Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What to do with a 0 balance card

Well, the two new credit cards that I wrote about earlier are up and running. I put 100% of the available credit from the first one (Citi, $1,600, 0% on balance transfer for 7 months) and 65% of the second one (Discover, $3,600, 0% on balance transfer for 12 months) toward the balance on the previous card (Bank of America, 19.9% interest). I put $300 from my tax refund immediately to the Citi card, and $178 to the BA card, bringing the balance to zero. (Don't congratulate me, it's not an accomplishment, it's a machination at this point.)

The question now is, what to do with the BA card. There's part of me that just wants to cancel the account and be done with it, especially since I'm kind of mad at BA that they kept lowering my limit in the aftermath of my house disaster and because I couldn't get them to lower the interest rate on the card. (In case you're wondering, we were never late or delinquent on the card. The only mark against my credit is the short sale of the house.)

However, a quick perusal of some of the PF sites suggests that canceling this card might be counterproductive, since it's my longest-standing credit line and it's in reasonably good shape - and, now that it's at 0, it helps my credit utilization percentage, which is one of the elements of the FICO score (and which is pretty high on the balance transfer cards). Here's a couple of representative examples: Frugal Dad, "Closing Credit Card Account Affects Credit Score," and Rich Credit Debt Loan, "Why is it Bad to Cancel a Credit Card?" Money quote:

When you end up closing out open accounts, then those credit lines will no longer be factored into your good credit ratio, and so you are going to be upping your debt ratio in a bad way. This is a silly thing to do and is going to end up costing you in the end.
Well, I don't want to be silly. On the other hand, there's this, "10 Reasons for Canceling Credit Cards," from Dollar Stretcher. I am not in the market for a house, and it will probably be some years before I am (due to both the black credit mark and our inability to save a down payment while we're paying down debt). I hate feeling like I'm jumping through hoops for the FICO score, but on the other hand, I don't feel the need to damage my standing unnecessarily either.

The other major consideration in this is if I feel that I won't be able to resist credit temptation. Right now I'm feeling pretty good on that front, the cards are all in the underwear drawer and I'm pretty motivated to get out of debt, I'm happy to have this card at zero, and anyway I have other credit cards available to me now, so getting rid of this one isn't going to save me if I am not to be saved.

So the conclusion is: this card will get cut up, but I'll leave the account open. As (b'ezrat Hashem, ptui ptui ptui) the newer two cards get paid off, I'll cancel those accounts - those are shorter term and so canceling them won't have the impact on our credit that canceling this one would. When, somewhere down the road, we get to the point that we want to have the use of a credit card, we can decide then which one to use.

But whether the account is open or closed, it's important at this stage for us to treat the credit as though it's not available.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Prioritizing student loan debt

Via Frugal Dad, I found this post on the question of whether one should save money for a house while one is still paying off student debt. I think the post is directed at people who are younger than me, but in any case he said sure, why not, on the idea that the increase in the house's value over time would more than offset the additional interest on a student loan. Dad's comment was "Personally, I would pay off the loans first."

This, or rather a variation of this, is an important question for us. Not the house part, really, because I have neither the savings nor the credit to buy a house at this point. Nor the inclination, really. The assumption that a house is going to increase in value at some predetermined or predictable rate is a false one, as I and hundreds of thousands of others have learned.

But the question of how quickly to pay off student loans is an interesting one to me. Dave Ramsey treats student debt the same as any other debt, to be avoided and, when incurred, to be paid off "with gazelle-like intensity" as soon as possible.

As you know, our gazelle-ness is right now focused on our CC debt. The Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, that will be done in early '12. If I were to take the entire snowball at that point and put it toward my student debt, it would be paid off in '15, according to my spreadsheet.

But I'm unlikely to do that. We have virtually no savings at this point, and our gazelle-itude in dealing with consumer debt is precluding saving for the inevitable car replacement, or for retirement or college or anything else, really. We're still not in a position where we can get our kids braces, for goodness sakes.

I'm on the income based repayment plan, which means they take 15% of my gross income for my student loan repayment. According the recently passed student loan reforms, that percentage should go down to 10% in 2014. When and if we get to the point that that's our only remaining debt, maybe I'll ignore the change and keep it at 15%. But there ain't no way I'm putting 30% of my income into student loan repayment - the rest is going into savings. It's not even a matter of balancing the interest payments. I just need to start putting something in the bank.

But like I said, there's a long way to go between here and there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What we're doing with our tax refund

We got about $1900 back from Uncle Sam this year. (Actually it was about $2200, but we had to pay about $300 to Kansas, the bastards.) Here's what we're doing with it:

$1300 went directly into savings. $300 of that will be put aside for kids' summer camps, and the rest will go into the emergency fund. I've decided that we need to have $2000 in the emergency fund on an ongoing basis rather than the Dave Ramsey-suggested $1,000, because DW's salaries vary widely on a monthly basis and we need to have some cushion there.

We'll put an extra $150 or so into the snowball for credit card 1.

$65 for the Body Shop face wash etc. that I like (although I couldn't bring myself to spend $30 on the eau d'toilette that I've been been using for years, so I'll have to come up with a new alternative there). About $100 for a new pair of glasses for DW, and about $60 for a new pair of shoes for me. It's getting embarrassing, frankly; the uppers are starting to pull away from the sole.

About $80 to replenish the liquor cabinet after Pesah. (Two bottles, a box of wine and a 12 pack of beer.)

$25 donation to the Sierra Club, and $50 to the Sisterhood camp scholarship fund.

Whatever's left over will probably go toward some overdue maintenance on my car.

See? Riotous living.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pesah post-mortem

My friend Sallie W. points out that now is the time to go to the grocery store and stock up on all those Passover items that are now marked down - cake mixes, cans and jars, etc. The corrollary to the mark-ups in the prices of such items that take place leading up to the holiday is the markdowns that take place after it. Actually, here in Wichita I'll wait another week or two - I looked in on the section yesterday and most everything was only slightly marked down; in a little while longer, when Dillons really needs to free up the shelf space, discounts will be much more significant. Last year Passover gefilte fish was marked down about 75% about a month after the holiday, and you've never seen a happier man than I was that day, let me tell you.

I can also say that we did pretty well with keeping our Passover-related spending under control, and the basic reason for that was that we didn't worry too much about hekshers (kosher certification). I know this won't be very helpful to people who are more observant than I, but I've more or less decided that kosher certification is a rip-off, and I'll eyeball ingredients lists to make sure something doesn't have wheat etc in it, but after that I don't worry about it too much. And those little "made on the same equipment as wheat and nuts" legends that have appeared in the past couple of years are very helpful in this regard.

During the week of the holiday we ate a lot of leftovers from the seder, of course, but one night I made a matzo-meal polenta from the NY Times Passover cookbook, another night I made a matzo lasagna, and aside from a quick run for apples we didn't go back to the grocery store all week.

Yesterday was replenishment day, and for the first time I went to Aldi's, which is probably worth a post of its own but was a revelation, let me tell you. Last week on NPR's Talk of the Nation there was a discussion about Walmart moving toward local produce, and it was so convincing I brought it up to DW, who said that she would much rather me start by going to Aldi's than to Walmart, which we pretty much consider a source of pure evil.

