Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rethinking Devices

OK, I'm feeling better now about my overcommitment issues. And I've taken some modest measures to start mitigating them. But now another issue has arisin... electronic devices.

In the last three months, three of my "devices" have died ignoble deaths. First I killed my phone on a rainy afternoon in late August. It was a newish Android phone, a Galaxy Victory, that I thriftily used on Virgin Mobile. I dropped with my slippery wet hands on the hard brick steps of my house, resulting in a well-shattered screen. And we all know that the cost of replacing screens is... well, just not worth it unless your phone is very expensive... which mine was not.

So, a quick phone call to Virgin Mobile and I was back to my old stalwart Blackberry Curve. Their customer service really is quite good... I don't know where in the world the customer service reps were, but their English was excellent, and that's always a relief. I like my Blackberry, and truthfully, it is better than the Galaxy for e-mail, texting and GPS. Which is pretty much what I do with my phone 98% of the time. Thanks to Weather Underground's well-designed mobile site, I can check the weather, too. So I am pretty much over Android. Frankly, the Sprint data network used by Virgin, in my area anyway, is so oversubscribed and congested that I couldn't really do much with the internet anyway. A Youtube video had to be watched before 6:30 am or not at all, for instance.

So, minus one high-tech electronic device, two more failed this week. BOTH of my Kindles went belly-up. First, the old orignal e-ink one locked up, and there is no hard reset with this kind of Kindle except setting it on a shelf and letting the battery run down completely. So, we'll see in a month or two if there is hope there. It's quite old, though, so maybe not.

Then the charger port on my orignal Kindle Fire stopped working. Without ability to charge it, it's pretty much toast. And again, too old (going on 3 years) and not costly enough to warrant repair.

So the question is... which do I replace? I can really do without the e-ink Kindle, although it is handy for reading... lightweight and comfortable to hold. But you know, I really do prefer a regular book. I like the page designs, the attractive formatting, the heft. I especially like being able to quickly leaf through a book, or turn back a few pages to confirm a name or whatever. To stick little post-its on things I want to come back to. It's just not the same with an e-book. I can still get to my e-book collection via my computers, but I've paid for very few books.

Now the Kindle Fire had been a real workhorse lately. I listened to audio books, podcasts, and music while I was working on this humongous knitted afghan project I've got going. And read downloaded e-books, including the free ones borrowed through my library's Overdrive collection. And I read blogs and lots and lots of internet content. Above all, I watched a lot of video content - mostly TV shows on Amazon Prime. So, do I need a new tablet? And if so, another Kindle, or should I switch to an Android or I-Pad? Argh... what to do?

Well, after a few day's thought I'm not sure I'm going to do anything at the moment. I live close to a library, and in fact visit it 3 times a week, so availability of books and audiobook CDs is not an issue... and these are free, of course. Back issues of magazines are available for checkout, also. Books I want to keep on hand, such as cookbooks or the type of nonfiction tomes that take eons to read (although they are very worthwhile) can often be purchased for a pittance, used, on Amazon. Sometimes even for a dollar on my library's sale rack.

I actually prefer listening to downloaded MP3 files of audio books. With the library's CDs, somebody has always scratched them a bit or, annoyingly, left sticky fingerprints on the discs. But I can download and Overdrive audiobook files to my little SanDisk MP3 player, and listen to them either via earphones or via a cable to my radio speakers. And I still check out library CDs from time to time, to get the most recent books.

And finally, I discovered that my little, super-lightweight Samsung Chromebook is pretty good for streaming audio and video. Because of the solid state memory (no hard drive) it stays cool, even in the summer. Holding onto a hot laptop while sitting in an armchair, watching an episode of The West Wing, is not pleasant, especially in warm weather. All my Amazon Prime (free) streaming video works well, and I appreciate the good speaker volume, compared to the Kindle. All my music is on Google Play and streams nicely. And the Sketcher Chrome app streams most of the podcasts I was listening to on the Kindle. The only thing that doesn't stream is the stuff, and that, as mentioned already, can be put on my MP3 player. And it seems to have a very good battery life.

So... do I even need to replace the tablet? I'm thinking not, at least not at this time. Electronics are pricey, and they seem to have a rather short lifespan. Spending hundreds of dollars every year replacing broken electronics may not be the best use of your money, especially for those of us on limited incomes.

I think maybe the key is to decide what you want to do with your devices, and then determine how you can do all that with a minimum number of electronic items. For example, if you already have an Android phone, you can download a lot of music and audiobooks to it, including the free library Overdrive stuff. Or if you don't want to use your phone's battery when you're listening away from home, you can get a little MP3 player, like I have, and download to that. SanDisk is a reliable brand and has nice players with lots of memory for less than $50.

For streaming video, any old laptop will work well, and if it has a DVD player (my Chromebook does not, but my upstairs laptop does) you can also watch video borrowed on DVDs from your library. Most of us probably don't need a tablet for anything other than portability and convenience. A friend in my knitting group got a nice little Android tablet at a discount place (Big Lots, maybe) for around $50. It works well for her. She loaded the Kindle Android app and a bunch of free e-books, and is very happy with it. She's pretty broke and doesn't have internet or wifi at home, so she takes it to the library every week and loads up on new content while she's there, using the library's free wifi.

I know I certainly don't want to be a Luddite, eschewing all electronics. I know some people my age or older who do that... they don't have a computer, don't want to learn, and can do just fine with things as they have always done them. But most of us want to join the digital revolution... it's educational and fun and offers some amazing frugalities. The key is to do it thoughtfully, so you don't find yourself spending wagonloads of cash on electronics equipment, and then throwing more after it as items quickly break, or get lost or broken.

By the way... I'm typing this on my little Chromebook on my dining room table. I keep it there a lot of the time, but since the big Kindle fail, I've been carrying it over to my armchair in the evening, setting it on the sidetable, and using it to watch a TV show or two, and maybe straming a podcast or radio program while I knit. I also have a stack of books on the other side of the chair, handy for reading. Then, before bed, I carry the Chromebook back over to the table and put it on charge. Working well, and not missing the Kindles all that much.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Little Whine for my Birthday. Or, Regaining Balance

This week is my birthday. I'll be 67 years old, and that is really starting to feel old, no matter how often I hear, "65 is the new 40." Truth is, my biggest problem is my health, not my age or my income. And compared to most people my age who I know, my health issues would be considered very minor. I acknowledge that... but I also know that I am very dissatisfied with my overweight condition and my lack of energy. Really, the lack of energy is more concerning to me than the extra pounds I'm carrying.

Energy is the fuel of life... without it, you don't do a lot. You certainly don't live well. Instead, you sit around and accomplish little. Is that what anyone wants for their retirement years? I want... no, need... to feel more energetic, to have more mental get-up-and go, as well as the physical strength to do it. I don't drive, so walking everywhere is what I do, along with taking the bus. And I noticed this week that gradually I've been going out less, shopping less. It's kind of crept up on me. I haven't been to the mall for months and months, for example. And this week, when I scheduled two tutoring appointments at the library, one in the morning and one in the early evening, I barely made it to the first, and ended up cancelling the second. It was the 20-minute walk to the library, not the tutoring itself, that I couldn't deal with. I was just exhausted after making the round trip twice each of the two previous days. Maybe it was my seasonal allergies, or fighting off the cold virus that is going around.

But I actually think this was partially mental, 'cause honestly, I'm becoming bored with doing for others all the time. I realize that nobody is really doing much of anything for me... it's all going the other way. Babysitting the grandkids - three nights last week- and hours of volunteer teaching and tutoring, a task that's been increasing in scope as new students keep showing up. My grandchildren are nice, and appreciative, as are my students. It's just that I sometimes start feeling like I'm putting out so much more than I'm getting back. And then I start feeling sorry for myself, and that in itself is not healthy and is energy-sapping.

I guess the solution is to take better care of myself, not just physically, but emotionally, too. Actually, a couple of the ladies in my knitting group said as much to me last month. They said they felt I needed to put more priority on the things I want to do. (I had been unable to participate in a couple of group events because of tutoring/teaching commitments.) That the students were damn lucky to have me available, but should understand that I need to take time off for the things I want to do. I kind of brushed off the comments. But now I think they were picking up on something I needed to address.

