Tuesday, April 29, 2008


1 - I called the Times. It turned out it was $27 / mo, which comes out to $6.50 a pop, significantly more than Watermark's price of $5. So I said, discontinue. So the customer rep said, would it may a difference to you if I gave you 1/2 off for the next 16 weeks? And I said, why yes, it would. So now I have the Times for $3.25 for the next 16 weeks. I marked in on the calendar, and at the end of that time, I'll either ask for it again, or cancel. I guess sometimes you really do just have to ask.

2 - We've been paying utility bills for the house in IL even though it's been vacant for 5 months. I probably should have just turned everything off then (my grandparents used to have a home in upstate NY, so I know how to winterize a house). But we were keeping it attractive in the hopes of attracting a buyer, ha ha. But I have 2 $130 bills here, one for electric and water, and 1 for gas. I'm not sure exactly how an empty house uses $80 in water, but the service rep said it might be a running toilet. All I know is, I ain't payin' no more. We're going to have the service turned off and have the neighbor who's been keeping an eye on it empty out the pipes. In July when the current insurance payment runs out, it won't be insured anymore. I just wish Sovereign would hurry up and foreclose already.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Something I bought, something I didn't

1 - We had some money at Radio Shack because I'd spent $60 on an emergency radio/lights thing, which I think we need in Kansas but DW didn't. So she returned it, we had some credit and we bought a new DVD player, because ours had crapped out. I wanted to hook the audio to both the TV and the stereo, but there was only one audio output on the back of the player, so I went back to Radio Shack to look for some sort of junction so I could take the signal from the DVD and send it to both places. The best they could do was a $50 switcher. I walked out of the store and then said, Hey, why don't I just put it into the stereo and forget about feeding the sound through the TV? So I accomplished the need with a $6 coupler that let me extend the cords from the DVD to the stereo.

2 - I took over the bill paying when we moved here, I don't really know why. I've been doing a lot of it online but have been having a heck of a time keeping track of everything using the checkbook. I'll start even, but within a month or two I'll be off, like really off, like $500 off in the checkbook, plus or minus, with no idea how I got there no matter how long I stare at the statement. So I gave up on doing it that way and spent $30 on a basic Quicken, so I can do it on the computer. You enter all the purchases, all the deposits, all the bill paying, and it does the balancing for you. I'm sure it has other capacities, like maybe keeping track of where I am with the credit cards, but I'm not sure yet.

What I don't like about it so far is that it didn't download the pending transactions (i.e. purchases I've made with the debit card but which haven't cleared yet), which are posted on the on-line banking but which I had to enter manually. It also gives me 3 different balances - what the bank says now, what I have pending currently, and everything that's entered to be paid through the end of next month, which is pretty misleading. So I'll have to play around with it to make sure it's giving me an accurate sense of where things are. But I think in the long run it'll be worth it, especially since it'll automatically tell me if I neglected to put something into the checkbook, which was probably the source of my troubles all along.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Recessionary Non-Spending

Whenever there's economic troubles there's a renewed interest in frugality on the part of the mainstream media. A couple of weeks ago there was a story in Newsweek about frugality blogs; they highlighted Be Thrifty Like Us which must have been very good for their number of hits! That's how I found Frugal Hacks, which is the centerpoint for the frugal blogroll, which I am on and which has a ton of good sites.

Then today there was an article in the Times (it may require some sort of sign-in) about people changing their buying habits, retrenching as it were, in the face of a weaker dollar, lower home values, and tightening credit. It's worth taking a look at but the article with a few changes in detail could have been (and probably was) written in 2000, 1991, or 1983.

Most of the things in there we already do, such as rarely eating out, buying store brands and staying away from Starbucks. Some of the things we are doing because of our financial state - I developed a taste for Banana Republic and the Body Shop but I expect that I won't be spending too much time or dinero in either of those places anytime soon. (Although BR does have a sale rack...)

