Friday, March 15, 2013

My 2009 Hot Pink Marathon Shoes

The closer I get to Saturday (ooh, that would be tomorrow!), the more I realize I'm not just running a marathon; I'm entering an Amusement Park/Marketing Plaza/Shopping Extravaganza.   Not only did I pay a highly-unMiserly race fee and transportation expenses, but  I've been getting increasingly jazzy emails touting even  more ways I can spend my money.  There's going to be a huge "Expo" full of salespeople hawking their wares.  I could pay extra to have the organizers text my updated location to my loved ones.  If I buy $150 worth of marathon-themed merchandise, I can get into the VIP PortaPotties (designed for those flush with cash?)

As you might imagine, I find all this commercialization a little alarming -- I thought I was doing a race, not going to DisneyLand.  So I'm doing my best to hold down costs:  Yes, I paid the race fees.  Yes, we'll drive the 100+ miles from here to the race.  But I'm staying with my frugal dad, not in a hotel.  And I'm not buying access to VIPotties, or text messages, or photographs.  And I'm not, gosh darn it, going to buy ANY new clothes.

When I told my students about the No-New-Clothes mantra, they were horrified.  "But you need new shoes every year, or you'll get injured!" they said.  They were genuinely worried, bless them.  I love my students . . . but still, hearing this, Miser Mom had to respond.

Are my students correct?  Do we really need to buy NEW shoes EVERY YEAR if we want to exercise?  Or is there a reason that these lovely kids are still students, whereas I (wearing 6-year-old shoes) am the professor?
[I'm being tongue-in-cheek here; there are actually lots of times when I learn something important from my students.]

The shoes I will be wearing come Marathon Day are these beauties, purchased at a yard sale in 2009 for exactly $1.   I love these shoes; they've carried me through three half-marathons and a couple of shorter races, and they've been my support (so to speak) on more training miles than I can count, including a few recent 20- and 15-mile runs.  They fit me well and they still show hardly any wear.

I claim that it's those two things  -- fit and wear -- that really matter in deciding when to replace shoes.  There's not a secret little timer inside a shoe that goes "bing!" when two years have passed that suddenly turns a perfectly fine shoe into a knee-mauling monster.  Shoes don't need grocery-store-style expiration dates that warn you when they might turn sour.  If the shoe feels good, and if you feel good while you wear it and afterwords, then it's a good shoe.
(In fact, I've noticed over my very long runs these past few months that it's laces that matter to me most of all:  don't lace your shoes too tight!  Loosening up my laces made a surprisingly huge difference between aches and comfort.)
I've blathered on before about all the lack of data to support the "used shoes are bad shoes" fears; I've also written a bit more on the positive side, showing that cheap shoes are actually better than expensive ones.  If you want convincing --- or if you agree with me but want some arguments to convince others around you --- you can go read those posts.

But what if I'm completely wrong?  What if a runner really does imperil life-and-limb by wearing a (gasp) 3-year-old shoe?  Or even, like me, a 6-year-old shoe?

Let's look at the students who were so worried about me.  One of them was a football player -- hardly a safety-first pastime.  Several of them were women who wear high heels -- a well-documented way to risk knee health.  Still other of my students clearly spend part of their weekends engaged in what I might delicately call Unhealthy Beverage Activities Typical of College Students.   And in spite of all these risky behaviors, we're all still miraculously okay.

What football, high heels, and Saturday beverage activities all have in common --- and what makes them different from wearing 6-year-old running shoes --- is not just that I claim that the running shoes aren't risky.  It's that the first three are socially acceptable, even socially promoted, ways to risk health.  Even more, they all cost money --- so my students are risking damage to their bodies and they're paying to do so!  

Taken in that context, you can see that my students' exhortation to be careful with my old shoes isn't really about safety or health; it's really about conformity.  It's really about fitting in.

But I'll say it again: for me, it's not fitting in with the crowd; it's fitting into my shoes that matters.  And I'm really looking forward to taking these trusty old hot pink babies down to DC with me tomorrow.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Party Animals (Zoo Dinner)

My kids acted like animals at dinner last night.  Well, we all did . . . it was the second annual Zoo Dinner at the Miser Mom household.

On the menu:

Baked Bears:  (hamburger shaped, via several balls, into a face, nose, and ears.  Sliced beets and halved olives made the nose and eyes).

Mice:  (small halved potatoes, with toothpicks for tails, hot dogs slices attached with toothpicks for ears, and capers for eyes.  I discovered after a bunch of trial-and-error that the strawberry de-stemmer I sprung for this summer did a great job of making eye sockets).  Extra fun:  asking the woman at market if she has any "potatoes shaped like mice".

(Before baking, flat sides down: we added ears and eyes after the potatoes were softer).

BoaConstrictors -- back by popular demand from last year!  Make regular bread dough, roll out like you're making pizza.  Add a filling of cottage cheese, lots of basil, nuts, garlic, grated cheese, and roll it up.  Add a tongue (beets), eyes (olives), and spine (nuts).  Bake like bread.
Octopus:  This was the surprise hit of the dinner, for which we owe a huge tip of the flowered hat to The Turkey Lady at our market.  We told her about the zoo dinner and our tentative plans to make turkey hot dog squids (see this cool site that my students showed me).  Even though she was out of hot dogs for the day, she loaned us her Octodog maker!  Here it is in action:

You start by inserting the hot dog into the Octodog slicer, and the remove it.  After you boil the result, you get this beauty!  Note the  mouse in the background.  Neither animal lasted very long with my kids salivating after them.

