Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An old take on new clothes

There are good reasons, I know, to buy new clothes.

For example, when you know exactly what you want, and when you also know that you can't buy that exact kind of clothing used, then it follows that new is the best way to go.
[If you're thinking "underwear", well, then, so am I.  I'm really picky about the brand, style, and size I wear.  Normally I keep costs low by wearing them into the ground, so to speak, but lately we've owned a dog who unaccountably eats my undies.  No shoes, no socks, just my underwear and my husband's bike gloves.  Go figure.  So instead of buying new underwear every five years once the elastic is so bare that my husband (the Laundry Tsar) starts chucking them, I'm forced to replace my undergarments nearly yearly.  More than you wanted to know, sorry.]
Also, recently, I bought new bike shoes because I didn't know at all what I wanted, but I knew that buying the wrong shoe would be a Bad Idea.  So I went to our local bike shop where I'd bought the SPDM, and had them fit me out and introduce me to some snazzy (sna$$y) shoes with cleats.  Rockin'!
[So now I know I wear a size 42 in bike shoes, and I know what kinds of cleats to buy for my future shoes.  From now on, I'll be able to buy used bike shoes with confidence.  I really do think of this as a one-time-only, learning-experience-version of a new shoe purchase.]
The whole getting-exactly-the-right-thing experience has been so surprisingly smooth that I started wondering to myself, "Am I cheating myself -- no, am I cheaping myself -- out of this experience by buying clothes at yard sales the rest of the time?"  After all, I have a good life, and I find good things where I shop (in my neighbor's yards and garages).  But maybe there's more perfect stuff in the land of consumer retail?

Then reality had its chance to sink back in, in the form of friendly stories.

I went running with my friends TL and K last Saturday, and they were talking about disappointing purchases.  K had bought new running shoes, and they just didn't feel quite as good as she'd hoped.  TL had bought a couple of different bathing suits, some of which looked better in the store then they did once they came home.  They laughed about this because they were with me; I was running along in my $1 hot-pink-marathon shoes.  They both knew I'd bought my last swim suit 3 years ago for $2 (a racing suit with the tags still in), and it fits me just fine.

Listening to TL and K reminded me that buying clothing is almost always a gamble of some sort.  I can improve the odds in my favor by knowing my size and knowing details about specialty clothes (like what kinds of cleats I'll want or what styles of racing suits work for me).  And if I'm going to be able to buy exactly the same style and brand every time (as I do with my undergarments, or as Dogs-or Dollars does with her jeans), then I can stack that deck almost entirely in my favor.  But if I want any variety in my clothing at all, it's always a gamble as to how the clothes will suit me once I'm actually wearing them in my real life.  That makes me happy to be gambling at yard sales instead of in the mall, where my mistakes cost me 50¢ or $1, not $50 or $150.

So as we head into the heart of yard sale season, I'll just add a few of my own experiences about the best way to find good clothes for pennies.
A yard-sale haul from last summer

