Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Summary Advice

Here's a summary of advice from August.

August 1 Make gazpacho with fresh vegetables.
August 2 Choose many mentors for the many parts of your life.
August 3 Get your free annual credit reports (yawn).
August 4 Compare yourself to the world, not to your nearby neighbors.
August 5 Turn restaurant eating into an adventure.
August 6 How to think about what the neighbors think.
August 8 Use cloth napkins (plus napkin rings).
August 9 Throw a no-trash party.
August 10 Used shoes are not bad for your feet.
August 11 Save charity requests and deal with them all at once.
August 12 Answer "are we there yet?" at the children's thought level.
August 13 Canning food is as easy as boiling the jars.
August 15 Locally grown produce can be good for the wallet.
August 16 Sing silly songs about morning sickness.
August 17 Shopping takes time, whether at yard sales or malls.
August 18 Automate your charitable giving.
August 19 Make shopping lists for children's clothes.
August 20 Bend the tip of the spout on salt containers.
August 21 Bargain politely at yard sales.
August 22 Beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the "Tightwad Gazette"
August 23 Know when enough stuff is enough.
August 24 Organize things by how you use them, not by what they are.
August 25 Question your own lifestyle, not your neighbor's.
August 26 There a big difference between vital and urgent.
August 27 If it's not dirty, don't clean it.
August 29 Use a seam ripper.
August 30 Make a master information form to give to school and child care.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Filling out school forms

School is back in session in our area, and that means our kids are hauling home form-after-form-after-form to fill out.

One of the reason these forms are such a headache is because there are so many of them, with such redundant information.  But another reason they are a pain is that they ask for information that comes from wildly different aspects of our lives (our insurance policy number, and an address of other people allowed to pick up the child, and their father's employer's phone number, and . . . )   If you're not hyper-organized, it's a nuisance to go look all those things up.

So be hyper-organized.  I make my own computer version of the information the largest of these forms ask for.  If I don't have the kids filling out forms,  instead of filling that form out by hand, I write "see the attached sheet".  Then I can staple on the form that I've printed off my computer.  Much, much easier. 

Another way I deal with forms is that, by the time my kids are old enough to write legibly, I consider these forms part of THEIR homework.  They fill out most of the forms themselves.  Here are some of the things that make this work:
  • I provide the "master form" with much of the information my kids need (more on this below).  The kids are allowed to copy from that form.
  • I make my kids use pencil.  If they mess up too badly, I erase and make them do it over.  So far the school has never objected that the forms are done in pencil instead of pen.
  • I proofread carefully once the kids are done, to make sure there are no mistakes.  
  • If the form requires signatures (such as for a field trip), I do the signatures myself, in pen.
The kids object pretty strenuously to having to do this (they think it's MY homework), but my older daughter who suffered through this system admits that this helped her learn to fill out other forms on her own.  Looking back, she says it was a valuable lesson.  

Here's the information I needed to gather into one place for the "master form".

  • Child’s Name 
  • Birth date 
  • Address
  • Mother’s Name 
  • Home Telephone 
  • Address 
  • Work
  • Work Address 
  • Work Telephone 
  • Father’s Name 
  • Home Telephone 
  • Address 
  • Work 
  • Work Address 
  • Work Telephone 
  • Emergency Contact/Person to whom child may be released (some forms need 3 names)
  • Name,  Address, Telephone 
  • Name,  Address, Telephone 
  • Name,  Address, Telephone 
  • Medical Provider 
  • address & Telephone 
  • Dentist 
  • address & Telephone 
    • Special Disabilities 
    • allergies
    • Insurance company 
    • policy number
    • telephone
    To make the form look more official, I do it with boxes around the information.  (In Microsoft word, look under "borders").  I put the words above in 8 point font, but the information in 12 point font.  So it looks sort of like this:
    Mother's Name    Miser Mom     Telephone 123-4567

    As with most informational tasks, we can save time and energy by finding a way to organize once, to automate tasks, and to delegate when possible.

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    Seam rippers

    People who don't sew might not know of a handy little tool called a "seam ripper".  It's a small pointed blade that allows you to take out one stitch at a time without damaging the surrounding fabric.  These are cheap -- about $2 retail -- and if your seam ripper keeps you from ruining one article of clothing, it pays for itself.  (If you can recognize one by sight, you might even know to snag one for a quarter at a yard sale).

    Here's a delicate sweater whose tag was too scratchy, with my little seam ripper getting ready for action.

    I poke the tip of the blade through one of the stitches and then slide the seam ripper forward.  It cuts just the thread, not the surrounding fabric.
    Here's a close-up of why this works.

    With a seam ripper, you can remove scratchy tags, fix sewing mistakes, or even take off decorations that have stopped being decorative:  silly belt-loops, faded fabric flowers, buttons, etc.  Sometimes that's all you need to do to make a piece of clothing look good again.

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    Speed cleaning

    If you want to clean up your living room, you'd probably have to start by putting away clutter.  Speed Cleaning (the book) is not at all about that kind of cleaning, sorry.  But if somehow all the toys and books and newspapers were miraculously gone,  you might want to dust and vacuum and get those fingerprints off the light switches and the smears off the mirror.  And if you have energy after the living room is done, you might want to tackle the bathroom quickly.   Or the kitchen.  Or all three.  Speed Cleaning is now the book for you.  This book helped save both time and money on cleaning my home.  What  a great combination!