Anyway, a shopping trip that would have cost nearly $200 at Dillons cost about $60 at Aldis. Comparing the brands that I got there with some of the stuff we still have in the cupboard, the things look very similar both nutritionally and in terms of ingredients, but it's cheaper, what can I say. They don't carry any organics or the fake meat products that we like, but for cereals, canned goods, pasta and some other staples, it looks like it will be a regular stop on my shopping circuit.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I'm dreaming of a 0% balance transfer

After opening the Citi card that allowed me to transfer $1600 of my $5300 cc debt at 0% (from 19.9), I figured that if I could transfer part of it, maybe I could transfer all of it.

First I went to Prosper.com, which is a peer-to-peer lending site similar to Lending Club, which you may remember I couldn't use b/c they don't lend in Kansas. Well, after filling out the whole Prosper process (you fill out your info as if you're applying for loan, which you are - ss #, employer's phone number, the whole 9 yards - and they run a credit check on you and then bid out your loan) I was told that the best they could offer me was $7500 at upwards of 28% interest. Usury! I don't want to tell you what my response was to that, except that it rhymes with "truck poo."

So I went back to the suggestions on the various frugality sites and what I came up with is a Discover card that will let me transfer the remaining $3600 from card #1 at 0% for a full year. These two transactions will save me upwards of $700 in interest payments over the next year+, and even if I make no additional snowball payments this particular debt will be paid off one year from now.

I'm not sure what warrants giving a guy with a house default on his credit record $5200 in new credit in a little under a week, but it works for my purposes so I'll take it! I have to assume that they think I won't be able to get out from under during the grace period and they'll have me on the hook for a rotating 20% a year from now. Needless to say, this whole thing depends on a) getting out from under during the grace period, and b) no additional debting. DW and I have been talking a lot about this, and I think we're finally there.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rock and a hard place

So get this - DW needs to tell her jobs now what hours she wants over the summer. Summers are usually hard because teaching hours are limited, but like I said before, we depend on her income to help make ends meet, so we want her to work as many hours as she can get.

Thing is, the kids get out of school in late May and go back in mid-August. So what are we supposed to do with them during the summer while DW's out working? DK1 is going to sleepaway camp in for three weeks in July, and the other two have two weeks of Jewish Federation day camp and DK2 has an additional 2 weeks of specialty camps, and let's say I'll take a week off sometime during that time, so... that leaves about, oh, 9 weeks to fill for each of them.

Of course, the Y has a camp, which is about $100 per kid per week. If DW works as much as she could realistically work - just for kicks, let's say 40 hours - she'd be pulling in enough to pay for the camps and have a little left over for regular budget items. If she doesn't work full time - a more realistic possibility, given past experience - then she would barely, or possibly not even, be paying for the camps, with none left over for that all important ends-meeting. Of course, if she doesn't work, we don't have the camp expense, but ends don't meet either. Quandary, no?

So... what would you do?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In Cheap We Trust

As part of my ongoing effort to read every book about frugality and simplicity in the English language, I recently finished Lauren Weber’s In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. This is definitely on the intellectual side of the spectrum, and well worth it for anyone who wants a comprehensive of American frugality (history of, attitudes toward) as well as an overview of the ongoing arguments on the subject.

The book starts out as a history of American attitudes toward thrift, which has the strongest of pedigrees, starting as it does with Ben Franklin, founding tightwad. Franklin's attitude, of course, was that frugality is the way to wealth, and strains of this come through American history, through to Dave Ramsey today who basically says the same thing. Other historical highlights include the 19th century “world’s greatest miser,” Hattie Green, who supposedly allowed her son’s leg to be amputated rather than take anywhere but the free medical clinic, and the “School Savings Bank” movement of the early 20th century.

Weber also traces the transition a consumption-based economy and the resultant overturning of thrift as an American value, as in this quote from the self-help book Mrs. Consumer (1929):

There isn't the slightest reason in the world...why, for instance, bread crusts and left-over portions of breadloaves should be on the conscience of Mrs. Consider because she doesn't make a bread pudding or French toast out of them as foreign housewives do. Or hash out of yesterdays roast beef. Or dust cloths out of old undergarments,; or pantaloons for son out of father's cast off suits – and so on ad infinitum.

Which, Weber points out, was “a 180-degree reversal from the official dogmas that had dominated advice to women a hundred years earlier.” And that is basically the tension that has been evidenced in American life since then – the tension between the Franklin “savings leads to wealth” and the “don’t worry be happy” invitations of businesses and the consumer press.

The final few chapters are more think pieces about various issues that are raised by a frugal attitude, such as John Maynard Keynes’ famous “paradox of thrift.” Short version: Keynes famously said that personal savings, while admirable on an individual level, were actually counter to recovery from the Depression, because economic growth depended on consumer spending. Weber points out that money for investing has to come from somewhere, and usually historically it came from personal savings; recently it’s come more from borrowing – on the individual level from loose credit, and on the governmental level from foreign countries, in either case an unsustainable model in the long run.

She also devotes a chapter to the question of whether frugality is some kind of mental illness, an anal retentiveness or guilt that evidences an inability to enjoy life. She points out that some research shows that frugal people may actually be more mentally healthy than their spendthrift peers, showing better self-control in other areas as well.

A topic of particular interest to this blog is chapter 4, “Cheap Jews and Thrifty Chinese,” which traces the stereotype of hyper-frugality that has followed these two populations in America. Jews, of course, also had the stereotype of the avaricious banker to contend with, which was supported by Henry Ford in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent in the 1920s, as well as the clueless-social climber stereotype which was evidenced (although Weber doesn’t mention it) in the Great Gatsby. Weber:

The character of the obsequious and avaricious Jew, like all stereotypes, was woefully exaggerated and largely untrue. It required the gross flattening out of reality – a reality in which many Jews struggled, worded hard to gain a modest hold on success, and generally lived unassuming, respectable lives.

Every synagogue in the Midwest has a dozen people in it whose grandparents were in retail in some small town and were likely the only Jews in that town. So that was how the townspeople experienced Jews, but by and large these were honest, hardworking people trying to make their way in America, which they did fabulously successfully, as evidenced by the doctors and lawyers their children have become.

All in all I recommend this book, for its historical overview, for its intellectual depth, and for taking seriously the urge not to splurge. One final quote:

Just as Americans imagined until recently that we inhabited a world of unlimited credit, so we have also been enjoying a sense of entitlement and false confidence about the natural resources that support and sustain us. The United Nations recognized this a while back; its 1992 report “Agenda 21” cautioned that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries.” That’s why cheapness – buying less, blocking out the message that spending equals happiness or patriotism – can help us solve not just the economic insecurity of our time, but the environmental insecurity as well.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Debt update

The first thing is that DW is getting more hours at work now, which should (I hope) alleviate some of the monthly budget pressures. We really need her to be bringing in $800 to $1,000 per month for the cups to stack properly.

If that's okay, then the debt snowball can go into effect. Our toppest priority debt is my Visa card, which has about $5,300 on it (down from a high of almost $8,000) but at 19.9% interest. That interest, I don't need to tell you, is a killer.

Some people recommend getting a peer-to-peer loan from Lending Club, which usually is between 7 and 9% interest and can be paid off over 2-3 years. Alas, they do not lend in Kansas, and I'm not sure my short-sale-effected credit rating would qualify anyway.

