Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gift I’m glad I didn’t get in 2009

A Kindle. For one thing, they still cost way too much, even as a gift from my overly generous parents, and certainly not from Bob or the kids. Besides, even though it would be really awesome to carry around all my favorite books in digitized form, I can’t help wondering if I really need the whole book, or just my favorite passages. I guess it comes down to a question I’ve been asking myself this fall as we try to shed some of our dead-tree tonnage: Why do people keep books they've already read?

When it comes to self-help books -- two that I really connected with this year were Barbara Fredrickson's “Positivity” and James A. Levine's “Move a Little, Lose a Lot” -- I find myself going back for another dose of inspiration, the way many people draw fresh inspiration by re-reading the Bible.

With my favorite novels, I sometimes think that my interest in going back is not so much to re-experience the story as to savor some passage or image that I really connected with -- in many cases, something that could have made a really great poem, but has more resonance because you’re connected to the character in a much deeper way. An example: I often think of that passage in John Irving's "A Widow for One Year" about the kind of intimate gaze that surveys your beauty not just inside a particular moment in time, but all of you, in all the time you've experienced together. Or something like that. I'll have to go back and check one of these days.

I can envision a New Yorker cartoon in which some guy purports to be constructing a do-it-yourself Kindle by scanning passages from his favorite books into his laptop. Less clutter that way. Cheaper, too.

Is that something I'd try myself, if I had the time? I've had nuttier ideas, certainly. But the main reason it won't happen is that even as we prepare to enter the second decade of this century, I remain at heart a 20th century creature who prefers real books over Memorex. We'll see if that's still the case at this time next year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Gift I wish I’d asked for

A printer, even though ours still works. The problem is the cartridges for our Canon are so darn expensive, about $45 to buy both the black and color ink. It wouldn’t be too hard to find a printer on sale for that price -- and that would probably include the first batch of ink, along with a built-in scanner, which is no longer working on our model. The key would be finding a printer that uses refillable ink cartridges. (Ours does not, so making this switch alone would easily cut our printing costs by more than half.)

Hmm. Now that I see these words on my computer screen instead of bouncing around in my head, getting mixed in with all the other things I think I ought to be doing, I think I’ll take matters into my own hands and just go buy one.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Speaking of the Salvation Army...

That’s were our daughter Cassie found her gift for Dad, a cozy flannel shirt. Because it didn’t have tags, I threw it in the washer before she wrapped it so it would be all ready to wear. Usually I have to nag Bob to try on new clothes; sometimes a couple of weeks go by before he gets around to trying on a new shirt, and then he likes it washed before he’ll wear it. But he wore Cassie’s flannel shirt to Grandma’s house on Christmas Day, and then he washed it and wore it again to work yesterday.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Christmas audit

For the next few days I’m going to be studying our Christmas game plan to see what could be improved on for next year. I have this urge every year and rarely indulge it, but I think that’s a big mistake. It’s an investment in my mental health, and my family’s happiness, for 2010. As I conduct my review, I’ll post ideas as well as horror stories (if they aren’t too embarrassing) about what we’ve learned.
For example, the gift idea that came too late: A gift card to the Salvation Army. This works only with a gift recipient of a certain mindset, but it would‘ve been perfect for our 16-year-old daughter, Rowan. She loves vintage clothing, especially T-shirts, and she could‘ve bought a bunch of them with a $20 gift card. (It would also be a bargain for our Christmas budget, because I dip into our charity fund for 50 percent of the purchase price of items bought at the Salvation Army*.)

*The way I see it, shopping at a thrift shop run by a charity is like making a donation where you get something in return -- like a mug from public radio. For tax purposes, you’re supposed to claim only the amount of the donation above the value of any goods or services you receive, right? So I pay the actual value of the item from my own pocketbook, and cover the rest of the purchase price from the charity fund. I don’t feel bad about doing this, because clothes at both Goodwill and the Salvation Army tend to be priced about double what I think they’re worth, according to my garage-sale barometer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Need a gift for a grandparent?

If there’s a zoo in your community, see if they have an adopt-an-animal program. The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is offering a $45 Christmas special that provides food for Bill the Lion along with a photo, stuffed animal and certificate for the recipient. We did this for Grandma Jane, who loves animals but is stuck in a nursing home. We figure the kids will check on Bill at the zoo and give updates to Grandma.

