doing all the fun stuff, but I pre-wrote several posts to publish in the meantime. Enjoy your weekend and the coming week, and I'll catch up with you for real late next weekend.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The happier side of coupons

I wrote a post this week about how I don't use coupons for grocery stores or household items because I can't make them work for me. The flip side of using coupons, however, is shopping on the internets. With the right coupon on online purchases, you can actually end up saving a lot of money. As a result, I don't buy anything online without scouring the internets for a coupon that might bring down the price.

With that background, I received a request to do a site review of a coupon site I hadn't seen before, CouponChief.com. I was expecting to see what I've come to think of as a typical online coupon site, a page with a cluttered layout that's overwhelmed by Google ads. On the contrary, however, I was pleasantly surprised: The home page layout is sensible, easy to navigate, and the first thing I saw was exactly what I was looking for, a place to plug in a retailer's URL.

I quickly plugged in URL's for the online retailers I use most (Target, Sierra Trading Post, Amazon, Running Warehouse, Holabird Sports, and Efootwear) and I was happy to see that CouponChief.com's search results returned a relatively wide array of results and that the coupons that came back were all of the click-to-activate sort, which are very simple to use. There were no results for Efootwear or Running Warehouse, but that's not too surprising: I can't remember seeing coupons for either of those establishments on any other coupon sites, either. Overall, an enormous number of retailers have a presence on CouponChief.com. Depending on what you're looking to buy, it looks like a solid coupon resource.

One interesting feature of CouponChief.com that I don't recall seeing elsewhere is something called a Pays-2-Share program. This program pays coupon submitters 2% of a sale every time a coupon is used. I think it would be hard to make significant money using this program since it would mean consistently being the first and only submitter of really good bargain coupons that many people use, so don't quit your day job to become a coupon king or queen. Having said that, the fact that the program pays anything at all is really nice, and some people seem to be making the system for for them: I saw a list of users who have submitted hundreds upon hundreds of coupons.

All in all, I was genuinely impressed with the site and I've bookmarked it for future use. How does it compare to your favorite online coupon sites?

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The ugly little secrets of dressing for success

So, I bought four suits this weekend.

Some of you might be thinking What?

Only a year ago, I upgraded my work wardrobe from barely-within-the-guidelines-casual to formal with a couple of different suit purchases because I was up for promotion. In the year prior, I was steadily gaining significantly more leadership opportunties and presence in front of vendors and clients, and I badly needed a little more professional street cred. I ended up with about six or seven suits in total, and I'm not sorry I did it: For the culture of my workplace, it was definitely a good decision.

The suits I bought were all size eight petite to ten petite, which is bigger than I used to wear. Over the last two years of my dad's life, I did a lot of traveling back and forth across the country to help my parents (every six or seven weeks in the last year), and during that time I gained some weight that I couldn't get off no matter how much I struggled. By the time I decided that I needed to upgrade my appearance at work, I'd more or less resigned myself to the fact that I was stuck with a little bit of pudge.

And then. . .

I got stressed.

And then I got the flu.

And then I was seventeen pounds lighter, and more than three months later I'm holding steady at sixteen pounds lighter. The weight I'm at now happens to be the weight that I maintained for many years, and so far it looks like I might be staying here. I'm definitely not complaining: I look better and feel much more energetic, and my running pace has speeded up sharply. I can knock out thirty full push-ups at a pop and I do, twice a day.

The only problem is that my damn suits don't fit anymore.

I've been covering up the problem by never taking off my jacket in the office, rolling up the waistband of my pants under my jacket, and hiking my nylons low on my hips so that my skirts don't slide down below the top.

SEXXXXXAAAAAAYYYYYYYY!

One day recently, it was so flipping hot in my office that I simply had to take my jacket off. When I came out to pick something up from the printer, several of my colleagues burst out laughing and said that I looked like a little kid playing dress-up.

See the dilemma? With warmer days of summer coming, it's just going to get uglier.

Fortunately, with Mother's Day right around the corner, I managed to catch a very good sale this weekend, augmented by a Friends and Family card from a friend who works for the store's corporate office. Thanks to the sale ($600 off of original price) and the Friends and Family discount ($150), I paid $461 for four size six petite suits and have spent two glorious days so far not rolling up my waistband, walking around with the crotch of my nylons cascading towards my knees, or adjusting anything whenever I stand up.