So here I am, taking stock. I don't intend to do an about-face and commence a self-centered life where I do only what directly benefits me. But I need to set closer limits on what I do for others, including family. Because, frankly, nobody's reciprocating to any extent, including my family. If I want to be taken care of, I had better learn to do it for myself.

And that's the key, I think. You should take very good care of yourself in every way, and not worry about having others do for you. Do so much good stuff for yourself that whatever others do for you is nice, but not necessary. Make your life so great, so satisfying and fun, that you don't really need a lot of help from family and friends. You're not emotionally dependent on calls, attention, gifts, etc. If they come... how nice! If not, so what? You have enough already.

Now, I'm not proposing being the proverbial island. We all need to be around others, to have friends and family around us. I'm just saying we need to give up any dependency. And I believe that for us who are older, especially when we live alone, it's all to easy to get into a dependency mindset. To become a little bit emotionally dependent on others, and to then be disappointed when we don't get what we need.

And here's something else I'm realizing. If we feel disappointed when those we do things for, whom we help in various ways, do not reciprocate significantly... or at all... then we are probably doing too much. How much is too much will differ for each of us. But I've discovered that I have reached and then exceeded my own capacity for "doing good." I need to step back, set new limits, and then concentrate on taking better care of myself and my own needs. Not just physical, but emotional, tool. I have a need for entertainment, fun, learning, exploration,.. even shopping... and these are not being fully met at this time. I'm not superwoman, and so part of the problem is that spending so much time doing things for others saps the energy I need to do things for myself. It also eats up a lot of my time.

So... this week my focus will be on starting to regain balance. I will continue my class and tutoring, but tutoring will be limited to two weekdays and the Saturday afternoon class. I need, too, to limit trips to the library, for said tutoring, to one per day. And, most importantly, I need to limit the number of students I teach and tutor. This may take some time, and I'll have to let normal attrition take care of reducing student numbers, but I'm going to do it.

I will inventory what I want to do and accomplish is the rest of my time, and make plans accordingly. Lunch with friends, starting that yoga class, shopping, gardening, entertaining, And catching up with friends I've let kind of drop away because I didn't seem to have the emotional energy to maintain ties. If I want to live well, I'm going to have to learn to recapture this balance.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why I Became a Stealth Frugalista

First, “Stealth Frugality” is not quite the same thing as what most frugalists advocate, authors like Amy Dacyczyn of Tightwad Gazette fame, the still-reigning queen of frugality. And Stealth Frugality is definitely NOT about:

(1) Crafty, sometimes dishonest ways to make people think you are wealthier than you are. It’s a very different mindset from that.

(2) Stingy, white knuckled cheapness, where you never buy anything you don’t absolutely have to, and when you do have to buy something, it’s invariably either second-hand or the cheapest available at the bargain depot.

Both of those approaches enshrine money as the most important deciding factor in your life and decisions. You either try to manufacture illusions that you have more than you really do, or you base every decision almost completely on how little of this limited resource you can get away with letting go of. Either way, money becomes the paramount factor in how you run your life.

And that is simply wrong. Life is not about money and "stuff." The cliches are really true. The very best things in life are free, and money absolutely does not buy happiness.

The whole point of the "Stealth" part of my paradigm is to not annoy people, to not incite pity or a guilty feeling in others that they should "do something" for me, such as always pay for my lunches and cabs. Don't you know people who do that? Talk unendingly about how poor they are, seemingly hoping that someone will step in and pay for things for them, or at least feel sorry for them? That is sooooo boring!

I have a friend who is also a relative by marriage. She's been very wealthy, and now, in her 70s, she's progressively become very poor. Let's call her M. I've honestly never seen anyone make worse money decisions, and so she has made an unfortunate situation much worse than it needs to be. Some of this had to do with planning, and some with day-to-day spending decisions. But I never call to check on her, or take her to lunch, but that I'm regaled with a string of complaints about how poor she is, and how she can't pay her doctor, or this or that. It's really tedious, and no wonder nobody enjoys being around her.

Well, you might say, I AM poor, and there are a lot of things I cannot afford to pay for, either. Sure, but there are other, gentler ways of dealing with and communicating this. Honesty should be one of them, but you don't have to use a "poor me" way of conveying the fact that you can't afford everything your richer friends and relatives can. 

In fact, you probably COULD afford much of what you say you can't. But if your resources are limited, you just have to pick and choose. You need to make it about priorities. You COULD afford that BMW, for example, but to do so you might have to live in a refrigerator carton in the park and give up eating. Same thing with a lot of expensive "stuff." In fact, this whole process of prioritization can be kind of humorous, and when you occasionally have to explain why you've decided not to take that trip, or buy that new car, or whatever - a lighthearted remark about having other things you want more makes sense to even the most well-off folks, and if you do it right, it won't make them feel sorry for you. Even rich people have to prioritize, and they will understand this.

And to do this consistently, you need to have a totally different mindset from those hang-dogs who go around crying poverty. You need to be grateful and appreciative of what you have. You need to have a positive attitude, for sure, and that attitude will free your mind and creativity so that you can take full advantage of what you have and what is available to you. Life as a Stealth Frugalist is so much nicer, for you and everyone around you.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I mentioned the Farmers Almanac winter forecasts in my last post. Overall, they are predicting colder-than-normal temperatures except in the west and southeast, with plenty of snow in the north, wetter rather than whiter as you move south. It's been widely reported that they have predicted a blizzard on the weekend of the February 2 Superbowl Sunday in New Jersey, a game that is to be held outdoors.

This scenario would be a lot different from last year, when I don't think I used my snow shovel once. 2010 was a lot different, as we got hit by one snowfall after another. For this former Californian, it was kind of fun... for awhile.

Winter 2010 in My Neck of the Woods
The Farmers Almanac has provided long range weather forecasts since publication started in 1792. Their forecasts these days are based on regular ol' meteorology and weather cycles, plus sunspot activity. Some Almanac fans claim an 80% accuracy rate for these forecasts. However, Jeff Masters, meteorologist/blogger at Weather Underground, weighed in on this a few years ago. According to him, past Farmers Almanac long range forecasts have not been accurate at all... perhaps no better than random chance.

I was interested to see that the Almanac forecasters have also predicted a global cooling trend, to last several decades, a trend that supposedly already began in 2008. This prediction was based on sun spot activity. It's hard to reconcile this with all the attention being placed on global warming, isn't it? The Almanac isn't the only meteorological source predicting global cooling, rather than warming. (Google it if you don't believe me.) Confusing, particularly as political and economic interests seem to have gotten deeply involved in spinning this particular topic to the point that I don't really trust anybody.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What Happened to my Laptop

When Comcast reattached my internet cable the week before last, the results were interesting. Everything was fine with my phone (I use wi-fi when I'm at home, because in my area, Virgin Mobile's data is very, very slow most of the time.) And  all was well with my tablet, a Kindle Fire. My Samsung Chromebook did a couple of updates, almost invisibly, and was fine.

But my HP laptop! Aaarg... not so fine. It wasn't the hardware, it was the Windows operating system... and the Norton security suite, provided free by Comcast. Now, I keep trying to set Windows update to not do anything without my permission. And somehow it always seems to revert. So as soon as the computer went back online, it immediately started updating, Presumably my cloud storage apps began updating simultaneously, as did every other piece of software installed on the computer.

The result was a computer that would barely run, taking many loooong minutes just to open a small file. I tried the System Restore function, twice before it worked correctly. But then I discovered that many programs, including browsers, could not connect to the internet. I could no longer sign in to Skype, my primary phone service. And nothing changed when I disabled the Windows firewall. I uninstalled my anti-malware program and tried to do the same with the Norton security suite that Comcast helpfully provides to its subscribers. But Norton would not uninstall!

By uninstalling and then re-installing the Chrome and Firefox browsers I'd gotten back some limited internet connectivity. When I Googled for clues as to how to rid myself of Norton, I discovered that Symantic, Norton's parent firm, has a downloadable tool on their site specifically for removing Norton security software! So this must not be a rare problem. From there, it was short work to download and use the removal tool. And voila, I could sign in on Skype, connectivity had been restored to all programs, and everything was running at normal speed. Whew!