But I noticed on the blog PT Money that Citi is offering a card with 0% on balance transfers for up to 15 months, so I applied. They approved me, but (because of my wounded credit) only for $1,600 and at 0% for only 7 months, after which it goes back to 20%. But it's better than what I've got now, so I did it. I'm expecting a pretty sizable tax refund, so if I pay two months' snowball on Visa 1 with that (my snowball payment on that card is about 3x the minimum payment), plus remove $1,600 to Visa 2, I should be able to pay off Visa 1 at about the time the grace period ends on Visa 2. My calculations are that this will save me the equivalent of about 1 monthly payment, which isn't nothing.

Miriam's Cup

It's too late for this to be useful for anyone's seder this year, but...

One of the most interesting innovations in seder observance among progressive Jewish types over the past, say, 40 years has been Miriam's Cup. Placed on the table alongside Elijah's Cup (which represents the promise of future, messianic redemption) and filled with water (to remind us of Miriam's midrashic role in sustaining the Israelites in the desert), it is, like most ritual innovations, a blank slate on which to draw signficance: the role of women, inclusiveness, creativity, etc.

That's part 1. Part 2 is that progressive Jewish types also get a slew of hagaddah supplements in the weeks leading up to seder, asking us to include various issues in our discussions at the table: human rights, Darfur, Israel-Palestine peace, immigration reform, the Michael Lerner kitchen sink, etc. etc. (Here's a page of them from the Religious Action Center.)

Part 3 is that I'm reading Annie Leonard's book The Story of Stuff, which is fantastic and which I'll review in a further post, but I started thinking that I'd like to add a Stuff component to the seder. But as I was preparing, the Miriam's Cup (which we've had on the table for years but which we've never done a whole lot with, ritually speaking) seemed like it needed something.

So this is what we did: we focused the Miriam's Cup section, way up at the beginning of the seder, on the bottled water issue. I don't know how much you know about this, but bottled water is really Bad. First, it's a manufactured need, in that most tap water in this country is perfectly fine, and if it isn't that's a motivation for political action to take care of it, not to abandon the system. Second, most bottled water is only filtered tap water anyway. Third, it is resource intensive in that it takes extra water and petroleum products to make the bottles, not to mention the transportation to get it where it's going. And fourth, it's more expensive than gasoline, not to mention the disposal of the bottles, which are mostly (80%) landfilled.

Access to clean sources of water is becoming a worldwide human rights issue, if it isn't already, and some say that water will be the oil of the 21st century, with wars being fought over it, and populations moving due to its absence.

The Rambam has a quote which I use quite often, to the effect that God gave us - for free and in abundance - what we need to live: air, water, etc. But if we go after things that we don't need, it makes the things we do need more expensive and less accessible. Here, I'll prove it:

[W]hen one endeavors to seek what is unnecessary, it becomes difficult to find even what is necessary. ...the more a thing is necessary for a living being, the more often it may be found and the cheaper it is. On the other hand, the less necessary it is, the less often it is found and it is very expensive. ... [The Guide III:12]
Bottled water, being unnecessary, is more expensive, and its pursuit makes tap water, which is necessary, more difficult to obtain.

More information and action items on this issue can be found at the Corporate Accountability International website, which includes a link to another great Annie Leonard video piece called the "Story of Bottled Water."

The takeaway message, in case you couldn't get it, is "Don't buy bottled water!"

Miriam is associated with the availability of fresh, sustaining water to a migrating population in a desert environment. It is exactly that kind of population which has the most difficulty getting access to clean drinking water, in large part due to the actions that we in the west take. May Miriam's Cup be a reminder to us that, as is so often the case, the simplest answer is best - for us, for those who travel this planet together with us, and for the planet itself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


One of the centerpieces of the Passover seder is the singing of Dayenu. I think most everyone knows a little of this, even if not the whole thing. The word "Dayenu" translates as "it would have been enough," and the message of the song fits very well with a simplicity lifestyle. "Each of these good things would have been enough to earn our thanks."

If God had taken out of Egypt and not divided us into tribes, dayenu...
If God had fed us manna but not given us the Shabbat, dayenu...
If God had taken us to Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayenu
If God had given us the Torah and not allowed us to enter into the Land of Israel, dayenu... etc.
This has sometimes striked me as rather forced. Would it really have been enough to take us out of Egypt if the sea didn't split? Even Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asked what would have been the purpose of bringing us to Sinai and not have given us the Torah.

I found a good insight into this in the Hagaddah for Jews and Buddhists, which I looked over in preparation for the seder this year.

You have to know the difference between more and enough (dayenu). We always want more... more freedoms, more love, more money, more... more... more...

What we have is sufficient. If there is more, it is a blessing and the Creator deserves thanks.
The message of dayenu is that life is not a path to a predetermined end, and the goodness of life is not dependent on where one ends up, either in accomplishment, prosperity, or spiritual achievement. Each step is important in and of itself. The ability to feel gratitude at each and every step on the path is itself a spiritual approach, as well as a necessary precondition of the next step, as well as a defense against believing that the next achievement or acquisition, or the ultimate accomplishment or achievement (whatever we may imagine them to be), are necessary for our lives and our paths to have value. In other words, feeling blessed in the present blessing is not dependent on what comes next.

In my case, if I had been given the opportunity to go to graduate school, and not been given the opportunity to work in the field, dayenu. If I had been able to work in the field but not been able to have a decent standard of living, dayenu. If I had a decent standard of living but not been able to pay down debt or save for college or retirement...

Well, actually, I haven't done those last things yet. And none of the things I've been able to do have been done without difficulty. But it's okay. I'm grateful for what I have been able to do, and for what I have today. When I look at my family, my reasonably happy wife and kids, the community I have the opportunity to serve, it really does feel like enough. It feels like dayenu. And that truly is a blessing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Frugal Passover Hack

Here's one that was pointed out (which is not to say "insisted upon") by DW just today: if you're about to open a jar or package of something that can be eaten on Passover - don't! Why open something you're only going to have to get rid of in 2 weeks when you can hold on to it and have it for Pesah and after?

Because we don't buy things with HFCS, the jelly that I was about to open can be saved for the holiday. If I were to open it, I'd have to throw it away in two weeks and buy another one.

The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard on Colbert Report. Is there anyone this side of Bill Moyers who has more interesting, out-of-the-box guests, or who gives more exposure to this kind of thinking, than Stephen Colbert?

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On the same subject, go back to the beginning of the show and watch the piece about Pringles. Classic stuff-ism!

And of course don't forget Annie's web-film, the Story of Stuff. It's permanently linked over there on the left. Annie is an American hero!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Simple Pesah Hacks

I posted a request on my Facebook page for suggestions for how to keep Pesah from breaking the bank. Here's what my friends came up with.

Thomas T:
As an outsider who comes from a tradition where the spirit of the rule is as (if not more) important than the letter, I've always been curious about the rule-skirting, lousy tasting, very expensive things like pesadich noodles, cookies, etc. Especially among those ... who only observe the dietary restrictions during seder meals. ... [I]t seems like the raw ingredients of pesadich foods, especially for those whose practice permits kitniyot, are pretty cheap in and of themselves. Plus, you can't eat out at all, which for some families, would make a big difference right there.
Sallie W.:
Don't buy the horrible breakfast cereal -- it is truly bad. Stick with matzah brei or, if in a hurry, a boiled egg and matzah (with butter, of course).

If you're a single person, buy the 5 pound matzah package on sale and split it with friends.
Judy G.:
1) I know a lot of people who throw out all their open condiments etc every year at Pesach, which is a very expensive way to manage one's pantry. Condiments shouldn't be kept forever but even if you don't use them on Passover, you can segregate them and use them afterwards.