  • Learn where the spendy people live.  If you can find a neighborhood yard sale in a development full of vinyl-sided houses, hit it up.  That's where I find name-brand clothes barely worn (sometimes never worn).
  • Avoid old neighborhoods with houses that were well-built long ago and where people have lived a long time.   It's fun to go there to peek around, but these people are careful enough about tossing around money that they're getting rid of mostly old, dusty kitchen and basement stuff.
  • Along these lines, check out your nearby university or college.  When college students  leave for the summer, you can sometimes get great bargains.  Our own college has a giant yard sale every May where we sell off printers, furniture, very trendy clothing, and food that students leave behind, donating the money to charity.  Every once in a while, our athletic department sells off old athletic equipment (I've gotten running shorts and sports bras there).
  • Do NOT think about the price.  It doesn't matter that this coat costs $300 in the store and only $3 at the yard sale.  What matters is whether you need a new coat, whether your closet is already overfull, and whether you actually like this coat.  
  • Do NOT care too much about this one particular item.  You're going to see cute, amazing things at a yard sale and think, "I need to have that!".  The most amazing thing about that is, it will happen again and again.  So you can afford to let that darling pair of shoes go if they're not quite right (for example, if they cost too much).  By which I mean, ironically . . . 
  • DO know your prices.  After years of yard saling, I know there's a range of prices for things.  If I'm patient, I'll always be able to get perfectly good women's shoes for $2 or less, so I don't bother buying the $4 shoes (even though I agree that's a reasonable price for the owner to charge).  But for my boys' shoes, I'm increasingly willing to go as high as $5 for black Jordans.  
  • Have the perfect [yard sale] body.  Which is to say, for yard sale reasons only, I'm very happy to wear size 10 or 12.  If I could figure out how to do it, I'd shrink my feet down to size 7; my size 9 feet are hard to shop for.
  • Be female.  Women's clothes are everywhere.  Men's clothes, not so much.  Or, if they're there, they tend to be old, ugly, ripped, or stained.  It's difficult to buy used clothes for my husband.
  • If you're male, be young.  See above. The older my boys get, the harder it is to find good clothes for them at yard sales.
The rest of the advice -- know what you like, know what's in your closet already, blah-blah-blah -- works the same for yard sales as it does for the mall.  Which is to say: we do our best, but life's a gamble, and so are clothes. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Where does that bread come from?

This isn't really a post about Christianity or Jesus, but it's got a lot of that religious stuff in it.  Bear with me.

The other day in church,  I got to read the scripture (John 6:60-71).  At this point in the Bible, Jesus has spent two totally kick-butt days with amazingly huge crowds:  he's fed five thousand people, he's walked on water, and he's got that whole Galilean world in his hand.  Then, when everybody's all pepped up and feeling like this dude is totally where it's at, he starts a spiel:  You want bread?  I'm the bread of life.  You want to get to the Father?  You gotta go through me.

Four thousand nine hundred eighty eight people walk away.  Party over.  Twelve guys remain; when Jesus asks them if they want to go, too, Simon Peter says there's nowhere else to go: the True Way is standing there right in front of them.

Our visiting pastor was all pumped up about Simon Peter.  What a smart guy!  The take-away lesson of the sermon was that the final tally for that particular event was 4,988 ignorant losers, 12 righteous and wise men.  (Well, okay, Judas was one of the twelve, but he wasn't part of the sermon).

But me?  I'm new enough to this faith that my head is right there with the ignorant masses.  If I'd been in that crowd, hearing this guy for the first time, what would convince me to change my mind, to make me believe a dude who talks crazy talk?  (This particular section, Jesus wasn't even preaching the feel-good stuff about love-your-neighbor; he was saying, "You need to eat of my flesh".  Creepy.)  Really, a guy selling time shares for a condo would be more appealing, and I've walked away from those guys every time they started in on me.

Leaving the whole Bible thing aside, what makes a person accept a counter-intuitive idea as truth?

I believe, for example, that I'll be happier if I keep my spending to a minimum level.   (I have heard that there are people who find this approach to life distressing, not pleasing.)

Also, that I'll feel more energetic and healthy if I regularly exercise and wear myself out.  (There's plenty of people I hang with who think my whole Iron Man plan is whacked out, although they're too polite to say so to my face).

The most successful people in life take chances at doing something nobody else is willing to chance, to believe in something new or weird or difficult (or all three).  How does a body know if that new, weird, difficult thing happens to be the right thing?

 I don't have a good answer.  My best guess is that it has something to do with time.  It has something to do with a willingness to try an idea on, carry it around, feel its weight.  Simon P. wasn't a new-comer to Jesus's posse; he'd spent some serious time hangin' with the Man.  If there's any real moral I can get from that story John told, it's to be wary of hoping that anything can give us the quick fix.  You can't solve your financial problems overnight by spending zero for just one day.  You can't become buff in a week, even with the most awesome gym membership.  And you can't find the true answers to life, the universe, and everything in just two days, even if you hear it from The Guy who Walks on Water.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Dealing with an embarrassment of riches

Pretzel dollars:  Our family gotta lotta dough!
We've had a bit more money floating around than usual lately, thanks to years of frugality that led to paying off our mortgage in February.  Before February, we'd been throwing all our extra money either at children or at the house . . . and now we have all that extra money to throw.  Where are we going to throw it?