Financially, the nice thing about a gift like this is we can subsidize its cost with money from our charity fund. (See "The Generosity Generator," posted Nov. 25.) If you live in the Fort Wayne area, the zoo gift shop is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. today and tomorrow and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
For more details:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Prospering in hard times

Here’s one business that’s doing well in this economy: A grocery thrift shop in my hometown of Bluffton, Ind.

I discovered it earlier this fall by accident, walking with the kids down a side street between two of our regular destinations, the library and the trading card shop. It was crowded and cramped and its prices were just low enough that I pulled the trigger on a few boxes of cereal, as I recall.

I stopped there again once or twice, but it never became part of my routine. Then a couple of weeks ago I made a special point of stopping there, only to discover the space was up for rent.

When I got to the corner, though, I saw the familiar hand-lettered signs on neon poster board in a much bigger space with an actual store front. In the display window a life-sized Santa danced when you walked by, and inside it had the feel of a homely but spirited general store. I took the owner up on his banana-box special, and had a great time seeing how much I could stuff into a banana box for $20. I got about $25 worth of his groceries in the box, including eight boxes of slightly damaged cereal.

I went in again last Friday, and this time customers came and went as I carefully packed and rearranged the items in my banana box. Outside, kids made their parents stop to watch the dancing Santa. It was easily the liveliest spot on the street, reminiscent of the old downtown, with a peculiar, post-prosperity twist.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Another example of finding beauty in thrift?

For my art gallery of thrift -- where form intersects with function at little or no cost -- I nominate a bottle of liquid soap that, in the few minutes before company arrived one evening, underwent an amazing ugly duckling transformation.

I should note that I’m not one to indulge in fancy soap dispensers. A three-year-old plastic Soft Soap container performs that function in our main downstairs bathroom. Until recently, I’d been refilling it from a giant Sam’s Club container of soap the color of orange medicine. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.

And then one day, just before company arrived, we discovered the giant refill bottle had run dry. Under deadline pressure, I cleaned the soap scum off the geriatric dispenser and ran to the kitchen for some dish soap. It was bright green -- which turned out to be just the right color to bring the freshly scrubbed dispenser’s floral pattern into sharp focus. It looked vibrant and new and even -- dare I say it? -- pretty. Ready to take on all the world’s germs.

Is it silly to admit finding beauty in a soap dispenser? I should note that I wouldn’t put the dispenser itself on display in this imaginary museum, any more than I would display the actual leaf that held the paint (see "Is There Beauty in Thrift," posted Dec. 4), unless it was in a purely documentary sense. The beauty present in these objects existed for only one moment in time. It wasn’t their physical features that made them beautiful so much as the interplay of interior and exterior forces acting upon them.

Part of what made the leaf beautiful, at least to me, was the relief it provided -- a north star revealing an escape route from misery. It did, I suppose, have intrinsic natural beauty, but no more so than any other oak leaf, especially since it fell from the tree while still green. An anonymous leaf, in the right place at the right time to shoulder a lowly yet crucial task.

And the soap dispenser? No disrespect to the artist who designed its floral pattern, but the most a soap dispenser can hope for is “cute,” and every soap dispenser is cute in pretty much the same way.

But in those crucial moments before company arrived, the soap dispenser achieved something more. Cuteness lost, then found, is more potent than the original cuteness, don’t you think? There’s an element of wonder and surprise and gratitude that was missing the first time around -- tinged with the knowledge that before long, in even the thriftiest household, the recycling bin beckons.

That wouldn‘t be enough to make it past the museum‘s review committee, though, if it hadn’t fulfilled all three criteria: form, function, free. Because it achieved this triple play with such grace under pressure, the plastic soap dispenser makes the cut.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Expired milk update

I was curious to try the milk yesterday at seven days past the expiration date, which would have, I believe, set a record for us. But I forgot to say anything to the kids about it, and when I looked in the fridge that half gallon was gone. Drunk up, without a word. More evidence that its drinkability was not just some twisted frugal bias on my part, for they surely would have yelped if the milk tasted funny.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Experimenting with expiration

In my ongoing experimentation with "expired" milk, this morning I ate a bowl of cereal with milk that is six days past its expiration date. I drank a little in a cup beforehand, so I wouldn't ruin the cereal in case the milk was sour. But it wasn't.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reducing complexity, reducing price

After assembling candy bags for 38* kids’ birthday parties over the years, I‘ve finally figured out a way to simplify the process: I buy exactly what I need for each treat bag from the bulk candy section at Meijer. For our son’s 12th birthday last weekend, I filled 14 treat bags with eight pieces of candy each for a total of 112 pieces. The cost: $6.61.