The moral of this story, I suppose, is mainly not to use Norton (nor McAfee, as I've had similar problems with it in the past) for internet security. I've installed AVG Free now, and reactivated the Windows firewall. Security is important, but AVG is a highly-rated product and much less likely to cause problems on your computer.

I'm glad to be back online, and now without problems. I was encouraged at how well my Chromebook handled being offline. It doesn't even need to run anti-virus software, because it doesn't install much in the way of software, instead taking advantage of the wi-fi connection and all the cloud-based software. Without wi-fi, it doesn't do much.

I guess a secondary moral would be that if you need or prefer to use Windows as an operating system, and many of us do, keep it and all your software updated by connecting regularly to the internet.

As an aside, we're having spectacular early fall weather here in Delaware. This is absolutely my favorite time of the year, with days still warm but nights cooling off. We need to enjoy it while we can. I hear the Farmer's Almanac is predicting a bitterly cold winter.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Back from an Internet "Fast"

It isn't the season of the year for fasting, but I did it nevertheless. What happened? Somehow Comcast's overhead cable to my house was pulled down and broken. I'd always thought it was very low, crossing the street with a decided sag as it did. But one day in late May, I was sitting at my desk and heard a loud "thunk" right outside the window. When I went out to have a look, I found a long length of black cable lying on the lawn, and a section of rain gutter was loose, where I presume the line had been attached. And, of course, I had no internet service.

I practically had an anxiety attack - "Oh, no... no internet! What ever will I do!" - and I realized that my dependence on this mode of communication and information retrieval had become... excessive. So, instead of calling Comcast for immediate repairs... I let it stay broken. It was weird at first, but not unpleasant. I could still use my Blackberry for e-mail, Facebook, and some other limited internet access, such as weather updates and internet purchases. I took my Chromebook to the local McDonald's and library a few times, both of which have free wi-fi. I upgraded my phone plan from 300 minutes/month to the 1,200 minutes/month plan, at an extra $10.00, since I could no longer use Skype on my computer.

But I read a lot more. And listened to the radio, discovering in the process that, happily, I can now get good reception from WHYY, our local NPR (National Public Radio) station, with its excellent and varied programming. I really didn't miss video much, and cancelled my Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. I don't think I'll go back to these, either. Amazon Prime has so much free video available that I won't run out of things to watch any time in the next decade, and they seem to be increasing their holdings in the BBC and ETV (Educational TV) categories.

Last week I finally decided it was time, and summoned Comcast to reattach my cable line. Which a very nice technician did late one afternoon. So what did I do first? Honestly, I cannot remember! It's easier now to check my e-mail and to watch videos. It's far speedier to use my cloud-stored "stuff", such as the spreadsheets that keep track of my finances and my tutoring student attendance hours. I have ordered a quilt on sale from Sears that I couldn't have accessed without a good internet connection - still waiting for it to arrive at my local Sears store so I can pick it up with no shipping fees.

All in all, I think it was a good experiment. I feel quite confident now that I could do just fine without my home internet service. It's a wonderful convenience, don't get me wrong, but I've discovered that it is not really essential.

Next post... what happened to my Windows laptop when it went online after being offline for three months. Not pretty.  And what I learned.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Top Priority in Retirement

Sunday is my favorite day of the week - I love putting my feet up on the ottoman and digging into the big local Sunday paper. Yesterday, an article in the editorial section caught my eye. It was written by Jennie Chin Hansen, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society. According to Hansen, our first priority, as seniors seeking an active retirement, should be taking care of our health. Now, her advice seemed very centered within Standard American Medicine, and most of her suggestions involved soliciting advice from healthcare professionals, pharmacists, and even geriatrics specialists. Too, I got the impression that she assumes we’re all taking a boat load of medicines. I did, though, find myself in agreement with her main premise. 

Hansen’s article points out that there are 77 million baby boomers out there, over half of them sedentary or overweight or both. I have to admit to the overweight part... sigh... though I’m not sedentary. What this means, though, is that many of us are at increased risk of diabetes, heart trouble and a lot of other diseases that we think of as characteristic of old age. And it’s hard to have an active retirement, let alone to live well, if you’re chronically ill. Not impossible, but much harder. Plus, even with Medicare and good insurance, medical care and prescription drugs can suck up a huge amount of your savings. Buh bye vacation!

Fortunately, according to Hansen, there is a lot we can do to improve our health. She suggests seeing your doctor every year for a checkup, and helpfully points out that Medicare now provides an annual “wellness visit.” She notes that you need to be sure that all those medicines you’re surely taking don’t cause harmful interactions with one another or with your over-the-counter medicines and vitamin supplements. And then there's more advice to consult with your various medical specialists to design a beneficial healthcare, diet, and exercise program for you. Really? Ms. Hansen seems to be living in a different universe from mine. I can’t imagine the harried, rushed doctors I’ve seen most recently taking the time to do all of that in any kind of comprehensive way.

But one of Hansen’s suggestions is brilliant, and though I think we’ve all heard it before, it bears repeating. She wants each of us to become an active participant in our own health care. I totally agree with that. We can no longer depend blindly on our doctors and the pharmaceutical industry to keep us in good health. The way things are going in this country, I’m not confident those of us who retire on a modest income can depend on even mediocre health care being reliably available to us in coming years.

I feel like the best thing I can do for myself is to take responsibility for my health into my own hands. Statistics suggest that at some point I’ll have to deal with a serious illness. But before then, there is a great deal I can learn to do for myself to maintain my health and to correct relatively minor problems, including those things that can lead to serious illness down the road. I don’t want to be one of those oldsters who goes to the doctor every week, takes a zillion pills, and has a mind closed to any health advice not coming from their doctors. I know people like that and they are really pathetic.

In fact, I have a close relative by marriage who exemplifies this attitude. A few years ago she was employed, walking a lot, happy and active. Then she was laid off, and seems to have taken up going to the doctor as a new hobby. First they gave her antidepressants because she was a little unhappy about losing her job. Then, because her cholesterol was a bit high, she was put on a statin drug. Predictably, her capacity to exercise declined and her blood sugar levels rose (both documented side effects of statins), so she stopped walking as much and was put on another prescription for her pre-diabetic condition. Over the last few years, she has continued to see the doctors more and more often, has been given more and more prescription drugs, and has seen her health and level of well-being continue to decline. She remains completely closed to suggestions about lifestyle changes - diet, exercise, natural remedies - and although she’d probably listen to her doctors, they just seem to give her more appointments and more prescriptions.

Personally, I have found it quite valuable to search and use the enormous amount of healthcare information available for free these days via the internet. The problem is that some of it is excellent, and some of it is ridiculously bad, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at sorting the wheat from the chaff, but still there is a lot of good but conflicting information on the web. This is particularly true when it comes to identifying an optimal diet. And that's too bad, because improving our diet may be one of the most important things we can do to improve and maintain our health. Different sources insist on low carbohydrate, or no gluten, or low fat, or no animal-sourced foods, each recommended by a different medical doctor, each doctor with good credentials, and all accompanied by lots of glowing testimonials from real people who got great results.

This lack of uniformity in recommendations causes “information paralysis” in many people, so that they finally give up and go on doing what they’ve always done, which usually is to eat a poor-quality (but tasty) diet and to not exercise any more than they have to. I don’t think all the answers are in yet in the so-called “diet wars,” but if you look at all the recommendations, you find some common threads:
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, both raw and cooked. Vegetables, especially the green or highly-colored and low-starch ones, have the highest ratio of micronutrients to calories and are an important part of virtually every expert's diet recommendations.
  • Include fresh fruit in your diet, too, but not too much. If you have weight problems or are diabetic, you may do better concentrating on lower-sugar fruits like berries and melons. Fruit should be eaten whole, as grown, and not as juice.
  • Eliminate as much processed food as possible. Eat foods as they are grown, in natural, minimally processed form. Sugar, refined grains, and packaged and chemical-laden foods should be avoided.
  • Get some daily exercise, but don’t overdo. Include some aerobic exercise that gets you breathing deeply, such as brisk walking. Also do some resistance exercise and stretching. Resistance exercise, such as lifting weights, helps you retain your muscle, which often atrophies in older, inactive people. Stretching, such as yoga, maintains flexibility and helps avoid injuries. Most of important of all, though, is to do these at your own level and to not over-exercise. Trying to walk long distances or jog when you are not ready, lifting weights that are too heavy, or forcing a stretch, all may cause injury and actually delay your progress in the long run. 