First, there's the boring but useful answer:  for the first time ever, we're now maxing out our 401K and 403b retirement plans.  My husband's retirement funds had a -- shall we say? -- late start in life, so at age 60, he's still got a lot of space there for more padding.

Related to that, there's the charity answer.  In addition to gearing up for my annual summer give, we've started looking seriously into Donor Advised Funds (specifically, Vanguard Charitable).  The money that we put into this retirement-esque account will eventually go to charities of our choosing -- for me, that's a crucial part of the way I want to spend my money, so it makes sense to do this.  My thinking is this:  if I want to sock away a bunch of money for financial independence, but I want to do it without feeling like a greedy, selfish hoarder, I'd better make sure that I'm saving money for the greater good as well as for myself.  This fund will give me a tax-free way to save even more than the Four-Oh-Something max allowed for retirement, and at the same time, it will ensure that I have money set aside in my retirement days for those charities that I want to support.

There's the deferred maintenance answer.  Things that have gone un-fixed in the home, well, it's about time to fix them.  We'll invest in paint for shabby walls -- especially for those rooms where the boys don't go often, so they can't undo our work quickly.  We'll redo the kitchen floor, where the linoleum was old and cracked when we moved in 17 years ago, and where time hasn't magically healed things in the meanwhile.   (I'm thinking wood, not linoleum, by the way).  We'll splurge to pay a pro to "re-ceramic" the hideous salmon-colored bathtub in the otherwise white-and-black bathroom.  And so on.  It should be fun to work with boys on these projects this summer -- I'm looking forward to teaching them some more home maintenance skills.
As an aside, one of the financial moves we very seriously considered was, literally, to move: we've checked out a bunch of smaller homes near us.  After lots of searching and eventually finding the perfect place, we decided we want to wait for perfection until after the kids have moved out.  The problem with a smaller house is that there's not as much space there, we discovered.  Go figure!
There are also kid expenses on the horizon.  X-son will come from Haiti with his own hefty price tag, courtesy of a dizzying array of paperwork and governmental oversight.  We've already saved up a bunch for the education of J-son and N-son, and that ought to be more than enough to launch them into technical schools and eventual independence.  But K-daughter (who is not legally our daughter) has been financing her own college education, and there's a chance she'll wind up taking out $20K in loans.  Should we try to help her pay those back when she graduates?

Yes, it's true, there's no shortage of ways to spend money.

The phrase -- "embarrassment of riches" -- is a curious one.  It does make frugality seem all the weirder and less socially explainable.    That might be part of the reason I feel drawn to charity.  It's also true that the money makes me feel like my house is shabbier (more embarrassingly so) than I ought to leave it; and it makes me reluctant to consign my own children (legal or otherwise) to a life of debt.

But notice that none of these options for spending this embarrassment of wealth includes fast food, malls, or pricey clothes.  The day-to-day aspects of our life really aren't about to change anytime soon.  No, we might have lost our mortgage, but I haven't lost my mind.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Last Friday, the Get Rich Slowly Blog asked, "Do you have a plan in place in the event of a windfall?"  They asked that question with an implied "if", as in, "if you ever happen to be so lucky".  But in my own fortunate experience of life, windfalls aren't so much a question of "if" as "when".  We all get extra doses of money from time to time; one of the true tricks of frugality is learning to watch for those times and to use them well.

Winning the lottery?  Not so likely.
Getting an inheritance?  Maybe, but not something we'd want to plan for.

