Category Archives: money

Life without a credit card

In the distant past, I wrote a post about shopping online without a credit card. At the time, I recommended Vanilla Visa gift cards; these cards come in denominations of $25, $50, and $100, and can be purchased in many places, such as CVS Pharmacy.

I have come to decide that these cards are NOT the way to go. A big disadvantage of the Visa gift card variety is that they are only good for the face value, and cannot be reloaded. Add to that a steep initial purchase price, and the cost-effectiveness of using the card goes way down. The environmental impact of all those disposable plastic cards is also a concern.

Since then, I have been using– and highly recommend– the Wal-Mart Money Card. Say what you will about Wal-Mart (and I’ll probably agree with every criticism you might have), but the Money Card has changed my financial life.

The Wal-Mart Money Card has many advantages over the “single use” cards:

  • A debit card that can be used anywhere Visa is accepted
  • Card is printed with your name
  • Reloadable
  • Direct deposit for paychecks and income tax refunds
  • Convenient bill-payment service
  • Low fees

Using the Wal-Mart Money Card for direct deposit and bill-paying has made budgeting so much easier… and no more weekly trips to the bank to cash paychecks! Most important, I am only spending what I actually have– no credit card debt or hassles.

Do yourself a favor and check out the Wal-Mart Money Card. You may very well decide it is the right choice for you.

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Filed under budget, budgeting, cash basis, credit, credit cards, frugal, money, money management

Home Economics for the 21st Century

If my Google Reader inbox today is any indication, there seems to be a movement calling for schools to reinstate Home Economics classes.

This article appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Bring Back Home Economics Education (pdf file)

I absolutely agree that bringing back a revamped version of Home Ec is a great idea. Now, I suspect Home Ec went away as an understandable reaction to the gender role stereotypes of the 1950’s and ’60s.  There is often a fine line, however, between reaction and over-reaction. Reflexively swinging to the opposite extreme rarely solves a problem. If anything, it creates new problems.

Feminism, as I subscribe to it, is simply a state of independence– being able to take care of yourself, with or without a man. That may be oversimplifying (and probably to some, underestimating) the matter. Nevertheless, “taking care of yourself” without a doubt includes being able to feed and nourish yourself, as well as manage money responsibly. These were the two pillars of traditional home economics.

Even more than before, parents and caregivers today cannot be expected or relied on to teach children how to prepare healthy meals. Many parents never learned to cook and instead rely on restaurants, take-out food, frozen meals, and packaged food as basic fare. Many children seldom experience what a true home-cooked meal tastes like, much less see what goes into preparing it. (Alice H. Lichtenstein and David S. Ludwig)

Am I saying that feminism necessarily means malnourishing yourself and your children? Not at all.  But boasting the inability to cook as some sort of feminist merit badge strikes me as foolish, that’s all.  It is something women should think about, at the very least.

There may be other factors contributing to the widespread inability to cook healthy meals at home. In the absence of home cooking, for example, heavily processed convenience foods have stepped in to fill the void… and to fill stomachs. Far be it for me to suggest some nefarious food industry conspiracy behind this. I’ll just say that for consumerism to work as a way of life (as it has in America for some 60 years), it has been necessary to discourage responsible money management and to encourage poor eating choices.

Just think about the long-term benefits of teaching young people how to live healthy and sustainable lives:

An informed generation of children may also influence the eating habits of US families, just as tobacco education causes some students to discourage their parents from smoking. Ultimately, as this generation of school-aged children and adolescents reaches adulthood, they may serve as positive role models for their children and, through their longterm purchasing habits, ensure healthful food choices are readily available in homes, supermarkets, and restaurants
throughout the country. (Alice H. Lichtenstein and David S. Ludwig)

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The Alchemy of Shampoo

“My bathroom looks like a Walgreen’s exploded.”

— My dear friend Eleanor

I once tried (valiantly) to explain to a man why women need so many different kinds of shampoos and conditioners. He didn’t get it.
Men have it easy. They just squirt some Prell on their heads and rinse. They shake themselves dry like dogs, and they’re ready to go.

They just don’t understand the nefarious forces of nature that send women lurching from product to product in an endless zen quest for hair balance.

Humidity and Hormones– Satan’s twin hair gremlins– constantly scheming, levels rising and falling daily in a hellish symphony of frizz and droop, sheen and dullness, dryness and oil.

Shampoos and conditioners are probably my frugality Kryptonite. I’m not even that much of a girly-girl, either.