The jury still seems to be out as to the proportions of fat, carbohydrate and protein I should be eating. I need to continue to research and do some trial-and-error self-experimentation to figure that part out. But I think these are recommendations I can rely on and that will continue to support my health as I age.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Confession: I’ve Been Wasting Food

This morning I threw away two chicken legs, uncooked. Earlier this week, I removed them from the freezer and put them in the fridge to thaw. Then I put away some groceries in front of the chicken... and they got lost. I forgot about them until too late.

I felt bad about tossing the chicken, but it smelled bad. It was definitely spoiled, and who wants to risk food poisoning? Fortunately, I bought the chicken legs in bulk for 79¢ a pound, so the loss was small. Still, every time I sort out the refrigerator I throw out wilted vegetables and past-prime or even moldy leftovers. The individual cost of these items is usually small... but they add up.

I wonder how much I would be cutting from my food budget if I could eliminate most of this waste? Maybe 25%, according to the experts, because it turns out that in the US, consumers waste 25% of the food we buy. 

I think the main reasons I personally end up throwing out food are these:
  • I buy too much of something and am unable to use it all before it spoils. I do this a lot with fruit and vegetables.
  • I cook too much, and even though I always save leftovers, they don’t always get used.
  • Things get pushed to the back of the refrigerator, effectively disappearing until it’s too late. This is what happened with my chicken legs.
  • I don’t keep track of what needs to be used soon, so that I can plan to use it up before it expires. I used to go through my refrigerator once or twice a week and make a list of what needed to be used right away. 
  • I haven’t been planning out lunches and dinners that incorporate my soon-to-expire items. I used to make that “use soon” list just before making a weekly menu plan and shopping list. 
  • I know something needs to be used, but I impulsively choose to eat something else that I like better at the moment, or to pick up a pizza, hamburger, or other quick meal instead. 

What I see is that I need to recover some of the organization and planning skills that I used when my kids were home and I was planning and cooking daily meals. In the more relaxed environment of empty-nesthood and retirement I’ve slacked off a lot. I’ve stopped planning my lunch and dinner menus, and I almost never take a really careful look at what’s on hand before planning menus or heading out for groceries.

More discipline is called for in the case of impulsive fast food meals, of course. But discipline, planning and organization are at the heart of all these new and better ways of doing things to limit food waste.

Food wastage is a big issue not just in our personal budgets, but in environmental responsibility as well. Because food production consumes a significant amount of the energy used nationally, as well as most of the fresh water used in the US, cutting back on personal food waste lessens our energy and water use footprints and cuts greenhouse gas emissions. 

I really want to do better at this. I hate throwing food out. My raised-during-the-Great Depression mom definitely inculcated frugality concepts in me. But more importantly, cutting my food waste is just a good thing to do for myself as well as the environment.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Stealth Frugality": How I Learned the Concepts

Deciding to live well, on a small retiree's budget, meant dredging up some of the frugality skills I learned years ago. Back then, as a stay-at-home mom and wife of a pathologically stingy husband, I needed to learn to do a lot with a little.

Some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, before I discovered The Tightwad Gazette and Amy Dacyzysn (legendary now in frugality circles), I read a book called Champagne Living on a Beer Budget by Mike and Marilyn Ferguson. Dacyzysn's writing is better known, but I'm glad I discovered the Fergusons first. Their approach to frugality was quite different from that of Dacyzysn, very up-beat and creative.

More recently, I bought a used paperback copy of Champagne Living but did not find it as compelling as I did all those years ago. Back then it was cutting edge stuff... now, it's more mainstream, things we've all heard before. However, it models what I think of as "Stealth frugality," the best kind to use if you want to live a good life in retirement without being annoying or pathetic.

Too often, when I read articles and blogs about frugality, it sounds so depressing. You spend less, but your result... the life you create... is not particularly lovely or inspiring. Savings become your primary focus, and honestly that's not any more appealing than when money and wealth are your focus. They seem like just two sides of the same coin to me.

Stealth Frugality, on the other hand, focuses primarily on having the good things of life, the beautiful and desirable things that make your life a wonderful place to be, with the things that make you feel good. This is easy when you have a lot of money. But it's also possible on that beer budget, too. Living well on a shoestring really is an art, and a very personal one.

Living well on little, but not sinking into the grinding, depressing stinginess that the word "tightwad" brings to mind, definitely requires a new way of thinking. Here are a few of the things I remember learning from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget. These remain the most important elements of a Stealth Frugality skill set:

  • Prioritization - If you don't have all the money in the world, you have to decide which things are the most important to you. This is highly individual. I pay for high speed internet, but not for cable TV, because I just don't like watching TV that much. I like expensive clothes , but get my underwear on sale at K-Mart. We decide what's important... to us, not to other people... and then spend the money we have accordingly.
  • Good taste - You need to become familiar with what quality looks and feels like, or you will find it hard to identify bargains that are of good quality. For example, Marshall's and TJ Maxx have hundreds of handbags, but only a small fraction are of good quality. The good bags often look very like the junkier ones. If you know how to look for quality and good brands, though, you can buy a super-nice leather bag that will look good for years and years, compared to a cheaper one that will look shabby by next year. Even though the good bag may cost two or three times the lower-quality one, your cost-per-use will be far less with the good bag. You can easily learn to tell the difference in quality in everything you buy by reading top-of-the-line fashion and shelter magazines and by browsing at upper-end retail stores.
  • Research skills - Knowing how to get information is still very important when it comes to frugality, but nowadays we mostly use the internet. I've learned so much about how to have and do things for less from websites, blogs, and search engines. For instance, I've found that what drives up the cost of foodie-type cooking is mostly a lot of unusual, difficult-to-find, and expensive ingredients. But by searching the internet for simpler recipes that use good-quality but commonly-available ingredients, I can prepare dishes that cost less, taste delicious, and as a bonus are often of historical interest. Likewise, it's nice to know how to compare the plus-shipping costs of things you buy online. And the internet is full of free, detailed how-to's for everything from plumbing repairs to building furniture.
  • Delayed gratification - Failure to acquire this "skill" is a common downfall of would-be frugalists. One thing I distinctly remember from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget is the dictum to never, ever buy something because you need it right now. Instead, try to find a work-around - borrow, rent, find an alternative. Then buy only when you find a bargain. Buying in need usually means paying full price. Waiting to buy during an end-of-season clearance or off-season sale often allows you to buy top quality for much less. But this requires planning ahead and delayed gratification.
  • Organization and record keeping - You can find lots of lists of what is on sale when, and plan your purchases accordingly. Buy new lawn furniture in the fall, at an end-of-summer clearance, rather than waiting for spring and paying full price. This requires you to plan ahead, anticipate your future needs, and keep lists and calendars. Likewise, you should be keeping lists of gifts you'll need to give, so you can pick up nice things in advance and at a good price. This saves you money, and also allows you to give nicer gifts than you would have otherwise.
  • Thinking outside the box - Creativity is maybe the most important skill you'll need to be really successful at stealth frugality. Once you know what you like, what will make you feel good, creativity and smarts are what will help you figure out how to achieve it, or an acceptable feel-good equivalent that is within your budget. Personally, I'm not very creative, but I borrow other people's creativity, usually found in magazine or newspaper articles or on the internet. I love seeing how people can take a very expensive decorating or fashion look and recreate it on a shoestring. Being good at finding, combining, and/or adapting other people's good ideas is a valid form of creativity.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Time Management - Needed in Retirement More than Ever

More than ever, as we age, we need to take seriously how we use our time. A lot of people just throw out their agendas and planners when they retire. I am starting to think that I may need mine more than ever! I just find it so easy to slide through a day unstructured by job or appointments. Too often I find myself at the end of the day having accomplished very little that will have any positive effect on my tomorrows.