    Jeff Campbell and the the "Clean Team" wrote this book after a bunch of years of experience cleaning other people's homes.  His technique incorporates a few up-front organizational ideas (for example, an apron with a bunch of pockets holding important cleaning tools:  cloths, scrubbing pad, tooth brush, trash bag, and cleaning "juice").  It also has some guiding principles on what to do with all that stuff.  Here are some of my favorites guidelines.
    • Use both hands (for example, hold the squirt bottle in one hand and the rag in another).
    • Move from top to bottom (sounds obvious, but how often do I forget and then drop a cobweb on the floor I just swept?)
    • Don't rinse or wipe a surface before it's clean (when you scrub something scuzzy, keep scrubbing until you "feel" there's no more scuzz.  Don't scrub, rinse, scrub, rinse, scrub, rinse . . .) .
    • If it's not dirty, don't clean it (in other words, you don't have to squirt the clean parts of the mirror just because one corner is smudged).
    • Make every move count (have all your tools at hand, so you don't have to keep walking back and forth to get them).
    • No, really, make every move count.  (I touched on this in an earlier post when I wrote about using lots of rags, switching to a new clean one frequently instead of rinsing/wringing them out).
    This book helped me to clean most of my spaces faster -- I can deep-clean a bathroom in 5 minutes or less now.  Some rooms I actually spend MORE time cleaning now (like my kitchen) because the book convinced me to clean things that I wouldn't otherwise have thought of . . . but I'm really glad to be more professional about the process.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    The book I use the most

    The book that most influenced the way I organize my time (and, to be honest, all the rest of my life) doesn't actually exist. It was a series of cassette tapes with the long and forget-able title,
    Time Quest: Increasing Productivity Through Value-based Time Management, - How to Use the Franklin Day Planner System (4 Audio Cassette Tape Set in Case) by Franklin Quest Co. 
    My sister bought me a Franklin planner back in 1992, just as I was starting my job.  The planner came with these cassette tapes on how to set up the pages in the book.  "Who needs to learn how to make a calendar and a bunch of to-do lists?" was my first reaction.  But about halfway through the tapes, I became a convert.  Now I carry my planner with me almost everywhere I go.  The exceptions are easy to list:  running, church, and yard sales.  Otherwise, I'm never more than one room away from it.  My planner is definitely the book I use the most.  
    Franklin Quest bought out the Steven Covey empire; now the company is Franklin-Covey.  They've published a bunch of books, including about a gazillion versions of "Highly Effective Habits".  That people like these Highly Effective books so much have made them into the Highly Lucrative Publications section of the company.  But for me, I honestly miss Hyrum Smith's initial approach:  he focused on tiny details of time management, and he put those in the context of the most important parts of a person's life.  I don't know why he never published that.

    I can't distill four hours into one blog post; I'm sure I'll come back to writing about time management again.  But here are four big lessons that I learned, boiled down so greatly they're probably beyond usefulness.
    • Know what your deepest values are.  Then, when you look at a long list of to-do items, choose to do the things that matter most first, even if they're not the easiest to do.
    • There is a difference between "vital" and "urgent".  "Vital" is getting exercise, or hugging your children, or calling a friend who's down.  "Urgent" is the memo due soon and the ringing telephone.  Whenever possible, ditch the non-vital, urgent things in favor of doing the vital non-urgent things.
    • Keep all your information in one place.  My planner has my address book, a list of my appliances' serial and model numbers, my utility and financial account numbers, my calendar, my to-do lists, my brainstorm space, my pencils and pens, and more.  I don't keep two calendars.  This is an incredibly useful component of organizing time and effort.
    • It's a good idea to have "to-do" items for specific dates in the future.  (Some people call these "tickler items", because they "tickle" your memory).  When I'm planning an on-going project, I parcel out what I'm doing and write those tasks on days well into the days or even months ahead.  For example, I know that on Thursday a week from now when we're back from some travels and the hectic start of school is behind us, I'll call a dairy about buying bulk butter.  Between now and then, I don't have to worry about it.
    For many years, I bought new pages from the company each year at the hefty price of about $60.  That's expensive for a calendar, but for me the price was more than worth it.  This past year, I figured out how to design my own planner pages on the computer, and I can print out a year's pages for about $14.

    UPDATE as of December 2019:
    This post, now 8 or so years later, is still one of the posts I get the most comments and requests about.  If you'd like to get access to those MP3 files (as a bunch of people over the years have requested), please leave a comment in the space below and include an email address where I can reach you. 
    The comments for this blog are now set to "moderated only", meaning before the comment goes live, it'll come to my email.   I'll get it, send you a link to the MP3 files, and then delete your comment so that no one else gets to see your email address.  (Well, unless you want me to publish your comment; I could do that if you want).  

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

    Ron Sider's book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, is exactly the kind of book that you read that makes you feel really, really guilty.  So you might not want to read it, just for that very reason.  But (as Doris Janzen Longacre points out in her classic Living More with Less), what if we ARE guilty?

    Sider's book is one that I read out loud to my husband.  It begins with the simple statement,
    We usually compare our budgets and lifestyles with those of our affluent neighbors.   Part One invites you to compare yourself with the poorest one-half of the world's people.  
    From there, Sider gets serious.  The book is deeply committed to an Evangelical world view, so people uncomfortable with Christianity might find a lot of his underlying motivations far from their own.  But the people who ought to feel the most uncomfortable -- and deservedly so -- are the wretches like me who say we believe one thing and then live another thing.

    After I read this book to my husband, a completely unexpected thing happened.  My husband took the book to heart in a surprising way.  He knew he was no good with helping widows and orphans in the usual sense, so -- using a logic completely unique to my husband himself -- he decided his best route to service would be to re-enlist in the military.   I'm a peace-nik myself, but I'm the one who read the darned book to him, so I gave him my blessing.  He celebrated his 56th birthday by deploying to Iraq.  (Here's his own blog about the experience).

    My guy called up Ron Sider to tell him what his book meant to him.  Sider is a pacifist, so I'm sure he doesn't get many calls of that type.  When my husband got to the part about re-enlisting in the military, Sider's aide asked, "Which part of the book is it that made you do that?  We'll take that part out!"

    Here is Sider's advice on living a simpler life, at least one-third of which I admit I don't do (guilt, guilt, guilt . . . )
    1. Question your own lifestyle, not your neighbor's.
    2. Reduce your food budget (he lists several ways).
    3. Lower energy consumption (he lists several ways).
    4. Resist consumerism.
    5. Buy and renovate an old house in the inner city.
    6. Reduce your consumption of nonrenewable natural resources.
    7. Determine how much of what you spend is for status and eliminate such spending.
    8. Refuse to keep up with clothing fashion.
    9. Enjoy what is free.
    10. Live on a welfare budget for one month.
    11. Examine alternatives for celebrating holidays.
    12. Give your children more love and time rather than more things.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    Organizing your space to clean itself

    Wouldn't it be nice if your home automatically cleaned itself up?  Mine doesn't, but after I read (and re-read, and devoured) the book "Organizing from the Inside Out", my house got a lot easier to keep neat.

