Friday, May 28, 2010

Here we go

Mom's out of the hospital. We're heading out West tomorrow. It's going to be a tough trip; please wish us luck. Thank you!

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Still here

Thank you to everyone who left kind thoughts. It's been a tough week and a half; I feel like I've aged about ten years. I am really fortunate that work is being incredibly flexible and the bossman is giving me the space to deal with the situation, but I'm still so drained that I'm falling asleep every time I sit down. Gained more weight too, since I don't have time to cook or exercise. The budget is completely on the skids, and I don't care.

My mom is doing well for the most part. She's going to be out of the hospital at the end of next week, and my sibling and I are taking her back out West after that. I'll stay with her for a week and then my sib will come in and stay for a week while I come back for some work obligations. It's not at all clear whether my mom is going to be able to continue to live independently, but she's not willing to even consider assisted living.

This is going to be ugly.

Also, I hope to get into this topic later on, but one thing was abundantly clear: If my mom didn't have Cadillac-level health insurance, her treatment and outcome would have been very, very different. She never would have gotten into her therapy program without it, even though we were prepared to pay cash up front if we had to. Without intensive inpatient therapy, there is no chance she would be able to make the progress she has to date. I was an advocate of universal health care reform before, but I am much more so now.

I'll check back when I can. Continued patience and good thoughts are very much appreciated.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Regrouping

Thanks to everyone for hanging in there while I was on vacation. It turned out not to be much of a vacation: My mom (visiting New York from the West Coast) had a major stroke a few days ago. It happened right in front of me and my sibling, and right after I finished a conference call for work. We realized immediately what it was and called an ambulance, so she got treated quickly. Her prognosis is excellent, but my sibling cancelled their return tickets because my mom needs acute inpatient physical and occupational rehab. For the time being, my sibling is living at my place. We haven't quite figured out the work situation yet for either of us since we're going one day at a time for now. I'll post when I can, but I don't know how much or how frequently that will be.

In the meantime, please congratulate Bobster103 for winning the UPrinting sticker giveaway! Bobster103, please drop me an email at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll get you sorted out with your prize.

Good thoughts appreciated right now; we can use all you have. Thanks a lot.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Seeking balance in all things frugal

Thanks to Karin for the post topic!

I talk a lot about interpreting frugality as spending according to my values. Reader Karin has a slightly different take on spending: She decides where here money goes based on what she referred to as "triple bottom line" accounting. Triple bottom line account refers to not only the economic rationale driving a purchase, but also the impact on the environment and social appropriateness of the purchase.

This kind of spending is admirable, and it's also very difficult. It reminds me of a concept called the triple constraint: The triple constraint is the time, cost, and scope of a project, which are visually represented as an equilateral triangle. A typical misinterpretation of the triple constraint is that you can pick two out of three, and that ain't bad. The reality is that all three are achievable if they are in balance at the start of the project, but if you blow any one of those three out (i.e., double the project scope) without making corresponding increases to the others (in this case, time, cost, or both), your triangle falls apart. You can end up with some interesting triangle shapes depending on how you make your compensating adjustments, but if you don't fully adjust, the triangle is gone and your project will bellyflop.

I don't think I'm anywhere near as dedicated as Karin is in pursuing a balanced triple constraint of economics, environment, and social well-being. I seek balance by spending more on quality than quantity (including buying locally-made products where possible, though that's increasingly difficult) and using charitable contributions to make a difference in my local community. I'm pretty sure my triangle is still pretty lopsided, though. What do you do (if anything) to balance your spending against economic cost, social cost, and environmental impact?

f.z. is on a much-needed vacation this week. Look for responses to comments upon my return. In the meantime, be sure to enter the custom sticker/label giveaway before midnight on May 15!

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

f.z. flies the surly skies for you

Thanks to Gord for the post topic!

Reader Gord expressed interest recently in exploring the topic of travel and keeping travel costs down. I wrote about local transportation costs in New York City in my last post but since I fly a lot, he was curious about air travel as well.

When I travel on my own nickel (and I do this a lot so I can look in on my mom every few months), I don't want to pay more than I have to. Over time, I've developed a few tricks that help me save money on domestic air routes, and maybe a few of them will help you.

Set travel alerts
I generally have three or four travel alerts set up on Bing travel to let me know via email when the price of tickets drops. In addition, Bing has a nice little predictive feature that indicates whether it makes sense or not to wait before purchasing in case fares drop further, and I've found it to be pretty reliable.

Be flexible on dates
Off-season is cheaper than in-season. In addition, flying on Tuesday or Wednesday is significantly cheaper than flying earlier or later in the week, especially if you take early-morning or late-night flights. As a rule, booking two to three weeks ahead of time for domestic flights is a must: prices start skyrocketing as the departure date nears.

Book online
These days, online purchases are usually the best way to get the lowest fare.