In the meantime, I'm planning on doing some scouting expeditions over the next few months to check into the costs of altering the suits I already have. They're lovely suits that I spent a fair amount of coin on, and I would hate for them to go to waste. If my weight is still holding steady six months from now and the cost of alteration is less than the cost of replacement, I'm going to have them all altered to fit properly. In the meantime, although a couple are still wearable if I continue to play stupid tricks with where my nylons are sitting, the rest are just taking up space.

(I'm hedging my bets on the weight maintenance front, though: Against my better judgment, I'm doing a marathon in the fall.)

Does your weight fluctuate? If so, how do you dress appropriately for every size without breaking the bank?

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Monthly roundup: The spring showers edition

It's finally looking like spring outside. I'm trying to be happy about the fact that it's been raining on me a little bit this weekend by reasoning that at least it finally, finally isn't snow.

While I was staying dry inside today, here are some interesting links I found from members of the Frugal Blog Network:

--Kelly at Almost Frugal talks about keeping her frugal mojo going over time.

--Being of a mind to tackle the bathroom, I was very interested in what Frugal Babe did to her house to prepare it for sale.

--The Frugal Duchess learns as much from her daughter as she teaches. That kid's going to be rich someday!

--Back on the home renovation front (can you tell this is on my mind?), Dana. at Not Made of Money gives you the skinny on how to get good tools for less.

--Tight Fisted Miser is now a lawyer (congratulations!), but he's also an online media mogul. Check out his post on how he makes money off of these here internets.

That's a good way to finish up a Sunday, and now I'm off to gawk at the cherry blossoms.


I am woefully behind on responding to comments from the last couple of posts. Later this week, I promise.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

It's all about meeeeeeeeeee

Shadox recently posted a critical rebuttal to a Fortune Magazine article about how essentially helicopter parenting Gen Y employees at work will help them work to their highest potential.

Shadox felt that the recommendations in the article were a load of horse hockey, and I totally agree with him. I think we're both of the mindset that providing good guidance and fostering both career growth and personal development are part and parcel of being a good manager, but pandering to a sense of entitlement, inability to either accept direction or play on the same team, or a lofty sense of self-worth that is entirely divorced from reality simply doesn't work. I love creative, out of the box thinkers who aren't afraid to challenge my ideas, but in my organization special little snowflakes who expect the world to be handed to them without having to work for it (and I don't necessarily mean Gen Y; this could be anyone) quickly find themselves watching the action from the sidelines.

It's a hard world, and I'm nobody's mom.

Shortly after I read and applauded Shadox's article, I saw a posting on MSNBC about the larger problem of narcissism in US culture, and much of what it said really resonated. I think the mindset of the world revolving around oneself has grown increasingly common in the last twenty or thirty years. It seems to me that over that period, it's become much more common to heap extraordinary praise on children for doing ordinary things. Even in kids' games, which is where children first encounter the concepts of competition, winning, and losing, my impression is that kids have been protected from the natural consequences of not being the best (i.e., losing) by playing games where no score is kept, or where every kid receives the same award regardless of performance.

So, how does that relate to frugal living?

Simple. People who never received anything other than stellar positive reinforcement tend to think that they deserve the best of everything, for no reason other than the fact that I deserve is the only message they've ever internalized. I think that's the kind of mindset that greatly contributes to living far beyond one's means. Thanks to the housing bubble and a long period of loose credit, it's only recently that the ramifications of this mindset have really come home to roost for many people.

How do you turn a culture of narcissism around?

Most adults learn by taking hard, painful knocks - knocks which I think would have been unnecessary in many cases if the adults had been less sheltered as children. (Some adults, of course, will never learn.) Overall, however, I think the best place to start is with children. Competition is a huge part of adult life. For kids who are old enough to understand the concepts of winning, losing, and teamwork, I think allowing scored games to play out naturally is a good thing. As an added bonus, kids get to practice being gracious losers and gracious winners, abilities that will carry them far in adult life. Similarly, building self-esteem is good, but I think it's helpful to both help kids learn to acknowledge that they won't be the best at some things, and encourage them to be active partners in developing action plans to improve.

Of course, most kids (and adults) will never be the best at most of the things they do. When becoming great is truly out of reach, I also think it's important to focus on measuring the amount of improvement according to before and after yardsticks of their own performance.

It seems to me that protecting kids a little less from natural ego-bruising might lead to a better (I mean more realistic) sense of self overall, and I think that's likelier to play out in healthier work ethics and personal economic behaviors later on. What do you think?

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