I’m fairly certain that’s less than what I usually spend on bagged candy, though I don’t have enough data for a direct cost comparison. But in this case, I’m more excited about reducing the complexity than I am about reducing the cost. I’ve always hated standing in the candy aisle, studying how many pieces were in each bag, trying to come up with a workable configuration.

The breakdown:**
28 holiday peanut butter cups (2 per bag) .... $1.37
14 Smarties sweet tarts ...................................$.32
14 Laffy Taffy .................................................$.61
28 small Hershey‘s candy bars (2 per bag) ...$2.29
14 Tootsie Pops..............................................$1.21
14 gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins .............$.81
Total cost ........................................................$6.61

*This figure would be substantially higher, with three of our four kids now in the double digits age-wise, but two of our daughters usually have a combined party because their birthdays are only two days apart.
**I bought one extra piece of each type of candy, just in case I miscounted or otherwise came up short. So the $6.61 figure is actually for 126 pieces of candy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stretching our food-drive dollars

Thanks to my artificial generosity generator (see also known as our charity fund, see "The Generosity Generator," posted Nov. 25), we now shop for food-drive items rather than simply scanning the pantry for cans of vegetables no one likes. It’s a liberating feeling we‘re still getting used to, and my daughter Rowan and I on a recent food-drive hunt found ourselves drawn to the antithesis of the dented and the dark: a sunny yellow box of Cheerios, a cheery package of Kraft mac’n cheese.

We kept our price-conscious lenses on -- we want to be good stewards of the charity fund, after all -- and in looking over other sale cereals at Walgreen’s that day we found
a bright yellow box of Golden Grahams that came with the possibility of a $5, $10 or even $20 cash card inside.

We were loving the idea of converting $2.50 into a fun food source that might then yield its own cash donation. It reminded me of the time we bought chicken dinner tickets to support our son’s baseball league, and then, not wanting to deal with all those yucky chicken bones, donated the tickets to a food bank.

Or pledging to public radio when there‘s a matching campaign going on. (Though because that‘s a normal feature of that type of fund-raising, it’s not nearly as satisfying as crafting your own charitable twofer.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

See, it really can happen

So a few hours after I wrote that last post about keeping money from falling out of your pocket, I reached into my coat pocket at Dollar General only to discover the two dollar bills I thought I’d crumpled up in there were missing. When I went out to the van afterward, I found one of them just inside the van door, waiting to tumble out onto the ground. The other one was, inexplicably, lying by the gas pedal. I guess I’d been shoving both my cell phone and my change into my left jacket pocket, and at some point when I pulled out the phone, I dislodged those bills.

Monday, December 7, 2009

‘Stripped’ tips No. 1 and No. 2

Anyone who’s read these blog entries is likely to notice that I tend to ruminate on the hidden meaning of even the smallest actions. (See yesterday’s post). I don‘t apologize for that, because I believe there is something to be gleaned from even the thinnest slice of the most ordinary life. But just to break things up a bit, I‘m going to try to force myself to offer some tips that are stripped of excessive commentary.
1. Don’t carry change in the same pocket as your car keys. You’re likely to spill a coin or two in the process of pulling out your keys.
And, conversely:
2. A good place to find coins (and even, occasionally, folded-up paper money) is along the yellow lines in parking lots, near where the driver’s door would be.
I once challenged myself to “find” money every day for a month, and it wasn’t as hard as you might think. I didn’t change my routine; I just paid more attention to my surroundings.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is there beauty in thrift?

I think I may have found a symbol to represent this blog.

It’s an image from a moment of desperation far too insignificant for a screenplay, or even the most tedious memoir. Yet I can’t get it out of my mind. I like to think it’s an example of the beauty that can sometimes be found in thrift.
Let me connect the dots as briefly as I can: We were hosting a yard sale several weeks back, and managed to stay fairly busy despite the fact I hadn’t gotten around to putting up any signs. (I had, however, put an ad in the paper, and our three-tent circus was easily visible from the highway.)