Pick an airline and stick with it
The more flight history and airline miles you build up with a specific airline, the better rewards options you have - and this is especially true if you fly often enough to land elite status. Most airlines have several levels of elite status, with progressively better rewards. I've found that even with the lowest level, there's about a 30% to 40% chance that I'll be upgraded to first class at least one way, especially if I'm flying late at night during the middle of the week.

In addition, while status programs vary from airline to airline, my current preferred airline exempts even bottom-level elite customers from bag check fees for two bags, provides "premium economy" seating at no extra cost (those two extra inches of legroom do make a difference after a while), and allows early boarding, which gives me a crack at actually using some of the overhead bin space. As ugly as flying is these days, these little perks do alleviate some of the worst of the experience.

Get the most bang for your buck with your air miles
If you're booking a flight using accrued air miles, good luck: It's harder than ever to find desirable routes that don't fall within blackout dates. To minimize frustration, I'd suggest deliberately traveling during the off-peak season. In addition, you really need to plan ahead: Be extra-flexible about the days you're willing to travel, and six months ahead is not too soon to start looking for flights. I also learned that blackout periods can change on a daily basis, so don't fret too much if you can't find the itinerary you want straight away: If tickets aren't selling well for that flight, more seats might open up for reward travel. (I managed to book an $800 flight to Ireland on air miles this way last year, simply because I kept checking one particular route for days on end and happened to get lucky.)

That's how I fly when I'm paying the bill. If I'm flying on behalf of The Man, it's a different ballgame.

Until the US economy went in the dumper, I traveled once or twice to Europe each year on business. Company policy in normal times is that air travel outside of North America is eligible for business class. My philosophy is that I'll fly economy or premium economy if financial conditions warrant, but if no one asks me to do it, I'll happily book business class for eligible travel.

I don't have broad experience traveling business class on many different airlines both because of policy rules and because of my own preference to keep my air miles concentrated in one airline. With this limited experience in mind, I can tell you that international business class is nice - much nicer than domestic first class. There are many different theories about why businesses will pony up for first class or business class fares, but my practical experience is this: It makes the experience better and more productive for everyone.

When I'm traveling for work, I'm usually going straight to the airport from the office. An international business class ticket gets me into the airline lounge, where I can scoff some free food and a glass of wine and make whatever calls I need to make before I fly. There's usually a free internet connection as well, and that's great because I don't think I've ever not had to send a raft of emails before boarding.

My normal way of doing business travel to Europe is to fly at night and then go straight into the office upon arrival in the morning. As a result, while some people use their time aloft to work, I do my darndest to sleep so I can get on top of the time change. This doesn't usually work as well as I'd like (and I'm not above popping some Benadryl if it's really bad), but at least it's comfortable.

Once I'm at the destination airport, there is just about always access to a shower in the airline lounge, and that gives me the chance to tidy up and slug down some coffee. From there, it's usually straight into the office for a 9:00 meeting.

If I had to do all of that economy class, I would - but you would see a much grumpier f.z. getting her passport stamped, and I'm sure I wouldn't be working up to standard, either.

How do you save money when you travel for fun? Do you travel for work? If so, what are your normal travel policies?

f.z. is on a much-needed vacation this week. Look for responses to comments upon my return. In the meantime, be sure to enter the custom sticker/label giveaway before midnight on May 15!

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Out and about, f.z. style

Thanks to Gord for this topic!

While I was trolling for post ideas recently, reader Gord suggested a post about keeping transportation costs down, both on the ground in my home city of New York and in the surly skies. As it turns out, it's a lot of ground to cover (har har), so I'll focus this one on local transportation.

At home in Manhattan, there is no shortage of transportation. Cabs whiz by all the time, and although subway and bus schedules have been cut back (and will be cut back more next year, most likely), they are still good options most of the time. I'm surprised by the number of people who own cars, although I'm not one of them. This is more of a public safety issue than anything else: I am a very bad driver and scared to drive in New York, so I don't. In addition, I buy a monthly Metrocard, which costs $89 (pretax thanks to work) for unlimited use on local buses and subways. It's a pretty good deal, so I take advantage of it whenever possible. That's why my local travel looks like this:

Commuting to work
I take a subway each way (outside of rush hour, since I go in early and leave early) along with a public bus. Most of the time, this works really well. Fortunately, I can work from pretty much anywhere as long as I have an internet connection, so I don't attempt to brave extreme weather conditions to get to the office anymore.

Local errands
Within a mile radius, I walk everywhere. Outside of that, if the weather is nice and I have time, I'll walk; otherwise, it's all on the subway.

