Saturday, September 29, 2012

Do NOT read the book!

My calculus students are getting ready for their first midterm, and for some reason this makes me think of what it's like to take on a life of new frugality.  It's a bit daunting (in the calculus realm) to face that first exam, or (in the frugality realm) to think about "giving up" things you've gotten used to.

As my students study, here is the first and most important piece of advice I give them:
Do NOT read the book!

Whenever I have a student fail a test and come talk to me about it, he always said he studied by reading the book.  But math isn't about reading and understanding what someone else wrote, it's about actually solving problems.  So don't read the book; instead, solve problems.  Do the same problem over and over again, until it's easy for you.  Practice doing the math, not reading the math.

Here's another way to bomb the test.  Do the homework problem; get it wrong; look up the answer in the back of the book; say, "oh, I understand now!", and then move on.  The big mistake comes in that last step -- the moving on to a new problem.  Instead of looking for new problems, grab a sheet of blank paper and start over.  Do that darned problem again (and again) until it's easy to get it right.  Make sure you can do it yourself, not just appreciate how the book or your roommate did it.

And isn't that true of so many things? Watching Michael Jordan won't teach you how to do a lay-up:  doing lay-ups teaches you how to do lay-ups.  Reading about yard sales or bulk purchasing won't save you money; actually trying yard sales or doing a few bulk purchases will save you money.  Well, it ought to save you money eventually. Although you'll probably make a few mistakes at first.  But it's not until you try it that you learn how the system really works for you.

Which leads me to the other piece of advice I try to share with my students (although not this bluntly)
Prepare to fail.
I hope my students won't fail their exam (although I know that some of them will).  But in class and on homework, they're going to make mistakes, and the best students are willing (even eager) to do so. They make stupid guesses, see whether those guesses work, and learn something from what goes wrong.  They do this so easily, they don't think of the wrong guesses as "failing".  But the weak students stare at a blank piece of paper, unwilling to write anything down for fear of writing something incorrect.

And this, this is true for so many parts of life.  I've had so many people tell me they can't make bread; a few say that they tried and it bombed.  I could tell you my own failed-bread stories about orange juice bread (yucko), about the no-yeast failures, about the salt/sugar mix-ups in my own life.  And yet, somehow, I mostly got through this.  Bad bread is a learning experience:  the sugar and salt are now VERY well labeled.  Bt nowadays when my family finds out I'm making bread, there's a minor celebration.  The mistakes were definitely worth the jumping-hugging-praising routine I get to go through now.

One of the joys of being frugal is that mistakes are often not very costly.  This summer, I tried a homemade dishwasher detergent; it left a film on all our plates and glasses.  For that little lesson, I'm out 45¢ worth of borax, washing soda, and salt.  A few weeks ago, I bought a pair of yard-sale pants that I later discovered my son had just barely grown out of:  another 25¢ down the drain.  It's hard to think of those as "failure", but those are the kinds of stories that can keep a novice from even trying frugal strategies.

On paper, I'm teaching my students about the slope of the tangent line, but in reality, what I'm hoping they learn is so much bigger.  I want them to bang their head against new ideas, to play with their own mistakes, to practice doing what they can't yet do.  And I want them to come out the other side, experts on some simple math thing (yes! they can factor a quadratic!), ready to make new and bigger mistakes at higher and higher levels.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012


There are times when being frugal means trying something new.  Learning to can, or switching to a metal razor, or learning to make my own laundry detergent.

But much of the frugal life is appreciating what we already have.  In this case, we already had a giant pile o' pasta leftover from our No Hands dinner.  (Nobody's hands or mouths had touched this pasta -- we made a lot more food than we managed to serve to people).  And we had a favorite recipe:  peanut butter pasta.

It's one of the fastest meals we can put together, and it's delicious.  Here it is, again.


In a large pot, heat up

  • a bit of vegetable oil, 
  • a dollop of peanut butter,
  • a splash of soy sauce
  • garlic and/or ginger are optional.
Toss in some leftover vegetables, if you want.
When the mixture has heated up enough that the peanut butter has melted, get out your pot of leftover pasta . . .
 And then stir it into the sauce.
Continue heating and stirring gently, and then serve.  Total preparation time is about 10 minutes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bedtime Lists

It was the morning after the night before, and it wasn't pretty.  A bit more prudence the night before would have gone a long way to making the next day more pleasant.

I'm not talking about hangovers, I'm talking about a naked teenage boy running around the house, a boy who couldn't find his sports uniform.   I'm talking abut his unhappy dad, who needed to get him to the bus that was going to take him to the meet, who was fretting about missing the bus because the boy was STILL naked.  Sunshine and rainbows, this was not.

As our boys move into their teenage years, they're taking on more responsibility and more autonomy, but this means of course that they've got more room to make mistakes.  And mornings, of late, have revealed areas where a lot of learning still needs to happen.  The glasses that are lost.  The messes left in the wake of the fast-departing child.  The clothes that have gone missing.  All of this is an indirect result of giving the kids a lot more leeway over their own bedtime routines.

And so, after the naked-sports-debacle, I decided to give my kids more autonomy by telling them exactly what to do.

To wit: I made a list of all the things they need to remember to do pre-bedtime.  Do I love making lists? Yes, I do.  I do love lists, I do.   Do my kids like using them?  Actually, yes to that, too.  They're my kids, after all.  In fact, N-son now comes home from school and asks if he can get his bedtime list and start working on it right away.  J-son sort of prefers running around naked, but he'll go through the list with good cheer and as much goofiness as we'll let him get away with.

