Friday, August 28, 2009

This aging dork is on the move

I'm heading to the West Coast tonight for a few days of work and a few days of freedom. The main reason for going is that after a year and a half, my mom is ready to let go of my dad's ashes. We are taking them to the ocean next week, and from then on my dad will become part of every living thing.

That's how I look at it, anyway.

I haven't pre-written any posts this time because I've been too busy trying to keep my butt employed (and so far, things are starting to look much better in that respect). I should be able to crank out one or two posts while I'm there, but either way I'll be back after Labor Day.

Enjoy the respite. I will.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blinded by the light

I posted about a year ago about the ongoing war with my ceiling lights. With nine recessed fluorescent lights in the ceiling, I was spending quite a lot more time than I preferred tiptoe balancing on the top step of the ladder to change burned-out bulbs. I thought I had solved the problem, cured cancer, and achieved world peace by buying LED bulbs for close to $20 a pop, but they didn't work out as well as I had hoped. One bulb lasted for all of a week and then went dark. The second popped as soon as I threw the switch (and thus I learned the hard way that LED bulbs and dimmer switches don't go together).

I've been so frustrated with the light bulb situation that a couple of months ago I drew a map of all the lights and started tracking when they burn out, what kind of bulb it was, and what I replaced it with so I could demonstrate to the co-op board that there might be a problem with the wiring in the ceiling. It's been helpful: So far, I've been able to prove that supposedly two-year bulbs don't last anywhere near as long as they should.

Last week, a brand new 50 watt fluorescent crapped out after one week. I dragged out the ladder, started to ease out the baffle trim (or whatever you call the cap on a recessed light), unscrewed the bulb, and pulled out the rest of the baffle. (This approach is unnecessarily complicated by the fact that the light bulb has to be inserted into the baffle before the bulb and baffle together can be inserted into the fixture. Why anyone would design a light fixture this way is utterly beyond me.)

The bulb and baffle trim came out as they normally do, with one slight variation:

The entire fixture came out as well.

Rats.

I quickly got the heck out of Dodge and started the several days of effort required to get the building super in to look at it. He confirmed what I already suspected: The fixtures are more than twenty years old and the drywall clamps are shot. He also thinks the age and condition of the fixtures as a whole are the driving factors for why the bulbs all over the ceiling are burning out so fast, so he recommended that I replace the whole shebang.

This is one of the not so joyful elements of home ownership: I have to shell out a thousand dollars or more in parts and labor to replace all nine of my ceiling light fixtures, and there goes any chance I had of catching up on my savings goal for the year. I'm trying to look at this as an opportunity, though: I get to pick nine attractive, well-designed replacement ceiling fixtures that use low-wattage CFC bulbs, and my electricity bill, energy use and death-defying stupid ladder tricks will all be greatly reduced going forward.

I think that's the right way to look at this one. Any suggestions on what I should look for in recessed light fixtures?

What ugly home ownership costs have reared up in your world lately?

PS: One of my all-time favorite bloggers, Shadox at Money and Such, is currently soliciting home buying advice. Your words of wisdom could win you $50 worth of stuff at an online retailer, so be sure to check it out.

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Want free customized postcards? Don't forget to enter the f.z. custom postcard giveaway before September 03, midnight EDT!

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Itchy trigger finger

Shopping is not really my thing. I tend to be more of an efficiency shopper than anything else: As far as clothes go, if I find the right fit at the right price, I'll buy two black, two grey, and one other color and call it good until they need to be replaced. That system doesn't apply to suits or shoes, but for just about everything else it's worked well for me. For other things, most of the time I'm pretty good at assessing need versus want. I do indulge wants from time to time, but it's not a regular occurrence and I generally plan for them ahead of time.

There are two retailers that don't fit into the paradigm I just described, and those are places where I really need to be careful. One is Costco. As long as I go with a list, though, I'm pretty good at staying within set boundaries. The other is Crate and Barrel.

I love Crate and Barrel. For that reason, I hardly ever set foot inside it. When I walk in the door, it's total sensory overload and I can feel my need vs. want meter spinning haywire.

I went to Crate and Barrel a couple of weeks ago for a very mundane, planned purchase: Now that the bathroom cabinetry is finished and in place, my mini-renovation is complete, fully paid for, and worth every cent I spent on it. The overall color scheme is bright white and lime green, so I wanted three lime green, glass tealight candleholders for the dining room table and bathroom at $0.95 each, for a total of $2.85 before taxes. I prepped myself for the visit by going over the Crate and Barrel website, making a list of all the wants that popped up (there were many), and rationalizing why they aren't appropriate purchases right now.

