Thursday, August 27, 2015

The price of shoes at yard sales

. . . aaannnd here's a funny yard sale story.  I found a cute pair of shoes (with heels, AND with real tread!) marked "$1" a friend's yard sale. These shoes come with some local history; they've belonged to a friend of that friend, someone who we all admire as a fashionista, and yet the shoes don't seem to even have been worn.  Clearly a good deal.

But the deal got even sweeter when my friend who was selling them looked at me holding out my dollar and said, "Nah, you can take them for free.  But you have to take this Chia Pet, too."  


Too funny.

It reminds me of Amy Dacyczyn (author of the Tightwad Gazette) describing a yard sale she held "at which we gave away our entire collection of Englebert Humperdink's Greatest Hits, free with every purchase."

***
FYI, although the cost of yard sales shoes varies a lot from yard to yard, I've found around here that if I just wait until I come across shoes I like that go for $1or $2, I can still keep my closest fully stocked -- way too full, even.  

The exception is boys' and mens' shoes.  For a few years,  I was willing to pay as much as $5 for my sons' shoes.  Nowadays, I can't find any shoes that my teenage boys like, so they buy shoes with their dad at real stores.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

To do, To Give Back, and To Keep for Future Reference

With school starting up, papers are starting to flutter like Sycamore leaves across the dining room table.  Whoo! So much paper!

When the boys clean out their backpacks now, there's scrap paper with scrap stuff written on it.  There are classroom worksheets, started earlier in the day and needed for the next time the class meets. There are papers for parents to sign.  There are syllabi. There are agendas, listing all the homework for the day.  There are behavior contracts for the boys, AND their parents, AND the teachers to sign.  There are homework papers that need to be finished and then turned back in to teachers.  There are school photo advertisements.

J-son and N-son have already put together their three-ring binders, dividing some of those papers into the appropriate euphemistically named classes.  Okay, so sorting by subject is a form of organization that kind of makes sense . . . but not entirely . . .  N-son in particular suffers from having so much paper that he can't quite figure out what to do with it all.  And "doing" is probably an equally important way of organizing, especially as far as the kids go.

So last year, for N-son, I made a series of color-coded folders, two for each subject. The colors had psychological associations:  yellow folders for math (Mama is a mathematician, and Mama loves yellow); green folders for Health/Biology (because green=living things?); and so on.  And each color/subject came with two folders: one for "To-Do" items, and one for "Done" items, with the tabs set up "To-Do" on the left, "Done" on the right, to mimic way we read from left to right.  I kept the "Done" folders at home, so N-son had less paperwork to carry and keep track of in his backpack.  He found that so helpful that when I hinted I might to the same this year, he jumped at the idea:  yes please!

Even more, both boys have already, on Day 2 no less, begun shuttling lots of non-class-specific papers that are nonetheless important.  I added stickers to their school folder to distinguish left-side papers from right-side papers:  "To Take Back to the Quaker Local School", and "For Future Reference".  Already, this has helped them keep track of papers they need to turn in, and not to lose papers they'll need to look at in the future.

Happiness sigh.  I don't know if we'll manage to stay on top of schoolwork this year, but at least this feels to all of us like a good way to start.  GoooooOO, Blazers!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Iron Anniversary

It was a year ago today that my husband and I jumped into the waters of the Ohio River at 7 a.m. in the morning, with both an entire IronMan triathlon and about a gazillion uncertainties ahead of us.  In the year or two before we jumped into that river together, it seemed like the IronMan was just about all we could talk about with each other -- my husband would describe his swimming lessons; I'd fret about hills; we planned and re-planned our training regimens.  It's been nice to have other topics of conversation since.

But the fretting and planning and training -- even more than the actual race itself -- has clearly changed us.  Probably for the better.

For one thing, it's given us each new skills.  Back in November of 2012, I splurged on a bike that I named "the SPDM" (the Sudden Painful Death Machine), a name that I gave it as a challenge to all my fears.  Although I'd ridden bikes in the past, I was distinctly uncomfortable on this lean, almost menacing (but beautiful) machine.   Lo these many months later, the SPDM is now my faithful companion, transporting me to yard sales and to the market and other local stores, as well as taking me on training rides with friends.  I can shift; I can corner; I can zoom down hills; I can ride comfortably alongside traffic.