2)The extent of the kosher l'Pesach foods available are amazing and ... See questionable--does your milk for that week really need a special Passover hechsher? [MR: answer: no]

3) Do you need all those special Pesach treats? I buy matzah, matzah meal and matzah cake meal and that's it. (Actually, I also buy one box of those awful jelly fruit slices because my husband insists on them and has convinced my kids they are essential.) But the point is--do you need all that special Passover stuff or can you just eat a low carb diet for the week?
If you observe the prohibition on kitniyot, you would want to add potato starch to Judy's list.

Daniel B:
Glass dishes can be kashered. KfP pasta is a waste of money. Don't buy KfP cereal, make Matzo granola.
Most processed foods are a rip off, but especially Pesah foods, which are usually very unsatisfying substitutes for whatever they're supposed to be imitating.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Preparing for Pesah: Eat yourself out of house and home!

Speaking of eating out of the cabinets, my first tip for keeping Passover from breaking the bank actually starts about 3-4 weeks out, which would be now: Don't do a full food shopping, buying a bunch of stuff that you don't need for the next few weeks. Buying a lot of boxes of cold cereal, or pasta or flour products or anything else that you're just going to have to put away or throw away in a couple of weeks just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Rather, this is exactly the time to do what I mentioned in the earlier post: eat up what you have in the cabinets. The more you use, the less you'll have to deal with at cleaning time. Remember, throwing away food is a shonda (as well as the antithesis of frugality), so this is exactly the time to figure out what's in all those tupperwares in the freezer, dig around in the back of the cabinets, and eat the natureburger mix you've been "saving" (read: avoiding). (Are you sensing a theme here?)

To get ready for a simple Pesah, the first thing to do, before the holiday even starts, is to eat yourself out of house and home!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Well ok, but I wouldn't call it frugality

Here's kind of a weird one, from a recent issue of Newsweek: Julia Reed makes a bet with friends that she can eat for under $50 per week (apparently she has developed well-earned reputation for extravagance) which she wins by using up expensive ingredients she had bought on previous sprees and trips and had never eaten. Money quote:
The good news about being formerly extravagant is that you have some pretty swell stuff lurking around. There was pasta I'd toted from Italy three trips ago; ditto balsamic vinegar of every conceivable age. There were anchovies and capers, olives, and pickled figs, three colors of lentils, and four kinds of rice. Why, I wondered, had I bought two bottles of walnut oil and one of blood-orange vinegar? I don't know, but it turns out they work really well together on a salad of watercress and endive. Does pasta have a shelf life? Supposedly it's two years, but my four-year-old pappardelle was just fine. Is it too gross to make a meal of the runny Epoisses my mother left at Christmas? Yes, but I found an Epoisses soufflé recipe from Anne Willan that made an elegant supper with a salad.
Although the length of the wager is unclear from the piece, I would venture to guess that most people could probably get through a week or two spending $50 per week on food using just with the things in the cabinets, even if blood-orange vinegar isn't among them. It's probably not fancy enough for Julia Reed, but I know there's some Natureburger mix buried somewhere in our cabinets, waiting for a fallow time.

I would point out that the very fact that she bought and brought home all this fancy stuff and then didn't use it until she'd made a bet is actually a symptom, a symptom of the same disease that I am exhibiting when I buy a book and put it on the shelf without reading it. We don't even bother to get the full use or pleasure out of the things we buy. Buying, having, is more important than the thing itself. In this sense, actually eating the food is a drawback, because then you don't have it anymore. At least a book still exists once you've read it.

But ultimately, this kind of thing is not sustainable. Either she'll get tired of working so hard to put interesting food on the table, or she'll run out of esoteric ingredients. She may have eaten olive and cream cheese sandwiches in college, but I doubt she'd want to do so now. And anyway, a story entitled "Budget Gourmet" should have some hint of ways to actually eat on a budget, not just use up the product of previous extravagance. No?

PS: I won't be linking to Newsweek too much anymore; we're letting the subscription lapse. We've probably taken it for 10 years at least, but DW doesn't like the redesign.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Stephen Colbert takes down the site that gets your kids to take out real loans for virtual stuff.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Spending $11 to save $11

Our dog has taken to chewing up the covers of hardcover library books. Never chews up softcovers, and never chews up our own hardcovers, although we have many. Just library books that don't have the plastic covers on them. She chewed up Moby Dick from DK1's school library, which I'm not sure we've come clean about yet, and now she chewed the corners off of Serious Farm by Tim Egan, which is one of our favorite books by one of our favorite authors. (If you have kids, check him out.)

We returned the book and got an email that day from the library saying uh-uh-uh, you need to pay us for this book. They wanted to charge us $15 for the book and $7 for a "processing fee." We know from past experience that if you present them with a usable copy of the book they will charge only the processing fee, so I went on Amazon and found a used hardcover copy ("very good condition") of the book for, get this, $0.01. That's right, 1 penny. Of course, there's the $3.99 service charge, but it still gives us a total of $4.00, meaning that, with the processing fee, my dog's chew toy will cost us $11 instead of $22. We also get a slightly chewed copy of Serious Farm for our trouble.

If I could figure out a way to get my dog to stop doing this, it would cost even less.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I'm sick of debt

I'm writing today from a place of frustration. I have been pursuing what I think of as a fairly simple and frugal lifestyle for quite a number of years now. I can remember discovering the Tightwad Gazette while I still lived in New York, which is over 15 years ago. I don't buy expensive clothes or a lot of video games or fancy electronic equipment. We have two cars: a 12 year old beater and a 6 year old slightly-less-beater. We very rarely eat out. We don't go to movies very much or other entertainment unless someone gives us tickets. I don't really even give that much to charity, in the great scheme of things. I have thought and written about frugality and sustainability extensively and have tried to apply most of the low-hanging fruit principles of the frugal lifestyle to my own life.

Yet we continue to have a hard time staying within our monthly budget, and we continue to struggle to pay down a substantial amount of credit card debt. I don't understand it, and I'm feeling really frustrated about it.

The thing is, while DW's paychecks have been a little inconsistent lately, she's earning a good deal more now than she was last year at this time, meaning things should be getting easier. I put a few numbers into a simple budget spreadsheet last night, and it looks to me like, counting just our fixed expenses and including debt service, we should be running a surplus of a couple hundred dollars every month. But we're not - we consistently have to take money from our emergency fund to make the monthly nut. The conclusion I reach is there are substantial random (unbudgeted) expenses that are hurting us. And I'm not even really sure what they are.

The reason I stopped working on this blog was because I felt that I didn't have anything to teach anyone because I wasn't getting anywhere. I picked it up again because just letting things go on this way is not going to solve my problem. DW and I have to raise the level of seriousness with which we think about and address this problem.

The first step has to be figuring out where the money's going, and getting to the point where we're living within our monthly means. This means squeezing our monthly expenses, such as canceling cable and changing auto insurers, but is also means figuring out where we're spending this mysterious money that isn't in the monthly plan.

The second thing (well, a related thing) would be to build our emergency fund back up to about $2,000, so that extraordinary expenses - such as auto repairs - don't have to go on the plastic.