Most of the time, the rationalization was as simple and as powerful as I might not have a job after September. Can't really think of a better spending deterrent than that.

I thought I was ready, but when I walked through the doors, I was completely overwhelmed and mesmerized, and I wanted practically everything. Stainless steel coffeemaker? Love it! Bamboo bathroom accessories to go with the bamboo cabinetry? Great! Ceramic ramekins? You bet! I don't even want to start on my personal shiny, glassware and decorative glass plates.

It didn't help that I couldn't find the damned tealight holders, either.

Not even the specter of unemployment was helping me fight the gimmees, and I wandered through the store for probably a good hour, working to come up with effective rationalizations for not buying things I don't need.

My twelve year old coffeemaker is still chugging along nicely. The bamboo accessories haven't been treated for water exposure, so their shelf life would be next to nothing in the bathroom. I've never used a ramekin in all my life.

The rationalization that helped the most was this:

None of this stuff is going to make me a different person. I'm not going to turn into a glam hostess who entertains every weekend, cooks bountiful dinners every night, or entertains houseguests more than once or twice a year. The reality of my life is that I work, I exercise, I have people other than my SO over to my place for meals maybe five times a year if I'm lucky, and I cook two or three times a week so I have leftovers for the other days or freezer food for the days and weeks I'm too busy to do a lot of cooking. More stuff isn't going to change any of that. All it's going to do is take up space and look reproachful.

In the end, I managed to get out of Crate and Barrel clutching just the tealight holders (six, not three: three orange and three green), $5.70 poorer before taxes, but also strangely relieved.

I don't think I'll go back there for a while.

Are there any particular stores or brands that hit your shopping trigger finger? What are they and why?

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Want free customized postcards? Don't forget to enter the f.z. custom postcard giveaway before September 03, midnight EDT!

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tylenol for breakfast, antacids for lunch

I haven't felt like posting much lately. The reorg anxiety at work has intensified, so much so that I'm gulping Tylenol and gnawing on antacids every day. I had the opportunity to talk to the bossman's bossman today, though, and I got a little bit of reassurance: He wasn't willing to make a definitive statement, but it looks like I've been penciled in for a job.

I'm not willing to bank on that, but it helps - especially since it's clear that the reorg is going to be a bloodbath.

I know that I'm wound too tightly about a number of things (I'm working on it), and the prospect of losing my job certainly tops that list. I've spent a lot of time going through What if? What if? scenarios, to the point where I haven't been able to effectively detatch and focus on other things.

Cognitively, I know that I'll be okay: I have no debt and eighteen months of cash saved up without unemployment or severance, and without touching any investments. Even though I'm largely uninsurable, COBRA lasts for eighteen months. When this reorg first reared its ugly head, I made a deliberate decision to take time off and figure out what I really want to do with my life if I get caught up in it.

And yet. . . I've still been making myself crazy with unnecessary, self-induced stress.

Running and yoga help. I'd be much worse off without them.

Another thing that really helped came from the most surprising source: Last night, I met up with Jack from Adventures in Voluntary Simplicity. (Some of you might remember Jack from this post: He's a former attorney who walked away from a life of excess to embrace simplicity.) I'll save detailed impressions of Jack for a guest post I promised to write for his blog at some point, but while we talked and ate berries, I think we both found ourselves talking very openly about ambitions and fears. That prompted me to talk about the prospect of losing my job after never having been unemployed before, and the effect that the fear has had on me.

Sharing deep feelings with a stranger is a fairly low-risk endeavor: If neither of you have anything invested in a relationship, it doesn't really matter what kind of a response you get. (For what it's worth, Jack could not have been more encouraging or supportive.) Nevertheless, I walked away from that meeting feeling strangely lighter and a little less fearful of whatever might come.

How do you cope with your fears?

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Want free customized postcards? Don't forget to enter the f.z. custom postcard giveaway before September 03, midnight EDT!

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Another fabulous f.z. giveaway

The good people at UPrinting.com are offering two lucky winners each a set of 200 custom postcards. you can choose between 4x6, 4.25x6, or 5x7 in either 14pt gloss or matte, or 13 pt uncoated, all with full color on both sides. Just provide the design of your choice and let UPrinting do the rest.

Please note that winners must reside in the United States, and winners are also asked to cover shipping costs. It's still going to be cheaper than the library fine I paid this week.

Well, that's nice an' all, f.z., but what am I going to do with 200 postcards?