My husband was already a bike-o-phile, but when we started training he couldn't even swim the length of the pool safely.  He took lessons at the local Y and then practiced the heck out of swimming, and he's now as comfortable in the water as I am on my bike.  So both of us are now able to do things that before the IronMan seemed just about impossible.

But even beyond skills, all that training and practicing changed our attitudes.  It's not just that I *can* bike and he *can* swim, it's that we have both fallen in love with this new side of our life.  A year later with no big races in sight to motivate us, my husband still heads to the Y for a thousand yards or two of swimming just about every other day.  I still jump on the SPDM whenever I have a trip longer than a quarter mile, and I just love the chance to be out in the open air.  I've become one of those bike people.  I walk my bike with me through the hardware store when I shop there; I twitch when I'm stuck in a car in city traffic, imagining how I'd just zip around the congestion on my bike; I explain to the bank tellers that, no, it's not too hot to ride -- in fact, it's cooler on a bike because of the breeze than it is in a car that's like a rolling greenhouse.  I've not only picked up the skills; I've picked up the attitude.

Training for that IronMan has also, obviously, changed our spending: both our money spending and our time spending.  We've blown some big bucks on bicycles, buying not only my bike but also the boys' new bikes.  We've become members of the Y, paying monthly dues.  We've bought accessories: bike locks, bike lights, more bike locks when the boys lost their first ones, clothes, and such.  But we've also cut spending in other areas -- particularly on our car, since we're pretty contentedly down to one 15-year-old old car now, even with two teenage boys and a 22-year-old host daughter in the house.  In fact, we often go for days without anyone starting the car up, but it's hard to think of a day when the family bike rack doesn't get a bit of rearranging.

Tscha.  All this navel-gazing.  The point is, there are two things that I still marvel at regarding that giant event.  One is that, after I got a flat tire two miles into the bike ride (only 2 miles!! with 110 to go!!!), by some miracle the new tire held air and I managed to finish the entire event, instead of having to go through the hell of training for another summer and trying again a year later.  I still look back at that moment of near despair and feel incredible relief and gratitude at how it all ended up.

And the other thing I marvel at is that, my plan to become a bike rider worked -- and then some.  I really did this triathlon because I hoped that by going to extremes -- by getting myself to the point where I could ride my bike 112 miles in one day (never even mind the hour swim beforehand or the 26.2 miles on foot afterward) -- that I'd finally be comfortable substituting my bike for my car on errands that I'd do around town.  It was a bizarre plan for moving closer to a low-waste lifestyle.  I didn't have any idea that I'd want to be on the bike just for the fun of it; that I'd pester my friend Andy to ride through the Amish farmland with me; that I'd become a bike ambassador at the pet store and at yard sales.

I just had no idea how far the triathlon would end up taking me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Republic, Verizon, Ting: The Good, the Bad, and the Mis-matched

I've shared my cell phone woes (or should I spell it "woe$"?) before.  For years, my family has spent upwards of $300 per month for cell phone stuff.  This is not exactly *my* choice.  In fact, there's a chance that I've violated my own "don't-drive-them-crazy" rule and have nagged at my husband about the absurdity of flinging large amounts of perfectly good money at conglomerate cell phone companies.  Nonetheless, thousands upon thousands of Miser Mom's Money has buoyed up a certain cell phone company.

We've finally made a switch to several other providers, and it seems like a good time for a comparison.  I'm going to name names, but that's not because I am a brand-loyal person:  it's more to give a sense of what kinds of options we've rumbled across.

The Good:
Both of my sons and I are now on a phone plan that seems to be working really well.  The three of us pay $37/month, for all three of our phones combined; this includes talk, cell, and data most places. 

One of the things I love most about our current plan is that we never get hit with surprise charges.  Well, almost never:  the two times I've had a bill larger than $37 was when N-son's phone broke (this has happened twice) and we ordered a new one; each time, the next bill came with charges for four lines instead of three lines. We immediately cancelled the fourth line, and went back to the usual monthly fee.   