So far, one week in, we've had fewer late-night pleadings for one more snack (because getting a snack before going to bed is on the list).  We've remembered to apply N-son's wart medicine almost every night (ew, gross!).  The house has been less of a disaster zone than usual.  And there haven't been any naked teenagers streaking through my living room.

It wasn't until I started writing all the tasks in one place that I realized how much activity goes into getting ready for bed and for the day that follows.  Here, for what it's worth, is my sons' bedtime list.
Bedtime Checklist
___ Hang up backpacks
___ Hang up lanyard and ID
___ Toys/papers out of first floor
___ Put all shoes in closets
___ Umbrellas put away
___ (N) show Mom your glasses
___ (N) finger medicine
___ Cell phone to Mom
___ School clothes laid out
___ Get snacks
___ Clean table/kitchen
___ Teeth brushed and flossed
___ Cap on toothpaste
___ No toothpaste (etc) in sink
___ Shower, if needed
___ Nothing on bedroom floors
I've read that airplane pilots and surgeons use lists like these (well, not exactly like these) to avoid mistakes.  So I guess you could say I'm preparing the boys not only for bed, but also for amazing careers.

Go, team!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Hands Dinner, Birthday Version

We're not done playing with our food yet.  J-son turns 14 years old today, and he requested as his birthday dinner (last night) a No Hands Dinner.

I mentioned the dinner to some of my calculus students, who were instantly jealous.  So I invited a bunch of them to join us.  Of COURSE these students came to college wishing they could eat dinner with a math professor, but without utensils!

The food itself was simple.  Kielbasa from the Turkey Lady (bulk purchased weeks ago).  Pasta.  Corn and Peas ("Hey kids; eat every kernel of corn and pea on your plate!")  The food itself was fairly plain; it's the method of eating that makes the event special.  In case you didn't get a chance to see it in some of my more ancient posts, this is how you eat a No Hands dinner.
 Everyone, young and old, got down to work.
 The future of our planet is in these peoples' hands.  Or in their mouths, or something.
 Even the chocolate cake got the old face-first treatment.
Happy birthday, J-son!  And many more.

Monday, September 24, 2012

138: Playing with food

This week, we spent $103 on groceries.  This included a $60 trip to market to get turkey legs and bananas, plus a $43 trip to the regular grocery store for oyster crackers, root beer, and other pirate-inspired foods.

And so, the 27-week average of our grocery spending is $138/week.  138 is not prime (well, clearly it's even), but it is the sum of four consecutive primes:  138 = 29 + 31 + 37 + 41. Cool.

The USDA keeps track of food costs for U.S. households.  (From what I can tell, they don't track actual spending; they put together a list of what would go into nutritious meals prepared at home, and then track the prices of those ingredients).  Their estimate for a  a "thrifty" family of four is $144/week on groceries, while a "liberal" family would spend twice that much.   On the one hand, there is some restaurant spending I haven't kept track of, particularly on the part of my non-miser husband.  On the other hand, we're a family of five, not four, and we  have older kids than in their model.  (J-son alone ought to count for two ordinary people).  Putting the two hands together, I'd think it's safe to say we're in the low-thrifty camp.

But this past week I've been getting little guilt pangs about my food spending.  There's a sense in which we're playing with our food, and I mean that beyond the Pirate/Prime games I have so much fun with.  I spend so little, but its not because I can't afford to spend more.  Going over our recent budget, I realized that there have been months this past summer when we spent more on telephones/cable service than we spent on food -- clearly, we're reveling in luxury. If we were truly hurting for money, the food would stay and the phones would go.  Ditto for many other things in our life:  the second car; the vacation; our theater tickets.

No, I spend so little because it's a game for me.  How can I snag nutritious local food for cheap?  My food game has a set of internal rules:  Local beats shipped-in.  Plain beats processed.  Vegetables beat meat.  Organic beats whatever-you-call-the-opposite.  Mooching food that would have gone into trash cans scores triple points.  Illegal interference if I directly meddle with the husband's grocery fun.   You could call this morals, if you want . . . but that misses a lot of the competitive streak in me.

Truth is, thrift is sort of a game for me.  A game I'm playing while the newspaper rolls in with headlines of millions of kids in this country going hungry.  Of families in Haiti eating mud.  I've followed the blog of Carrie Hetu, who proudly lives a low-income life with an optimism that I can only admire from afar.  And of The Frugal Girl, who wonders why we skimp on watermelons while splurging on designer coffee.

I've found myself wondering, what would happen if I just resolved to spend, say $200 every week on food -- some on my family, and the rest on our local food bank?   What if the money I save on our family food goes not to our own entertainment, but to feeding our neighbors?  The sermon I listened to last Sunday made me think of this even more.  Even if it's true that my own existence can't fix the whole world, it it is still a noble effort to wish my whole existence could be on fixing this world.

I'm not saying that I'll actually follow through on this.  I'm not a saint.  I'm just thinking about what it would be like to try to actually live like one, while instead, I live like me.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Taking stock and making stock

My favorite recipe for soup is this:  take a bunch of stuff you already have, and throw it in the pot.  Instead of calling the stuff "leftovers" or "scraps", you bless it and savor it.

Yesterday was soup.  A whole collection of this-and-that.  It would have been easy to say, "too much to do" or even to moan and whinge about the burden of the activities.  But I found myself instead being (no, really) grateful for the variety of it all.