Around midday we had a lull, though, and this made Uncle Rick, who was out of work (and had hauled over three trailer’s worth of “inventory”), understandably anxious. He began to follow me around, fretting about the sign problem, as I located cardboard and a couple cans of spray paint that were too far gone to be of any use.
Finally I found a squirt bottle of the kids’ craft paint and a brush. I was poised over the cardboard, brush in hand, when I realized I didn’t have anything to squirt the paint onto. I dribbled some paint directly onto the cardboard, but it was clear that wasn’t going to work very well. A ruined sign would only extend Uncle Rick’s misery, not to mention my own. Without really thinking about it, I picked up the only thing within reach: a large oak leaf. It held the paint perfectly, as if it were designed for just that purpose. More importantly, it provided an exit to that particular microdrama.

It was, at that moment, the perfect fusion of form and function.

Uncle Rick and I didn’t discuss the aesthetic merits of the leaf, mostly because he was in such a hurry, hustling the signs away before the paint was dry. I tend to think he appreciated the concept, or would have, if he hadn’t been distracted. He’s the sort of guy who’s always coming up with unusual solutions to real-world problems -- a skill that was no doubt enhanced by growing up in a family that didn’t have much money. (He’s currently incorporating this skill into a home-based repair shop; Uncle Rick is not one to stay idle, or unemployed, for long.)

This doesn’t mean that the next time I paint something I’m going to track down an oak leaf as part of the process. (Though I would love to find some use for all the leaves we have around here.) Besides, it wasn’t even an act of frugality so much as desperation.

But I like to think that a frugally trained mind is better able to spot solutions like that one -- to perceive that a coat hanger can be untwisted into a piece of wire, if you happen to need one, or that the plastic mat for the kids’ Twister game could be (and has been, in our house) used as an emergency birthday-party table cloth.

Minds trained to look for solutions in stores have a harder time envisioning paint puddling in a leaf like so much dew.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A solution to a coffee conundrum

So the other day I’m at work, and as usual I’ve drained the coffee in my travel mug and want another cup. Maybe two. So I go over to the office coffeepot, only to discover we’re out of coffee filters.

I was checking my pockets to see if I had fifty cents for a cup of vending machine coffee when I noticed a roll of industrial-grade paper towels on the counter. I tore off a couple of pieces, nestled them in the filter basket, and in the time it would’ve taken me to walk downstairs to the vending machine I was pouring myself a better tasting brew at a fraction of the cost.*

*The “cost” amounts to contributing a can of coffee every so often.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The generosity generator

Lately I’ve been reflecting on our daughter’s generosity, and wondering if that’s a trait that skipped a generation, the way my grandmother’s Depression era thriftiness seemed to pass right over my mother before showing up in me.

On a recent family vacation, Rowan, 16, spent the souvenir money I gave her on gifts for a favorite teacher and her boyfriend. A few days later, she took food to a friend who, despite being sick, was pining for Taco Bell. A 79-cent order of triple-layer nachos would have sufficed -- this was, in fact, my hard-hearted counsel -- but she tacked on a Mountain Dew and cheesy fiesta potatoes, spending $3 of her $5 spending money for the week.

I can’t help wincing when I consider that on the same family trip, I was secretly glad we didn’t use the provisions I brought for a chicken-and-noodle dinner, knowing I could use them for a meal back home the next week. Whereas my sister-in-law would’ve been disappointed if we hadn’t used the dyed-black pasta and almost-orange alfredo sauce for our Halloween dinner. She, too, is more generous than I am, it would seem.

Not being naturally endowed with the sharing gene, I’ve had to construct an artificial mechanism for funneling a portion of our resources toward the welfare of other people and institutions. It’s been in action for five years now, and it’s worked remarkably well, neutralizing the irritation I used to feel when hit up for a donation and alleviating the anxiety that came with writing a check to those causes that we really did want to support. (Living just above the reduced-lunch income level for 15 years makes you hyper aware of every penny that goes out.)

Our charity fund is little more than a sudivision inside our savings account. We dump a portion of each paycheck into that cul-de-sac, and even though we’re still not up to 10 percent, it really adds up over time. Thanks to the magic of online banking, we just slide the appropriate amount over to the checking account every time we want to make a donation.