And the third thing is paying down this damned credit card debt. I went back and looked a previous posting I made about the debt snowflake, which is where you pay the minimums on all your debts except one, and you put all extra available funds into the highest priority debt. At that time (October 2008) our two cards had about $7,000 each on them, and I predicted that if I followed the snowflake program the debt on the highest interest rate card (mine) would be retired by ... June 2010. Well, I'm here to tell ya, it ain't gonna be. As of March 1, my card at about $5,700, and DW's is up to almost 9. So we've essentially gotten nowhere in a year and a half. And it's because we keep putting non-fixed but reasonably expectable expenses - kids' clothing and shoes, car repairs - on the card. And I of course debted the equipment for the TV transition.

I redid the snowflake the other day, and it's basically the same story as it was the last time: if we do it as prescribed, and maybe throw in another month's payment with our tax refund, my card will be retired in a year, and DW's a year after that. That of course depends on not using them anymore.

To recap, here are the steps:
1 - get our monthly expenses under DW's and my combined income, including debt service and the snowflake payments, and including reasonably expectable ongoing expenses that we've been putting on the cards. This will have to be a combination of squeezing fixed expenses and figuring out and eliminating all the pissy little expenses that don't present themselves so easily.

2 - build the emergency fund back up to $2,000 so there's a some leeway for larger extraordinary expenses such as car repairs.

3 - Discontinuing use of the credit cards and paying them down with the debt snowflake method.

The thing is, when I look at what's supposed to happen after the two cards and DW's car are paid off, there's actually quite a bit of money there, even with ongoing payments on my student loan debt stretching off to the horizon. We make a decent, middle-class salary, certainly enough that we should be able to save a little money and even buy stuff with cash once in a while. Right now, that has to be the goal - and we need to get serious about meeting it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

TV Update

Yesterday I canceled cable TV - monthly savings: $38. I kept the basic basic service, which means I'm continuing to pay $15 a month for the over-the-air channels, which I think might include CSpan. We don't have a roof antenna or a digital converter for our analog TV, and while there's supposedly a doohickey you can plug into the computer to get the broadcast channels, the guy at Best Buy didn't know what it was and I think DW's patience for the capital outlays for this project are wearing thin. Maybe we'll reexamine the broadcast issue a couple of months down the line when the Xbox and the rest of the system are paid for.

The new calculations:
Xbox $190, remote $55, playon software $40, ethernet cable $11. Total capital expenditure: $296.
Monthly savings: $38 per month = 7.78 months until the thing is paid off.

Meanwhile, with Playon you don't get live broadcasts, you get video chapters that you can load up and watch. So for instance you open ESPN, choose the folder "MLB" from among the available options, and then choose from among, say, a preview of the Marlins pitching staff, an interview with Frank Thomas, and a recounting of the winners and losers of the off season, each the length of a story on SportsCenter (which is mostly what they are). Some of the other options have full episodes available: I've been watching the Dog Whisperer on Hulu the last few nights, there are 5 episodes of that available at a time. I've also been using "plugins," which are additional, kind of lay-engineered connections to other channels that you can download here; not all of them have worked for me, but the PBS one does, which is good; there's a bunch of American Experience on there I could spend a good deal of time working my way through. I think that this, plus what's available directly on the internet, should work just fine.

So between that and canceling the Times, I'm spending $70 / months less than I did last month. I'd like to get over $100. Next stop: auto insurance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


This weekend is the holiday of Purim, which is sort of the Jewish version of Carnivale, the day when we dress in costumes, make fun of our rabbis and teachers and generally have a good time. It falls on Saturday night this year, which makes it even better, since there's no concern about having to get up for school or work the next day.

There are four main ritual obligations (mitzvot) to be performed on this holiday. First, to hear the Book of Esther recited in public. Second, to give gifts of food, called mishloah manot (literally, sending food). Third, a festive meal, and fourth, gifts of charity to the poor. These are based on the following section from the Megillah (as the Book of Esther is called in Hebrew):
And Mordechai wrote these words and sent scrolls to all the Jews in all of King
Achashverosh’s provinces, both near and far. To establish for themselves the 14th day of Adar and the 15th day as well, for every year, as days that the Jews were delivered from their enemies. On these days, the month was turned for them from anguish to joy, from mourning to a day of gladness; and these days should be days of feasting and joy, and sending portions each to his friend, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:20-22)
Mishloah manot are to include at least two different kinds of food; that is, foods that require two different brakhot (blessings) be recited over them. So, for instance, dried fruit and pastry. The more the merrier, of course, so if you can figure out a way to include three or four different kinds of food in there, that's okay too. Candy or nuts would be a third brakha. These packages are to be sent to at least two different people.

Of course, this is another of those areas where one can get really caught up in keeping up with the Schwartzbaums. It is quite possible to spend a lot of money on elaborate mishloah manot meant to impress your friends and neighbors, although tradition would hold that it's better to fulfill this mitzvah to the minimum required and to give the rest of the money to the poor. In fact, Maimonides makes this point quite explicitly:
It is better to increase gifts to the poor than to make for oneself a big meal or to send more portions to friends, for there is no greater or nobler joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.
The minyan (prayer community) we once belonged to in Philadelphia, Dorshei Derekh, had a great way to make sure that people observed the mitzvot of sending mishloah manot and of gifts to the poor - that is, that they didn't do the former too much and the latter too little. The minyan would collect monetary donations from everyone - between $18-50 - and use the proceeds and additional donated goods (including baked goods etc., but also little non-food treats such as pencils, stickers, etc.) to put together quite a nice little package of mishloah manot, with the leftover money given to tzedakah. Packing the baskets (donated clementine boxes) was also a communal activity; this would be a good youth group activity. Everyone would get the same food basket on the holiday, and would have fulfilled both the obligation of mishloah manot and the sometimes overlooked obligation to donate to charity.

The question of what a person of lesser means should do in order to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot was the subject of an interesting Rambam sent to me by my friend and colleague Rabbi Rick Brody this week.
One is required to send two portions of meat, or two kinds of stew, or two other kinds of food, to one's friend, as it is said, "to send portions of food, each to his friend" (Esther 9:19). Two portions, to one person. And someone who sends to more friends is to be praised. And if he doesn't have any [to give], he should exchange with his friend: this one should send that one a meal, and that one should send this one a meal, in order to fulfill the mitzvah, "to send portions of food, each to his friend." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah, 2:17)
That is, if one is too poor to send gifts of food, one should instead trade meals with a friend. It so happens that Danny Siegel, the "mitzvah man" who was our scholar in residence this past weekend, brought this very same text, saying that this constituted a leap of faith on the part of the poor person, because you could never be sure the friend would reciprocate, until he did.

Rick raised the interesting question of whether this the trading of meals to fulfill the mitzvah of mishloah manot would apply to a potluck. To which I would say, yes; trading food is what potlucks are all about. Rick then goes on to ask whether two fellows of modest means simply showing up at a communal potluck and putting food on each other's plates would fulfill the mitzvah. To which I would say, no. It is a core Maimonidean principle that even people who receive public assistance are required to give tzedakah in some amount, however small, because to deprive them of that obligation is akin to depriving them of their very personhood. So too with a potluck. A person may not be able to bring a lot, but they have bring something. Once they do that, they have fulfilled the "trading with one's friend" codicil that the Rambam is setting out, and they can feel they have fulfilled the mitzvah.

Previous Purim-related posts: Reconstructing Mishloah Manot, and Another Thought...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Technology 2: Moving Away from Cable TV

In a recent post I mentioned that I was thinking about getting off cable television for internet content. Well, that transition is nearly complete.