This morning, a quote caught my attention:
Much of the trajectory of our lives is made up of seemingly small, daily decisions.” ~~ Doug Sherman in More than Ordinary.
Thinking about this, I realized that it’s not yet too late. I can still change the course of my life via these kinds of small, daily decisions. It’s true - they do seem small and insignificant on a day-by-day basis. And as such, I think I tend to ignore them. Whether or not I go for that morning walk, write entries in my journal and gratitude pages, get my household and garden maintenance chores done, reach out to friends and family - none of these seem very crucial to any given day. Almost always there are much more urgent or desirable things I need to do, or want to do - things like preparing lesson plans and handouts for teaching; paying bills; reading the newspaper, blogs, or a good book; attending meetings. Those little, daily things, they can always be done tomorrow if I don’t have the time or inclination today, can’t they?

But as Sherman suggests, little decisions to slack off on the small things we need to do, in order to create the kind of life we deeply desire, are actually decisions in themselves. They are decisions to NOT go after my longer range goals in favor of short-term ones that I actually care a lot less about.

This morning's meditation has given me a lot to think about regarding how I conduct my life. There are quite a few things I still want to do, ways I still want to improve my life and how I live. I've already started forming some excellent new habits. But I see that creating a more focused approach to planning my time each day is now in order.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Honor Thy Parents? Not So Much for Some

On Saturday, my students surprised me with a lovely party. It turns out that May 15 is Teacher's Day in Mexico, and Mother's Day was Sunday, and so they wanted to honor me on both counts. To say I was very touched would be an understatement. Here are the beautiful flowers I was given... a dozen fragrant, deep pink roses and a pretty orchid plant. There were other gifts, lots of delicious tamales and other good food, and impromptu speeches about how thankful they've been for my help, my patience, and my friendship. They even played mariachi music!

They are such a lovely group of people, and I really did feel deeply honored. None of these people are at all wealthy, but the depth of their generosity always surprises me. I've noticed after years of volunteer tutoring and teaching adult English learners, people from all different cultures, people without a lot of money, that compared to most other cultures we Americans have become increasingly neglectful, if not disrespectful, of our adult parents.

Personally, I am acquainted with more than a few women who I know were great mothers, who spent years making sacrifices for their children. Women who typically are forgotten by their children on Mother's Day, birthdays, holidays.  I know there are lots of good mothers who on Mother's Day were not honored in any way. Usually they don't talk readily about this situation. They put on a brave face, make excuses for their children, and don't complain. Many are deeply ashamed and feel they have failed as parents. They don't realize how common a situation this has become... there are many others in the same boat, but practically nobody's talking about it.

Today's American society just does not put the emphasis on family ties and honoring of parents that existed in the past, and still does in most other cultures. I cannot imagine something like this happening among any of the foreign-born students I've worked with. They would find such behavior abhorrent. True, there are still countless families in the U.S. in which adult children appreciate and honor their mothers and fathers. But from what I have seen, there is also a growing trend towards blatant ingratitude and neglect. And it seems like the better off the children are financially, the more likely this is to be the case.

As one of my friends put it when we were talking about her rather flagrantly neglectful kids, "Out of sight, out of mind." These same children, though, are always ready to schedule visits to their parents' beautiful home, located in a vacation destination area, and even to drop off the grand kids to spend a week  with their grandparents. I think maybe we have somehow managed to raise a lot of really spoiled offspring.

Personally, I had a nice Mother's Day. I was taken for a delicious brunch by my daughter, son-in-law, and grand kids. To say I felt totally honored would be pushing things, though, since my daughter says that she isn't creative about gifts and will need me to give her precise instructions about what gift I would like. I feel really awkward about this sort of thing. I don't know what would be an appropriate price range, for one thing. A card, gift certificate or a bunch of flowers or a plant would have been easier. Now it will feel like I'm asking for something. But compared to what I keep seeing among other women my age, I feel guilty grumbling at all.

For so many older parents, the situation really is heartbreaking, especially those who are alone, divorced or widowed. So if you have friends, or even just acquaintances, who you suspect may be ignored on important days like Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays, and other holidays - celebrate with them! It won't be the same as coming from their children, of course. But as little as a call, a card, a visit, or even a quick e-mail could help make their day. If some of our adult children have forgotten how to honor their aging parents, well then... I think we should just do it for one other.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Do You Remember Dime Stores?

Do you remember dime stores? Or sometimes they were called five-and-dime stores. When I was a kid, in the 1950s, there was a dime store on the main street of my beach town, and we used to love to spend hours browsing through its offerings. It had a little of everything, much of it made in Japan, all of it pretty cheap, in both the cost and quality senses of that word. Pencils, paper doll books, rubber flip-flop sandals, those little blue glass bottles of Evening in Paris cologne, small pastel diaries complete with a lock and tiny brass key... all ours to covet and maybe buy with allowance or chores money.

The five-and-dime stores have been gone for a long time now. But... not really. They reappeared several decades ago, reinvented per inflation as dollar stores. And when the recession hit, dollar store sales skyrocketed. There are quite a few different chains, but  in my area we have Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General, and they always seem busy. Inflation has again hit... dollar stores often offer a lot of things for sale for more than a dollar.

One of my planned activities this weekend is a walk to the neighborhood Family Dollar to get more canned dog food. I feed Petey a good quality dry kibble with a couple tablespoons of canned food mixed in, to make it more appetizing for him. Family Dollar's selection of dry dog food is pretty pathetic... corn seems to be the main ingredient in all, and the last time I tried that Petey ended up with an astoundingly bad case of "doggie dandruff." I've had to start ordering Eukanuba's dachshund food from to get his skin back to normal. Pet food seems to be one of those things where you often do get better quality by paying more.

The canned dog food I get at Family Dollar is a good example of why dollar store shopping is not always the bargain you'd assume it to be. The Family Dollar price for the brand Petey and I like is no different than the supermarket price. I buy it there mostly for convenience... it's nearby and I don't need to take the bus. Actually, Family Dollar's prices are often about the same as supermarket prices, or a bit lower, but they tend to carry more of the lower-cost brands. That's where most of my savings come in, because most of these (but not all, such as the dog kibble!) are as good as the higher-priced brands. Sometimes even better!

I've learned that the "rounding up" phenomenon that occurs at some dollar stores, such as Dollar Tree, can make prices actually higher than conventional stores. Due to inflation, a lot of dollar stores have given up on trying to sell only items for $1.00. But some, like Dollar Tree, still try to maintain that price for a majority of their merchandise. Sometimes this results in a really good deal. But sometimes you can find the same item for less at groceries or discount stores. Some shampoos that sell for $1.00 at Dollar Tree can be had at the supermarket for $0.89 on sale, for example. Last week Dollar Tree was selling name brand canned beans for a dollar,  but I can always get an equivalent product at the grocery store for less. No bargain here. On the other hand, I can always find full-size tubes of name-brand toothpaste for $1.00 at Dollar Tree, which is a huge savings - much cheaper than drug stores,  groceries, or even Family Dollar.

So to use dollar stores effectively, I've had to train myself to pay more attention to prices. I've read about really hard-core frugalists keeping "price books," which they carry with them on shopping trips and keep updated with the best prices and sources of everything they buy. A good idea, but time consuming and more trouble than I've ever wanted to go to.

Maybe an even more important skill for using dollar stores effectively is learning to avoid impulse purchases. Sometimes I find something at a dollar store that I'd been kind of thinking about buying, but for a lot more money. It makes sense in this case to grab it fast. But... it's so, so easy to end up with a bag full of cheap, appealing stuff that I don't really need, cancelling out my savings on my planned purchases. I'm getting a lot better at this.

In doing volunteer work, I meet a lot of well-heeled women, and have been surprised how many of them regularly shop at dollar stores. In fact, when I was new to this city, I got some of my best bargain-hunting tips from a pair of ladies who live out in the suburbs in million-dollar homes. I have come to believe that we humans have not completely outgrown our hunter-gather pasts, and that's why so many of us enjoy the hunt for bargains. Bargain hunting  is not only a very useful skill when you are living on a tight  budget, but it seems to fulfill some primal psychological need, for some of us at least. I like to think of it as a profitable form of entertainment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Save Your Brain... Exercise!

I recently watched the West Wing fourth season episode titled The Long Goodby, originally aired in January 2003. I just loved that TV series, by the way, and am re-watching it on my Kindle via Amazon instant video. This touching episode was unusual in that it was set mostly outside of Washington DC, and dealt almost completely with C.J. Cregg's father and his worsening Alzheimer's disease. This kind of "loss of cognitive functioning" is something I think most of us worry about. Even if we don't "get" Alheimer's disease, older adults tend to lose at least some brain volume and show some degree of memory loss as they age. That's scary.