So, are we in fact being more generous, or are we just more aware of our generosity now that it can be documented?

The most obvious change in our charitable giving the past five years is that we’ve added monthly donations to the Unitarian church we periodically attend. Before 2004 we weren’t churchgoers, other than an occasional appearance (and small bill tossed in the collection plate) at the church I grew up in and my parents still attend. We don’t give as much as more traditional churchgoers probably do, just 1-2 percent, but that in itself probably matches and maybe even trumps an entire year’s worth of giving before we started tracking (and funding) this budget category.

A couple of other change indicators: We’ve cracked the triple digits in our annual giving to public radio, and now give five times as much to the American Cancer Society -- a development closely tied to my father’s bout with nonHodgkins lymphoma a couple of years ago. (Even as I write this, I wonder whether we should be giving more; can you put a price tag on your gratitude when a family member survives cancer?)

The real life-changing example that I always associate with the success of our charity fund, though, has to be the chicken dinner tickets my son’s baseball league sells.

This isn’t one of those slick yuppie travel teams, but a small town sandlot operation. Every year they ask the kids to sell 10 tickets. I was about to type, “I can’t tell you how much I hate this,” but in fact I can: I hate selling things, I hate making my kids sell things, even to relatives, we live out in the country so door-to-door sales aren’t an option, and on top of all that, only one out of the six of us even likes chicken on the bone.

Imagine my relief when our charity fund, emulating the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager,” tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pardon me, ma’am, this looks like a job for Generosity Man.”

We used that account to buy the suggested $50 worth of tickets, then donated them to a food bank. One giant burden removed, two good causes supported.

All thanks to the artificial generosity generator we call our charity fund.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Inspiration in the express lane

I’ve been on a kick lately where I’ve been paying cash for groceries, partly for sentimental reasons -- that’s what I did years ago when I first quit work to be a stay-at-home mom -- but also to see if it was easier to make budget when I could clearly see what I had left to spend.

So I got in the express lane the other day with my four half-gallons of short-dated milk (69 cents each) when I noticed the young man checking people out had Down syndrome.

It was incredibly cool to see that somebody at this store, the Village of Coventry Scott’s in Fort Wayne, Ind., was willing to give this guy a chance to do something other than push a broom. But as I went to pay, I hesitated -- should I give him cash like I’d planned, or whip out the debit card to make it easier for him?

I went with the cash, and he did fine. More careful, probably, than the average teenager.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A new beginning

I returned from our annual family trip to Tennessee last month with a powerful urge to restart this blog, abandoned last spring when I suddenly found myself immersed in a project that, in hindsight, would’ve gone much better if I’d taken advantage of this outlet.

But I was having blog-concept issues as well. I knew I wanted to explore, and try to emulate, thrift found in nature. But I was limited by my knowledge of those processes in the natural world. All I could think of was water finding the most efficient, economical path to lower ground.(And we saw plenty of examples of that on the trail; water never sits still on a mountain.)

The other problem was that I wasn‘t entirely comfortable calling myself a “natural thrift.” I mean, I’ve known for a long time that thrift is a part of who I am, but I’ve had a years-long conflict of how I dealt with ‘fessing up to it, knowing that many people interpret frugality as stinginess. And sometimes it is. I’ve certainly struggled with that on this Odyssean journey that began 15 years ago with the decision to be a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom.

But frugality can also be a thing of beauty, like in nature, or in math. And all too often, in the past, the pride generated by what I perceived as a triumph of economy would dissolve into shame when exposed to the gaze of a “non-believer,” if you know what I mean.