In particular, my sons can't download things (ringtones, photos) that cost extra money.  They can't go over some weird limit on calls or texts or data, so they never run up the bill.  This is a HUGE help to me as a parent.

Our plan (through Republic Wireless) gives us unlimited calls and texts anywhere there's cell phone service, and we also get unlimited data wherever we connect to the internet.   When my sisters and dad and I were vacationing in cell-phone-dead-zones in Tahoe last week, my phone was the only one that worked, because we happened to be in a place that had wi-fi.  I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of wi-fi, and less and less of a fan of cellular anything.  (More about this when I compare to Verizon and Ting).

If I wanted to use the phone out of wi-fi range for data, I could upgrade my plan for a bit more money:  my daughter also uses Republic, and she gets the unlimited everything on 3G service, which costs about $30/month for one person.  But as for me, I like the enforced frugality of using email and the web only in designated areas.  

For my husband, the killer is that Republic only accepts their own kind of phones (Motorola something-or-others).  He can't bring his iPhone over.   For me, a smart phone is a huge upgrade from my Captain Kirk flip-phone, so I don't know what I'm missing -- which is okay; I don't want to know, either.

The Bad:
Our long-term provider has a cellular network with good reception.  That's why my husband has stuck with it so long -- extreme reliability was extremely important to him at his job.  A PR guy has to be instantly accessible, and he spent untold hours on his phone, schmoozing with friends and editors and colleagues and reporters.  

But as for me, I always felt like I was going into some kind of battle of the wits when I tried to deal with Verizon.  It started when my husband explained that the reason we couldn't switch is because we'd get a kill fee before our contract expired, and then our contract kept getting extended, and extended . . .  in the end, when my husband actually was truly ready to switch providers, he discovered that Verizon had extended our contract yet again.  (They did this by telling him, "If you switch to such-and-such a data plan, you'll save $10/month," -- but didn't tell him about the contract.  By this point, even my husband was so infuriated at their bait-and-switch that we paid two kill fees and ditched the service anyway.)  Moral of the story:  if you think you or any other person in your household isn't up for a battle of the wits, it's better to pay the kill fee now rather than paying it five years and many thousand dollars from now. 

But even without the cancellation fee, there had been surprise costs sprung on us.  Before my children left the plan (bringing our bill down to "only" $120/month), Verizon had found numerous other ways to lure unsuspecting members of my family to pay more than they knew they were paying.  Tech-savvy daughters had their data plans changed under their noses.  My sons ran up high bills by purchasing ring tones and sending photos on phones -- phones that I had carefully set up to be call-only phones (or so I thought after spending several hours on the phone with Verizon reps).  And these surprise charges came on top of regular, hefty family-plan monthly charges.  Enough. We're done already.

And the Mis-Matched:
Switching my husband off of the phone plan he'd come to rely on was traumatic for him.  It's difficult to convey to normal people just how important a phone is to my husband.  Here's one true story that sort-of gets at his phone-o-philia:  in 2007, my husband was racing his bike downhill, when he crashed. He was taken by helicopter to the hospital with many broken bones, including three bones in his neck.  When I saw him, he was lying on his back in the emergency room, strapped to a gurney with a neck brace holding him in place, and there was a plastic surgeon at his head stitching up a giant gash in his face.  The first thing my husband said at that moment was, "I need to get a new cell phone."  

(Because he thought his phone had been smashed in the crash, just like his neck).  
(But his phone was just fine; it hadn't gotten hurt at all).  
(Oh, thank goodness).

So as I tried to convince my husband to switch away from the money pit that was our cell-phone bill, I followed the advice of two bloggers who are financially careful, but who aren't as . . . um, extreme as I am.  Both Mrs. Planting Our Pennies and the The Frugal Girl are cost conscious, but unlike me they buy things that have brand names.  I mean, on purpose.  And they both have had several posts raving about Ting, which I shared with my husband.  

Their posts convinced him a change was possible.  Early this year, he told me he'd decided to make the switch June 14, after he was done with Army Drill.  June 14, he changed his mind and said he'd switch in early July, after he was done with a trip to the Senior Olympics.  Early July, he needed to wait a bit longer so he could help J-son get a job. The tension was mounting.