I've haven't had cable TV very much over the years. I grew up without it, of course, and my parents got it after I'd already left for college. It came very late to New York City where I lived in the late 80s, although I had it for about 2 years when my folks got me a nice TV for my birthday one year. After I moved out of NY, first to my grandparents' house in the country and then to Israel, I didn't have it at all. In fact, I didn't have television at all for about three years. When we moved into our own place we had had broadcast only, which when I shared it with some of my students led some of the more chutzpadik among them to infer - not without reason - that it was due to the poverty wages I received as an Israeli high school teacher.

When we were in Philadelphia for rabbinical school we didn't have it, again because we were poor, and then in Chicagoland we also didn't have it, more out of principle at this point that anything else. As baseball content moved more to cable and then Jon Stewart became a thing it was clear that I was starting to miss something, but we just never felt it was enough of a priority to get it, even when we (more or less) could afford it. As a note, we used plug-in rabbit ears and were able to get to get most of the available broadcast channels.

When I moved to Wichita I brought a TV with me (DW and the DKs came about four months later) and for some reason the electric rabbit ears didn't work. I also got broadband internet for the first time at that point (until 2007 we used dial-up) and I just had them put cable in at the same time. So that was a little more than two years ago, and we have basic cable, no pay services and not the extra digital tier, since we're still using the no-longer-so-nice (and non-HD) TV my folks got me 15 years ago.

Lately, though, as we've been looking a little more carefully at where our money's going, the $50 per month we've been spending on cable has started looking at me funny. I keep thinking of this line from Tightwad Gazette 3, in an article about whether people who are in desperate financial straits have really done all they could to get out of them:
Some people won't abandon cable TV. This may seem like a small point, but to me, cable TV is a sort of barometer. Anyone who is deep in debt and spends $25 a month for cable clearly hasn't "gotten it." A frequent excuse is that "we can't afford any other entertainment, so we fell this one expense is justified." ...
(This of course applies to the Sunday NY Times as well.)

But I'm just not prepared to go back to the electric rabbit ears. How are you gonna get them back on the farm after they've seen Jon Stewart?

And it so happens that lately I've been seeing some articles that speak about moving to a cable-less existence:
  • "Cable Freedom, Aided by a Mouse," from the Times technology page, and
  • "Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite," from the website Bible Money Matters, which I found via Google I can assure you.
This method described in this latter article is the way I decided to go. What the writer did was connect his Xbox into his home internet network, then downloaded a software program called Playon which enables you to stream content from Netflix (which we already get), Hulu, Youtube and some selected content on ESPN (reports, not games) and CBS directly on the TV, via the Xboxs.

We have a Wii, and Playon does work with that, but Wii is not as supportive a platform for streaming (the picture is bad, I'm let to believe) so I bought a used Xbox from Ebay ($190) as well as a remote that can handle the set-up ($55, also used from Ebay). The software costs something too, not sure how much yet (there's a two week free trial period), so if it costs $50 the total investment will be $295, which is about the cost of cable for six months.

In addition to this initial cost, the disadvantage of this system is that it's more limited programming-wise. Microsoft has a Windows Media Center application that allows you to watch Internet TV on the PC as well as recorded content on the Xbox, but so far there's no way to watch internet TV directly on the Xbox, which means I'll be watching a lot more TV on the PC in the future. (Fortunately we have a nice big monitor.) Most of the shows I watch are available on line - Stewart and Colbert, Charlie Rose, Cspan. Whatever few narrative shows we watch we usually get via Netflix anyway. Sports is going to be a challenge, although now there is some content (actual games) available via espn360, which our ISP, Cox, is providing, and which may be available through the Xbox before too long. I may also feel the need to drop some bread for a internet baseball subscription, which would raise the price of the project a bit; we'll have to see how much baseball is available through espn360.

I haven't actually canceled cable yet because the kids are interested in the Olympics and I'm already paid through the end of the month anyway. But I'll get to it. So for the next six months I'll be putting the cable money into our credit card bill to pay off the cost of this project; after that, it'll be gravy. Whether this approach turns out to be a money saver in the long run only time will tell; but given the availability of content on-line, it certainly doesn't seem like we need to be paying on an ongoing basis for cable TV any longer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review: Pedaling Revolution

I just finished Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, and I want to post a brief review before I have to bring it back to the library.

Mapes is a political reporter at the Oregonian, which means he lives in Portland, about the most bike-friendly city in the US. The book is about the growth of bicyclists as an organized political force over the past, say, 30 years; the benefits of cycling for a city; how various cities (Portland, Davis, CA and New York (!)) have planned so as to make themselves more amenable to cyclists, and chapters on the safety concerns and health benefits of cycling.

One of the early chapters is dedicated to a visit to Amsterdam, considered the mecca for cyclists. European cities have not always been as bike-friendly as they are now; making them so has taken a combination of social contract and government encouragement and support (read: investment). The basic difference between European and American cities when it comes to cycling is that European drivers (and policymakers) accept that bikes have a right to be on the road, and that it is the car's responsibility to be careful of them. In America, most drivers - if they think about cyclists at all - consider them a nuisance at best. The attitude of our society to the biker's right to the road is exemplified when one thinks of bikers killed by motorists and the generally light consequences (to the motorist) that result. In Europe, if a motorists hits a biker, it's a big deal. Here, it's considered that the biker getting what he* more or less deserved.

*American cyclists are likely to be male; in Europe the ridership is more gender-balanced, primarily due to increased safety

The underlying assumption of Mapes and the scholars, activists, and cyclists he speaks to is that there is strength in numbers, meaning that the more cyclists there are in any given city the safer cycling will be - cars will become accustomed to looking out for them, and the city will make the necessary accommodations in planning.

Of course, the easiest thing a city can do to accommodate cyclists is painting lines on the street and inculcating a "share the road" ethos. In some cases where the streets are too busy for that, other options include a cycletrack, which is basically a separated cycle track set off from the road, sometimes between parked cars and the curb. Some cities put their roads on what are called "road diets," taking away lanes to make room for bikers and making the traffic calm down.

As you will read in depth on my mate John's vital blog Cycling in Wichita, most of the biking accommodations in Wichita are recreational, i.e., bike paths that go twirly twirl twirl and don' t you get you from one place to the other very fast at all. If you try to use bikes for travel you find pretty quick that most of the arterials are not where you want to be on a bike. 40 mph, two lanes right up to the curb.

There are some roads which could serve as bike routes with little loss to the convenience of motorists; I think of 1st Street on the east side going downtown. Some other roads would need to go on a diet to be useful, such as Douglas between Rock and the entrance to Eastborough, which is something of a miniature race course.

Which leads to the question of why a city like Wichita should make any accommodations for a mode of transportation which probably accounts for less than 1% of the travel in town. Shouldn't transportation policy be centered around the kind of transportation that most people want to use?

Well, there are a couple of things to say about that. First, surveys consistently show that more people would ride bikes if they were safer and more convenient to use. And as I said before, more is more, and the more people we have riding bikes the more people will see it as a reasonable option and will join them. And this is a topic that I plan to spend some more time on in the next couple of days in another context, but cycling has so many health benefits, as well as benefits to the livability of a city, pollution amelioration, etc., well, it just makes a lot of sense for some of the copious amounts of money the city, county and state spend on road construction and spend, say 2 or 3% of that on improving bike infrastructure.