I think I found some clarity on this latest foray into the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s too early to say whether I found my own fossilized backbone, perhaps misplaced years ago on an earlier hike up these same trails. But that’s how it feels.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Experimenting with sour milk

Yesterday, encouraged by some postings on other frugal blogs, I tried making biscuits with milk that was six days past its “sell by” date. But I can’t even say for sure whether the milk was “sour,” because my son poured some on his cereal by mistake earlier in the day, and said the taste wasn’t noticeably different. The biscuits were good, everyone agreed, but we couldn’t tell if they tasted any different, either.
Exploring the science of sour milk feels like a brave new frontier for me, because it suddenly creates a bunch of uses out of the very cheapest kind of milk. I’m even thinking about setting the rest of the jug out on the counter and seeing if it separates -- and if so, whether we can make it into cottage cheese.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sayonara, Rocky Mountain News

All week newspapers have been filing for bankruptcy, and now The Rocky Mountain News, probably the coolest of the lot, winks out of existence. Gobbled up by that digital black hole I was griping about the other day. At least it's going out with a bang -- today's final issue includes a 52-page special section on the history of the paper.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Depression practice

We watched that American Girl movie about the Great Depression last week, and ever since then I've found myself practicing for the one that feels like it's headed our way.
It's not quite the same as just being frugal. The way things are now -- the way we've lived for the past 15 years, really, ever since we cut out my full-time income, first to zero and then to part-time -- is we look for ways to be frugal that fit our lifestyle. What I'm talking about is different -- what would we do if we had no income at all?
Other than freak out, I mean.
So I've been noticing things. Like, we made Abe Lincoln pound cake on Lincoln's 200th birthday (also Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, but Darwin recipes are a lot harder to come by). And we had some real whipped cream from a cake our oldest was making for her Spanish class, so that naturally led me to thinking we ought to get some strawberries to go with it. And one of those plastic containers of strawberries doesn't go very far in a family of six, so I got two of them -- $5 worth of strawberries. So this was a dessert that was, right there, costing more than entire dinners at our place most nights.
It was a good treat. But you know, we didn't really taste Lincoln's pound cake -- it was just kind of a bed for the strawberries and whipped cream. So when I was reviewing my mental game film of this episode, during a session of "Depression practice," I thought, you know, we could've just eaten the pound cake plain. Lot of butter in that cake, it was probably very rich and tasty. And we didn't even know it.
Or I could've bought one strawberry per person, and cut it in two, and garnished the cake with that. Then we would've savored the cake and the strawberry.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The digital black hole

Maybe this is just the biased view of someone who’s been working in newspapers on and off for the past 20 years, but remember how people were worried last fall that when they flipped the switch on the large hadron particle accelerator, the world might get sucked into a black hole? Sometimes now I get the feeling that it’s really happening, just not in the way we expected: It’s like the world we used to know is getting sucked into a digital black hole. Physically, everything still looks pretty much the same. But our jobs and wealth are getting sucked up by the internet.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rebate remorse

I go back and forth on whether I think that rebates are a worthwhile thing to do. I’m pretty good about staying organized enough to make sure I actually send in the rebate form. And sometimes I think maybe I could even start a small “steam of income” from rebate checks -- just enough to pay for piano lessons or something. But over the years one rule I’ve developed, and almost always wind up regretting when I’ve broken it, is not buying stuff I don’t want or need just because of a rebate. Recently I fell into this trap yet again when I saw an offer to get $15 back by mail if I bought what amounted to $18 worth of Pepsi and Doritos products. I talked myself into the purchase, thinking I could keep this stuff on hand for when the kids have a sleepover or something. It was only a couple of days later, when I read the fineprint, that I discovered I won’t be getting a check in the mail -- just coupons, for more of the same garbage that we really don’t need in the first place.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Keeping up with the Joneses, thriftwise

Our son’s invited to a birthday party in a couple of weeks, and I’m wondering how we could ever come up with a birthday gift as cool as the one this boy got our son for his birthday. In our experience, the drill for boys’ birthday parties is spend around $10 on a Bionicle or baseball cards or, in the case of my son’s most recent birthday, Yu-Gi-Oh cards. This particular boy, who comes from a thoughtfully thrifty homeschooling family, is supposed to be responsible for buying his own gifts. But our invitation didn’t give him much lead time, and Christmas was coming up, so he was short on funds. What to do? Well, this innovative little guy dipped into his prodigious Lego collection and built a carefully crafted spaceship that he presented to Ben at the party.
It was easily the coolest gift at the party. I was struck by the “friendship bread” nature of the gift. Sharing some of what you have, which then gets made into something else. I guess the obvious thing for our son to do is build his own Lego creation for this boy’s party. Another possibility is a Robo-Bug kit we recently uncovered during some “clutter mining” around the house. I did, in fact, pay about $10 for it while working a library book fair a couple of years ago, thinking we would use it as a birthday gift for someone. But we never did, and I guess I forgot about it. Ben was the one who unearthed it, from a box in a seldom-used closet, and he thinks it would be perfect for this boy. So we’ve got a bit of time to work out the details, as Ben is now, this year, also supposed to be buying or making his own gifts.
In the meantime, I’m amused by the prospect of finding myself trying to “keep up with the Joneses” in terms of thrift and creativity rather than materialism. It’s a good problem to have.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Imagining new life for Detroit