Here are just a few ideas:
--Custom greeting cards.
--Custom postcards (maybe to commemorate this year's staycation?)
--Save the date cards for a wedding or other special event (which is exactly what some friends of mine did to announce their wedding date last month)
--Promote a business or artistic event
--Send a party invitation
--Send a thank-you note
--Network for job leads
--Torment the Postsecret guy

If you can want to enter the giveaway for 200 postcards of your own special design, just drop a comment down below and tell me what you'd do with them (as opposed to telling me what I should do with them, especially if it involves an orifice). This offer runs through September 03, so get your creativity on.

Read more...

Another fabulous f.z. giveaway

The good people at UPrinting.com are offering two lucky winners each a set of 200 custom postcards. You can choose between 4x6, 4.25x6, or 5x7 in either 14pt gloss or matte, or 13 pt uncoated, all with full color on both sides. Just provide the design of your choice and let UPrinting do the rest.

Please note that winners must reside in the United States, and winners are also asked to cover shipping costs. It's still going to be cheaper than the library fine I paid this week.

Well, that's nice an' all, f.z., but what am I going to do with 200 postcards?

Here are just a few ideas:
--Send custom greeting cards.
--Send custom postcards (maybe to commemorate this year's staycation?)
--Create save the date cards for a wedding or other special event (which is exactly what some friends of mine did to announce their wedding date last month)
--Promote a business or artistic event
--Send a party invitation
--Send a thank-you note
--Network for job leads
--Torment the Postsecret guy

If you can want to enter the giveaway for 200 postcards of your own special design, just drop a comment down below and tell me what you'd do with them (as opposed to telling me what I should do with them, especially if it involves an orifice).

This offer runs through September 03, so get your creativity on!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

OK, some thoughts on healthcare

The following is a guest post by frequent commenter goldsmith, an Irish resident from elsewhere in the EU. Here's what he had to say about an experience he had while visiting Austria:

This is a post on how I fell prey to medical power-selling. I feel it illustrates some points about the current US healthcare debate, and the way medical services suggested tend to be immune to frugal thinking by the customer/patient, even if said patient is a bigtime frugalite in other areas of life:

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The background to the story is that my knees had been giving me trouble for a whole number of years, and the issue was on my to-do list for my family doctor. Now, while at my mother's, I had woken up in the middle of the night with such piercing pain in my right knee that I decided I had to see a doctor. When the morning dawned, I still had considerable pain, even with lots of Ibuprofen in my system.

At the local sports medicine clinic, they first did an x-ray (which revealed the beginnings of arthritis in both knees), and then I was examined by an assistant. While he twisted and turned my sick limb and I wanted more than anything to hop off the exam table (if I had been able to), he told me with total professional concern in his face: "This might be a torn meniscus, we would need to do an MRT scan to find out to determine the correct medical intervention. By the way, the MRT is 500 Euro." (Everything else was free on the E111 health insurance card. [Editrix's note: an E111 health insurance card entitles EU residents to public health services all over the EU.])

What do you do in such a situation? Of course, I agreed to the scan, and whipped out the credit card. I sure didn't want to chance it to walk and hike on a torn meniscus.

The matter turned out to be an irritated nerve, to be cured by more rest, ice and ibuprofen.

Looking back, I realise the following:

- I did not have any accident of any kind that would precipitate a torn meniscus, and the doctor should have explored this before rushing to order the scan and

- how were torn menisci ever diagnosed before the arrival of MRT scanners? (Must have been done somehow!) But that, friends, is a question that does NOT enter your mind when you are in severe pain.

When I left, I was given all those pics of my knees which I had aquired in such a costly way, and informational material about the clinic. I then realised that they own one of only two ultra-modern MRT scanners in all of Austria that make it unnecessary to go into that claustrophobic tube. In other words, the clinic had a funky little machine in the basement which they very much needed to amortise.

I am annoyed with myself about the whole episode, but not too much. (It also helps that the 500 Euro are in the Emergency Account, and won't cause financial trouble.) But the episode really show how hard it is to do some no-nonsense thinking when you are in serious pain and a specialist exploits this to raise scary prospects.

My Irish family doctor, working in a public system, would first talk my inner hypochondriac down the tree, and would then proceed to make a diagnosis, and only order tests when necessary. In the end, I would get well just fine, and, importantly, I WOULD get the relevant tests if they were necessary.