I economize on hair products where I can, using coupons, store brands, free samples and travel-sizes. I also use shampoo and conditioner very sparingly. You don’t need to use a big dripping handful of shampoo for it to clean your hair.  This conserves on both shampoo and the amount of hot water it takes to rinse!

Still, I’m continually experimenting with different combinations of shampoo and conditioners; that elusive Hair Nirvana remains ever out of my grasp.

Shampoo and conditioner formulas always seem come in matching pairs, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any success using them together. I feel a little guilty splitting up siblings like that, but if I need the synergy of Dry to Normal shampoo with Colored/Damaged conditioner, then so be it in the name of Science.

Heaven forbid I should start mixing brands into some hellspawn hybrid cross-promotional chemistry experiment! Guilty.  These days, in fact, I’m using Equate Totally Clean shampoo with Loreal Vive Pro whatever-it-is conditioner. It’s working very well for me… but for how long?

Even when I find a shampoo/conditioner combination that’s perfect, it doesn’t work forever. My hair sooner or later develops an immunity to that perfectly balanced chemistry. Then I must analyze the problem (less conditioning? more body? less build-up? fewer split ends?) and go forth to seek a remedy.

Fortunately, I’ve gathered a huge stockpile of various hair care products from which I may perform alchemy and devise that remedy. Regretfully, a lot of money has been spent, but I try to see the shampoo bottle as half-full.

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Filed under conditioner, excess, frugal, hair, haircare, health and beauty, money, money management, personal finance, saving, shampoo, shopping

A photographic Luddite converted… almost.

I worked in the photo lab business from 1987 right up through the time digital killed film developing (do you hear the Buggles singing in your head?).

Throughout 2003 and 2004, traditional photo labs everywhere were closing rapidly, as more and more traitors customers switched to digital and attempted to print photos at home.

To remain competitive, photo labs would have needed to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade to the new digital photo printing machines. Many lab owners just decided to give up instead.

We struggled to stay in business, but in January of 2005, it was dead, and I was laid off for good.

For almost twenty years, I always had a generous employee discount on all my photo needs, so I was a little out of touch with the actual costs of buying film and having it developed! You can imagine the shock.

Having been in the business and having a clue about photography, though, I would never trust places like Wal*mart or K-mart or CVS with my film.
I remember the technician who serviced our processing machines telling me horror stories about emergency calls to all the ‘Marts and various drug stores on his route: employees destroying customers’ film, screwing up the photo chemicals (not exactly rocket science, either), etc.

During the final few years of that long career in photography, aside from my 35mm equipment (I also did some freelance work, as well as studio portraits), I had a little digital camera for snapshots and sharing online.

So once I left the business, I relied more on my digital camera, and used my “real” camera for special occasions that justified the added costs of better-quality processing.

My digital camera died a  few months ago. It makes a rattling noise when I shake it, and this self-professed camera geek can’t fix it. And don’t think I didn’t open it up to look inside. At one time, I was a whiz at trouble-shooting (35mm) cameras. Things have changed, you whippersnappers.

I hadn’t quite realized how handy that little Fuji Finepix was until I went to the Maine Highland Games yesterday. I wanted to take pictures, but didn’t feel like lugging my big 35mm SLR with me… so I borrowed a friend’s embarrassing little point & shoot camera.

This morning, I swallowed my pride, crossed my fingers, and took the film to Wal*Mart. I didn’t order prints, just a CD of digital images (total cost: $4.27, as opposed to $6.96 for prints + $2.47 for the CD).

Results: At the least, Wal*Mart didn’t destroy my film. The camera was the problem here. With no zoom lens, everything I focused on is but a dot in the distance. I edited and zoomed and cropped like mad in Photoshop, and things still look awful.

drummajor.jpg                   taber.jpg

(left) Drum Major         (right) Throwing the Taber

I’m not (quite) ready to get rid of my 35mm SLR (yay! I could sell it on ebay for a tenth of what I paid for it!), but I seriously need a digital camera. I’m all but done with film.

Ideally, I want a Canon Digital Rebel, so I can use the Canon lenses I already have. And maybe I can pick up a little freelance work here and there, to make the new camera earn its keep. That’s frugal-thinking, right?

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How hard is it to count out 51 Goldfish crackers?

Some days, depending on my hormone levels, a trip to the grocery store can send me into a rage. I really get myself all worked up about the sly things manufacturers do to charge more for less.