    Here's an example.  My teenaged daughter's room was the disaster-zone you'd expect for a kid her age.  It's not just that *I* was frustrated with it, though; she was frustrated, too.  She wanted it to be clean.  (This is a distinct difference between her and my sons, sigh).  So, armed with the tips I'd gotten Morgenstern's book, I walked around my daughter's room with her asking, "What kinds of things do you do in here?  Where are you when you do it?"

    One of her answers was "read books" -- she was and still is a book-aholic.  Where does she read?  In bed.  But her bookshelf was on the complete other side of the room: no WONDER her books were in piles all over her floor near her bed.  We rearranged her room with the shelves near the bed, making a reading nook.  Problem completely solved.  Seriously, it was amazing how completely this changed the floor of her room.

    A week or so later, I came in for a follow-up visit.  Her hairbrush was still always in the wrong place, never on the dresser.  "Why do you leave it over here all the time?" I asked.  She said, "That's where the mirror is, so that's where I brush my hair."  I moved the mirror over her dresser, and all of a sudden her grooming supplies stayed where they were supposed to.  Amazing.

    We often think, when we are surrounded by our own mess, that it's entirely our own fault.  Morgenstern's book shows how the spaces we live in can work against us -- and she also gives lots and lots of examples of how people make simple transformations to their spaces that make organization and neatness almost automatic.  (She's a professional organizer; the link above is to her business web site.  So she's worked with professional clutterers!)

    The idea of organizing things by how you use them -- and not by what they are -- allowed me to organize my pantry shelves in a way that everyone in our highly eclectic, coming-and-going family can understand.  The top shelf in my pantry is "dinner fixings".  Next down is "lunch stuff".  Down from there is "after school snacks".  The bottom shelf is "beverages".  This way, the kids know which shelf they're allowed to eat from -- they don't take food that I'm saving for dinner.
    As you can see, Morgenstern is a fan of labeling.  Once I got over the idea of labels being a little too anal, I realized that this was actually a huge help to the family, and even more so to our guests.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Financial Independence and "Enough".

    My husband and I read aloud to each other.  He read all of Dante's Divine Comedy to me just before we got married, for example.  But usually, I read to him.

    One of the few financial books I read out loud to him is "Your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.  It's a really engaging, thought-provoking book that looks at how our money relates to our own personal philosophy and life goals.  It's the one I chose for the second book report of the week.

    Dominguez was a stock broker who realized early in life that if he cut down on a bunch of his material expenses and focused on saving, he could retire early.  Getting himself free from the need for paid employment was such a draw to him that he cut his expenses way low and quit his job while he was in his 30s.   In that sense, he "retired".  But he was also a guy of boundless energy, and he turned immediately to helping others with their own finances, so in another sense, he worked until the day he died.  (Check out the Financial Integrity wiki that his efforts started).  The difference is that he did not need to be tied to a particular job or a particular paycheck.  He'd become "financially independent", or "FI" as he called it.

    The notion of being FI is one that has made this book a continual best seller since its first publication in 1992.  That's what appealed to my husband: the notion that his need for paid employment is for a finite amount of time, and that he has way more control over that amount of time than he'd originally thought.

    For me, who absolutely loves my job and would probably do it even if I weren't paid, there was another aspect that appealed to me.  Part of being ready for retirement is having saved a bunch of money.  How much money?  "Enough".
    These graphs (I love graphs!) show how we get happier as we get more stuff, until the point where we have "enough".  Then our happiness starts going down when the stuff becomes clutter.
    It's the concept of "enough" that hooked me on this book.  We're brought up to think we all want more and more and more.  But there comes a point when more stuff means less happiness.  (Think about feeling yucky when you've eaten too much food, or being dismayed at how hard it is to clean up all those toys, or agonizing in front of an over-full closet because you don't know what to wear today).

    For me, this book gave me the added little kick I needed to get me out of buying things just for the sake of buying them.  I'm working toward my husband's financial independence.  But I'm also doing my best to spend my money only on those things that matter most to me:  people rather than things, conservation rather than consumption.  I'd love to get to the point in the graph pictured here, where instead of reaching that plateau of "enough" and plummeting down the other side, I see my happiness skyrocket by sharing my more-than-enough with others.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    The Frugal Zealot

    What Dolly Parton is to Country Music, Amy Dacyczyn is to frugality.  Dacyczyn is the self titled "Frugal Zealot" who wrote The Tightwad Gazette.  Her book has been an inspiration to every frugalista who has come after her, whether they acknowledge her or not.

    Since I'm gearing up for school again, this week seems like a great week to do book reports, and the top-of-the-top of these books on my list is the Tightwad Gazette.  Many people have described this book as "the Cheapskate's Bible", and if that's so, I'm one of her evangelists.  I've bought probably 20 copies and handed them out to friends. I've read it through cover-to-cover more times than I could count.  I could quote you whole passages from memory (in the same way that I could sing, badly, all of Dolly's Coat of Many Colors.)

    The Tightwad Gazette makes saving pennies an adventure full of joy and creativity.  Dacyczyn resorted to frugality as a way to retire to a rural farm-house (with attached barn); she did this on her husband's military salary, and she brought along her four-going-on-six children.

    Here are just three small pictures of things I do differently because of her book.  They're small things -- I've already written about a lot of the bigger changes like yard sales, and solar cooking, and making muffins instead of cereal.  What you can't get from these pictures is the incredible humor and creativity that fill her pages.  Grab a copy from your local library (or if you live near me, I can give you yet another copy I've bought).
    I make small "artist books" for my kids from pre-cycled ( = used on one side) paper.  These are great for church, restaurants, and other places I want the children to play quietly.
    Patching a pair of pants -- in this case, with camo fabric -- is not only cheaper, it's also faster than buying a new pair of pants.

    I re-purposed an old squirt bottle.  I put in a teaspoon of dish soap and then fill with water.  I use this all the time for quick clean-up of pots and pans.  Also good for a quick squirt at sticky messes on the table.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    Bargaining at yard sales

    A rare, Sunday-night post.  (It's after 6 p.m., so my internet sabbath is over).  My friend Kristie says I should tell some "bargaining" stories about yard sales.

