August 2009 Archives

One person's trash

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Living in a college town means there are a lot of people moving several times a year. And this means boxes of stuff left on the sidewalk on a regular basis.

I usually check these out, when I have the chance. I've gotten lots of books that way, a lamp, and, last night, a spare computer keyboard. I haven't tested it yet; in the worst case, I'll end up dropping it at the Alameda County Computer Resource Center for recycling if it doesn't work.

A lot of trash in this world would be an amazingly useful thing in a different time or place or for a different person. When a chance to scavenge comes up, give it a shot.

Do the math

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So a few months back we bought an electric toothbrush from Amazon. Then the onslaught of emails began, now that Amazon knew I owned an electric Oral B.

The most ingenious was a sale available for a limited time only on Oral B-branded toothbrush replacement heads. It sounded like a good deal....I purchase at least $150 worth of Oral B products, and I get a credit of $40 for anything on Amazon.

But the fine print stipulated that I had to purchase the Oral B-associated products from the Amazon store only, not any of their third-party suppliers. I had a hunch, and quickly confirmed it after browsing the wares at the Amazon-only section. Amazon had artificially kept the prices elevated on the Oral B products.

The $40 credit that I would receive from Amazon was a sham, because if I had simply purchased the exact same product from many of the third-party suppliers, I would have saved at least $50!

I have to admit that I was impressed at Amazon's gall and subterfuge. I must give the MBA's who work there their due.

Money can't buy you happiness

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A result that deserves more attention is that at levels beyond poverty, there is little correlation between money and happiness.

"Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year," writes Gilbert, "but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year."

If you have basic financial security, but you're unhappy, so you're scrambling for more money to buy more things to make you happier, you're just running up a mountain you're making bigger as you go. You would do better to look elsewhere for happiness.

This article comes to a frugalicious conclusion --

If more money doesn't buy more happiness, then the behavior of most Americans looks downright insane, as we work harder and longer, decade after decade, to fatten our W-2s.

-- but then turns 180.

But what is insane for an individual is crucial for a national economy--that is, ever more growth and consumption. Gilbert again: "Economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy ... Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will strive only for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being." In other words, if you want to do your part for your country's economy, forget all of the above about money not buying happiness.

Gilbert is a psychologist, not an economist. I find it a refreshingly honest commentary on our modern economy that people are delusional, not rational, actors. But as to embracing this situation and prescribing delusion and the production and consumption of things that don't add value to our lives?

Give up the delusions. Don't buy crap. Don't make crap. There'll still be an economy, but it would become an economy that rewards innovations that actually add value to our lives.

Know your prices but recheck

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A while back I discussed the price breaks realized by purchasing bulk produce. The manufacturer passes along their savings by not packaging their products in carboard boxes or jars, which is a win-win for the customer and them.

Last week I went to the bulk food section to load up on a few kitchen staples and checked out the price of the white sugar. Lo and behold, they were charging 95 cents a pound. I did some quick math and knew that I could get a 5 lb bag of sugar for less than $5/lb off the shelf. It wasn't organic or guaranteed to be from cane sugar. It was just ordinary white sugar.

Thanks to the sugar subsidies in this country which have been in force my entire life and to which we can attribute soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, I knew that $5/lb for sugar was overpriced. (And thank you for indulging my rant.)

So it was a reminder that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to purchasing. Do not fall into a "all bulk food prices are a better value" mindset. Apparently at my grocery store of choice, oatmeal at the bulk bin is a superior value to the packaged brand, but sugar is not.

And I have definitely noticed that the prices of groceries have been steadily increasing over the past eighteen months. My go-to brands for dried pasta and soy milk at Trader Joe's have slowly upticked in price, more than once.

So know your prices, but recheck them, because we're in an unprecedented state of flux.

Golden Rules for Making Money

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The basics of frugality haven't changed in 130 years (or 280 years.) Here's P.T. Barnum's Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Making Money, from 1880:

AVOID DEBT

Young men starting in life should avoid running into debt. There is scarcely anything that drags a person down like debt. It is a slavish position to get in, yet we find many a young man, hardly out of his "teens," running in debt. He meets a chum and says, "Look at this: I have got trusted for a new suit of clothes." He seems to look upon the clothes as so much given to him; well, it frequently is so, but, if he succeeds in paying and then gets trusted again, he is adopting a habit which will keep him in poverty through life.

Most of the remainder is more business advice than frugality, per se, but all of it is striking for how contemporary it feels.

Frugal Travel

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Shout out to Matt Gross of the New York Times' Frugal Traveler column. How could I resist, since he's got "frugal" in the name of his blog, too. Every Wednesday he shares travel tips and schemes for high style on a low budget.

He did a wonderful go-to list of his favorite travel websites he goes to for travel research.

And even did a follow-up of the article, based on reader suggestions.

So it's Wednesday, whaddaya waiting for?

{Sorry about not posting on Monday, we were out frugal travelin'}

BART strike

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We here in the Bay Area are girding for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (our above- and below-ground train system aka BART) strike that's due to begin this Sunday at midnight. (Oh my goodness, I just realized Saturday night revelers better have a backup plan to get home).

It'll be a doozy, because of the thousands of BART riders who use it to bypass the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland with San Francisco. It's estimated that there will be 5000 additional cars per hour on the bridge, which is already at full capacity during the rush hours even with BART commuters using alternative routes. Oh, and other trans-Bay mass transit like bus and ferry have already announced that they don't have the capacity to run extra trips. Super!