But one thing DW pointed out to me is that we take a subscription to the Sunday Times. In IL we had it Saturday and Sunday, here we only get it Sunday (it's not available by subscription any other day). I tend to consider this a "makes-life-worth-living" issue, especially since the Wichita Eagle is so weak, but I already put cable TV into that category so really, how many times can I say that? It's also expensive - I think it's $6 a week but it may even be more. I initially took it because they called and offered me 4 free weeks, but at that point we determined that at full price it was more expensive to get it delivered than to drive over to Watermark Books to buy it.

So I think we're going to let it go. I may see if I can get a sub just to the Book Review, but then again, I may not. Even if I buy it at Watermark every week I'm ahead, but I just know there are going to be weeks when I won't, or maybe I'll buy the KC Star once in a while (which I never do now) for the Royals coverage, and it's cheaper.

The one drawback is that if you don't subscribe you have to pay to get into a lot of things on the website, like the columnists, whom I read quite often. So I'll have to price an internet-only sub, but last time I went without a Times sub I just checked the Washington Post on-line more often, and that's a pretty good paper too.

Friday, April 25, 2008


The tax refund came in today. Since I no longer have a pulpit, I expect this will be the last of the major-league tax refunds (upwards of 3K) that I'll be getting. (There are a couple of major tax breaks that pulpit clergy get that ordinary mortals don't, and also since I won't own a house anymore - one way or the other - there won't be much in the way of itemization).

I've mentioned that we've been having trouble making ends meet. In part this is because I've been attempting to put the pedal to the metal in dealing with some of our debt. So here's what happened to the new money:

$1,000 into savings, to provide an overdraft cushion. (We had to use what we had there this month to cover Pesah expenses.)

I doubled what we've been paying monthly toward credit card debt - I paid off the Banana Republic card, which was small beans but a high interest rate and according to the debt snowflake model you should deal with the lowest balances first.

$400 to DW's card, $800 to my card. (Her's has a lower balance and a lower interest rate.)

$200 toward my Federation pledge (mustn't forget our tzedakah!)

That about does it. The rest of it will go to the rent, and a little cushion until DW's part time jobs start paying. When I get the so-called stimulus check, I may make an extra payment on our car loan. I'd also like to bolster our savings a little bit more. But our highest priority are the credit cards.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More on the house

I think I might have mentioned that we got the letter from Sovereign telling us they weren't going to accept the latest short sale offer. Now we're on the short track to foreclosure. (For those who haven't been keeping score, we're no longer living in the same state as the house, which has been up for sale for 14 months now.) I called the foreclosure guy at Sovereign whose number I had, he doesn't know how long it will take until the sheriff's sale. Meanwhile, we've been paying insurance and utilities on the empty house, to keep it saleable. Now that a sale doesn't look likely, we're probably going to stop doing that. Our insurance is paid through July, but we've been paying $130/mo. that we really can't afford to keep the empty house heated all winter. The RE agent wants us to keep it up, but why should we?

Getting through on fumes

I'm not exactly sure how this happened, but we didn't stockpile enough food for the week. We have a good amount of Pesah matzo-meal rolls that DW makes every year, and a couple of boxes of matzo left. (I'm very big on cream cheese and jelly on matzo, it almost makes Pesah for me.) But we are out of cottage cheese, out of eggs, out of most veggies. I froze the leftover brisket because I was sick of eating it. We were long on potatoes, and I had an extra leek, so the other night I made potato and leek soup, and then tonight I made a potato fritter with a slice of hard boiled egg inside that I found in the Jewish Festival cookbook that we've been using this year. But I had to borrow an egg from a neighbor to make it, and now we're out of potatoes.

Because Pesah is so darn expensive we're basically out of money for 10 days, until I get paid next week. I had $15 in my wallet and DW had a $20, and we're basically buying as little as we possibly can to sneak through and avoid any further debting. But, you know, we've got to eat. I think I'm going to buy some ricotta cheese tomorrow and make some sort of cheese pie for Shabbat. I think we have some beets in the fridge. (This is the one cicumstance under which I will eat them without complaint.) Usually we spend another $200 on replenishing the kitchen right after the holiday to go with the $400 we spend on getting the kitchen ready for the holiday but this year we won't be able to do that - until Wednesday at least. Or maybe I should listen to my own advice and make beans and rice for Shabbat. I know I'll be eating them most of next week!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pesah report - disposables

Because we keep Pesah enough to switch out our dishes, and because we don't have china or enough money to invest in a very good second set of kitchenware for a 7-day holiday, every year we are faced with the dilemma of whether to buy plastic or paper goods to get through the holiday or whether to spend the money (and the effort) to buy something more substantial and longlasting and green.