July 31, the day he actually did switch over from Verizon to Ting, he was a total wreck.  I tried to do just what I'd been taught in my training as a Hospice Volunteer:  I stayed nearby, serving as "a calm, non-anxious presence".  My husband panicked a few times during the transfer . . . the password didn't work!!!  (Then he tried it again, and it did work the second time).  We need to change the sim chip!!  (I looked it up on my computer, found a paperclip to stick in the right hole, and switched out the sim chip.)

Finally, the time had come.  The switch had been made.  My husband turned on his phone, now hooked up to Ting, and . . . it worked!  Yay!!!

Um, except it doesn't.  

In spite of the raves of others who love it, we can't get reception in our home -- something about Ting going through T-Mobile's network.  It's been two weeks now, and whenever my husband gets a phone call, he has to run out of the house, through the yard, and into the garage before he can talk. Clearly, this is not going to be a long-term success.

In the interim, my guy has gamely figured out how to set up Skype inside the house, so if someone calls him, even though the call is immediately dropped, he can tell who called and call back on his computer.  He's surprisingly cheerful about it, given how much a good cell connection means to him, but this is still not optimal.

But it gets (slightly) worse. Unlike our old Verizon plan or my current Republic plan, Ting is pay-what-you-use. For frugal people like me or the Frugal Gal or Mrs. PoP, that would translate into low bills.  But my husband is an "extra large" user of talk and data; even without using the phone inside our home -- and because he's retired, he's home a lot -- he's racked up $75 in charges this first month.  So we're still paying a lot of money for a phone that doesn't work reliably.   Sigh.

My husband talks and uses data in an XL way.
His texting is only a Medium.

Clearly, we're going to have to find something new.  We're not sure what yet.  Our host-daughter, Y, tells us that her AT&T phone works fine in the house -- so we're probably looking at something that runs off of AT&T or Verizon.  But we have the luxury of time; we don't have a contract.  So this is temporarily do-able, even if it's not perfect.

Sigh.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pear-Mageddon

My time away from home has been full of family spending quality time together . . . 
 . . . and of adventure .. .
 . . . and of brag-worthy experiences.

But vacations are expensive, and there is a price to pay.  The price I will pay for my time away this year includes total Pear-Mageddon.
Alas, not a single pear survived my absence; I came home to multiple cardboard boxes of musssshhhy pears. Ew.  Well, at least they compost well.

The Okra has burst forth gloriously, and I spent a few minutes of my jet-lagged morning picking giant okra pods from my plants, and then I gathered up a couple of lingering jalapeƱo peppers to top off the bowl.

I don't think I have the strength to take on the tomatoes yet, but it's become clear that as soon as I left town, they texted their friends and threw a riotous party in the garden.  The clean up of the tomato bash could take days.  I hope their seedy music didn't disturb the neighbors.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Relation-ships and relation-scooters (and relation-sand, too).

Here are some snapshots from a not-entirely-frugal family vacation.  There's some spending of money going on, with the story that this is expected to save money.

My nephew tells me he's bought a $3000 scooter to get him to and from grad school.  He expects this will save reams of money on parking fees (which costs $80/month); it will also save on gas.  Perhaps he'll even be able to recoup some of the purchase price by selling the scooter once grad school is done; he purposefully bought a locally-popular brand instead of the more economical version, because of an eye toward reselling.

My sister made an even more unusual purchase.  She lives on the edge of a lake and is a master swimmer; there are a lot of ways she prefers water to land.  So before we came to Tahoe she researched boat rides.  What she came up with was an outfit that charges $250/hour, with a minimum rental of four hours.  Not wanting to spend $1000+, but really wanting some boat time, she purchase a $150 inflatable boat from Amazon and had it shipped here.

Here we are at the edge of Lake Tahoe, getting ready to put a bit of muscle into blowing up the boat.

Behold the Excursion, now a sea-worthy vessel!

Here, N-son demonstrates that my sister also purchased a family-pack of life jackets.


And here are the hearty sea-farers, setting out on the maiden voyage.  Once they get to deep enough waters, the waders will become rowers.  The boat provided hours of fun.

But of course there are other ways to have fun at the beach, even without purchasing a boat.   Hurrah for sand holes and sand castles!