Errands on the other side of town
Subways don't run between East and West in Manhattan outside of a couple of central locations. Crosstown buses are notoriously slow because of traffic - so much so that it's actually faster to walk across town sometimes. If I'm traveling outside of rush hour, I'll generally take a crosstown bus. During high-traffic hours, if I need to be presentable when I arrive, I'll usually take a subway across and walk the rest. If I don't need to be presentable, I'll usually run. Believe it or not, commuting from one side of Manhattan to the other via running is generally the fastest way I get from point to point.

Errands outside of Manhattan
Subway, train, or bus.

Airport travel
I do my best to schedule flights so that I can take public transportation instead of cabs. There is an excellent public bus to and from LaGuardia that accomodates a reasonable amount of luggage. For $2.25 per ride (or free with an unlimited Metrocard), it's the best airport deal in town. Normally, however, I fly out of Newark, NJ. This requires both subway and train ($15 each way), as well as a lot of physical effort if I've been to Costco out West. It's worth it to me not to take a cab or car service to Newark, though: Crossing state lines will get me dinged $60 at a minimum. Finally, there's a subway that goes straight to JFK airport. The airport surcharge is either $5 or $7 in addition to the subway trip. It seldom fits my travel plans, though, so I almost never use it.

There are exceptions. If I'm with someone who has limited mobility (like my mom), then a cab or car service is the only option. If I'm traveling with friends and we can share the cost, we'll sometimes split a cab or, for longer trips, take a ZipCar. (I don't have a membership, but a couple of my friends do.) Very occasionally, I've been known to prevail upon my SO for a lift somewhere since he lives outside of Manhattan and generally drives in to see me. More often, however, we roam around on public transportation once he arrives.

Finally, the biggest exception is public safety. I don't stay out too late very often anymore, but on the rare occasions that I'm heading home at 2:00 in the morning or later, if anything feels hinky in my surroundings, I'm in a cab straight away and forget the cost.

Overall, I think the cost of getting around via public transportation in New York is much cheaper, easier, and for me personally, MUCH less stressful than owning a car, though of course there are built-in disadvantages in that trips take significantly more planning. How do you get around in your city or town, and how much does it cost?

Check back here in a day or two for thoughts on getting around in the air.

f.z. is on a much-needed vacation this week. Look for responses to comments upon my return. In the meantime, be sure to enter the custom sticker/label giveaway before midnight on May 15!

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Treats are neat, until they're not

Thank you to goldsmith for the topic suggestion!

I've said before that I wasn't good at marriage, and a large part of that had to do with the fact that my ex-husband and I were not on the same page about money. I can't really count the number of ways our perspectives collided, but it seemed like one of the most common pitfalls we ran into had to do with taking money out of savings to treat ourselves.

I think treating oneself is a really good, healthy thing to do because it serves as both a pat on the back for something well done, as well as motivation to sally forth and achieve more. Unfortunately, it's tough for me to put into practice for myself. I can do it easily enough for little things, like flowers for the dining room table once in a while, or sweets when my energy is running low at work. (This last one in itself is counterproductive in its own right, but that's another post.) For larger-ticket rewards, though, I usually go through serious cartwheels trying to find a practical justification for spending the money.

I've bought a few things for no reason other than I wanted them so far this year, like towels and linens to match the paint job I did in here last summer, and there's a good chance I'll be doing another running trip to California with my friends in the fall. In general, however, reward-based spending is a habit that I largely drilled out during my days as a broke-ass grad student, and it's gotten harder to indulge for the sake of indulging instead of easier as my finances have improved over the years.

Meanwhile, my ex-husband went to the opposite extreme. This was a guy who had never saved a cent, yet believed in treating himself regularly, so much so that his "treats" often became daily or even twice or three times daily events. Most of the time the treats weren't big-ticket items, but certainly some of them were. He got awfully sick of me asking how the impulse buy of the moment fit into our large-scale plan, and I got awfully sick of feeling like I was doing all of the sacrifice and he was having all of the fun. We also tried the allowance method, in which each of us got a certain amount of money to spend per week with no questions asked (I always saved mine), but that didn't work too well either because he immediately went into arrears by "borrowing" allowance money months ahead of schedule.

Between us, I guess we made one normal person in terms of how we viewed treating ourselves.

When I wrote up my goals this year, I made up a new goal called "fun and self-love". I couldn't really put a definition to it other than doing something nice for myself once in a while without considering the cost. I'm not doing too well at this goal lately, and that's largely because I'm struggling so much with my other goals that it seems hard to justify rewarding myself.

Another element to the story is something I'm a little embarrassed to admit, but well, why not? Some of the things I'd like to treat myself with go way, way beyond what I consider reasonable spending in the treat category, i.e. gemstone jewelry or a big international trip. For rewards I can't possibly justify on the grounds of cost or because the reward is outsize relative to the achievement, I tend to prefer keeping them aspirational instead of settling for something more realistic.

Although blind excess isn't realistic or rewarding in the long run, abjuring rewards altogether (or close to it) because of guilt is no way to live, either.