(Well, really, pruning-fall but phrase doesn't
have quite the same ring, does it?)
But there are tax refunds, and gifts, and bonuses.  Sometimes, there are non-expenses (like the time we'd planned to pay for K-daughter's braces, but the orthodontist took pity on the orphan and waived his fee).  Of course, the opposite can happen too -- we're all familiar with the unexpected expense.  But my point is that the unexpected money in our pockets is something we ought to expect as well.

The original "windfall" meant literally that a bunch of wind blew, and it blew the fruit trees so hard that fruit would fall on the ground.  Go gather it up!  The added implication "windfall = surprise abundance" came later.   But the origins of this word reminds us that we'll do best to keep our eyes open, to expect abundance --- when the wind is blowing, we should check the ground under the fruit trees.  

Windfalls are sort of like algebra or sewing machines.  If you don't sew it's hard to imagine that a sewing machine would be worth the expense, and if you are scared of math you think nobody ever does algebra in real life.  But once you master a tool, you realize how useful it is.  (When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail).  Once you come to expect windfalls, you learn to pay attention and keep your finger up to the wind.

In our family's case, there have been funky amounts of money showing up.  My employer occasionally pays me to go to certain kinds of training, and I have jumped to volunteer to be trained (and also, thank you, to be paid).  I also get invited to give talks at other institutions, and the older I get, the more I get paid for those talks.    Small outside consulting gigs seem to hover at my periphery like pigeons near a park bench, and the more of them I do, the more of them seem to flock over toward me and say, "choose me".  

We also have the entirely planned-for and abundantly welcome death of the mortgage.  Whoop!  And so our finances have been floating at abnormally high tide lately.  This is a new (and rather scary) situation for us to be in --- so many choices about what to do!  With all this sloshy money to swim around in, how do we keep our feet on solid ground?

It is, I know, a wonderful problem to have.  I'll write another post soon on some of choices for this new phase of our financial life.  But in the meanwhile, I just wanted to do that encouraging thing of saying:  when I read in books that frugality could lead to this, I wasn't really sure I believed it.  How strange it is to arrive, finally, at a place I'd always only taken on faith?  

Monday, May 20, 2013

X-son is one step closer

Here's a picture of the handsome teenager we're hoping to adopt from Haiti.  And on Saturday we got a small piece of good news:
I am happy to announce that you are officially adopting through Giving Hope Rescue Mission creche along with your contracted VOICE OF THE ORPHAN Adoption Agency!  
I am happy to announce that it's official and you are in the adoption process.
Your dossier was accepted into IBESR. 
Your dossier number is:  XXXXX 
On a personal note: I have never really apologized about the fact you did not get accepted when IBESR closed.  To be completely blunt it was a horrible experience for me... being rejected last minute and then watching IBESR close their doors (more like slam their doors shut in our faces)  I was actually quite the emotional wreck about it.  [More of a similar sentiment goes here].   I was also hurting because dossiers that came in after yours somehow got in-- but you were rejected.  
So, emotions of our agency director aside, we're in line to adopt, legally and officially, one year after we actually sent our giant pile of papers off to Haiti.  Whoop!

This doesn't actually mean anything is going to happen quickly now, of course.  Not only does the IBESR (a Haitian governmental agency) have to chew on this application and let it work its scrunchy way through their gnarly long intestines, but they have to move it up the digestive tract and hope the president signs it.  And even after the adoption becomes official, we have another 6-month wait to formalize his US citizenship so that X-son can come to Pennsylvania legally.

Not to mention that the email above came with a "we need to get in touch with you urgently" message, but telephone and email service between the US and Haiti has been non-existent this past weekend.  So "urgently" really means "eventually".

So there's still a lot more ahead of us.  But it's nice to see this one step actually happen (only one year after we actually submitted our application)!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The true cost of racing my children

What's the true cost of racing children?  Not "raising", mind you: "racing".