The day began with an early-morning round of grading, followed by a trip to the boys' wacky dentist.  I was glad to get the grading done; I was glad my boys' teeth are okay despite their new braces.  And I got to show the dentist some photos from our dinner -- we'd put the pirate bling he gave us to good use on Wednesday.  We traded a few pirate jokes.  General merriment.

Once I dropped the boys off at school, I realized I had a lot of work to do a small treasure of time.  And I could use that treasure of time to do two things I wanted to do at once:  I could can up some of the turkey stock at the same time that I could sit quietly at home (alone except for my scurvy dog) and catch up on email correspondence.  No interruptions.  Behold:  canning and computers, all at the same table.
Just around the corner, in the kitchen, I had the stock pot and the pressure canner burbling soft love songs (or, at least, soup songs) to me.   
 And I did a bunch of email archeology while occasionally keeping tabs on the pressure dial.
In his Year of Living Biblically (a humorous-yet-reverent book), A.J. Jacobs describes the point at which he practiced giving thanks for all things:  for the elevator that arrived quickly; for stopping at his floor without crashing to the ground; for finding his keys without fumbling.

And today, after I canned 6 quarts of stock while entering calculus grades, I gave thanks for my job and for the bounty of food.    I said a quick thank-you to You-Know-Who that there was so much stock that I couldn't finish it all in the morning, but would have to come back to it in the evening.  And later in the day, I was grateful for a speaker who gave an engaging and provocative talk.  And then I was glad for my students who worked hard during class.  And then I was thankful for my sons' coaches, who met with me to discuss the boys' progress.  And for the exuberance of the boys themselves, once I got home.  (I worked hard at being grateful for their loud, loud drum practice, but I didn't quite manage that).

I got a chance to be grateful for a pile of clean clothes.  For a phone call from my husband.  For a stinky son who said, "Mom, I'm going to go take a shower".  And for even more vegetables and stock that needed some tending -- and got it -- before our trip out of town this weekend.

And after all of that, I got to give thanks for the hot, delicious soup that we got to share, all of us, at dinner time.  And that we'll get to share again in the deep, deep winter.  Yum.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Special Dinners: Pirate Version

What does a pirate eat for dinner?  Arr, me hearties, I have no idea.

But we pretended we knew, and so here's what our Pirate Extravaganza last night looked like.  To decorate, I'd bought a large swath of pirate-themed fabric for the tablecloth.  On that, we'd placed "hard tack" (small oyster crackers) and limes (to prevent scurvy) . . .

. . . and bananas (because pirates travel to tropical locations, no?) and squash and onions (these store well on board ship, I figured).  Nobody ate them, but I thought they looked good.
 We added more hard tack (large oyster crackers)  . . .
. . . and the hit of the evening, a giant roasting pan full of turkey legs.  These came from the Turkey Lady at our local Farmer's Market.  Ten humongous legs, weighing 20 pounds alltogether.  Fantastic choice!
 All of the guests dug in, from the young 'uns, to the old.
 Look at this kiddo attack her turkey leg!  Nobody told her she shouldn't try to eat something bigger than her head.
 J-son did major damage to his meat.  He was the only one at the table to get all the way down to the bone.
This was a messy meal.  Arrr!
(After dinner was over, J-son had a snack:  a whole head of bok choy and a bowl of ice cream.  That kid is a bottomless pit).

And who were the scurvy knaves aboard ship at our dinner?  Family and a lot of friends.  Some of the friends dressed for the part (aided by some bling from our wacky dentist):

And some of our friends brought stunt doubles along with them:
 Miser Mom, that wench, stole a kiss from her lusty lad.

At the end of dinner, the children discovered "treasure maps" under their plates.  The hunt took them from clue to clue around the house.   Lots of yelling and laughing and running resulted.
At the end of the hunt, they discovered they'd been sitting on the treasure all along -- gold "doubloons" (dollar coins) taped to the bottom of their chairs.  X marks the spot!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

See the light: faith and garbage

I'm not supposed to have faith in earthly things.  Worldly prophets will come and go, I know.

For example:  Consumer Reports.   I read it regularly.  I clip articles.  I follow (some) of its advice, at least when it comes to recommending things that I was thinking of buying anyway (meaning:  cereal, no; lightbulbs, yes).  And when it recommended "EcoSmart" CFL lightbulbs, I wrote "EcoSmart" on our shopping list.  I sent my guy to the store.  And he bought the bulbs, as directed.  I love that man, I tell you.

But now that the bulbs have come home,  I'm thinking that the "F" in "CFL" is more like an Army "F".  As in, Compact F-ing Lightbulb packs.  And that the "Eco" in "EcoSmart" is a blasphemy.  Because, unlike my previous cardboard-packaged set of bulbs, this set came jailed up in death-grip plastic packaging.   It was at this point that I remembered that Consumer Reports cares largely about what is inside the package, but hardly about what the package looks like.  In this case, a false prophet.

Just sayin'.  

Or should I say, . . . Arrrr!  That's a scurvy trick!   Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me mateys!  We've all got an eye on this evenings vittles and booty.  Blow me down!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A far shave

Behold my old razor.  I bought it years ago, thinking to myself that it was an environmentally friendly and also cost-saving choice, because instead of buying (and eventually tossing) a whole new razor, I was just tossing the little plastic heads.

But those little plastic heads?  They're (a) expensive and (b) an endangered species.  My particular brand of razor  is getting to be so old that the blades aren't on the shelves of the drugstore near me.  And faced with the idea of getting a new razor handle anyway, I finally went retro and got this:
To be more specific, I got that razor and 25 double-edged razor blades.  It took me a long time to decide to do this.  Here is some of the back-and-forth I went through.