But I just read a good-news article that gives me a reason to feel less concerned about these kinds of potential changes. It reports a study showing, with concrete physiological reasons, that aerobic exercise really is good for brain function. It looks like exercise not only helps maintain cognition, but can actually improve it, even in seniors. The important and encouraging takeaway from the article:
"These theoretically important findings indicate that aerobic exercise training is effective in reversing hippocampal volume  loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function."
The article is titled Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory. It reports specifically on the effects of exercise on the brains of older people (average age well over 60), and makes it clear that if you aren't getting regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, you're passing up an opportunity to keep your brain working well and to stave off deterioration and even dementia.

The hippocampus, according to Wikipedia, in case you didn't know (I didn't) is a critically important part of our brains. It's two parts reside in each of your brain's two halves and together they are very involved in memory function, especially conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory, and also in spatial memory and function. The hippocampus tends to decrease in volume as people age, and is the first part of the brain to show shrinkage and impaired function in early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

This one-year study demonstrated that seniors who participated in moderate (high-intensity workouts not required) aerobic exercise, just three times a week, not only retained hippocampal volume, but on average increased it. The control group only did stretching exercises, and instead showed decrease in hippocampal size.

Now, I already walk quite a bit, several times a week at least, just to get to the store and to my volunteer tutoring appointments. But I'm often carrying a heavy book bag or towing a load of groceries. I'm not sure how "brisk" my walking usually is.. not very, I'm afraid. I'm thinking that I need to add in some more truly aerobic exercise - faster walking, or even the aerobic video DVDs I have accumulated but rarely use.

Last summer I was gung-ho on Weight Watchers, and in an attempt to accumulate "activity points," and thus be able to eat a bit more, I went out for a 30-45 minute brisk walk every morning. It  became part of my routine, a habit. I took Petey for his walk later in the day - he likes to stop and sniff everything too much to make him a good companion for even moderately aerobic walking. When the cold weather hit in the fall, I gradually stopped the morning walks and my exercise was once again limited to just my "utility walking," I guess you could call it, and short, slow walks with the dog.

Monday I wrote about my current early-morning routine. After reading this article, I think I'm going to add exercise to it. After a quick shower, I'll pull on some sweats, a t-shirt or sweatshirt (depending on the weather), cushiony socks, walking shoes, and of course my MP3 player, and get in a nice walk before the rest of my day starts.

Monday, May 6, 2013

New Morning Rituals in Retirement

I have a morning routine, as most people probably do. One of the nice things about being retired is that my mornings are rarely at all rushed. It's unusual for me to have anything scheduled before 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. I remember the rush-rush workday mornings vividly though. Rush to get up and shower, get dressed, dry hair, fix and eat breakfast, multitasking all the while. Now I go at a more measured pace, and it's lovely. No more multi-tasking.

A few of my first things, after getting up and finding my robe and slippers are fixing a large mug of coffee with soy milk, wandering out to the sun porch to peer through the glass and see if the paper has been delivered, and sitting down at my computer (on the dining room table) to check "stuff." I sit looking out on trees and a park, so there is a very pretty view. I love how it changes with the weather and seasons. Currently there is a lot of lush, green spring leafiness, reminding me that I really need to do a major pruning of the hedge. Oh well... yawn... too early for that.

I check my calendar, then my e-mail. One rather new early-morning ritual I have gotten fond of is the daily email from A.Word.A.Day, a free service from If you like words and reading, or just learning new words, this is for you. Personally, I've grown to love words, and it's fun opening up the A.Word.A.Day e-mail each morning and learning, or renewing acquaintance with, another unusual word. Each day's e-mail includes information, sometimes speculation, about the word's origins, and a sentence illustrating its use. A bonus is a new quotation at the end of the post, and their quotes are great. Each week has a theme - this week's is words that sound rude, but aren't. Last week's featured some unusual words of foreign origin, such as "boondocks" from Tagalog.

Actually, much of our English language, it turns out, came from other languages. It was instructive and fascinating to read about the origins of modern English, in order to help explain the language to my adult English-learner students. The large quantity of borrowed vocabulary explains our hodge-podge of spelling, grammar, and phonetic rules, none of which actually work well as rules and make pronunciation and spelling a nightmare for English learners. It constantly amazes me how well they do.

So... next in my morning routine comes Facebook and the news. I want to hate Facebook, but then there are the photos of grandkids and the occasional interesting post from others. I've learned to scroll quickly through all the ads. And I just found and joined a large Facebook group that actually is actually a great use of Facebook. It's a large (4,000+ members) open group about my beach city hometown, with strong emphasis on the past. Almost every day someone has posted an old photo or question or reminiscence about days gone by at the beach... it's a nice bit of nostalgia that I've quickly come to look forward to.

I still get a local print newspaper delivered to my door. In these days of waning readership I think local newspapers provide an important community service and that it's important to support them. Unless you live in a large city, local web news is likely to be neither complete nor comprehensive. But I do like to perform a morning scan of a few news websites, including the New York Times, The Daily Beast and Huffington Post. If you don't like my choices, don't worry - next week my list will be different. I'm very fickle about my news sources. I hardly ever look at The Drudge Report these days, for example, but I will surely be back.

Frankly, I think it is extremely important for us citizens to scan a wide variety of news sources. I don't trust any one of them, but by reading and listening to sources from the far right all the way to the far left, I think I get a clearer picture of what is really going on. I've noticed that this has made me a lot more tolerant of those who hold views different from my own. I think a lot of the polarization (red state, blue state stuff for example) is a result of many people only hearing or paying attention to one side of the arguments.

So by this time, I've usually also fed the dog and had a second mug of coffee. The sun is up and it's time to shut off the computer and really start my day. I've found in retirement that it's far too easy to just drift through the hours without much structure. Establishing new, more leisurely rituals like this has helped me, I believe, to add some relaxed structure to my days, although I'm still having trouble with a sense of not getting enough done. But that's another post.

Friday, May 3, 2013

More Free Cloud Storage

I heard another one of those scary radio ads recently, about how you could accidentally lose everything you store on your computer: e-mail, photos, letters, e-books, etc. I had a hard disk crash on me a couple years ago, so I know first-hand that you need to back up your computer storage. But there is so much free cloud storage out there that I don't feel the need to pay for the kind of backup service that was featured in that radio advertisement. In addition to the storage services I've written about, SkyDrive is worthy of consideration.

Microsoft's SkyDrive gives you 7 gigabytes (GB) of free storage, which is a lot. If you want, you can buy another 20 GB for $20 a year. Microsoft currently aims to have the lowest cloud storage cost of all the major players, so this is quite a good deal. You can use the storage for all kinds of files - it is not just for Microsoft Office documents.

When you sign up for SkyDrive, you also get free use (if you want it) of Microsoft's online Office suite, including for e-mail, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These are simplified, basic versions of these Office classics, and you don't have to download or install them. You simply use the online (in the cloud) to create and edit documents, including documents that you created on your computer using installed versions of Office. These online versions will work for most of us, but may not suffice if you use, say, a lot of fancy formatting or elaborate spreadsheet formulas.

You can use SkyDrive just on the web, or you can download a Windows app for your computer, which will create a dedicated SkyDrive folder for  storing everything. Used this way, SkyDrive keeps everything in the folder backed up. If you change anything, it is promptly changed in the cloud, also. (In other words, it acts like Dropbox, but gives you more than three times as much free storage.)

Honestly, I don't use the online MS Office suite often, as I had already gotten in the habit of using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. But I have to admit - these free Microsoft cloud programs are really user-friendly, prettier, and have better help documentation than Google Docs. They will feel quite intuitive, especially if you are a long-time MS Office user. I find them handy for opening and editing Office documents if I am working on somebody else's computer.

And all these online Office programs, including the new web-based Outlook e-mail, have a beautiful, easy-to-read interface - better than Google for older eyes. I especially like the calendar. But I don't think Microsoft is as far along as Evernote, Dropbox, and Google in making it all accessible on a truly wide variety of mobile platforms. It doesn't work on my Blackberry, for example, and wasn't in the Kindle app store. However, there are apps for IOS, Android, and Windows mobile.