Me, since March, I've been paying the boyos a-quarter-a-mile to do errands with me via bike instead of via automobile.  I chose this number for convenience's sake; with two kids in on the deal, I'm shelling out a bit less than the IRS says is the reimbursable cost of car commuting.  And I'm getting some bang for my buck (fortunately, the "bang" isn't literal crashes).

The money, at this point, is nearly irrelevant.  I pay it anyway.  I miss the days I gave the kiddos an allowance with "Mommy Dollars", an utterly fictitious currency over which I had exclusive control.  But the boys've graduated to wanting things that Mommy can't buy (or at least, that Mommy Dollars can't buy), and so I give them a pittance of an allowance in spendable U.S. currency.  The allowance comes with weekly lectures on the importance of generosity and of saving, so it's not exactly easy money, and truth be told, there's not much there to give or save.  So the chance to earn a little on the side is welcome to them.   And we've learned a lot of good stuff since we started this.

For one thing, there's the math lesson.  My boys constantly surprise me with how little they remember of their arithmetic.  If I say we've gone 6 miles, how much money do they get?  The boys, they squirm.  They wriggle.  They guess: "Six dollars?"  So in recent months, we've resurrected the old rhyming chant I taught them long ago to teach them their four-times multiplication table:
Sixteen, twenty,
twenty four, twenty eight,
thirty-two is plenty.
Thirty six, forty,
Lordy, lordy.
When we rode 17 miles together one weekend, this rhyme came in handy; the boys correctly figured out I owed them each $4.25.

More directly, there are the navigation lessons.  That is, we ride together through the city to get to drum lessons and the library.  We explore back streets and discover interesting alleys, places that I'd avoid with my car but that are perfect for a trio of energetic and slightly rambunctious cyclists.  We zoom together through side-streets previously unknown on the way to the dentist.  We're getting to know our city in ways that are up-close-and-personal, as well as behind-the-scenes.

There are the social bike lessons, too.  Staying together was tricky for a while: N-son seemed to always lag behind, and J-son wandered.  After a week or two of riding slowly, looking back over my shoulder and nagging, I wised up.  Instead, I taunted the boys:  "you can't keep up with your little old mother?" and I took off like a bolt of lightning, only to find two bolts of lightning zipping by me.  Since then, we careen through the streets, flying after one another, the boys making me sweat and pant as I chase them down.

They're daredevils; they're fearless.  They bunny-hop over sidewalk curbs, swerve and dash, skid to dramatic stops.  They're very careful around traffic, but utterly contemptuous of immobile obstacles or each other.  I get a workout chasing them, and I get a bonus workout every time I have to yank my heart out of my throat and lower it on a pulley to its proper place between the lungs.  They laugh with abandon and glee, and I, their mother, am learning by their example to abandon fear, to chase after joy with my own two legs and my own two wheels.

And this . . . this of course is the true secret to good parenting.  Because more than money, when we're chasing one another and yelling encouragement and egging one another on . . . more than money, what I'm paying is attention.

And that's what my kids need most.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bicycling and the social contract

I've been overcoming a lot of my former anti-bicycling prejudices these past two months.  Whoop!   But those prejudices . . .  well, my dear, new "Sudden Painful Death Machine" has that (loving) name for a reason, of course.  Prejudice #1 is fear of gravel in corners.  More on that fear later.

But the two other big reasons I've been hesitant to take up biking have little to do with personal comfort or safety.  If you look at the most popular reasons that make people hesitate to ride bikes, I myself would shrug them off:
  • "I'd get too hot/too cold."  Faugh!; I walk more than I drive already; I don't mind dressing for the weather.
  • "I'd get sweaty."  I love getting sweaty!
  • "Traffic around here is nuts; biking is too dangerous".  I happen to live in a very bike-friendly city*.  Many of my friends and colleagues bike to work already.  
*Although --- interestingly enough on this last one --- my avid-cyclist husband has had trouble with traffic out on the wide, quiet country roads.  In the southeastern part of our county, in the land of pick-up trucks and confederate flags, drivers will sometimes deliberately swerve at him or throw beer-bottles at him.  One guy actually threw tacks in the road in front of a bunch of cyclists (only to discover to his chagrin that one of those cyclists happened to be a cop).  If my husband rides alone in those areas, he wears his "Budweiser" bike clothes, which affords him a bit of protection.  I think that's pretty funny.