First, it's just hard to find these babies in a regular store (especially when you spend as little time in regular stores as I do).  The drug stores near me really seem to have become museums of plastic -- that's all I see when I wander in to get my boys' meds.  If the thing the store is selling isn't plastic, then it comes wrapped in plastic before it can be sold.  So metal razors and plain razor blades aren't invited to the drug store party.

Enter Amazon.  I was worried about lots of packaging because of the mail-order aspect of this purchase, but considering how thoroughly store-bought razors and their blades are wrapped in layers of cardboard and death-grip plastic containers, I figure that I actually came out ahead in the trash arena on this one.  The razor itself came in a small cardboard-and-plastic container that I tossed.  The razor and blades, together with the mailing materials, are below:
(There was a small cardboard-and-plastic case for the razor which I tossed;
but this was basically all the packaging and materials for the 25 blades)
Next issue:  cost.  Because, of course, a good solid metal razor is going to soak a body for more than a plastic razor, right?  Actually, again:  the opposite.  At the same time my husband was buying replacement blades for his own razor (10 blades = $30), I got my razor and my 25 blades for $13.  For the money factor alone, I should have done this long, long ago.

What else worried me?  Those darned razor blades themselves.  I balked at the idea of handling them, not only switching them in and out, but also disposing of them safely.  I'm a little hinky about sharp things.   So here's a pictorial on how easy it is to change the blades.

First, unscrew the handle from the head by just turning the handle.
Second, the head separates into three pieces: a curved protective piece with a center knob, the blade itself, and the flat plate that hold it together.  They basically just fall apart once you unscrew the handle.
Then get a new blade and put the pieces back together.  That center knob sort of aligns everything in the right place without much fussing on my own part.  Screw the handle back on, and, done!

And disposal?  I've commandeered a paper coffee cup that my husband brought home and marked it in bold letters:  "used razor blades".  I'll add that to the box of scrap metal that we give to Paul D. (He collects and redeems scrap metal to bring in extra money for him and his ailing wife).

Finally, the question that many people would put first:  how well does this actually work?  I saved this question for last because that's such a personal preference.  For me, I'll say "so far so good".  I'm not a picky person in this arena, and I haven't really noticed any difference.  My husband would have a different opinion: he remembers his metal razor days as the reason he decided to grow a beard instead.  Most of the reviews of this razor I read online were pleased as punch, but a few were unhappy.  Given the price, I'd say it's worth trying it out for yourself if you're curious.

Monday, September 17, 2012

$139: new food and used clothes

Grocery spending this week was $250.  Why?  The husband spent $35 of this at grocery stores getting cereal, ice cream, coffee cream, and sundry.  I did a small $17  market run to get milk and yogurt.  And there was also a purchase of $197 for 35 pounds of locally harvested turkey kielbasa.
The kielbasa has, by now, been divvied up into many, smaller bags that have gone into in the pillowcases (sorted by month) in my freezer.  The bulk (so to speak) of our winter meat purchases are behind us.  But watch for the pirate-inspired turkey leg purchases later this week!  

At any rate, the most recent grocery expenditures bring our weekly grocery average to $139/week for 26 weeks.  139 is not only a prime number; it's a rare "twin" prime, coming as it does next to its prime sister (137).  Nobody knows how many twin primes there are.  If you can figure out the answer, you'd be famous forever and earn $1 million.   No, really.

But the fall harvest isn't limited to food.  September is a lovely yard sale month in our area.  Saturday I tooled around town for an hour and a half with K-daughter.  For $8.50, I picked up a variety of things I'm happy to include in the Miser Mom household.

This includes not only a bunch of books (one I hope to read on my next trip, one for the boys, and one to give as a gift), but also some spare lasagna pans (so we can make multiple lasagnes and freeze them) and a photo of Dale Earnhardt that will become a gift for a completely devoted N-son.  Also four small cake molds for our halloween dinner and four blue-glass wine bottle stoppers: 
And three pairs of long school pants, plus two pairs of short-sleeved school shirts:
Not to mention a school back pack.  It originally looked fairly tacky because it came with the logo of a tobacco company on it, but the seam ripper fixed it so that it now looks just fine.  N-son has co-opted this.
Plus (not pictured) a reading lamp for J-son.    Not a bad haul for a pile of quarters.  Although, still no long-sleeved shirts.   Sigh.

In the same way that the growing season is producing its last beautiful vegetables right now, the shopping season for household things is going strong but will soon end for me.  I'm taking advantage of these cool, beautiful Saturdays of fall.  Because as we move into October, we switch from buying fresh food to seeing only canned (or imported food) around us.  But the same time, my other shopping options switch from buying used goods (at yard sales) to buying new goods (in stores).   Either way it goes, I'd rather buy things in summer.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The morals of mooching from an employer

Mostly, I don't mooch from my employer.  Mostly.

My general philosophy about frugality is, that getting other people to pay for the stuff I use isn't really frugality; it's just shifting the cost to somewhere else.  It's mooching, not conserving.  That's why, when I stay in hotels, I don't take a new shampoo bottle every day.  It's part of why I seldom use coupons (although avoiding stores is probably a bigger reason for my lack of coupon use).

I make a lot of personal photocopies at work, but I make sure to pay my office back for those.  (To make this less of a hassle for everyone involved, I pay in batches:  I have a paper taped to my shelves with slots for 143 tick marks; that's because at 7¢ per copy, 143 pages of copying costs $10.)