We decorated the table with calendar photos of cute animals, saved up just for this occasion.  We turned the chairs around, and then . . .

then . . .  we ate like animals!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The high cost of (automotive) beauty

Early this January, we got to learn a few lessons at the hands of that famous teacher, Experience.

We were taking one of our quarterly trips out to see C-son; with seven people involved we couldn't fit in one car so we decided to convoy our two cars, putting K-daughter at the wheel of my trusty old Prius.  Along the way there, K-daughter had a car accident.

The accident was a fairly typical new-driver accident:  she was travelling in the right (slow) lane on a highway; she got nervous about a car in the on-ramp and decided to yield to that car by swinging out into the left lane.  Trouble is, there was already a pick-up truck in the left lane, right next to her.  Pick-up Truck and Prius got to rub shoulders, so to speak.

The big financial Lesson that came out of this Experience is for all of us:

One:  Having liability-only insurance (no collision) saves a boatload of money!

I already knew that I was paying less for insurance by paying only for liability --- that is, not paying for collision, too.  I figured we'd eventually have to make up for that when the first big accident (or small accident, like this one) came.   The entire driver's side of the Prius was dented and scraped up, and one panel was bent in such a way that the driver's door was hard to open.  Fixing this all up costs  . . .  how much?

There were the costs to the other car; our liability insurance covered that.  But what about our car?

When K-daughter took the Prius to the mechanic, he prepared his estimate and asked for our insurance information.  At that point, I got on the phone with him and explained we don't have collision insurance; we'd be paying the costs ourself.  That rocked him back:  "Oh, well, it'll cost $4,700".

[Sort of ironically, a friend of mine had just told me she was getting ready to buy a used 2001 Prius, same age as mine, for $4K.  So my repair would have cost more than a whole other car!]

I told the mechanic I didn't care about cosmetics [that's a lie -- see below] -- I just want the car to be functional and safe.  So he took out a crow bar, bent one panel back into shape, and now the driver's side door works perfectly.  Total cost:  $0.  That increased to about $30 when K-daughter bought some touch-up paint that we've used to prevent eventual rust.

In essence, this means that when you buy collision insurance, it covers not only the things that you would have willingly paid for (like repairing defective parts for safety reasons), but also things you'd be willing to let slide.   I myself subscribe to the idea that I don't ever buy insurance for something I'd be able to pay for myself -- no extended warranties on refrigerators, no pet insurance.  But this Experience taught me that avoiding extra insurance is even more powerful than that:  it also means that I'm not insuring something I wouldn't have paid for in the first place!

Two of the other three important lessons on this list were mostly for K-daughter.

Two:  Don't yield to cars that are supposed to yield to you!  And

Three:  A car is just a THING.

After the smash-up, K-daughter and the pick-up driver pulled over to the shoulder; my husband and I pulled our other car over, too.  K-daughter was freaking out because she had just had a CAR ACCIDENT, and that's a big, scary thing, right??  After all, car accidents get broadcasted on the radio and in the newspaper.  A car is expensive (and it's not even her car).  People die in car accidents.  She was just terrified of what this all meant.

We traded insurance cards with the pick-up driver and did a check of the situation.  Although both the Prius and the pick-up had damage along their sides, all six people in the two vehicles were completely unhurt.  No bumps, no scrapes, no nothing.  The people were fine -- if you're going to crash your car while going 60 mph, it's best to crash it into something going the same direction and the same speed.   The two vehicles themselves looked a lot uglier than they had 5 minutes ago -- but I got to reassure K-daughter that a car isn't a family heirloom or a Rembrandt painting.  People break lamps, dishes, even furniture and don't get upset; a car is just another thing we own that we might break.  And if we do break it, we can fix it or get a new one, and our lives will still go on.

We gave K-daughter a brief period of time to recover.  I drove the rest of the way to see C-son; we all had lunch together; then I handed K-daughter the keys and she drove the long journey home on her own.  See?  No big deal.

Which leads to the final lesson . . .

Four:  I'm a liar and a hypocrite.
It's the rational side of me that told K-daughter this is no big deal.   It's the rational side of me that said it's not worth paying nearly $5k to pretty up a dozen-year-old car that I seldom drive.

But there was a big part of me that was wringing my hands and moaning, "but this car only has 85,000  miles on it!  And it's my car!  I'm going to have it for another dozen years, and now it will be ugly for all those years!  And I don't want it to look ugly!"

In my most selfish Oh-Poor-Me moments, I even told myself that it's just no fair that I take in this kid who's not even my own biological kid, gave her a home and a family . . . and access to my car . . . and now I have to live with an ugly car.   I was amazed that I could feel such self-pity at the same time that I was completely ashamed of myself for my whining.  Those two emotions ought to have cancelled each other out somehow, but they didn't.