    My basic yard-sale bargaining strategy is to be both extremely cheap and extremely polite.   Here are three stories that illustrate my approach.

    Story 1.  My son had only three quarters in his pocket, but he spotted a huge (and highly alluring) bag of silly bands for $1.  His first instinct was to beg me for more money, which really just goes to show that in spite of all his experience with me he doesn't know me very well.  After the obligatory lecture on saving up for future expenses, I suggested he ask the seller if she'd be willing to take 75¢.

    We walked over to the table and he pointed out the silly bands to me.  The girl behind the table asked, "Do you want these silly bands?".  My son looked at the ground and said, "Mom, can you ask her?".
          "Honey," I said, "Ask her if she'll take 75¢."   He stared at the ground some more.
          "Do you want these?" the girl asked again.  She picked them up and held them out to my son.  He stared at the ground some more.
          "Sweetie, tell her you'd like them, and ask if she'd take 75¢."
          " . . . Would you take 75¢?" my son finally mumbled.
          "Sure!" the girl chirped, and handed over the bag.  My son is one tough negotiator!
    About half of the silly bands from the alluring bag that my son bought.
    Story 2.  As the first story shows, many people at yard sales are willing to lower their stated price.  But they're not always wiling to go as low as I ask.  In this case, I try to blame myself rather than the seller.  That doesn't mean I'll buy the thing--rather, I bow out gracefully.

    At another yard sale, I saw a wig that would be a great addition to a play we'll be doing in May.
         "How much would you like for that?" I asked the seller.
         "$3" she replied.  When I hesitated, she added, "Name a price."
         "I'd pay $1," I countered.
         "I don't think I can do it," she said.  "I bought it originally for $30."
    At this point, I could have pointed to the spots where the wig was coming a bit un-done, or I could have pointed out that, however much she'd paid for it, she didn't want it now,  or I could have told her about similar things I'd seen at yard sales for much less.  I've heard other yard sale buyers do this often.  But to me that just seems antagonistic.  I'd rather blame myself.  Instead, I just said,
         "That makes sense.  I'm just really, really cheap.  Don't mind me."
    I bought a calculator and apple-corer for less than $1, and we parted with no hard feelings.

    Story 3:  At one sale, there was a table I knew I didn't want surrounded by five wooden chairs I knew we could really use (they are a decent match for our dining room set).  I began with the usual how-much-are-you-asking question, and the seller responded with the usual name-a-price answer.  I told her I'd pay $20 for these chairs.  She immediately blanched -- that was clearly less than she wanted to accept.  But that really was all I wanted to pay.

    So I did my "I know, I'm really cheap" routine.  I asked her for a piece of paper, and I wrote down my name and phone number and "$20 for the chairs" on it.  I told her that she could probably sell them for more during the day, but if she didn't, and if she was willing to accept my price, she could call me when her sale was over.  Otherwise, no hard feelings.  Later in the day I got a call from her; the chairs are now mine.
    3 of the 5 chairs I bought for $20 (the mirror makes it look like 6 chairs).

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    A small salt trick

    This is a small thing, but it makes our lives easier, so I thought I'd share it.

    Salt containers come with a metal pour spout that's flat against the box.  This makes it hard to open, especially for people with fine-motor control problems.  The first time I open the box, I grab my nearby pliers and bend the very end of the spout up.  This small bend makes the spout much easier to grab.
    Before:  The metal spout is flat against the box.
    Using a pliers (or sometimes, just my fingers), I bend the end of the spout up.

    After: the small bend in the spout makes this easier to open.

    This also works for dishwasher detergent . . .

    . . . and for powdered milk.  Wow!  What a great trick!
    An extra benefit is that if I have several containers of something (like dishwasher detergent), I can see which container I've already started using.   Can you tell your life will be better for knowing this?

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Extreme shopping lists

    I make the most of my summer yard sale months by organizing myself beforehand.  Most people make grocery lists.  Well, I make yard sale lists.

    This shouldn't come as a surprise to people who know me well.  I've written before about how I make lists of the papers stacked in my "to do" pile, and how I use lists to automate my onerous decisions.  I love making lists.  In the case of going yard sale-ing, this list helps me to get almost all of my shopping done during the summer months.

    School ends pretty close to the time that yard sale season starts here.  I started the season by packing away all of my boys' school clothes and making a careful inventory of them.  The numbers on the label don't mean much -- a '12' might be too large and a '14' too small, depending on whether the fit is slim or not, so I measured the waist and inseam of each pair of pants.  I wrote these measurements in the waist band in permanent marker.
    Then I created a master list of all the clothes I have, so I could see what I still need.  At the time I photographed this list, for example, I had two pairs of pants with a 24" waist:  one 23" long, and one 24" long.  I had five pairs of 29"-waist pants.  This whole process took an hour -- not much fun, really, but if it saves me one trip to the store come winter, I'll have made up that time.

    I don't take the master list with me.  Instead, I have an index card with the clothes and sizes I'm looking for.  I make up another index card with the names of all my friends and family that I'm shopping for.  These index cards are my shopping list, and I update them as I go along during the summer.

    To make yard sale-ing more efficient, I keep my "supplies" in one place.  This froofy black bag is a gift from a friend.  It's small -- just the right size for what I need:
    • a large collection of quarters (exact change makes the sales go much faster),
    • the index card shopping lists,
    • a tape measure, and 
    • my cell phone.
    With the exception of the cell phone, I keep all those items stored permanently in that bag.  Friday night I plan my route (in an earlier post, I describe how yard sales are listed in the Friday paper).  Saturday morning, I take the marked-up newspaper, a water bottle, and my yard sale bag, and I'm ready to go.

    Thanks to this system, I know now (mid August) that I'm pretty much set for school clothes for the year.  I am still looking for formal suits for the boys, and I'll probably end up shopping in a thrift shop for those eventually.  I'm getting close to being done with my Christmas shopping.   But I know I still have time -- yard sales will continue into early October.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Thoughtless giving

    Thursday is my day to write about charitable giving.  Why do it?  Maybe you believe you ought to donate to charity because you were raised to be a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart, liberal do-gooder like me (see my tribute to my Miser Dad).  Maybe you want to give because you come from a spiritual tradition that encourages regular giving to others.

