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.