I don't take office supplies home.  Actually, it's often the other way around.   I'm fonder of wooden pencils than most people I know, and I've bought several sets of pencils marked with special mathematical statements for the professors and students in my department.

So, I'm not a moocher, much.

Until it comes to food.  And then, I sing a different song.  Because if there's an event on my campus that has "free" food involved, I don't get all hoity-toity about how someone else is still paying for it.  No, I show up, and I eat that food.  I come with empty pockets, and I leave with a full belly.  And often, I bring plastic bags and bring extra food home.  (See this post for my technique for mooching food in a decorous way -- it's not really as tacky as I make it sound here).

So, what's the moral difference between taking paper clips and taking pasta?

Well, here's a justification in my own head.  And that is, at any event that offers food, the hosts want people to come.  They really, really want to lure people in, and food is the bait.  The reasons for offering food come in many forms:  To get people to come hear the artist they've invited to speak.  To celebrate a professional milestone in a public way.  To build community by breaking bread together.  Perhaps even (hypocritically) to give the impression to others that their program is a popular one.

In each of these cases, there's an event where attendance matters.  And I'm a warm body.  I'll add:  I'm usually a warm, enthusiastic body.   I get a kick out of art talks and retirement speeches, even from people I don't know as well as I should.  And I do love building community.  But the thing that always gets me is that I go scarf down yummy canapes and crudites, and the organizers of the shindig come thank me.  

Would I do this even if food were not involved?  Eh, sometimes.  Last night, I got to take the boys to a local baseball game, courtesy of the college I work at.  We didn't touch the concession stands ($5 for a pretzel?  $3 for a soda?  Really!?).  But snagging tickets to the game -- that was a treat!

But my mooching habits aren't as pure as the driven ground-ball, by any means.  Because truth is, I just love mooching food.  It's taken me a while to find a way to justify this to myself, but the explanation definitely comes after the fact.

Food.  Especially food that is free . . . to me.   I love it.  I mooch it.  I scrounge it.  And afterwords, I invent a rationale and pretend that I'm being moral all along.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Room for emergencies

In my post yesterday about cutting down on overwhelming busyness, I toyed with the idea of saying something along the lines of this:

Part of the reason for avoiding a completely full schedule 
is to save space in my schedule for emergencies.


I hit the "publish" button, went to work, came home.  That very night, J-son was tooling around on his bike while paying attention to everything that was not his bike, when he crashed.  We got a call from a very nice neighbor who'd bandaged up the hurt ankle and sent him home.  No broken bones, but there is a gash.  I spent the evening pampering him, keeping him off the foot, and wondering quietly in the back of my head whether it's worth going to the emergency room for stitches.  We decided butterfly bandages and some iPod time (with feet up in the air) would probably do the trick instead.

But what I didn't do was fret over a big pile of work that I'd brought home.  And I didn't worry about getting further behind on Project X while I doled out ice packs and hugs and reassurances.  Why not?  Because for once this month, I didn't bring a big pile of work home.  I hadn't really intended to play nursemaid, but at least I had the time and the brain to change roles once I had to.

Poor kid. Glad I was there. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Spending time to save time

I like to be active.   In fact, I like to be so active that I'm a bit on the frantic side.  But I don't like to feel like my schedule owns me, . . . and last week, that's the way I was feeling.

I'd brought home work just about every night.  I'd brought home work the past several weekends.  And my nights and weekends were devoted to "catching up" and even (so I thought) "getting ahead".  But after the third weekend of "catching up/getting ahead", it was clear I was establishing a pattern, not creating an exception.

And so, I pulled out my trusty planner.  I stopped doing my "work".  I started making lists. I love making lists.  And I love creating schedules.

What does a bout of planning look like?

Round 1 of planning was doing a "Planner Meeting" with the family.  N-son has grown up seeing me and his dad synchronise calendars, and he has so wanted to be part of this that it's now his job to maintain the family calendar that hangs on the bulletin board.  When life gets hectic, it's easy to let communication lag, and I knew our family was in dire danger of double-booking ourselves for things.  So the family planning meeting came first.

Round 2 of planning was to anticipate events.  This phase included things as simple as deciding on a rough menu for the week.  A quick weekly menu can save a bunch of time:  for example, pulling meat out of the freezer and putting  it in the fridge  the night before a meal takes almost no time compared to defrosting it at the last minute (unless the "meat" happens to be bananas instead of kielbasa.  Whoops.)   Another example of anticipating events: in my home, now is the season for children's medical visits, and remembering to bring all the myriad forms along with me saves me time compared to mailing them and retrieving them later.

Round 3 of planning was to try to fix the problems that have been annoying me.  In this case, I decided to schedule "time with myself" each day -- to actually write that time into my planner each day.  In particular, since I'd been bringing home about an hour worth of email correspondence each night (and even more on the weekends), I decided to look to the future week and block out one hour each day to concentrate on email.

At this point, I realized my problem.  I've scheduled myself so intensely, I don't actually have time to catch up on correspondence during the day.   The reasons for my lack of e-time vary from day to day, so that each new day, I've been able to to fool myself into thinking "today is an exception".  But when I decided to plan into the future and I saw an entire week of . . . um . . . exceptional reasons, then I realized that the problem is really me.

Round 4 includes gently, but firmly, saying "no, thank you".  Or at least, "not now".  Because in the midst of all this planning and list-making, I got even more offers of cool things to do.  Life is full of cool things to do, things I want to say "yes" to.   But the weekend of planning sobered me up.  I can't do it all.