Until I took another good look at the car, and realized that -- really, truly  -- it's no big deal.  Yeah, there's a bit of a frumpy, rumpled look to it -- but it's not really as bad as I'd remembered / feared / obsessed.  I can live with that.
Even if he gets his own pet insurance,
 I'm not going to let my dog drive the car.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Of Marathons and Mortgages

Well, this week is my college's spring break, and it's also the tapering week right before my marathon, so I seem to have both time on my hands and energy to do extra stuff.  And since (by a lovely numerical coincidence), it's been 101 days since I signed off the blogosphere, it sounds like perfect timing for a few quick updates on life in the Miser Mom household.

The kiddos keep me hopping.   K-daughter got accepted to a college 2 hours away, which has me simultaneously proud-as-punch and also biting my fingernails at the prospect of losing her next fall.  N-son has found a New-Orleans-style drum teacher, and life in our home will never be as quiet again.  And I heard just last week that two years of paperwork finally resulted in qualifying J-son for our local dyslexia center.  Hallelujah!

My new bike -- the Sudden Painful Death Machine -- hasn't gotten much use yet, mostly because I'm a wimp about riding a bike on ice.  (Or just a wimp about bikes in general?   For now, let's blame the ice).   But the triathalon training has nonetheless proceeded apace, with some seriously long distance running under my belt, getting ready for a marathon I'll do with a passel of friends this upcoming Saturday.

Ooh -- oooh -- oooooh!  But what I really wanted to say was this:

Three weeks ago, my husband and I completely paid off our mortgage.   

Woo-hoo!  We celebrated by taking a leisurely 20-mile run together (which we were going to do anyway, but it felt a lot better doing the run as a "celebration" than as yet-another-multi-hour training run).

And having finally zeroed out this balance, I just want to shout: Frugality Works!  It does!  

On the one hand, paying off a mortgage in just 16 years might not seem like a huge feat.  After all, my husband and I both make significant piles of money, and my penny-pinching ways are legendary.   So maybe zeroing out the mortgage in 16 years seems rather ho-hum.

But our marriage has sailed along in turbulent financial waters, with many dangerous reefs and tides and heavy headwinds.  Not the least of these were a few huge obligations we started out with, like . . .
  • We bought the house with no money down and with completely-wiped-out savings.  Don't even ask me how that happened -- at the start of our marriage, I just assumed my husband knew what he was doing when he figured a down-payment would come along.  It took about six months into our marriage before I took over handling our finances, and a year into our marriage before we realized that he was always overly optimistic about money.  By then, it was too late to move our sizable clan to something less costly.  
  • We entered the marriage committed to paying in full for one of his daughters' very expensive private schooling (grades K-12), and also to other very non-Miser-Mom types of clothing/grooming/activity costs.   These expenses combined to a significant fraction of my husband's paycheck for almost all of our marriage so far.  We're glad we did this, but the expense has been nonetheless significant.
  • Even after I took over the finances and we understood the challenges ahead of us, my husband did not become a convert to The Frugal Way of Life.   So we learned to live (happily, I swear) in a marriage where he'd buy Starbucks Lattes and expensive bikes, and I'd figure out a way to buy clothing for my two sons and me for an entire year for only $60.
  • Several times during our marriage, my husband's job situation got extremely rocky.  At one point, he was laid off.  After a few months of severance pay, he began freelancing and eventually got a full-time job again.  In 2009, he spent the year soldiering in Iraq at a much lower salary (but he actually spent so little for once, that we still managed to save a bit of money).

But our time together hasn't entirely been one of deprivation and suffering, focused only on a joyless version of scraping by.  In fact, along the way, we've managed to do a bunch of things that I look back on with a warm glow of pride.   Like these:
  • We helped to rear three beautiful girls who (as of May) will all have graduated from college.  Because of re-marriages/grandparents/employer benefits, it's hard to calculate just what fraction we contributed to each child's tuition, but it wasn't mere peanuts in any of the cases.
  • We adopted N-son and J-son out of foster care and unofficially co-opted K-daughter.  We've also begun the process of adopting a teenage boy from Haiti.
  • We spent a bunch of optional money --- about half of the original purchase price of the house -- insulating it and air-sealing it so that it's about one-third more energy efficient than it was when we bought it.
  • We've bought three different vehicles; we gave two old cars to friends who needed them, and during the time we owned a large van, we shared it around with all sorts of friends and church groups.
  • And we donated a lot of money to charity.  It didn't feel like a lot of money at the time, but I recently went over our records since we got married, and was surprised to find how it adds up.  We have actually given more money to charity than the purchase price of our home.  
All this is to say, again (and again):  Frugality works.  Even if it's just one person doing the frugal dance, dance it!  Even if there are large parts of your life that are insanely expensive, cherish those cheap parts!  Even if there are set-backs, or side-tracks, or reversals, keep plodding forward!  Because even though sixteen years felt like an impossibly long time when it was still stretching into the distance in front of us . . . now I can say it's a great feeling to get to the end of those sixteen years and see how far we've come.

I'll post a bit more on Wednesday and Friday; then I'll go back to math and marathons.