We have leftover ceramic plates from a previous set that we use for milk, but our seders are usually meat, and for those we have fairly durable plastic bowls and plates that we've been using for a couple of years. Not the highest quality place settings in the world, but it works okay.

We realized in preparation for the holiday this year that we didn't have hot drink cups or salad plates. My family, which was with us this year, also has a custom of serving eggs in salt water as an appetizer before the meal; this is not DW's custom and she has been trying to get us to stop it for years, but it's a custom that seems to be held pretty dear. This necessitated another bowl, so we would either have had to wash out the soup bowls in between courses or buy some more bowls.

My parents came home from the shopping excursion with plastic salad plates and styrofoam bowls and hot cups. Styrofoam was more than DW could stand so I was sent back to the Dillons to look for something else. I don't know if there's really any appreciable difference in greenitude between styrofoam and any other kind of disposable kitchenware but in any case there weren't any disposable hot cups that weren't styrofoam so I ended up buying 8 glass coffee cups (usable with both milk and meat). After another effort by DW to get the eggs served on a plate with the fish, we kept the styrofoam bowls and plastic salad plates. (This latter we'll reuse all week at least.)

The glasses cost $2 each, and that's our investment in Pesah kitchenware for this year. Next year perhaps we'll buy some more ceramics to replace the plastic we've been using. At least some more bowls. And anyway, if we're with DW's family next year, they don't serve eggs that way so they don't need 2 bowls.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Green Pesah resources

Some resources on including an environmental consciousness in our seder:

Passover as if the earth really matters, Arthur Waskow on the Nation website

COEJL (Jewish environmental group) seder

Environmental readings for your seder

Passover and the Global Climate Crisis: Seder Supplement, Newsletter Column Ideas and
Teaching Points by Rabbi Jeff Sultar

One thing we do at our seder table, and that you might want to consider, is expanding the karpas section, both in terms of food and in terms of “programming.” By serving more substantial food, such as asparagus (the quintessential spring vegetable, available in its freshest state for only a couple of weeks a year), potato, sweet potato, and crudités vegetables such as carrots and celery, you can stave off hunger a bit, so your guess might possibly be more patient about doing the seder and not rushing to the meal! (I said, “possibly.”) It would also give us a moment to include some thoughts about our impact on the earth, such as one of these readings.

Happy Pesakh!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Everybody needs a little liberating...

One way to make the seder more personally meaningful and spiritual is to think of some of the ways that we are stuck in our lives and could use some personal liberation. Here are some suggestions of places where you or I might need a good Exodus:

Debt - the result of past bad decisions. There have been few areas in my life where I have felt more trapped than when I have allowed my debt to accumulate - and this period is one of them. This isn't something where (most times) we're going to get led out of Egypt all at once. Liberation is a long, slow process. But the first step in leaving Egypt is deciding to do it!

Money / success - A key element of deciding to live a simpler life is realizing that "having it all" isn't worth the paper it's written on. If we could learn to define success less about our possessions and more about our contribution to community, our ethics, our spiritual progress, etc., then we would probably be happier as well as more in tune with our families and the earth.

Possessions - similar to the previous point. We are not what we own.

Financial worry - Things may look bad, and may in fact be bad. But - assuming that better decisions are being made, and the proper steps are being taken - lying awake at night worrying about it is not going to improve the situation. Do the right thing, and for the rest - trust in God.

At my seder sometimes I write out on slips of paper the above points and others, such as "Myself", "family of origin," "expectations" etc, and put the slips of paper under my guests' plates. Then when we get to the "We were slaves in Egypt" part we reveal the slips of paper and reflect on the impact of the matter on our lives. If you're feeling brave, share with the person next to you. Sometimes it doesn't apply (a childless person getting "children" for example) but you'd be surprised how many times it's right on point.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sustainable Pesah

From the Hazon blog "Jew and Carrot," a list of options for a sustainable seder.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Free the Kitniyot!