(You don't know how hard it is for me to write that last sentence, or how much I want to be Wonder Woman.  At least let me say:  I can't teach all my classes, chair the committee that's sucking up all my time, referee two math research papers, and still plan the Pirate Dinner.  Something has to walk the plank!  And it sha'nt be be the Pirate Dinner, matey!)

Calendars aren't classy.  Schedules aren't sexy.  Lists seldom inspire lust (unless they're in my husband's lap).   But I couldn't live the good life without them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The complicated cost of my hair cut

My good friend TL cuts my hair.  She's a terrific friend, and she's an even better hair cutter.

(She's also my running boss, leading me 8 miles up and down hills last weekend, and threatening me with 10 miles this next weekend.  She runs like Tigger, bouncing along on her toes, never seeming even remotely tired.  I'd curse her peppiness if I weren't a total sucker for everything TL, but the truth is, I'm totally under her sway).

Last Saturday as we got toward the end (huff-puff) of our run, TL mentioned that she's taken up swimming in a regular way.  So much so, she said, that she'd started looking at swim suits.  In stores.  She said this, and then she paused.

And I knew, of course, what she was asking with that pause.  Because of course, I don't go to stores.  And I know how to get swimsuits for cheap.  In fact, I just happened to have about 4 decent suits in my drawer that I'd bought for  $1-$2  each.  (Two of these pairs -- the expensive $2 ones, I'd bought with the tags still on from a development yard sale.  Neighborhood yard sales in places where all the homes have vinyl siding -- that's the place for all sorts of excellent booty!)

With four suits sitting in my drawer getting no use in the pool, especially now that the school year has whomped me, it's a joy to be able to share with TL.  So the next morning in church (limping along after the grueling workout she gave me), I handed TL my smallest, newest suit.  Not the one with leopard spots, though, because even though I don't get much chance to wear it, I love that leopard print suit.

The swimsuit isn't a payment for my latest hair cut; it isn't a barter; it's friendship.  It's sharing.  Our back-and-forth is the best kind of what Robert Putnam calls "social capital", the ways that investing time in relationships and community makes us richer in ways that are sometimes hard to measure, but sometimes very clearly financially advantageous.

Still, it set me wondering:  if I *had* made a "you-cut-my-hair; I'll-give-you-a-swimsuit" kind of a deal, then how much would my haircut have cost?  What would my payment to TL have been?   From my point of view, a max of $2.  That's what I spent on the suit after all, and given how well-stocked my swimsuit drawer is, I'm unlikely to feel the need to buy a "new" one anytime soon.   From TL's point of view, probably much more, because stores sell swimsuits for $30, or $50, or even $60 (at least, from what I could see on line).

Did I hand her a $2 bill that turned into a $50 bill once it touched her hand?

Monday, September 10, 2012

135: Variations on a theme

This week, being a little more hectic than I had planned for, I did no grocery shopping whatsoever.  The husband had his own grocery-fest to the tune of $99, bringing home bread and spaghetti and plastic bottles of this-and-that.  I admit I was too distracted to pay attention to the this-and-that.  This brings our grocery average to $135/week for the past 25 weeks -- a new Miser Mom low.  But next week will see a huge bump:  turkey kielbasa arrives on Tuesday.

What is it like to eat in a household where we haven't been doing much shopping?  There's been a variety of very plain dinners, if that even makes sense.  Eggs.  Chili.  One night where we just ate peanut butter sandwiches, with-or-without jelly.

J-son put away the food like the teenage boy he is.  One night, he ate 3 potatoes, a tuna fish sandwich, the leftover spaghetti, and a bowl of soup.  When he asked for ice cream, I suggested he ought to get some vegetables, too.  I'd cooked up a large batch of kale to feed the crew later in the week; maybe he should have some of that?  Too late, he told me.  He'd found it in the fridge earlier in the day and eaten the entire pot of it.  

With the weekend, a bit more sanity arrived . . . or so I thought.  I found, to my surprise, a pair of kielbasa links in the freezer, and so I put them in the fridge to thaw in time for dinner.  But come dinner time, they were the slimiest, limpest sausage links I'd ever seen.  How on earth did that happen?  I spent some time trying to figure out whether the meat was salvageable . . . and finally I realized that the kielbasa was actually a pair of bananas.  Oh.

My vegetable lovers help with the beans.  
On the other hand, when I started getting all our CSA vegetables cooked up and ready to eat for the upcoming week, I had a surprise of a different sort.  The kids begged to be allowed to help.  In fact, I first turned N-son away, but he pouted at not being allowed to snap green beans.  What was I thinking?  We blanched more kale, plus chard and corn and green beans, all in record time.

A variety of plain things.  Every number bigger than 5 (so said Lagrange, a famous mathematician) can be written as the sum of at most four squares.  My new low weekly grocery average would do Lagrange proud.  135 is the smallest number with seven (count 'em, 7!) different ways to write it as the sum of four squares:
  1. 135 = 1*1 + 2*2 + 3*3 + 11*11
  2. 135 = 1*1 + 2*2 + 7*7 + 9*9
  3. 135 = 1*1 + 3*3 + 5*5 + 10*10
  4. 135 = 1*1 + 6*6 + 7*7 +  7*7
  5. 135 = 2*2 + 5*5 + 5*5 + 9*9
  6. 135 = 3*3 + 3*3 + 6*6 + 9*9
  7. 135 = 5*5 + 5*5 + 6*6 + 7*7

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Life cycle of clothes

I've seen clothes from five different stages of the consumer life cycle this past week.