    Any financial advice you read will contain some variation on the advice, "pay yourself first".  (I googled that phrase and got 587,000 hits.)  That's an incredibly important way of making sure you save for the future, putting aside money for emergency funds, for retirement, and for other large goals.  The advantage of making this process automatic is that quickly you don't even notice the money "missing" from your paycheck anymore; you learn to live on the rest of your salary.

    Well, if you believe that it's morally/ethically/theologically important to donate to charity, a similar kind of thinking suggests you also ought to "pay others first" as well.  That is, there ought to be a a part of your financial strategy where you "just do it" -- you don't go to the mall first and then squirm over whether there's money left-over for charity later.

    Here are several ways to consider starting (or adding to) the "pay others first" process.
    • One way is just to write the first check of each month to your favorite group.  (Ours goes to our church, for example).  
    • Another way is to pledge to long-term donations for a group that regularly charges your credit card.  We sponsor children through World Vision this way, for example.   (This assumes you don't carry a balance on your card!  You don't want to make regular donations of interest to your credit card company).
    • A third way is to donate to/through an organization at work -- United Way is a common example.  This last way has the psychological advantage that you never see the money that you give away, so it doesn't feel as much like you "lost" it.
    You might not know--as I didn't during my first few years at my job--that you can direct money through United Way to not-for-profit human service agencies that are not on the United Way list.  Such an organization might be a religious organization such as Catholic Charities or the Jewish Community Center or even a church that has a daycare center or a food bank.  There are also other organizations not in the United Way brochure that you may name as recipients, such as Planned Parenthood.

    "Tithing" and "first fruits" is a central part of many religions.  I've read lots of books by people who wrote, "Even when we hardly made any money at all, we always tithed faithfully".  Well, that's not me.  But long before I became a Christian, I was drawn to this idea of giving away 10% of my salary, if only I could figure out how.  Regularly giving small amounts, and slowly increasing those amounts, have been my baby steps toward this goal.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    The time we spend shopping

    Does shopping at yard sales take too much time?

    I was thinking about this question this past weekend, when my friend Jessica told me about her own recent shopping expedition.  She spent 12 hours at the King of Prussia Mall, looking for a black dress she could wear to an up-coming fancy event.  She eventually found one she liked, for about $150.

    I've spent probably about the same amount of time -- that is, about 12 hours -- this summer at yard sales shopping for my son's school outfits.  (This estimate is a bit fungible; I'm also Christmas shopping and looking for items my friends want, all at the same time.  But I'll err on the high side for the sake of argument).  I don't know what's typical for other people -- how much time does a parent usually spend doing clothes shopping for the kids each year?  I figure it's probably more than 12 hours, from what my non-miser friends tell me.  Shopping takes time.

    I've spent about $30 on clothes this summer.  I've gotten a lot more outfits than Jessica did, but there are ways in which I'm a lot less picky.    Not everybody spends 12 hours looking for the perfect dress, of course -- and that illustrates my point.  How much time you spend at yard sales or at the mall depends on a lot of factors, including these.
    • How specific do you need to be?  Jessica couldn't have told you in advance exactly what she was looking for, but she definitely had standards of classy-ness that informed her choices.  In a similar vein, I was looking for a specific kind of clothing: our school uniforms require, for example, that pants are either tan or navy blue.  I won't consider buying other pants. 
    • How common is the thing you're looking for?  Jessica was looking for a classy black dress.  I have no idea, really, how easy it is to get a good-fitting dress like she was looking for.  I'm looking for school uniforms, which many people in my area have.  But boys' clothes are relatively scarce at yard sales; it takes me longer to shop for my boys than it does to shop for girls' uniforms or women's clothing, which are ubiquitous.
    • What's your deadline?  Jessica's event is coming up soon, and she really needs the right dress NOW.  I started searching for school uniforms back in May, and by now I've pretty much found all the clothes we'll need.  I could afford to pass over those high-priced $2 pairs of pants back in May and early June, knowing I'd find the 50¢ or $1 pairs later on.  And I was right.
    • Do you know your shopping venues well?  I would be completely lost in a mall.  (True story:  I once needed to get in touch with one of my students.  I called his mom, who told me he was working at the mall in a store called "Truck Shore"-- at least, that's what I thought she said.  I wandered all over our local mall, and finally found my student working at a fancy men's clothing store called "Structure".  Go figure.)  On the other hand, I've gone yard sale-ing for enough years that I've developed an intuition for which kinds of places are likely to have the kinds of clothes I'm hunting for.  My friends often ask me to take them along with me, and I can guide them to the "right" kind of places for what they're looking for. 
    • What is your tolerance for shopping?  To me, being in a mall for a half-an-hour is a special kind of Hell. I can't even imagine spending a day in one.  But other people find malls entertaining, I know.  On the other hand, to many people not like me, seeing the junk left over at yard sales is the worst kind of depressing.  But I love shopping out doors, looking at what people bought and no longer want -- it's a grand experiment in psychology, from my point of view.  
    Because I've figured out an organized "system" for yard sale shopping, I spend less time at it than other people might think. So, yes, yard sales can take a lot of time -- but so can shopping in stores.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    A song for the first trimester

    This post is for my friend who is 10 weeks pregnant but hasn't yet told everyone that she's expecting again.  This is a song that used to make the nausea bearable for me -- better than drugs, and cheaper, too!  It's to the tune of "I feel pretty",  the song that Maria sings in West Side Story.

         I feel nauseas, oh so nauseas,
          And I'm cautious about what I sup,
          I'm up-chucking,
         'cause my eff-ing husband knocked me up!


       I feel queasy, oh so queasy,
       I'm uneasy, and think I might hurl,
       I feel queasy, 
       'cause I'm carrying a boy or girl.


    Sing it until you don't mind that you feel barfy.  And congratulations!  Let me babysit!

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Packing summer into jars

    The older I get, the bigger a fan I am of locally grown food (I'm getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger . . . )  As I write this post, I have Greg Brown singing "Canned Goods" to me:
    Let the December winds below and blow  
    I’m as warm as a July tomato.
    Taste a little of the summer,
    my grandma put it all in jars.
    Eating local produce takes a bit of extra thought -- after all, it's awfully hard to buy Pennsylvania-grown, fresh tomatoes in January.  So paying attention to the seasons becomes important, and so does finding ways to preserve food.  For me, August is a huge food-buying month.