I saw a story yesterday at work about how the median sales price of homes in Detroit for the month of December was $7,500. Which made me think that Detroit may be dying a rapid death, but it surely won’t be long before some kind of new life takes shape there. Urban homeschoolers, for instance, might be drawn to buy a home there, because they don’t have to worry about schools and they tend to live frugally. They also have an outside-the-box mindset which might lead them to say, hey, it might be hard to find a decent job in Detroit, but you don’t need much income to make a house payment on a $7,500 house. You could make that much selling stuff on ebay. And I would have to think that garage sales, auctions and liquidation sales -- a prime source for ebay goods -- are rather plentiful in Detroit these days.
I could also imagine some Amish migrating up there. If they went as a group, they could buy several houses in a particular neighborhood and demolish some of them to grow crops on. (Except the Amish never really “demolish” anything -- they would reuse and recycle as many building materials as they could.) They don’t need infrastructure, so the possible deterioration of city services wouldn’t be a hassle for them. (Though they would need to figure out how to keep livestock inside the city limits.) When I mentioned this notion to a co-worker, he got a good laugh out of it. Imagine, he said -- the motor city being taken over by people who don’t drive.

Speaking of cardboard

We’ve actually been reusing cardboard for a variety of purposes around the house, now that I think of it. Here on my desk I’ve got an organizer constructed probably two or three years ago out of three nested cardboard containers: a freezer bag box, a small cereal box and part of an envelope box. I always thought I would cover the package printing with something “artsy,” but have yet to do so. In the meantime it’s at least proved to be extremely functional.
I’ve also cut down cereal boxes to store our son’s Popular Science magazines. And lately, I’ve resisted the urge to buy plastic bins at Wal-Mart and
instead used larger cardboard boxes set on their sides as closet clothing bins for sweaters, T-shirts, pajamas, hats and gloves. That’s a more recent experiment, so I don’t know how durable those will be. But it’s gratifying finding uses for cardboard when we tend to have so much of it around the house anyway.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A little less stuff, an odd sense of fun

We went to a dinner last week whose theme was “Less stuff, more fun.” It wasn’t quite as inspiring as we’d hoped -- the film itself didn’t offer many tangible ideas beyond the usual composting and twisty lightbulbs, and the discussion got bogged down in recycling and transportation frustrations. We sensed an overall frustration that people wanted to take some kind of next step, but nobody was sure what that was. Do we form a group? Tackle a project? Which one?
Driving home afterward, I found myself wondering if that “next step” might be a little different for each of us -- and a lot smaller than we expected. Here’s one thing I’ve discovered recently that I wish I’d shared with the group: Dismantled cereal boxes work fairly well as file folders. I just fold them on their natural crease, and one side automatically sticks up a bit higher than the other, creating a space on which to write the title (provided you turn the printed side out.) With four kids, we buy enough cereal to provide all of our file folder needs. And using up the cereal boxes reduces the amount of cardboard we take to the recyling center.
It’s a small thing, not worth forming a committee to discuss. And you’ve got to be able to deal with the fact that your folders will be more homely than the Office Depot version. Still, if a lot of people made this one itsy bitsy change, wouldn’t that add up to ... something?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Let's try this again

Well, I see it's been two months since my last post, and I still haven't finished sewing in that zipper. I actually got it half sewed in, and pinned in the second part, but then when I tested it I found I couldn't detach the bottom of the zipper. So that project has been set aside for further study.
In the meantime, as so often happens, a solution presented itself: Realizing that our oldest daughter rarely wears a winter coat (she's in a hoodie phase, and it's got to dip below zero for her to don anything heavier), we let Kid No. 3 "borrow" Kid No. 1's seldom used second-string coat. It fit her perfectly, and Kid No. 1 has hardly missed it.