I would guess that similar stuff as above happens to millions of insured Americans every single day, driving up US health care costs in the way that was the focus of so much discussion recently. But it was interesting to experience this stuff firsthand, including the full price tag attached.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

The economics of running a marathon

I'm in the fourth week of a marathon training cycle, so I'm a little tired and cranky. The timing is pretty fortuituous, though: As I mentioned in my last post, jobworld looks a little shaky at the moment, and that's been pretty stressful. Exercise is far and away the biggest stress reliever I have, so having a concrete fitness goal to aim towards is immensely helpful.

Running can be expensive, but it doesn't really have to be. Here's how I keep my running costs under control:

1. Clothing and shoes
Way back when I started running, people wore saggy sweat pants and cotton T-shirts. Sports bras hadn't been invented yet, so we cinched the girls up as tightly as possible by buying industrial-weight grandma bras that ran small. A few years before that, specialized running shoes didn't really exist, at least not in the way we know them today.

I was too young to run serious distance back then, but I'm sure that real runners experienced all kinds of interesting rashes, as well as arch, toenail, and sundry foot problems. In other words, it was entirely possible for runners to be injured by their clothes.

Thanks to modern technology, that doesn't have to happen the way it used to. Most stretch wicking fabrics are close-fitting and draw sweat away from the skin, greatly lessening the rash problem. Shoes are more supportive, and personally I think the sports bra was the greatest invention ever invented.

The problem is that all of these things can cost a lot of money.

One solution is to find what works for you (unfortunately, this is still mostly trial and error), figure out the product life cycle, and then buy on sale. The newest model of the running shoe I like normally comes out in November, so by mid-December I can usually save a lot of money and stock up for an entire year or more by buying four pairs of the retired version at a nice discount. The same is true for clothing: It can cost a lot, but if you plan ahead and bargain hunt, it absolutely doesn't have to.

Another tip that helps me save money is by keeping my running gear in good condition. I always wash it in warm (not hot!) water with a warm rinse on the delicate cycle and then hang it to dry on a rack instead of throwing it in a dryer. It'll inevitably develop a funk, but I've found that a long soak in generic Oxy Clean from time to time will go a long way towards getting rid of the stank and thus extending its useful life.

2. Watch and heart monitor
Some people swear by the Garmin, others by the Ironman or other fancy watches that record time, split, pulse, and for all I know, maybe urine output. Personally, I've never run with a watch. I've found that if I do it old-school, I'm more in tune with how I feel and how my body responds to different paces and conditions. Your mileage may vary on this one, but I've found that I don't need a watch to run a steady pace.

3. Nutrition supplies
I see people sucking down gels and energy bars at the silliest times. I really don't think most people need to take in sports nutrition every mile or two. This might be a combination of physiology and experience, but unless it's a really hot day I don't need water until about the fourteenth mile, and I can usually time it so that I'm near a water fountain by then. I carry one energy gel with me if I'm going more than thirteen or fourteen miles, but since I'm off sugar at the moment, I'm trying to get through this training cycle without it. My long run is eighteen miles at the moment and so far, so good.

4. Fads and fashions
Every year, there's something guaran-gosh-darned-teed to improve athletic performance. Some of the fads that have come and gone include breathing strips, cho-pat straps, magnetic bracelets, or this year's special: magnets in a little cord that you wear around your neck to affect something or other.

It's easy to get caught up in that nonsense, but you can get away from it by doing a simple reality check: First, plenty of people get faster without resorting to dorky fads; and second, very few of us compete at a level where incremental changes that might or might not be related to fad products matter.

5. Races
I thought about taking up triathlons a few years ago, but the costs scared me off. An entry-level racing bike is at least a thousand dollars and can cost far more, especially once you start bolting on high-end accessories. I suck at swimming, so I'd need to take lessons. Entry fees for triathlons can run $500 or more. Yikes!

Unfortunately, with marathons being increasingly popular, costs are skyrocketing in this area as well. If I remember correctly, the registration fee for New York this year - if you were lucky enough to get in - is a shocking $175. My best recommendations here are to look for early bird signup where possible, look for smaller races, and look for nearby races that don't require much in the way of travel or lodging costs. This isn't to say that you shouldn't do a big race that you've always wanted to do; on the contrary, I'm just saying that not every race should be that big race.

Any other athletes here? What's your sport, and how do you keep the costs from breaking the bank?

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Listening to the fortune cookie

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

I got that sage piece of advice from a Chinese fortune cookie once. It's one of my driving philosophies of financial planning, and it's been a useful guideline over the years. Right now, it's even more useful than ever.