    It turns out, the benefits go beyond nutrition to finance.  When local produce is ripe and abundant, it's also cheap.  For example, this weekend I spent a few hours exploring the southern end of our county, yard sale-ing and eventually making my way to Maplehofe, a local dairy I'd never been to.  Along the way, I stopped to pick peaches at a local orchard, and I stopped at several farmer's stands.  I purchased
    • 130 ears of corn for $27.50 (that's $2.75 per 13 ears),
    • 25 lbs of tomatoes for $7,
    • 52 lbs of peaches for $40 (that's 90¢ a pound), and
    • 40 lbs of ground beef for $123 (that's $2.95/lb).
    Okay, the ground beef is not "in season", but it is local and hormone-free.  We're going to start up our big freezer now, and it seemed like it would be a good idea to fill it with something.  The dairy saw how much I was buying and said that the next time, if I called ahead and could wait for their next butchering, they could give me a better price (!).
    Here's what 25 lbs of tomatoes and 52 lbs of peaches looks like.
    130 ears of corn.  We gave away a dozen ears,and then froze 19 bags of shelled corn.
    I spent about a half-a-day tooling around shopping, and I spent another two half-days canning and freezing the food.  Canning is a LOT more fun if you do it with a peppy friend whose favorite two words are "awesome" and "yay".  Thanks, K!

    Devoting that much time to food all at once seems like a huge time-sink, but I know it will be worth it when winter rolls around and, instead of slogging to the grocery store, we go "shopping" for dinner in the basement.  I'll get to sing along with Greg Brown again:
    Peaches on the shelf
    Potatoes in the bin
    Supper's ready, everybody come on in, now!

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Can you can?

    Two years ago, I'd never ever canned food.  It always seemed pretty mysterious to me.  Then I had an unexpected bounty harvest of tomatoes, and I figured I'd give it a try.  And after one round of canning, I was hooked.

    If you're as new to canning as I was, you think that the canning process is the hard part.  No, the thing that takes the longest is preparing the food -- that is, making the tomato sauce.  (And really, I had so many tomatoes already, I was going to have to spend serious time on them somehow anyway.)  But if you can make tomato sauce, you can can.  Because all you do after you make the sauce and put it in jars is . . .

     . . . ready for the mysterious part yet? . . .

     All you do is BOIL THE JARS FOR A WHILE.

    That's it.

    I thought it would be trickier than that, and it's not.  Now, it's true that you can only can acidic things (tomatoes and fruits are great).  To can things like chicken broth or pumpkin, you need a pressure canner.   I found that google-ing "how to can salsa" or "how to can applesauce" took me straight to some great websites with lovely step-by-step directions.  This post isn't about how to can, it's just encouragement not to be scared of it.

    Here's my own salsa-making excursion for this year.
    First make the salsa.  There's a lot, so it takes a while.  After this, everything is easy.
    Put the salsa into clean glass canning jars.

    Put on the lid.  Because you can reuse rings, I store the unused ones on a bent hangar.
    Boil the jars in a large pot with water covering them all.  For salsa, this takes about 15 minutes.
    Take the jars out, and let them cool.  All done!

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Are we there yet? How much longer?

    We don't let our kids ask "how much longer?" on a car trip.   We just don't.  We start a long trip by telling them how long we think it might take, and then we clamp down hard when they start pestering us with requests for updated ETAs.

    But the boys can be pretty creative about finding ways to ask related questions, especially when my husband isn't in the car.  (A soldier dad who has served in Iraq has an air of authority that even a tough Miser Mom can't manage to equal, although sometimes I wish I could).  They'll ask what time it is now, and then start doing arithmetic out loud.  Or they'll comment on the state of traffic, and conjecture what that might do to driving time.

    The real problem is not that they're curious; it's that they're most likely to fret about driving time right when I myself am starting to get stressed out -- there's a traffic jam, or I'm in an unfamiliar place trying to navigate, or there's horrendous weather.  And that's when I *least* want to converse with them about whether it's two hours or two-and-a-half hours until we arrive.

    So this past Saturday when I was getting ready to be the solo driver from Kentucky back home to Pennsylvania, I decided to have a different kind of conversation.  I decided to address the worry of the question in a way they could understand in their own lives.  They're old enough to start developing empathy, after all.  I'm thinking of this as bringing them up to a higher moral threshold.

    I began with the usual spiel: it should take us about 9 hours, although that could change.  We should be home around 2 a.m., although that could change.  But then I added, "When you guys are in the car and you ask me when we'll get home, it's stressful.  It's like me asking you, when are you going to clean your room?"  They seemed to understand, sort of.

    We headed out of Lexington and hit traffic right away.  My younger son asked, "Will we still get home tonight?"  I asked, "Will you clean your room tonight?"  And that was the last time either one of them asked the question.

    The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful -- a bit of car sickness, a tiny worry about running low on gas, but nothing serious.  We got home at 2:13 a.m., safe and sound, by the way.  Thanks for asking.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Buried under charity envelopes

    Once you start giving to charity, charity starts giving back.  That is, you get envelope after envelope after envelope.  You don't ever need to write your own return address by hand again, and you'll have more note cards, calendars, and shopping list pads than you know what to do with.

    Not to mention guilt and angst.  Even if you have no guilt about tossing all those requests, it's easy to have qualms about which charities we do choose to give to.  "Today I recycled the plea for Children who need Chocolate, but last month I sent $30 to Save the Snails.  Does that really reflect my values?"  It's also easy to forget which charities you've given money to in the past year:  "Did I forget to send a check to Trees of the Tundra this year?  Or did I already accidentally send three checks?"
    The beginning of this year's charity request collection.
    Here's my method for dealing with this.  I save all request envelopes that come to my home in one place, in my desk.  (Periodically, I go through and toss duplicates).  Then, once a year, I pull out all the envelopes, and my husband and I decide what we're giving money to.  We begin with broad areas.  For example, for us, we aim for a mixture of broadly global (e.g., Doctors without Borders) and very local (our city food bank).  We donate mostly to organizations that feed or cure people, but we balance bread with roses (our local theater and our public radio station each get our money).