If the package says “100-Calorie Packs”, “To-Go”, “Ready”, or any other variation on pre-measured single-serving portions, you will be paying too much for it. Not to mention the excessive packaging to burden our landfills.

Today, I read about a study on this very topic. It seems the Center for Science in the Public Interest has determined that Cheese Nips are by far the worst offender– customers pay a 279% mark-up on the 100-calorie packs!

“Hundred-calorie packs are an ingenious way for companies to charge consumers more for less,” said CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson. “Manufacturers get the best of both worlds–they make more money, and they look like they’re helping people control their weight.”

Link

It’s nice to feel vindicated, although I wonder how much of a grant this think tank received to state the obvious.

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Oh, what the heck.

You can’t win if you don’t play, right?

Over at Ashwin’s blog, you will find one crazy blog owner!! You can win $2500!! To enter just copy this text and paste it in your blog!! But hurry, this competition will not last long! So get posting!

I’m playin.

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Out of sight, out of mind.

The thing with watching my money is, as with babysitting an unruly toddler, I have to watch it every minute of the day, or else it gets into trouble… quickly and unexpectedly.

As soon as I forget to record an expenditure or two, I feel things sliding out of control, like I’m in a trance of sorts. I have just enough self-awareness to realize I need to keep my finances tightly (obsessively) reined in until I’ve learned discipline.

I also realize that the “unruly toddler” mentioned above is not money itself, but my own reckless spending impulses.

I’ve recently cobbled together a low-tech money-management system, based on my own special set of sometimes-contradictory neuroses and several techniques I’ve read about elsewhere.

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1. Budget Envelopes

When I (finally) got my last paycheck ($400) from THE PREVIOUS EMPLOYER WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED, I skimmed $100 off the top and deposited it in my checking account. Boom. Gone. No touch.
I divvied up the rest of the cash in envelopes, earmarked for specific expenses: Phone (I’m good through the end of October), Gasoline ($10 a week for six weeks into the future), Food, etc.

I even budgeted myself $20 a week for miscellaneous expenses (“Week ending 8/24”, “Week ending 8/31”, etc). I organized the envelopes in an accordion-style file, and stowed it away in a safe place.

My mom always used to say that money burns a hole in my pocket, and I’ve come to realize she was right (about this, and about many other things, too). If I’ve got money on me, I will spend it. It’s so true to say “out of sight, out of mind”… if it’s not in my wallet, I forget it even exists.

2. Dollar dollar bill, y’all

Any loose change and one-dollar bills in my purse or wallet go into a jar at the end of the day… and forget I ever had it. Even if I throw only $1.50 a day into that jar, that will add up to: $10.50 a week, $42 a month, $504 a year.

3. Cooking the books

That semester I took Financial Accounting I wasn’t entirely a waste, because I’ve devised my own half-assed bookkeeping system, and it works for me.

I divided up a notebook (10 cents at Wal*Mart) with colored tabs. Each section is devoted to one area of my finances: Wallet (cash), Checking, budget envelopes (Gasoline, Phone, Food, Weekly miscellany).

Each time I spend money, or move money from one “account” to another (such as taking $20 from the envelope marked “Week ending 8/17″and putting it in my Wallet), I make a note of the transaction, and keep a running total for each category.

At the back of the notebook, I keep a weekly running total of all categories combined, so I have a snapshot of what I’ve got. Not the most professional system, but it works for me and makes sense to the way my mind works. That’s the most important part of any system– that it’s something you can do.

4. Keep a price book

I adapted this from Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette. I keep track of the prices I pay for groceries and other products I buy regularly. I’m getting to know exactly what things cost, and it’s making me a sharper shopper. How can you know what’s a good deal, when you don’t know what things normally cost?

5. Cash only

I have a debit card with my checking account, but I’ve found that (just as studies have shown with credit cards) I tend to spend more recklessly when I’m just swiping plastic at the register.

I try to avoid using my debit card, and make an effort to pay with cash as much as possible. Debit and credit cards make money unreal– disconnected and theoretical… but physically parting with cash is real– tangible and visceral.

I personally need to feel grounded in reality when it comes to money, and that means hard, cold cash. Otherwise, I will just space out and lose track of my finances entirely. Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly why the powers-that-be encourage debit and credit cards. Think about those check-card commercials that show the lone maverick cash-payer slowing down the entire cashless-transaction-machine robot march.

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Overall, the budget is pretty tight around here until school starts and financial aid kicks in. And believe me when I say I will be just as cautious with my grant, scholarship, and Work-Study money, as well!

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