Clothes Scene 1:  The Store.
On Tuesday, I went to an Outlet Mall.  To a national chain store named after a chasm or an abyss.  This is (for me) highly unusual, of course, and in my defense, I'll claim it was my friend's idea.  (Ever since Adam and Eve invented blame, we pin our sins on other people, so I'll blame my finger pointing on the two of them).

My friend suffers from a yucky degenerative disease and is confined to a motorized wheel chair, so I admit that yard sales are just not easy for her.  The whole getting-the-wheelchair-in-and-out-of-the-trunk routine took a lot of strength and time, and so even going to the mall was an adventure in ways that I hadn't appreciated until Tuesday.

But being in the Chasm Store was a wild experience for me.  Row upon row of nearly identical clothing . . . wow.  Price tags way, way, way above what I've paid for clothes in the last decade, even though Everything-but-Everything was marked "40% Off!!!" with big red signs.   The Friend, shopping for birthday gifts for her grandson, would hold up a pair of pants and ask, "What do you think of this? Is it worth the price?"

We ended up purchasing three small outfits that, folded up together, took up less space than a football.  The Friend paid about as much as I spend all year for all our clothing combined.  Her grandson is 3 years old.  This, I do understand, is normal.  I know that.  But it still depresses me.

Clothes Scene 2: The Yard Sale
As mentioned, this past week's yard saling brought in a bodacious haul.   The haul includes fresh air shopping (whether we want that hot, humid, fresh air or not).  Piles o' clothes for cheap.  A distressing lack of predictability in the hunt, for good or ill.  But likewise, darned reasonable prices, and the virtuous feeling of keeping clothing from heading into landfills, at least for a little while longer.

Clothes Scene 3.  The Rescue
I made some highly satisfying patches in my husband's bicycle shorts -- complete score, because new bike shorts cost an arm plus the leg that would have gone in the shorts.  I also fixed my son's backpack (technically not clothes, but I used my sewing machine, so I'll count it anyway).

Clothes Scene 4:  The Release.
K-daughter piled up a bunch of her soon-to-be-former clothes in a box of goods we have bound for Haiti. But I pulled them back out of the box and re-directed them to local charities.  My own trip to Haiti last December was a clothing eye-opener; despite the giant piles of rubble and trash that seemed to be everywhere, people wore incredibly new-looking and surprisingly clean clothes.  I'm not so sure they want our gently worn cast-offs.  We'll send toiletries instead.

But, as another friend K pointed out to me, local charities don't really pass all your clothes along to people who want to wear your clothes.   As Elizabeth Cline, in this Slate Magazine article describes, "Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth."

Our clothes become rags; they travel overseas; they're sold by the pound; they go back into the earth to molder.  A far, far cry from the glossy, sanitized, regimented rows of the giant outlet mall, of course.

Clothes Scene 5:  On the body
I wore my clothes this week.  This is hardly a revelation.  But I just wanted to remind myself that our belongings aren't supposed to own us; we're supposed to own them.  So in this complicated mish-mash of shopping and buying and mending and releasing, it was a real pleasure to put on some of my favorite dresses, to feel like the clothes made me look good, to feel comfortable or professional or dressy as the situation demanded.  To use what I own, and use it well.

And really, that's the point.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Decrepitude and Disrepair

Just as I was repeating this mantra to myself --  "I will NOT complain about being busy.  I will NOT complain about being busy.  I will NOT complain . . . " -- my husband asked, "Do you hear that awful noise the car is making?

No, I didn't hear that noise.  Two days later, my husband said, "The noise is getting worse.  I think it's a wheel bearing problem; you should take it in to the shop."  I love my guy.  I humor him.  So early the next morning, my Trusty Mechanic welcomed me in.  He pushed me for specifics:  What kind of noise is it?  (I don't know; I couldn't hear it myself.)   Where is the noise coming from?  (As far as I can tell, it's coming from my husband).

Trusty M. took the car out for a spin and came back with good news and bad news.  The good news is that my husband is right about the car.  And the bad news is that my husband is right about the car.  So Saturday I'll get to spend a few more hours with the Trusty M. while he replaces a pitted wheel bearing. I will NOT complain about being busy.  No, my life is rich and full.

I was reminding myself that life (in particular, mine) is rich and full as I returned up and pulled up to my garage . . . but no amount of button pushing would open the doors.  Those doors -- they've been cantankerous for several years, and my son-in-law-to-be has urged me to let him replace them.  By good fortune he stopped by that very evening, and I moaned and whined to him.  And, sweet guy that he is, the very next evening he'd replaced them.  This took really almost none of my time, although the doors that my car will drive through cost three times as much as the wheel bearings it drives on.

Work emergencies.  Back-to-school nights.  My life is rich and full.  And just when I was thinking, "Tonight while my husband is working late, I'll get to finish that goshdarned report I've been waiting on!", instead I had kid meltdowns.  And dog disobedience.  And then, when I went to push the "start" button on the dishwasher . . .  nothing.  I pushed it again, and got nothing again, only more emphatically.  Drat.  Another repair.  More time, more money.

But what's keeping me busy -- er, I mean, full . . . to overflowing -- is mostly things.  Piles of paper.  Machines.  Stuff, but not the important stuff.  It's okay to wash dishes by hand with my sons, to have a car (rather than a person) get sick.  It's okay.