    You'll see urgent pleas during the year:  We need this right now!  But usually, the place that can afford to send me unsolicited requests can really afford to wait a few months for my little check.  So I don't feel guilty holding onto the envelope until I'm good and ready.

    I know from being involved with non-profits that even a little bit of money helps.  When organizations go out asking for bigger sums (either from wealthier people or from granting agencies), one of the statistics that matters is how many people donate.  Giving even $5 to your alma mater increases the "percentage of alumni who give back".  So your gift to a charity is bigger than the money that you give.

    And the places that my husband and I don't contribute to?  I used to just toss all those envelopes.  Now I decide to be a little more generous by spending 44¢ on them; I send back the donation form with a note, "Please remove us from this mailing list."  I figure the note reduces the amount of paper I have to recycle, and it saves that organization all the money it would have wasted mailing me nickels or calendars or worse.  [Actually, Samaritan's Purse recently responded to this request with a nice note saying that they'll stop sending me stuff from now on, but the note came with an autobiography of its president, Franklin Graham.  Cool.]

    This is part of what I call "thoughtful giving", meaning that we have to sit down and make the decision to give this money.  Next Thursday, I'll write about "thoughtless giving" -- some regular, automatic ways of donating to causes and charities.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Used shoes

    I wear used shoes. I buy them for me AND for my children.

    And if this horrifies you, I apologize. But the truth is, there are LOTS of people out there who buy used shoes, and we all sort of tip-toe around the people who say, “Maybe used clothes are okay, but you should NEVER buy used shoes,” or who say, “Shoes conform to the foot of the person who wore them last, and they’ll damage another persons’ feet.” If used shoes revolt you, you can stop reading here. I’m fine with you buying new shoes, honestly I am. You don’t have to live the way I do.

    If you’re still reading this, then, I’ll assume you don’t think used shoes are child abuse, but maybe you’re plagued by people who tell you it is. The rest of this post is supposed to be a bit of oil on your troubled waters. This is going to be a long post because the urban legends surrounding used shoes are so pervasive that we Used-Shoers need a lot of support.

    Here’s an important caveat: from everything that I have read and heard about, the real shoe problem is ill-fitting shoes, not used shoes. Some people (like my niece) have feet with special needs, and the only reasonable way to accommodate those needs is by getting special shoes, which are necessarily new. Other people develop injuries from wearing badly fitting or inappropriate shoes (high heels are terrible for your knees, whether they’re new or used). I am NOT saying that any-old shoe is fine. What I AM saying is that used shoes aren’t inherently worse than new ones at fitting right.

    To understand the health risks involved with used shoes, let’s compare it to two other issues we know about: processed foods and electronic entertainment. I’ll describe how we get health information about all three (shoes, food, and TV/video) in a variety of ways.

    One way we get quick information about the world around us is through stories about people we know (or about people who know people we know). Anecdote isn’t the most reliable way of knowing the world, but it’s the most immediate and personal. Have you ever known a person who
    • got cavities from eating too much candy or drinking too much soda? 
    • watched TV/played videos instead of playing outdoors, and was physically out of shape? 
    • had foot problems because of used shoes? 
    For me, the answer is “yes” to the first two (many times) and “no” to the third. I do know someone who had foot problems because his parents only bought him new shoes once every other year, and as a result he often wore shoes the wrong size. But he never wore pre-owned shoes; the problem was the size. Your answers might be different than mine, of course. That’s the problem with anecdote.

    Popular media
    Newspapers, magazines, and TV give us a broader glimpse of the world than our circle of friends can. I don’t watch TV, and I don’t know what newspapers or magazines you read, so I’ll choose two magazines that are somewhat more numbers-based than what most people read.

    My Health Insurance company sends me out an e-newsletter that tries its best to keep me healthy.
    • When I searched for “processed food” I immediately got links to “high blood cholesterol and triglycerieds” and “Diverticulitis”. 
    • When I searched for “video games”, I got 12 results, including articles on “weight control”, “physical activity”, “epilepsy”, and “stress”. 
    • When I searched “used shoes”, I got nothing. 
    • When I searched for "new shoes", I got this.
      Most foot pain is caused by shoes that do not fit properly or that force the feet into unnatural shapes (such as pointed-toe, high-heeled shoes). Women are at higher risk than men for severe foot pain, probably because of high-heeled shoes. Wear well-padded shoes with open toes or a deep toe box (the part of the shoe that surrounds the toes).          
      ... the first few times you exercise in your new shoes, but it is a good start.Your own biomechanics -- ...        
      The latest Consumer Reports has a "you asked and our doctors answered" page. One question was, "What is the single most important thing I can do to improve my health?" None of the doctors talked about shoes. One answered simply, “Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods." Another began, “Practice prevention consistently. A good diet, exercise, and stress reduction . . . "

      In other words, giving up processed breakfast cereal and video games makes a big difference in health. The health dangers of used shoes was nowhere on this list.

      Our close friends and newspaper reporters (even Consumer Reports writers) aren’t health experts. What do the professionals say?

      The Journal of the American Medical Association lists articles by current medical researchers.  Here are the numbers of hits I got on various  searches:
      • "processed foods":  33 hits
      • "video games": 46 hits
      • "used shoes":  3 hits

        What were the used shoes articles about? One article is about how to sterilize shoes (damp shoes can grow fungus; whether they're new or used, dry those shoes out!) The other two articles describe how the researchers used shoes in their research: for example, the researchers “used shoes around the ankle and plaster of paris around the leg to stablilize the patient.” None of these articles talk about damage caused by wear patterns in used shoes.
      The American Podiatric Medical Association has a page on "Foot Health".   Their sections on “Children’s Shoes”, “Women’s Shoes”, and “Men’s shoes” all boil down to this: wear shoes that fit your foot and that fit the activity you’re doing.  They do have one section that says this:

      Shoe Care 
      For longer service, keep shoes clean and in good repair. Avoid excessive wear on heels and soles. Give your shoes a chance to breathe—don’t wear the same pair two days in a row (you prolong the life of shoes by rotating their use). Never wear hand-me-down shoes (this is especially important for children).
      Is this last-minute-warning against hand-me-down shoes the evidence the new-shoers are looking for? To me, this still smacks of urban-legendism. There is absolutely no rationale given for this advice. It’s buried in shoe care, not foot care. It comes after “don’t wear the same pair two days in a row” – a piece of advice that hasn’t made it into the popular consciousness, for sure. I include this line here because I’m trying to be fair, but I’m not buying it.