The final chapter in Mapes' book is about getting children to bike. Let me throw in a quote:
A government travel study in 1969 found that 87 percent of all kids who lived within a mile of school walked or biked. ... That changed over the ensuing decades as traffic become more intense, parents became more fearful, the neighborhood school became less common, and two- and three-car households became ubiquitous. By 2001, only about 15 percent of kids were getting to school under their own power. And... as few as one-third of students who lived within a mile of school walked or biked.
He mentions how traffic patterns can be particularly intense right around schools, and that nearly half of students who are hit by a car on their way to school are hit by people driving other kids there too.

I know all this is true for us. Take a look at this, the location of my kids' elementary school:

Webb is a busy arterial and, just to the south of this picture, Central is one as well. There are hundreds of cars and dozens of buses going in and out every day. We live 1.8 miles away, and I think my wife may have walked it once or twice, but I never have. And there are no bike racks at the school.

As Mapes points out, the people who are the most ardent bicyclists, and the most ardent bike advocates, tend to be those who have good memories of biking when they were younger. We don't have much of that, these days. And that doesn't give one a lot of hope that the kids who never biked will grow up to be the ones who change the paradigm about transport in this city or this country. Something needs to be done about that, before it's too late.

And a good first step is reading Mapes' book!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The End of Newspapers

Well, we finally canceled home delivery of the Sunday New York Times. I couldn't even do it myself, had to have DW make the call. I feel like I lost a loved one. Savings: $32/month. Of course, I'll probably buy it from the newstand periodically, so I'm going to have to set a limit on that, lest I lose the financial benefit. So, say, twice a month? In which case the actual savings would be about $20/month.

I also went from seven days to Friday-Saturday-Sunday on the Wichita Eagle. The paper early in the week is a real embarrassment, readable in about 45 seconds, and even later in the week it's no great shakes. It wasn't bad when we got here but they laid a lot of the interesting writers off, stopped Doonesbury and it's really gone downhill. Friday is worth reading because of the arts section and well, Sunday is Sunday. It only saves about a buck and a half per week but I really felt like I was getting angry when I saw it, so it's better to do without.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Technology 1: Smart Phone

The other week I went out on a Saturday night to see a friend of mine play jazz piano in a bar. He's in his 20s and a number of his peers were there, and I noticed that quite a few of them (I don't want to say all, but it might have been all) had either Blackberrys or iPhones.

I don't have either of these. In our last renewal of our cellphone plan, DW and I both bought phones that open up to present a keyboard for texting - I had started to text a little with the old phones but with the three-letters-on-a-key thing it was too much of a pain to use much. But this phone makes it much easier, so I've been using it to Twitter as well as to text people in situations where either I didn't want to have a phone conversation or there wasn't the opportunity. I don't really have long conversations on it like teenagers do but it has been pretty useful to me.

As far as the smart phone goes, the price of the equipment has gone down quite a bit, but with them you need a mobile internet subscription, and that's upwards of $90 a month for an iPhone, I'm led to believe. And, well, I just haven't felt the need. A lot of my peers in the non-profit world have them, and if I had more people on my staff or agencies that reported to me or something I could see having one, but then of course my workplace would pay for at least part of it. As it is now, it would be a rather elective purchase, another opportunity for me to check Facebook some more, and believe me, I don't need that.

Whether the 25 year olds at the bar had so many direct reports that they needed to be in constant touch, I can't say. It seems to be one of those many pieces of technology that has become a "need" over the past few years. And it's just s a need I've managed to resist so far.

Which leads me to a word about our technology. When we got back from Israel in 1999 we bought a desktop PC which we kept until late last year, having it refurbished a couple of times until it just became too slow to be worth updating anymore. Then I bought a new computer with Windows 7 on it - basically the one Ribbit had on the shelf, I really didn't do much in the way of research on it, it has a three year warranty and that was enough for me. I also have a laptop that I bought from my previous place of employment when I left it, it's about 4 or 5 years old now and I use it when I travel or want to work in a coffee shop or something.

They're both PCs, and since I mentioned iPhones in this piece and the iPad was unveiled last week I will say that the appeal of Macs has always been rather lost on me. I have some friends who are practically religious about them, but they're significantly more expensive and the PC does everything I need it to do so why would I pay more? I understand the Microsoft-is-Goliath argument and usually I'm sympathetic to that sort of thing but as corporations go, Microsoft seems relatively harmless - I mean, they drove Netscape out of business but their business model doesn't involve making 8 year olds desire food that will kill them, for instance. So I just never got that worked up about it.

And now we've bought a new PC, which seems plenty enough for us.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

You are what you cook

Tonight's frugal meal: I had a couple of already cooked but frozen lamb chops. I sauteed a little onion, garlic and ginger, added 1/2 cup broth and 16 oz can diced tomatoes, 1 tsp each hot curry and cumin, and the cubed lamb, cooked off the liquid a little and served over rice. It would also, of course, work with tofu.

A while ago I wrote a post about how preparing and eating your dinners at home is a cornerstone of the frugal lifestyle, because it's cheaper as well as healthier - you know what's in what you're eating. My old friend Sue F. got a little mad at me because her family has two working parents and five kids running in all different directions, and she didn't need to feel bad about the fact that they needed (out of respect I won't put it in quotation marks) to eat prepared foods fairly often.

Well, now that DH is working so much (at least three full days and two half days per week, plus three evenings a week) we have had to face this issue in a way we never had to before. The questions facing our household are three: would we eat out more, would we be able to continue to put interesting, lovingly prepared cooked-from-scratch foods on the table, or would we rely more on convenience foods?

Well, I can tell you that we ain't eating out more. I have lunch out sometimes, mostly for my job, and I may eat lunch out by myself once a week or once every two weeks, usually a sandwich or a salad bar, sometimes some grocery store sushi. But our family just doesn't eat in restaurants. We might bring in pizza once a month or so, and once in a great while we'll bring in thai or chinese, but now that I think of it we haven't done that for a while either. Neither we do we do the prepared foods from the supermarket or Boston Market thing either. So that part has remained constant.

Regarding the convenience foods/cooking from scratch thing, though, the results aren't fully in yet. It feels like we're eating faster foods, but I'm not sure if it isn't that I'm just doing more of the cooking now. When I do the shopping I usually buy a box of fake-chicken patties and a package of some kind of veggie hotdog or sausage. Then I usually alternate between buying a box of frozen pierogies and the dyna-sea shrimp that I wrote about here. Once in a while I buy the boil in a bag indian food, but DW doesn't like the selection in the supermarket and I don't often get to the asian store that has a better selection so we haven't been doing that much lately. And we usually have a couple of frozen pizzas in the freezer, we probably eat that once a month.

That's for two weeks worth of meals, and that's it for quote-unquote convenience foods. We're probably talking 3 or 4 meals out of 14 in a two-week period. And really, when you think about it, aside from the chicken patties, the indian food and the pizza (the latter two, as I say, relatively rare) there really isn't any purely convenience food on the list - even the hotdogs go into a cooked dish, so what we're really talking here about are substitutes for the meat that I don't eat a whole lot of and DW doesn't eat at all.