I remember the last BART strike, back in 1997. Luckily, I wasn't doing an East Bay-SF commute, but the wide-angle helicopter shots on the news of the backup leading to the bridge was literally a 20-mile parking lot. The bridge is a linchpin of Bay Area traffic: when it backs up, all the connector freeways (which is basically all of them) downstream are affected, too. Which affects all the side streets and alleyways, too.

It seems the only people who will get to work on time on Monday are walkers or bicyclists. For everyone else, I'm looking forward to hearing commute-from-hell stories.

Let's just hope that the strike is resolved quickly. As I recall, the 1997 strike didn't last more than a few days.

Good old-fashioned American values

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Just a few decades before go shopping was publicized as the appropriate response to an attack, the U.S. had a better class of propaganda. Use it up; wear it out; make it do. When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler. Waste helps the enemy.

Frugality and avoiding waste was right then, and it's right now. Pay no heed to those un-American radicals (with their weird clothes) scoffing at traditional American values.

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin describes having come up with a list of 13 virtues for living around 1728. Among them:

FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Frugality was a frequent topic in Poor Richard's Almanack; Franklin recapitulated its advice in The Way to Wealth:

"Pray, Father Abraham, what think you of the times? Will not these heavy taxes quite ruin the country? How shall we ever be able to pay them? What would you advise us to?" Father Abraham stood up, and replied, "If you would have my Advice, Iwill give it you in short; for A word to the wise is enough., as Poor Richard says." They joined in desiring him to speak his mind, and gathering round him, he proceeded as follows.

"Friends," said he, "the taxes are indeed very heavy, and, if those laid on by the government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly; and from these taxes the commissioners cannot ease or deliver us, by allowing an abatement.

Consumer Reports

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I have the greatest respect for Consumer Reports magazine, and their foundation. Growing up, whenever my family needed to buy a new car, we'd get the latest issue on automobiles so we'd know what was what. CR explained industry jargon, emphasized the importance of certain features, and had a handy chart to sum up the information at a glance.

Or mattresses. Or refrigerators. Or washer-dryers. Or cameras. The list goes on and on, because Consumer Reports was the non-tainted (they accept no advertising in the magazine, in order to maintain objectivity) expert on just about anything you'd want to buy and had multiple manufacturers competing for your dollars.

These days you can get an online membership which allows you to browse their copious archives at consumerreports.com which I can get lost in for hours at a time.

So when you are in the research process before forking over your hard-earned money, don't forget about Consumer Reports. And if you are feeling generous, they'd happily accept your donations to their foundation (tax-deductible, natch) so they can buy more of those appliances and cars (that they buy off-the-shelf/rack/parking lot just like you do) to rate for you in the future.

Happy Friday!

Shop Locally

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Shopping locally is one way we spend according to our values.

What with free shipping and the low prices, the cheapest place to buy a new, non-remaindered book is at Amazon these days. Sadly, that's why independent bookstores were shuttering left and right....and that was before the recession.

But we want our city to have a viable shopping district, so we spend a little more on a book compared to buying at Amazon, but know we did our part in keeping the local economy going.

There's even a spend locally campaign that's been going on all year here, sponsored by a weekly newspaper that said a dollar spent locally reaps benefits that domino effect all through the local economy....from business taxes to employee wages to fewer barren storefronts. That's something I can really get behind, not to mention the added environmental bonus that often when I shop locally, I'm usually get there on bicycle.

The 4th Circle of Hell

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There's much to like about a sociology paper that begins with a quote from Dante:

I saw a nation of lost souls...they strained their chests against enormous weights, and with mad howls rolled them at one another. Then in haste they rolled them back, one party shouting out: "Why do you hoard?" and the other: "Why do you waste?"

The paper is "Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage," and its abstract says:

Although much research finds that "birds of a feather flock together," surveys of married adults suggest that opposites attract when it comes to emotional reactions toward spending. That is, "tightwads," who generally spend less than they would ideally like to spend, and "spendthrifts," who generally spend more than they would ideally like to spend, tend to marry each other, consistent with the notion that people are attracted to mates who possess characteristics dissimilar to those they deplore in themselves (Klohnen and Mendelsohn 1998). In spite of this complementary attraction, spendthrift/tightwad differences within a marriage predict conflict over finances, which in turn predict diminished marital well-being.

"Opposites attract" gets an interesting qualifier there. People are attracted to mates who possess characteristics dissimilar to those they deplore in themselves. Jen and I don't deplore our attitudes toward money. Before we'd ever met, we'd thought about them, deliberately chosen them, honed them. We like them. So, far from our similarity in this regard inspiring some reflexive resistance, we recognized it as one of the bases of our compatibility.

There's a general principle here. The less you deplore in yourself, the better able you'll be to make considered decisions that serve you. Self-hatred is self-perpetuating, and acts chosen from self-hatred won't bring you closer to happiness.

Choose the goals that serve the life you want to lead, make a plan, and pursue them, while pursuing compassion toward yourself. To imagine you can skip that last is to court waste -- wasted energy gone to self-loathing, wasted life gone to bad decisions you allowed self-loathing to make for you. It's choosing hell on earth.

And nothing's less frugal.

(Previously: the most important financial decision you will ever make in your life is the decision of who you are going to marry.)