      The absence of activism
      Finally, a big piece of evidence about the safety of used shoes comes from what you do NOT see. In the case of processed foods, you can read all the time about activists getting het-up: people suing fast food chains, lobbying schools to include vegetables, opening farmers’ markets in urban areas, pressuring McDonald’s to include apples in addition to processed fries.

      In the case of electronic entertainment, you read about school districts worried about video games, about volunteer groups forming school-aged exercise clubs in response to video sloth, about people suing video game makers for violent acts that (they claim) arose as a result of people playing those games.

      Goodwill and Salvation Army sell lots of used shoes. As far as I know, nobody is suing them for resulting injuries. Nobody is sponsoring “give a kid a pair of new shoes” program in urban schools to counteract used-shoe damage. Nobody has started a charity to rehabilitate people who grew up wearing used shoes.

       All my shoes, like all my clothes, are from yard sales or from friends.  I've worn used running shoes for about two decades now, and my knees are still just fine.   I ran my last couple of races -- including a 10K and a half marathon -- in my two-year-old, $1-at-a-yard-sale, hot pink running shoes.  (I didn't come close to winning the races, though.  No promises there).
      Here's a nearly-new pair of shoes after one month of wear by my younger son.  He loves these, but he's not wearing them again anyway.

      My two sons are hard on shoes.  Really, really hard.  They can destroy a pair of shoes in a month if they're feeling especially peppery, and they have not recently managed to keep a pair of shoes for as long as three months.  (New shoes last no longer than used shoes on my boys, just in case you're wondering). For me, having a large pile of shoes ready and waiting is a crucial part of my clothing strategy.  I might be nuts enough to squirt their feet into used shoes, but at least they always have access to a pair of shoes that is in decent condition and the right size.  And to me, that's what matters most.

      Through yard-saling and hand-me-downs, I have a large collection of shoes in good condition to move my sons into.  I spent about $20 on these 22 pairs of shoes.

      Tuesday, August 9, 2011

      A No-Trash Party

      We've had a couple of reasons to throw parties this year; our older son's adoption party was one of my favorite of these.  We had 40 people over for an afternoon lunch of lasagna, bread, fruit-kebobs, and cake.  We celebrated with kids and grown-ups; with people from our church and from our neighborhood and from our jobs.

      At the end of the party, we had less than one kitchen bag of trash.  Okay, so the party wasn't entirely no trash, but it was close.  The trash was mostly from the food preparation, not from the eating.

      We do this by having a stash of re-usable items.  I wrote yesterday about our cloth napkins; the picture on that post shows the basket we keep them in.  Here is a picture of some of our cups, plates, and flat-ware.
      Mugs have several advantages.  For one thing, they seem to appear and multiply in our house like bunnies. They have handles, which make them easy for party-goers to carry, and they all look different (at least, our motley collection does), which helps people remember which mug is theirs.  But somehow, sort-of miraculously, most mugs are exactly the same height!  This helps a lot with storage: we store them on tea-towel-covered trays, so we can bring out a whole tray at once.  And the same-heighted-ness allows us to stack the trays, with the few odd-sized mugs on the top tray.
      We put our party plates in a popcorn tin.  Say that three times fast!
      Our small plates, purchased long ago at thrift stores, are roughly 6-8 inches in diameter.  They're not a matched set either, obviously.  We keep them in a metal canister that we got with a bunch of popcorn in it; the tin is decorative enough that we leave it in the dining room all the time.  But there's part of me that would like to take a large 5-gallon bucket (the kind that laundry detergent or paint comes in), decorate it, and use that.  The carrying handle would be awfully convenient.
      The part of the flat-ware basket that our guests never see.  Shh!
      Several years ago we got a large set of flatware that we don't much like for everyday use (they seem to have been made for very small people).  They're fine for parties, though.  We augment this with thrift-store purchased flatware (again, it doesn't all match.  Shoot.)  I couldn't find a nice container for the flatware, so I finally cut the handle off of a rectangular basket.  I made dividers out of cardboard and covered the inside of the basket, cardboard-and-all, with more tea towels.

      The last step in hosting the low-trash party is to make signs (on pre-cyled paper, of course).  We direct people to the compost bin, recycling bin, a laundry basket, and buckets where they can places their dirty silverware, mugs, and plates.

      As always, there's some clean-up at the end of the party, mostly with the dishwasher, but a little with the washing machine.  The garbage haulers might be surprised at how many, um . . . , beverages the grown-ups have consumed this week, but they won't strain their backs lifting our garbage cans!

      Monday, August 8, 2011

      Cloth napkins and table-top animals

      As my younger step-daughter recently noted to me, cloth napkins tend to appear at two extremes:  at the homes of the wealthy, and at the homes of the frugal.

      Our family has a stack of sturdy, colorful cloth napkins that we purchased about a decade ago; I don't know how much we paid for them, but they're still in great shape.  In return, we don't spend money on the napkins themselves any more.  We don't make runs to the store because we're out of napkins; we don't throw paper napkins into plastic trash bags after each meal.  That's nice.

      People who aren't used to cloth napkins assume that they have to be laundered with every meal, which would be a bunch of extra work if it were true.

      That's where napkin rings come in.  The idea is NOT to get a matching set of napkin rings that make every place setting look identical -- napkin rings aren't supposed to be table jewelry, in spite of what you might see in some restaurants.  Instead, each person in the family has his her own ring.  Our napkin rings, purchased over many years, are wooden animals (this allows me to get new napkin rings that still fit the "theme" even if they don't perfectly match.)  Guests who spend a lot of time at our home can get their own napkin rings, too -- it's become a way of welcoming them into our inner circle.

      We wash a napkin when it starts to get visibly dirty -- our boys' napkins get washed a lot more often than their father's napkin, for example.  If you think about how often you throw away a paper napkin that was basically just crumpled or a little wet, you'll see that this gives you a lot of uses between washings.  So for us, the extra work involved is pretty minimal, and it's hard to imagine that the few napkins we wash each week raise our water or energy bill.