I'm trying to find a middle path. I really am.

What are things you've done that make you feel like you deserve a reward? How often do you reward yourself, and how?

f.z. is on a much-needed vacation this week. Look for responses to comments upon my return. In the meantime, be sure to enter the custom sticker/label giveaway before midnight on May 15!

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Easy come, easy go

I was hoping to have time to write up a post about the upcoming extra $500 hit to my paycheck and the different ideas I had for getting the most enjoyment possible out of it, but unfortunately the excitement was a little premature: I got a follow-up email telling me that cash awards on our new system are actually not grossed up for taxes. As a result, I'll get dinged at the highest marginal tax rate, plus applicable state and city taxes. That'll bring the $500 down to something closer to $250.

Oh well. I couldn't really think of anything special to do with it just now, so I think I'll put it towards two unusual expenses hitting at the same time: Covering the processing fee for my Canadian passport, and getting my windows cleaned.

My house guests' arrival is imminent, so I'll wish you a happy week. Check back for a series of posts scheduled to publish automatically during the week, and I'll be back here on the flip side.

Be sure to enter the custom sticker/label giveaway before midnight on May 15!

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's a sticky business sometimes

It's been a while since I hosted a giveaway, but the good people at UPrinting, who provide poster, postcard, label printing, sticker printing, and more have a new set free stuff for one lucky winner!

This giveaway is for 250 stickers/labels in one of three sizes: 2x3.5, 2x4, or 3x3. They are 70 lb Label Matte coating (look it up, don't ask me) with full color front and blank back. They'll be available for shipment within six business days of the winner's order, and UPS ground shipping is free. This prize is great for business owners or event planners looking for a new and innovative way to market their products, services or events, but personally I'd probably just make return address labels.

This contest is for US entrants over the age of 18 only, and to enter all you need to do is drop a comment on this post. If you post a link to this post in your own blog and leave another comment with the link, that'll get you my undying appreciation and one more entry.

I'll pull a random winner on May 15 at midnight (after my house guests leave), and the prize will be available at the end of May.

Good luck!

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Plutus award winners are announced

The Plutus award winnners were announced today. I am surprised, thrilled, and very, very humbled to tell you that Frugal Zeitgeist won in the Best Kept Secret category. The prize is three marketing books (ha!) and a $25 Amazon gift certificate from J. D. Roth.

Thank you so very much to everyone who voted for me. I appreciate it more than I can say, and at a time when my motivation has been flagging somewhat, it inspires me to keep on going.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Money-snatching magazines

I'm not against magazines; in fact, I like them very much. I subscribe to the New Yorker and a West Coast home and garden magazine that I won't name because it publishes blog comments in its print issue, and I also receive ongoing gift subscriptions for Bon Appetit and the Smithsonian. I'm not a big fan of so-called "women's magazines", though, mostly because I think they're mostly devoted to encouraging readers to spend money by playing on their insecurities.

Recently, I was given a free issue of More magazine (targeted at women forty and older, which I guess is me even though I don't feel like it) and a free issue of Fitness. I didn't read either one in detail, but as I flipped through them, I developed the following impressions:

More magazine:
--Heavy focus on looking young, feeling young, staying young young young!
--Based on the clothes, cosmetics, hair coloring, and whatnot stuffed into articles and ads, staying young ain't cheap.

Fitness magazine:
--If you don't have six-pack abs, you're ugly.
--If you don't look glamorous during a workout, you're ugly.
--You might be ugly anyway, but if you buy a lot of stuff you won't be.

Meh. I was a little offended by both.

I feel younger than my age and I'm told I look younger, but it doesn't have a whole lot to do with what I wear or do with my hair or face. I think it's primarily due to (mostly) lifelong fitness habits, overall good nutrition, and drinking a lot of water. I also seem to have inherited my mom's gene for going grey very late, and I'm certainly not complaining about that. (Note: This isn't an indictment of anyone who colors his or her hair. It's a personal choice and not one on which I would ever pass judgment.)

Nevertheless. . . even though I intend to age naturally and accept the changes that inevitably come without resorting to surgery or dye, More magazine tweaked me about my age more than I care to admit.

Fitness magazine hit me harder. I am not happy about the extra poundage I put on while getting over being sick, and I'm trying to get it off. Since I haven't been able to stick to abandoning sugar again, I've cranked up my running mileage significantly and I'm starting to see some slight results. Just skimming through the articles made me feel bad about having gained the weight in the first place, though, and I think those sorts of feelings are a huge spending trigger for most people.

I didn't end up going out and spending money because of how a couple of generally not very interesting magazines made me feel, but I can definitely see how it happens. Have you ever experienced this yourself? How did you respond? Also, what magazines do you subscribe to (if you subscribe to any), and why?

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