On Pesah, Jews who observe these things refrain from eating any products made from grains: wheat, barley, oats, and the like. The Ashkenazi world has an additional level of prohibitions against what is called "kitniyot", which are beans, pulses, rice, corn, and the like. Supposedly these could be confused with grains, or get mixed up with grains, or something. (No one is quite sure where or why it came about.) Although kitniyot are not prohibited in the Sephardi world, are not prohibited even within the Ashkenazi world with nearly the same level of stringency as grains, and some authorities have even called it a "stupid custom," it persists in the Ashkenazic world due to a halakhic version of inertia - since it has always been perohibited, it is still prohibited. (A good explanation of the kitniyot issue can be found on Wikipedia.)

When we lived in Israel (95-99) we were aware that the Conservative movement there had published a teshuva (halakhic interpretation) that it was no longer necessary to observe the restrictions on kitniyot, basically because, due to the much larger Sephardi population in Israel, observing it would restrict the ability of Israeli Jews to eat together on the holiday, and since there was no real, compelling reason for it better the Ashkenazi should compromise (for a change).

Being rather a mild type I kind of went half-way with this. For the past several years my custom has been not to rice or beans in their original state, but also not to go crazy getting rid of everything (or buying new, pessadik versions of everything) that has corn in it. A couple of years we happened to buy some matzo that wasn't kosher for passover because it had a kind of oil in it that was kitniyot. And we ate it. I also don't use kitniyot products at the actual seder, more because I usually am hosting people who care about it more than I do.

The reason I'm talking about this on a simplicity blog is because one of the easier and more available ways we can make it through Pesah healthily and frugally, without having to eat meat or cream cheese and jelly sandwiches for a week would be to ignore, or begin the process of moving beyond, the prohibition on kitniyot. I remind you that there for no more compelling reason for this prohibition than that it has always been there. I think it's obvious that, just like during the rest of the year, the judicious use of beans and corn can make the food budget go a longer. And then there's the issue of having to replace a lot of stuff that is only prohibited because it has corn in it.

I'm always hesitant to come across as advocating a less stringent level of observance, because I'm afraid someone is going to say, He said kitniyot wasn't important, so I'm going to eat bread. That's not what I'm advocating, obviously. But if your level of observance is stringent but you are open to halakhic change, you might look at the reasons behind the prohibition against kitniyot, weighs the pros and cons, and maybe you'll might decide that this is a custom better left behind. And if you're a person who observes the prohibition against kitniyot more stringently than kashrut itself, then I would say, better to do the more important mitzvah than to observe something that isn't even a mitzvah.

And altogether I would say, for health, financial, ideological, and peoplehood reasons, the prohibition on kitniyot is something better left behind.

Now I know what it felt like to be on the Titanic

In the latest news in the painfully slow-moving disaster that is our house in Illinois: Our RE agent told us that Sovereign has turned down our latest short-sale offer. This isn't a surprise at this point, but still ridiculous considering that they're asking for more money than we owe to them on the house (there's also a 2nd mortgagor, which might have something to do with it). Everyone's in agreement that we're not going to get an offer for what they're asking for (20K less than we paid; the best offer is currently 35K less than that). RE agent asked if we wanted to have a lawyer take over the file, and I was like, sure, whatever. As long as nobody thinks they're actually going to get paid for the work they're doing.

For all the times that people say that buying a house is the foundation of wealth building etc.... my situation may be a little different (or not, considering the number of foreclosures moving through the system) but I can say without fear of contradiction that in a lifetime of making stupid financial choices absolutely the stupidest thing I have ever done is buy this freaking house.

Car Wars

I was in Atlanta for a conference this week and came across this from the Journal-Constitution on people keeping their cars longer, basically because of the economy and also cars seem to be built to last longer these days.