So here's how I use SkyDrive. I have it set up on my primary computer as a separate folder in Windows Explorer, with many subfolders. I store all my lesson plans and handouts here, because I always use Microsoft Word 2003 for this work. (I prefer the ease and accuracy of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) insertion, cropping, and placement of graphics into Word documents compared to any other word processing software I've used.) I also store some photos and miscellaneous letters. I've used less than 2 GB of the free 25 GB I got from Microsoft (I was grandfathered into this in some way I never figured out.) I like that everything is right on my computer, but is always current in SkyDrive's cloud.

But I use other cloud storage too, remember. I have 35 GB of free storage on Google, plus 20 GB for which I pay $4.95 a year for under a legacy plan. And Google gave me an additional 100 GB, good for two years, when I bought a Chromebook.

In addition, I clip and store a lot of web-based stuff on Evernote, which allows unlimited total storage but limits you to 60 megabytes per month in uploads. It's hard to say how much I have stored there, maybe 2 GB or so. I also have 3.75 GB of free storage on DropboxAmazon has given me free storage for 250 songs, plus an additional 5 GB of free cloud storage. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's a total of 75 GB of free storage, not even counting the temporary stuff from Google and the songs on Amazon!

So as you can see, most individual users will be able to store all their computer files, with plenty of room to spare, on the "free" versions of the major cloud storage services. This may change over time, but right now... the price is right!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Gratitude Experiment

The dogwoods are now in full, spectacular bloom. I took this photo on a morning walk during the rather soggy start to this week. When the dogwood petals start falling, you can think you're in the middle of a snow flurry! This morning we have a blue, blue sky with nary a cloud - spectacular spring weather once again.

As I've gotten older, I more and more appreciate the cyclical changes of the seasons and day-to-day changes in the weather. There always seems to be something to be grateful for. And since revisiting Law of Attraction philosophy this week, I've been thinking more about gratitude, and its psychological effect.

I kept a "gratitude log" several times in the past. I began the first one in response to something I'd been reading, perhaps SimpleAbundance by Sarah ban Breathnach. I continued for a while each time, but frankly, I found it a bit tedious. I kept writing the same things every day... my cozy warm home; the beautiful morning sunshine; my family; my sweet little dog; etc., etc. In retrospect, I guess I wasn't always feeling positive enough to identify a lot of new things to be grateful for each day. But still, I did find it comforting to simply recount the ongoing graces of my life.

Just always having "enough" is truly something to be grateful for, even for those of us with limited incomes. And I cannot really say that there has ever been a time in my life that I did not have enough, that I ever lacked something that I truly needed. Not once, not ever.

There have, however, been times when I did not accept things that could have made my life easier. I think here of the years during my career that I worked obsessively, put in so many hard hours, because I somehow felt it was required. But that "requirement," one that sucked up so much of my life during those years and kept me from doing the other things I wanted and needed to do, I saw later, was really a construction of my imagination. And of my ego, too, I guess. But I think I learned from that experience, and when the same situation arose more recently in my work life, I was able to recognize the problem and get myself out the situation much more quickly. It did tick off my boss, though, an indication that the problem was not solely of my making.

One thing I do know, quite surely, is that focusing on gratitude for all the good things in my life always makes an enormous positive impact on my mental attitude. I don't think I've ever been happier or more positive than during the times when I've taken a few minutes every day to dwell on what I'm thankful for, especially when I've written some of them down. I was so optimistic and upbeat during those periods - about my circumstances, people, and things that came up day-to-day. And I believe things really did go better for me during those times.It wasn't just in my head (although my better attitude undoubtedly influenced how things played out.)

So my new intention, starting today, is to resume keeping a notebook with a list of "gratitudes". And this time, I'm going to focus more on finding new things to be grateful for, things that have come up during the last 24 hours, instead of just writing the same things over and over, worthy of gratitude though they may be. I will set aside a tabbed section in my organizer with plenty of fresh, unlined paper, and add to the list each morning. It will be an experiment of sorts, and I look forward to it. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

What is the Law of Attraction All About?

I downloaded a free e-book book from Amazon this weekend (it's now back to $2.99). It looked like a book about financial management, and since I want to learn more about this subject, and I've picked up some real gems from Amazon's list of 100 best-selling free Kindle books, I decided to try it. Well, I've only read a couple of chapters, but it seems to be mostly about the Law of Attraction (LOA) as it applies to personal finance. I may comment further on the book,  when I've finished, but I do want to comment on the LOA. It's been huge for the last few years.
 Link to Amazon Book Listing

Various permutations of the LOA attribute success, getting what you want and so on, to a process usually called manifesting. Manifesting is supposed to be a result of your ability to align your thoughts, vibrations, feelings, and/or internal images, with the Universe or God or something like that. So you don't so much get things as you manifest, or somehow assist the Universe, in creating them. On a first pass this seems patently ridiculous, doesn't it? But these books and movies, such as The Secret, are absolutely chock full of testimonials from people swearing that they, indeed, were able to manifest things such as Rolex watches, BMW's, and checks with lots of zeros in the amounts. So what's up with that?

Honestly, I'm not really sure. My opinion at this time is that it's mostly (or completely) about changing your own attitude. Your attitude is everything, and if there is any "magic" here, I think it may be in our ability to pick up attitudinal signals from people around us. For example, after reading a book on Positive Thinking years ago, I began to notice that when I was feeling positive and "up," strangers reacted very differently to me than when I was feeling "down." Even when I was down and made every effort to control body language, speech, and appearance, people still acted in accordance with how I really felt, not how I tried to appear to feel.

I remember a young woman who worked in my office. She was in no way beautiful. She had rather coarse features and was rather ethnic-looking at a time when that was not in vogue. But she seemed to believe she was a knock-out, and she totally projected that. Everything in the way she dressed, styled her long hair, and presented herself, said "beautiful lady." And men were very, very impressed. I've since noticed many other women with that "attitudinal beauty." I've also known a lot of women who had nice figures, good hair and features, but who did not project beauty, and were largely overlooked.

A second element is your own expectations, and what you will permit for yourself, what you will allow yourself to anticipate and strive for. If you don't believe in yourself, or in the world's ability or intention to provide for you, then you will tend to not see a lot of real opportunities, and you will have a pessimism-based risk aversion that prevents you from taking advantage of even the opportunities you do perceive.

I've read, and observed, that people's stations in adult life often mirror the socioeconomic levels in which they were raised. Men who were brought up by wealthy, entrepreneurial fathers are far more likely, regardless of education and intelligence, to end up at approximately the same level as their fathers. Men who grew up in poverty are much less likely to have achieved wealth. There are many elements that contribute to this phenomenon. However, attitudes, beliefs that support accepting for oneself this kind of achievement, and especially that support the effort required to get there, are probably near the top of the list.

Now, this is not what the LOA is supposed to be about, not at all. But, I've noticed that one of the almost-universal elements in LOA methods is a strong focus on gratitude. Becoming aware of all the good things that come to you, and that are in your life. Developing a strong concentration on these positive things, and a refusal to dwell, or do more than barely notice, the negatives. Learning to reframe negatives as positives. Isn't this actually a reworked form of Positive Thinking, with a strong overlay of magic?

Whatever it is, I believe it can work, if it results in people really changing their fundamental beliefs about themselves, their potential, and their abilities. And perhaps the element of magic makes it easier for us to buy into these new beliefs. By adulthood, most of us have formulated pretty concrete ideas of who we are and what we are capable of, of what we can have and what isn't for us, even though we think we'd really like it. I think the LOA method's primary role in change, then, is not invoking the help of some higher power, but in changing what we believe we are deserving and capable of.

Friday, April 26, 2013

You Get What You Pay For... Or Do You?

"You get what you pay for." All my life I've heard that said whenever somebody complained about the speedy demise of some cheapo item they purchased. The moral was that the value you got from purchases... quality, durability... was supposedly commensurate with price. I always believed this. Sort of. I realized there were exceptions, but thought it held up as a general rule of thumb.