But, still, I know I'd feel better if I just finished that goshdarned report.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

81 dimes: a Math Panic

My yard sale coin collection
 in a canning jar with a funnel
All winter long, I save up dimes and quarters for yard sale season.  Last Saturday, I was out-and-about with my quarters in my left pocket, dimes in my right, when I happened upon a family selling some DVDs I thought my boys would like, $1 each.

When I started counting out quarters and dimes to pay her, the woman's eyes lit up.  "I LOVE dimes!" she gushed.  We talked long enough that I knew she meant it, so after I paid her (in dimes), I emptied out my right pocket, handed her all the rest of my dimes, and told her I'd be back after I checked out the yard sales further up her street.  She could count the dimes and give me dollar bills in exchange.

When I came back, there was a small pile-up of shoppers on her porch; she hadn't had time to count.  She handed the dimes to her husband who counted them out in front of me.  And then [watch it: here comes the math moment], he got a stricken look and asked, "that's 81 dimes.  Um, how much money would that be?"

How much money is 81 dimes?  You might expect that I'd rant about the stupidity of not knowing the answer.  But I want to take the opposite view; that the guy could figure out the answer, but he had a very common attack of Brain Freeze.  A moment of Math Panic.  It happens to us all.  You've had Math Panic.  I (who teach math for a living) have had Math Panic.  We all have Math Panics, at times.

A burst of Math Panic can be expensive.  It can be expensive on the large scale:  you get a sales pitch from that guy selling time shares and don't realize until later that his math doesn't match your budget.  It can be expensive on the small scale:  you're at the store and your friends are waiting, so you grab the more expensive barrel of pretzels by mistake because the pricing is so complicated.   A recent study by marketing professor Michael Tsiros at the University of Miami School of Business shows that this kind of grocery store math-anxiety-ignorance costs shoppers a lot of money.

My dime exchange interaction had all the ingredients leading up to the big brain freeze.  
  • First of all, it was an unexpected problem, one that was sprung on this guy last-minute.  Almost nobody (but me) carries a pocketful of dimes around, so he hadn't been thinking about dime-to-dollar conversions at all.  
  • Secondly, there was an audience for his math: not only was a crowd milling around, but I was standing there, staring at him.  It's very hard to think about both people and numbers at the same time, and for most of us, people win over math.
  • Third, there was time pressure.  He felt like he had to answer right away, because I had already been waiting a little while.  
All of which says, if you're faced with a purchase that has math involved, you should know that Math Panic Happens.  If you can prepare yourself for the math beforehand, fabulous.  But if not, do everything you can to give yourself more time and to get away from the observant eyes of other people.  Tell the salesman you need to go home and think about it.  Tell your friends you'll be there in 5 minutes, and send them off to look for root beer.

And most of all, don't let that moment of Math Panic be your boss.  It's easy for us all to think we're just too stupid to handle certain problems, to let that sense of stupidity define us and establish the way we do things.  I remember once freaking out over my taxes.  Finally, I realized, "Miser Mom; you have a PhD in Math.  If you can't do taxes, nobody can!"  So I took a deep breath, slowed down, and did those taxes with almost no problem.  Just, slowly.

In the same way, we can all decide that the moment of "Oh, shoot, I don't know the answer!" is not the real us.  The real us is someone who is patient, persistent, and smart.  That arithmetic:  just do it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Yard sale scores

Thrift stores.

They are just too pricey.

Because if you're good (or at least, persistent) at yard sale-ing, you can wind up with weekends like this.  I spent a total of $5.50 at Saturday's yard sales, and I got
  • 2 pairs of boy's shoes
  • 1 pair of school shorts
  • 2 pairs of boys' pants
  • 4 shirts
  • 2 jackets
  • 3 DVDs
  • a kitchen scale
  • a metal canning funnel
  • salad tongs
  • an alarm clock for J-son
  • 30 new wooden pencils
  • a flip-flip toy (my favorite score of the weekend)
Of course, the difficulty with yard sales is, they're erratic.   This weekend was awesome; last weekend the yard sales were basically non-existent (although I did find a complete set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books for just $1.  That was a total SCORE!).

Yard sale clothes are gender biased.   I've had my eyes peeled oh-so-carefully for long-sleeved shirts that the boys can wear to school.  No luck.  Girl's clothes, on the other hand, are everywhere.

Yard sales are also age biased.  If you're looking for infant or toddler clothes, yard sales abound in good merchandise.  If you're searching for teenager clothes . . .  well, you and Diogenes (who wandered around Greece searching for an honest man) can wander a little while longer yet.

This is to say, I'm probably going to have to go to those expensive so-called-thrift stores sometime this fall to round out my boys' wardrobes.  Drat.

Monday, September 3, 2012

$136: reaching new lows

I've been keeping track of grocery spending for 24 weeks -- not quite consecutive weeks, though.  So it surprised me that it's possible at this point to reach a new low average:  $136/week, for 24 weeks.  It could go so low because this week for some reason, we spent only $16 at Market on dairy products and a tiny bit of kielbasa.  And that was that.  
Weekly grocery spending, for 24 weeks.

So the average was the lowest ever (since I've been keeping track).  Go figure.
Average weekly spending, in $/week.

I mentioned last week that I might want to buy kale or other dark leafy greens, but the freezer is full.  The canning jars are almost all in use.  I had had a few empty half-pint jars left, but they got put to service for storing pickled jalapeƱo peppers from our CSA.  So I'm not going to go buy kale anytime soon.  Probably.  We'll see.

136.  In binary, it's 10001000.  That's pretty cool.  If you line up 136 dollars the right way, you can't get a perfect square, but you can get a nice triangle.

No deep insights -- just sharing my surprise.