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.