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Bleah for Beautiful Closets

As someone who loves-loves-loves organizing time, and space, and closets, and . . . well . . . and everything, I just want to do a rant against "Closet-Beautiful" type magazines.   Because the kind of "beautiful" these closet magazines show isn't even normal, it's airbrushed and unhealthy.   (Sort of like other kinds of beauty magazines, I hear, but I don't even look at those).
Why is this kind of closet "airbrushed"?  It's a closet for a person who has only three dresses (identical and pink) and two (identical) bathrobes.  This closet beautifully holds 8 shirts, and about 8 pairs of slacks.  If you have more than that, well, things are going to look cluttered. Note also the stacks of identical shirts.  Would this closet look as good if the clothes were, um, real?

 The unhealthiness comes also from the way these so-called-organized photos interact with our things, rather than with us.  To get the belongings to conform to space, their owners often use lots of plastic boxes.  Stacked, full plastic boxes are my least favorite "glam" shot: how the heck are you going to get the gold scarf out of the middle of the box that's third from the right on the next-to-bottom row?  This is a format archival storage, not for actual day-to-day use.
Oh, well, at least all the shirts that hang below are evenly spaced 6 inches apart.  That's a relief.

Okay, but I don't just want to rant.  Underneath this, there are some guiding principals that help to make a messy place look (and possibly even actually be) more organized.  Two keys to the aesthetic sense are symmetry and space.  So to get a good-looking space, you should (a) declutter, (b) group like objects together, and (c) use containers -- not only to group things, but also to make them appear more similar.

Here's a quick example:  the before (left) and after (right) photos are those of a proud person who has gone through a very satisfying bout of organizing a garage workspace.  What makes this feel so successful is that the after looks so uniform -- there are red containers (well labeled) on one side, and big gray containers (again, well-labeled) on another shelf.  Symmetry and space in action.


Here's another before-and-after.  I know I'm missing a larger part of the kitchen, so I'm not judging this particular effort, but these pictures make me twitchy.  What makes the "after" below look so good is the uniformity -- the absence of commercial containers, for example.  But where did the tomato sauce go?  And (the Miser) part of me asks, how much does all this plastic container cost the owner, and the environment?  
At the same time, I admit that I'd rather look at a pantry like the one on the right than on the left.  I mean, pretty.

So I did a little experiment with my husband's dresser, one afternoon when he was out bike riding.  (Fortunately for this experiment, I have a husband who conveniently sports a mildly cluttered habitat and who also doesn't mind if I play around with his stuff).  

Behold the "Before".  It looks disorganized because there are a variety of objects, and there is no space between them.  Indeed, the things overlap and heap up.  

Even from this other angle, the dresser top is really a pile-o-stuff:

Of course, I did not purchase a host of plastic storage bins for this experiment, but it just so happened that I have a stash of canning jars on hand.  (You knew I'd have to bring up canning jars at some point, right)?

And lo-and-behold the "After"!
 Gorgeous, right?

There are several take-aways from this experiment.  One is that grouping things together, especially if you can get them into similar-looking containers, really does make thing look nicer.

But the boost in appearance often comes at the expense of practicality.  I mean, you might not want your mouthwash in canning jars, and it's a dangerous idea to keep your medicine there.
Don't put medicine in glass jars, especially if they're unlabeled!
Much less dangerous, but no less ridiculous, is the idea of keeping bike gloves and important papers in a jar.  I mean, even *I*, who love canning jars, don't do that.  

And what you don't see in the photo is just as important.  To get everything to fit in the containers, I had to get rid of a bunch of stuff, some of which was clutter, but some of which really belonged.  Here, I've added that back in:  there is packaging (because commercial labels ruin the "after"photo) and trash, and also a few things like a calculator that are actually useful, but don't fit into my particular containers.  

In other words, caution is advised when deciding how successful the "after" is compared to the "before".

So the organizational enthusiast in me wants to close with one more example of why things that look like a mess (different sizes, different shapes, different colors, different markings, overlapping and unevenly spaced) might actually be a better way to be useful and organized.

Which of these two objects below is less cluttered?  Which of the two is easier to use without even thinking hard about it?

Exhibit A

Exhibit B