My employer is currently going through a massive reorganization. I've been through a lot of reorgs over the years and survived many waves of layoffs (three this year alone), but this reorg is apparently the biggest one we've ever had. In the area I'm in, no one will be left untouched.

Some people are going to come out of it in a better situation than they were in before. Some people will remain more or less status quo, although maybe with new managers or team members. Many people are going to be laid off.

It's way too soon to tell where I'm going to land. I think there's a reasonable probability that I'll come out of it still having a job, but there's simply no way of knowing right now.

Not knowing is the hardest part. People are handling it different ways: Some are planning power grabs. Others are quietly (or not so quietly) flipping out. There's a lot of gallows humor in the air. Personally, I'm trying to stay focused on existing work and networking, networking, networking.

That's not to say that I'm not planning ahead. I'm cleaning up my resume, and I've looked into unemployment (New York State provides 79 weeks) and done some projections on severance. I also donated $50 to charity yesterday just because it felt like a good thing to do.

Planning helps: However it turns out, doing something to take ownership of the situation is better than just worrying.

I don't want to get laid off, but it could definitely happen. If it does, I've figured out a game plan of sorts: My home is paid off, so my cost of living is ridiculously low. I have more than enough cash on hand now to get by for about 18 months, so I'd like to take some time off. . . ideally, six months to a year. During that time, I'd like to do a little soul-searching to figure out what I'm going to do with the second half of my life that will be meaningful.

The only outlier right now is medical insurance. I've been following the insurance battle over at Dog Ate My Finances because I have some similar factors that suggest that getting medical insurance outside of COBRA is going to be a problem. Like Dog, I have asthma (which my doctor thinks is 9/11 induced, but that's beside the point). I also have Hashimoto's disease. (No, I don't have a goiter. Ew.) If Dog's struggling to get private medical insurance with one auto-immune disorder, I can only imagine what doing it with two is going to be like.

The irony here is that I am actually really, really healthy. Both conditions are under control, and I don't devote any emotional energy to either one other than taking my meds because I'm mostly symptom-free. Even so, what I have is still enough to knock me out of the low-risk customer pool for insurers.

At any rate, I'm not terribly worried (yet) because things could be so much worse. One person I know who is in a similar situation recently had emergency surgery for what may or may not be cancer. Another one just found out that his wife has a degenerative, incurable disease that will destroy her ability to walk. A close friend my age has heart disease and was told that if it wasn't for his level of fitness, he would have already dropped dead. Another one is gearing up for surgery on her second brain aneurysm. Compared to any of that (and it's all been pretty upsetting because these are people I really care about), I'm doing okay.

If you have any additional suggestions about things I can do to prepare, I'd be most appreciative if you'd drop them in the comments. Thanks!

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Here's what life looks like in the depths of the recession

I'll tell you up front that this article is a buzzkill.

For people hit hardest by the recession, I think this story is more typical than not. The problems here are so immense that I hardly know where to start in addressing them. The key conclusions I drew from the article are these:

1. Planning ahead is far more important than living for the moment.
2. Change comes, whether you like it or not. Adaptability, ambition, and direction are all critical survival skills.
3. Holistic home economics (budgeting, cooking from scratch, and basic sewing and maintenance skills) have a place in the school curriculum. Too many people won't learn these skills any other way.
4. Depression can't be ignored.


Your thoughts?

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Frugal Blog Network roundup: The rainy Sunday edition

July wrapped up as one of the wettest on record, and August hasn't started out much better. I managed to get out the door for a run during what looked like a light rain, but which became a torrential downpour in short order. In the last three miles, I wasn't trying to avoid the deepest part of puddles anymore because I wasn't going to get any wetter by going straight through them.

In an effort to stay dry for the rest of the day, I've been checking out what the other members of the Frugal Blog Network have been up to:

Kelly at Almost Frugal encourages you to save money by thinking out of the box about your grocery shopping habits.

At Frugal Babe, a lost dog helped bring a fresh perspective to what's important in life and what isn't. I was relieved to see that this story had a happy ending!

My family gave up gift exchanges at Christmas a long time ago, and we are all much the happier for it. That doesn't work for everyone, though, and earlier today I was seriously thinking about doing a little early Christmas shopping for my SO's kids. Not Made of Money recommends doing exactly that, and here's why.

The Frugal Duchess came up with a fascinating dollars and sense way to look at the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Andy at Tight Fisted Miser kicked the tires on the conventional wisdom about annual stock returns, and what he found may surprise you.

That's all for the Frugal Blog Network, where I'm still waiting for summer to really kick off.

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