We have 2 vans, the first is a '98 Voyager that we bought in 2000; when we paid that off we bought a Grand Caravan that was a little higher end, which we're still making payments on. DW drives the Dodge, in case you couldn't guess. We bought them both "late model used." I need to baby the Voyager because it's probably going to have to last at least another 5 years. It' s bad on gas and we don't need 2 vans but what we don't need even more than that at this point is another car payment.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Is good food frugal?

From the NY Times, an article about whether the high cost of fossil fuels, and the impact it has on food prices, will make organic and local more cost-competitive.

Every since I discovered Tightwad Gazette in the '90s, I've been aware of a certain tension between frugality and sustainability. What I mean is, if Wal-Mart is where the cheapest food is, wouldn't an interest in frugality cause one to shop there no matter what it's impact on the enviroment (or on labor relations, or on local businesses)? Likewise, if white pasta and store-brand cheese is cheaper, shouldn't we be eating more of that, despite its (respectively) negative nutrititional value and the cheapening of taste and the impact on artisanal cheese? Isn't making the more expensive choice anti-frugal? To an extent, that's the argument that DW makes with me.

But as Michael Pollan makes abundantly clear, part of the reason that such choices are cheaper (along with factory farmed meat, milk and eggs) is because in many ways the costs are undercounted ("externalized" in the parlance) or subsidized by us, the taxpayer. If a hog factory farmer gets a break from pollution laws in order to keep the price of bacon cheap, I pay for that financially and otherwise even though I have no use for the product.

The way I have approached this is via a Jewish values approach: I am convinced that part of the reason the kosher laws were invented was to provide a more humane existence for the animals, and if that is not the case then we have to call the kashrut of the "product" into question, whether the meat has (Orthodox) kosher certification or not. Likewise, Arthur Waskow and others have promulgated the idea of eco-kashrut, the taking into account of health and environmental costs into deciding what is permissible to eat (or use - styrofoam, for instance, would fall under this rubric). I've been moving steadily in the direction of these approaches over the last several years.

There are only two ways more "boutique" food choices are going to become more cost competitive: first, if the elaborate system of incentives and subsidies that keep industrial food production cheaper is overthrown - and looking at the continuing control Big Ag has had on the Farm Bill shows that that's not going to happen too soon - or second, if enough people pay the premium that will allow the price of the better choice to come down enough that there's no longer such a premium. But now I guess there is a third option - if the price of fuel causes the industrial agricultural product to be not quite so much cheaper after all.

Look, the basis of the frugality/sustainability nexus is fairly easy to articulate: buy seasonal, buy local, buy products with as little packaging as possible. Whether we pursue organic or not, by taking these few simple steps, we will opt out of the "Frankenfood" mentality, to great benefit to our health and the health of the planet, and to our wallets.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Frugal Pesah: Contradiction in terms?

High on the list of hard things to deal with when it comes to Jewish Simplicity has got to be Pesah. (Right after bar/bat mitzvahs, synagogue dues, Jewish fundraising, kosher food, day schools, etc etc.) First of all, you have to throw out all your food, or at least all your grain-based foods. This actually isn't so hard if you plan for it, meaning cutting down on your buying of pasta, cereal, etc. a month or so out so you don't have a lot of stuff to get rid of. If you observe strictly, you need a whole 'nother set of dishes, pots, pans, etc. for the 7 or 8 days of the holiday. But again, this is a one-time expense - as long as you stay away from doing all disposables, which you definitely should!

But then there's the scam that is Pesah food - apparently there is such a thing as a Pesah surcharge, when the same matzo meal that costs X amount in November (were you ever to buy it then) costs X + A LOT when you try to buy it in April. (I should put real numbers in there, but I'd have to do some research and I'd need to stand up to do it.) The House of Representatives had the gas industry over the coals the other day for the windfall profits; they should really get the Pesah food industry up there! Talk about windfall profits and gouging the consumer!

Then there's the incredible cost of doing a seder. We have, let's see, there's 5 of us (but 2 of my kids basically don't eat), my parents, my brother and his family, that's 11 already. We have another older couple coming, and possibly 2 Israeli students in town for a competition, that makes 15. If my cousin comes for the first night that's 4 more. The second night we'll lose the cousin, the Israelis and the other older couple but probably add a friend of DW's who's the parent of the peer of one of my kids, that's 5+4+2+4 = 15. So for those of you scoring at home, that's 34 people over 2 nights.