As I say, I've been taking on a lot more of the cooking since DW has been working so many evenings, and I've been trying to keep it interesting - soups are big this time of year. The hardest times are when I have an event in the evening, because by the time I get the kids home, give them snacks and do their homework, there isn't a lot of time to cook before I have to go out again. That's when we might do the indian food or a simply broiled tofu and microwaved vegetables. Kasha varnishkes is also a popular "convenience food" by which I mean - quick and simple!

So I feel confident in saying that we have managed to maintain a) our homecookedness, and b) our ability to put varied, interesting and nutritious foods on the table. Of course, two of our kids won't eat anything but noodles and cheese, but that's a story for another day.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Smoking cessation

I'm friendly with a guy here in town who is graduating college this year and probably moving back east, to DC or New York. He told me that he's going to a smoking cessation doctor in the next couple of months so he can get treatment while he's still on his mother's health insurance. I said, What do you need all that for? When you're ready to quit, you'll quit. He said, No one quits cold turkey.

It is just me and my deeply cynical nature, or do all these patches and pills and things seem like just another way for some corporation to make some more money off someone's nicotine addiction on the way out the door? And is it really true that "no one" quits cold turkey?

Then in yesterday's Times business section there was an article about Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) in which this appeared:
About 70 percent of the nation’s 46 million smokers say they want to quit, government surveys show, and about 40 percent try every year. But only 2.5 percent succeed, the surveys say. The government estimates that 400,000 Americans die of smoking-related diseases each year.
I have to say I find this kind of hard to believe. I suppose I shouldn't replace analytical studies with my anecdotal experience, but I basically was this kid 20 years ago, all my friends smoked, and today virtually none of them do, and they didn't quit by dying. (Most of them, anyway.)

Not that it was easy. I developed a plan to wean myself off tobacco over the course of a week, and it went like this: the first day I waited an hour after waking to have a cigarette, and then I had one per hour after that. The second day I waited two hours, the third three, etc., until on the seventh day I had to stay up extra late to get to the second cigarette, and after that, that was that. This worked for me on three occasions - the first two I went back after some months, and the third time I stayed off till this day, kineyenahora, ptui ptui ptui.

I put the cost of a pack of cigarettes into a jar each day for the next year or so (even though I really smoked more than a pack a day) and used that money to make my first trip to Israel. Me being the anti-corporate type that I am, quitting giving my hard-earned money to Phillip Morris was a major motivating factor as well.

I don't want to minimize the addictiveness of cigarettes or the fact that many people never manage to quit. But I quit when I was 28, when the circumstances of my life changed and it was time to, and it's a long time ago now, and like I said, all my friends have quit since then too. I still stick with what I said to the kid: When it's time to quit, he'll quit. And he won't need to give Big Pharma his money to do it.

Or am I wrong?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Personal Finance Update

Well, obviously I haven't blogged here much for a while, although it's interesting that the site gets a small but fairly consistent number of hits even in the absence of new content, more so than my other blog so what do you know about that? Anyway, I've been thinking of trying to get some more content up here, but don't want to make any promises I might not be willing to keep!

I thought I'd give a little update on our family financial situation. The big important news is that DW is working more consistently now. She has a job as a para at an organization that works with kids with severe communications difficulties, and although the pay isn't great she's working a good number of hours, 25-28 most weeks. Then she's still working at Sylvan learning center 4 hours a week, as well as teaching Hebrew school. So there's some more income there.

What this means is that we're more or less breaking even every month, so we are no longer consistently digging into reserves to make the nut every month. That is good news. The ability to pay down debt hasn't really magically appeared, though.

I consolidated my student loan with the Department of Education because there's supposedly a new provision that if you work in the non-profit sector your loan will be forgiven after 10 years. I had to give an income statement to qualify for it and because of DW's increased income our payments actually went up, which threw our budgetary balance off a bit. Unfortunately it's 10 years from the refinance and not from graduation so it's almost like starting from scratch, and who knows if this provision will even exist in 10 years?

We still owe a touch under $6K on my card, which is 19% interest, and almost $9K on DW's, which is at about 10%. Getting them down has been tough; mine was a little under 5 at one point but then my car needed almost $800 in repairs so there went that. We also owe about $10K on DW's car (dumbest purchase ever made, next to the house) and of course there's my ridiculous $60K student loan, which I prefer not to think about. We pay $400 on my card, $200 on DW's card, $340 on the car and $500 on the student loan every month, meaning that, as ever, debt service adds up to about 1/4 of our monthly income.

Given that we're at the break even point and can't expect any more income we really need to find some place to cut expenses if we want to dig out any faster. (Plus, DK1 still needs braces.) The likely candidates for excision seem to be cable TV and my old frenemy, the Sunday New York Times.

I was intrigued by this story in the Times about watching TV without cable - not rooftop antennae, but rather streaming either from your internet connection or through a device such as a Boxee. There's a small initial investment involved but after that it's essentially free unless you up for some premium content (like baseball), but even then it's a lot less than cable.

My man Phil P. is a tech guru and he tried to dissuade me, saying that cable was more predictable in terms of both content and technology, but that $50 we're spending every month is looking mighty enticing. We never had cable before we moved to Wichita and DW would be just as happy to be rid of it, believe you me. She thinks I'm watching too much TV, and most of what I want to watch (Colbert, for instance) I can watch on-line anyway. So it might take me a couple of months to work out the technical arrangements to a level of comfort, but I think that's the way we're going to go.

As for the Times, the land subscription gives me full access to their website, which is good, and if I call them to cancel they'll just offer me a discount for a couple of months, which is what they always do when I get to this point. And I do love it, it's like the only thing in my life that reminds me of my connection to New York. Still, it's $32 per month, which is a lot.

I did raise my payment on the car by $40 a month in the hopes of saving myself a little interest on the back end.

On the plus side, our housing situation is stable, the people who own it aren't going to be back for an extra year, which means we could be here for 4 or 5 years, or longer than we lived in the house in Illinois. (This is probably a topic for another day but I am not eager to get back into the homeowning thing after our experience there, not that I have the credit to now but if I can live in a nice house for rent and have someone else make the repairs why would I do otherwise?) I'm enjoying my work and of course the longer we stay here the more I meet people in town and the more interesting things I get involved in. I'm blogging for a political site now and that's gratifying. But I sure do wish we could work off this debt and get on the upside for a change. That's got to be more important than the Sunday Times, right?

Monday, January 18, 2010

National Thrift Week

Did you know there was such a thing as National Thrift Week? Neither did I, but here's a story about it from Education Week. And guess what? It's this week.
National Thrift Week had a 50-year run in our history before being dispensed with in the 1960s. It began on Jan. 17, 1916—the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the “American Apostle of Thrift”—and soon spread to more than 300 communities. Everyone from the YMCA to the Jewish Welfare Board to the National Education Association sponsored the event. Indeed, educators, partnering with financial institutions and businesses, played a key role in promoting thrift during the week.
They apparently had essay and poster contests, and states sponsored savings accounts for kids at community banks.

Three bullet points in favor of thrift from the article:
  • Thrift builds good character, through delay of gratification,
  • Thrift encourages generosity, and
  • Thrift encourages a wise use of resources.
Nowadays we're as likely as not to hear that thrift is a threat to the economy, because so much of our economy is dependent on consumer spending. That's an argument for another day, but here it can suffice to say that spending beyond one's means does no one any good, save the banks and credit card companies who can charge interest and fees on our largesse.

Here are a couple more webpages on the subject: bringbackthriftweek.org, and the same group's Facebook page.

(h/t Michelle Weiss Persons)