But aside from the Prejudice #1 (the Evil Spectre of Corner Gravel), much of my reluctance to ride bikes was less personal than it was social.  Here's what I really thought would be the hard part of squeezing bicycling into my routine:

  • Prejudice #2:  Biking will make me late.  This is related to, but not quite the same as, other people's worry that biking takes too much time.  In my case, it's really issues of whether I could squeeze biking in between other tasks I've promised to do, and still meet the obligations of being a good professor and mom.  
  • Case in point: going to Market on Tuesday mornings.  I typically do this after I wake the boys and send them to school, but before I teach my 8:30 a.m. class.  I only have about 45 minutes in that little window, so speed is critical; I know if I drive there, it takes me 25-30 minutes roundtrip.  But . . . to my surprise, I've discovered recently that if I bike there, it takes me 25-30 minutes roundtrip.  Same amount of time, exactly.  So biking to market does not, in fact, make me late.  Whoop!
  • Second case in point:  taking the boys to the doctor's office takes something like 1.5 hours out of my day, mostly because pulling the boys out of school takes   F O R  E  V   E    R . .  .    and sitting in the waiting room and then sitting in the examining room are also not exactly speedy activities.  So biking instead of driving to the doctor's office doesn't really steal that much time from my workday, nor does it make a huge dent in my boys' ultimate academic success.
  • Prejudice #3:  Biking will just be tormenting my sons.  Since I walk (and don't drive) to work, the majority of my local car use has been to transport the kiddos around.   And therefore, it follows that my choice to bike instead of drive becomes their new routine as well, for good or ill.  Is that fair to them?  Can they deal with it?  
I've hinted above that things are actually more-or-less working out okay with the new bike routine.  I'll write some other day about biking with kids [and spoiler alert: they love it more than I do, even!].  

Which brings me back to Prejudice #1:  fear of gravel in corners.  I can blame one bad spill many years ago for this particular terror of mine.  Male bicyclists I talk to try to rationalize this fear away:  "Well, you get used to looking for gravel", or "that corner we just went through is perfectly safe [so why are you such a little whiner?!?],"  or "the really bad thing isn't gravel, it's wet leaves."   And I 'get' this rational approach.    Sort of.

But a woman I know who races bikes heard me talking about gravel, and her response rocked me.  Cathy said, 
"Yes, you've got to be careful of things like that, because you have a family who's relying on you.  Guys can crash, and it's just them.  But you have to think about who's going to take care of the kids and the house if you get hurt, so you have to take extra care not to wipe out.  It'll take you two years of riding before you can really know your limits.  You'll have a few near crashes, a few skids, a few slides, and then you'll know how far you can push and how far you can't.  Two years of riding, and you'll be fine.  But for now, you're right:  guys do crazy stunts all the time and think nothing of it.  But you have to think about things like corners and gravel, because it's not just about you."

I'm not entirely sure that the male/female division is as sharp as she made it out to be, and I know for certain that my fear of gravel isn't as noble as she gives me credit for.  But Cathy made me realize how often our reluctance to change something about our own lives isn't just about us -- it's also about how our decisions will affect our ties to other people, to our jobs, and to those past promises we've made.

As David Brooks wrote in a recent article I just love, nowadays we're good at talking about "personal rights" and lifestyle, but we don't really have a good language for commitment, civic obligation, or a public responsibility.  Cathy and David Brooks together shook up something in my head.  They made me realize how much this new hobby of mine isn't just about me doing my own little thing, and even more, that it is a Good and Proper thing to think about the bike in the context of the greater social contract.

It's not just about the bike, even when it's staring straight atcha.