I went to KC and bought 7 pounds of brisket and 2 kosher chickens. It's probably not enough buy DW doesn't eat meat and like I said, the kids are picky. But the red meat alone was $100. (I told you, kosher is expensive.) I have to say in my own defense that this is quite literally the only time we serve red meat to guests the whole year.

So my plan is to make the meat the first night, make as much soup as I can from one of the chickens, and serve the boiled chicken along with the red meat on the first night, then the leftover meat and roast the other chicken for the second night. We may have to scrimp on the brand of gefilte fish we use.

I bought a 5-pack of matzo, some matzo meal and some potato starch. I'll probably need some kind of instant stock. But I think basically everything else we're going to make will be from fresh ingredients - soup, roasted vegetables, haroset - I'm not sure about dessert, that's DW's department.

So understanding that "saving money" is really not in the plan for Passover, the most importnat piece of advice I could give is don't buy too much prepared food. Take it from me, the Pesah version of cheerios will not fill you up. And do you really need a whole bottle of Pesah ketchup for an 8-day holiday? The more you prepare from scratch (fresh food doesn't need a special kosher certification) the healthier and more frugal it will be.

The other possibility is to have your guests contribute something to the meal - the wine, the flowers, if you're sporting the food it doesn't seem too much to take people up on the question "what can I bring?" (Note: if you are the guest, ask this question!) If kashrut is an issue you probably won't want to do the potluck seder, but if it isn't then why not?

I'm going to give this some more thought. I'll probably have more to add to this in the next few days. In the meantime, can anyone think of anything to add?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A little of the story...

I had a pulpit job in the Chicago area, starting in 2004. We bought a house, with no money down so the payments were high but the interest rate was pretty good and it was fixed. In 2007 my contract was not renewed, and I tried to find work in Chicago but couldn't. We put the house up for sale in February of '07, and as the whole world knows by now the real estate market completely crapped out and we were not, and still have not been, able to sell it. The family moved to Wichita for my new job. We've attempted to sell by cutting the price, finally so severely that we were not going to get as much out of the deal as we owe the bank. (We didn't even get an offer until we did this.) So far the bank has not accepted the best offer we've been able to get, so foreclosure is the next thing. So part 1 is the story of my financial ruin-by-real estate.

Part 2 is that I'm making less money now than I did in Illinois, and Dear Wife has only just started working a part time job. We're renting, and it's less than it was in IL but not all that much less. I have a large amount of fixed debts - a car payment, a student loan payment that I will be paying till retirement, insurance of various types. We also have acquired a substantial amount of credit card debt. I realized recently through the use of budget software that we're _barely_ making ends meet. So that's part 2.

We really don't buy very much. We almost never eat out. We did get cable when we moved here, because we could only get 1 channel (count 'em!) on broadcast with the electric rabbit ears. I also have netflix. I may spend, I don't know, $10 or $15 a month on magazines.

Many of the things that would be suggested I already do. DW is working a PT job and will probably get another one before too long. We've stopped using the cards and are trying to pay cash for everything. It seems weird to be 45 years old and wonder if one can really afford cable television. I mean, it's not a boat! The only thing I have to show for all this debt is an expensive education and a van. It's not really happy days financially around here right now.


Betsy put up a good post (a redundancy, when it comes to BPT) on what to do with the extra food when you clean your house for Passover. I actually feel more sympathetic to option 1 - giving the food away. Even if the shelter won't take it, certainly a frugal neighbor wouldn't be averse to a half-empty box of macaroni? It certainly seems more honest and worthwhile than feigning "selling" it to her.

Frugal Bar Mitzvah

A very important topic from Frugal Panda. This is an occasion when people often think they need to leave their frugality at the door. (Weddings are like that too.) It helps to be in a supportive community, but even if you're not, better the neighbors should talk than you should pay 18% for a year on a B"M you can't afford.

The basis

The first thing you need to read is this article. After that, we'll talk.