But is it true? The longer I frugalize, to coin a verb, the more I find that it often is not true. But again, sometimes it is. So knowing when I can safely economize, and when I'm better off spending more, has been an important key to learning to live well on a small budget.

For example, I've found Suave shampoo, at $1 a bottle, to be as good for my hair as brands that cost many times as much. It cleans well and leaves no discernible residue. And it comes in wonderful scents that make my morning shower very enjoyable. This one, a lavender-lilac scent, is a favorite, but all are quite nice. The conditioners are good, too, although I don't use rinse-out conditioner any more. Instead, a couple of times a week I rub into my damp, just-shampooed hair, a pea-sized dollop of Pantene cream conditioner. It adds a bit of conditioning to my non-treated hair and makes it easier to comb out, but doesn't leave an oily residue and doesn't need to be rinsed out when used like this. Super-frugal, too, as a $4 bottle lasts for a year or more.

Another great personal care product I use is Clear BASICS Vitamin E skin care cream, with aloe vera and jojoba oil. I've been using it for several years now, and it is, hands down, the best facial and body moisturizer I've ever used. It is quite rich and moisturizing, but does not leave a heavy, oily residue. It soothes my dry skin even in extremely cold, dry winter weather, but works well in the summer, too. It lists fragrance as an ingredient, but never irritates my sensitive skin. I like it a lot better than the Elizabeth Arden, Clinique, and other expensive, big name brands I used to use. Best of all,  a 16 oz. jar sells for less than $2 at my local Family Dollar store. Unbelievable.

My favorite eye liner pencil and foundation also come from Family Dollar. On the other hand, I pay big bucks (well, sorta big) for Clinique's Brow Shaper, a powdered product that works way better than any pencil for adding color to my eyebrows. There are no rules for this. I just try the inexpensive stuff and see if it works for me. There are some duds, but sometimes I find real bargains.

Another example from the clothing category is a lightweight black rain jacket I bought six or seven years ago at Value City, a now-defunct discount store. The jacket was not a name brand, but the price was right and I needed a black jacket. It was just OK. Well, I hate that jacket! Every time I wear it, it feels cheap and tacky. I don't know why I haven't thrown it away. In hindsight, I realize I should have spent more, even a lot more, and gotten something I actually liked.

Same thing with perfumes. I just like quality perfumes. When students have gifted me with cheaper brands, Avon or drugstore brands, I never like them. It's worth it to me to get the good stuff. I've been wearing Caleche by Hermes and Opium by Yves St. Laurent this winter, and am switching to Spendor by Elizabeth Arden and Cabotine by Gres for warmer weather. But I no longer pay retail for these. Discounters usually have overstocked or discontinued eau de toilette and colognes for sale, so I just check each time I shop. I never pay more than $20 or so. This works for me because, although I like quality, I am pretty flexible about scents. Discounters never have testers - I just find a good name brand, usually a French or American designer, and take my chances. I've gotten a couple that were a little heavy and that I used sparingly in cold weather. But I've never gotten anything I couldn't wear and truly enjoy. I have a penniless friend who will only wear Diorissimo, and who is as a result perfumeless most of the time, poor thing. It pays to be flexible if you're frugal.

So - price? Quality? It all depends. The important thing in keeping myself happy when spending sparingly has been to really investigate and learn where it pays to spend more, and where I can meet my needs with a bargain purchase. This "needs assessment" absolutely must include emotional satisfaction as well as functionality, and since each person is different, each person will come to different conclusions, make different choices. I continue to learn from my mistakes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Less is More

I see so many pretty flowers as I go for my daily walks. Spring is good to us, as usual. The flowering cherry trees and magnolias are fading, sunny yellow forsythia is hanging on, tulips are in full bloom, and trees have gone from bare, gray branches to feathery canopies of that particularly delightful pale spring green. But this year, my favorites of all have been the dandelions, poking their yellow heads out of the new green grass. They're everywhere!

I took this photo on Saturday in back of the local Lutheran church, which has an especially lush lawn and cheerful, abundant dandelions. It just makes me happy to look at them! The weeping cherry was spectacular, in all its pale pink bloom. But the dandelions, small and simple as they are, said "spring" to me more than any of the more impressive floral displays.

Sometimes... often... less is more. As a quote, this saying is attributed to Coco Chanel, the iconic French designer. The principle seems timeless and universal.
I think want to keep it in the forefront as I continue to redesign life - my routines, my surroundings, even my budget. I believe it is a true guide, to be seriously considered when making any changes, especially life changes.

Yesterday I wrote about consolidating my computer record-keeping and calendaring into a simple scheme that works together as a whole, and can be gotten to wherever an internet connection exists. I'm seeing how that has been a subconscious search for order and simplicity in the way I process and keep information. What can I apply this principle to next? Decluttering, definitely... 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Organizing and Using Cloud Storage is Frugal and Efficient

Keeping stuff organized can be such a time sink, whether it comes to storing all my things at home, or keeping track of the tons of information I keep on my computer, or more recently, "in the cloud" to be accessed by computer.

I really do store a lot of digital material:

  • E-mail, of course
  • Contact information for everybody I've ever interacted with
  • Document files for lesson plans and handouts for my ESL classes and tutoring
  • Student information, including scanned intake forms, pictures, scanned writing samples
  • Scanned PDF files of books and instructional and product manuals
  • Scans of out-of-print books and collections of worksheets for teaching use
  • Photos I take, and those I download from Facebook and e-mail, mostly of my family
  • MP3 files of recorded books, podcasts, and radio programs I want to listen to
  • More MP3 files of music and language course instructional materials
  • Recipes
  • Knitting and crochet patterns and pattern books in PDF form
  • My financial recordkeeping system, based on Google Spreadsheets
  • Scans and web clips of all kinds of financial information, including receipts, records of online payment and purchases, and tax forms
  • Documents I want to be able to later download and read on my Kindle
  • All kinds of lists, including to-dos, reminders, birthdays, and books to-read and already read
  • Clips from the internet of all sorts of things that I want to remember or purchase, and may want to find again "some day"
  • Calendar items

The challenge is organizing all this stuff so I can easily find it! Here's what I am doing these days:

Evernote is what I have been moving to for storing most of the above. Its tagging and notebook systems, plus a really robust search capability, make it hard to lose anything. And it's easy to use. It is the best for clipping whole web pages or parts of pages, such as a picture, and saving along with a reference URL. Much better than just saving a bookmark. When I was looking for a new computer, I clipped lots of pictures along with descriptions and prices, so I could go back and flip through to compare without revisiting every website. (Evernote automatically saves the URLs, so you can go back, you just don't have to.)

I use the free version, and have never come near to exceeding my monthly upload limit. There is no limit on how much storage you can accumulate. It's a really, really good product.

Gmail is my favorite e-mail system, and I'm not the only one - it's hugely popular. It's fine to use web-based, but you can download to another e-mail client such as Outlook. It's pretty easy to use, reliable, and Google gives you 10 gigabytes (GB) of free storage (that's a lot!) so you can archive everything forever. I recently learned how to send selected e-mail to Evernote using a funny little free service called If This Then That (IfTTT). Alternatively, I just clip and save the body of the an e-mail to Evernote.

Google Calendar  is my all-time favorite calendar. I use it as a web-based application, just like Gmail. I find it super easy to use, and both Gmail and Google calendar work well on my Kindle and even as web-based mobile apps on my clunky old Blackberry.

The important thing for me to be able to integrate these programs as much as possible. As an example, when I get an email about an upcoming book club meeting, with attached discussion questions, I first enter the meeting date in Google Calendar. I can upload the attachment to Evernote, generate a unique URL for it in Evernote (part of the sharing features), and enter the URL in the in the "event description" area of the calendar event popup. I usually also forward the e-mail to Evernote, too. That way, just before the meeting, I no longer have to hunt all over to find the discussion questions. Similarly, if I am planning to do a project of some kind, I can create a calendar reminder, and then attach the URL(s) for any notes, documents (anything web-based, such as Evernote or Google Drive), or web pages I'll want to use or refer to.

[Little known, very useful feature of Google Calendar: copy any URL and paste into the event description section of the calendar, then triple-click the link to open as a web page.]

Other Contenders for cloud storage include Google Drive (of course), which is good, cheap (they give you several GB free storage just for using it), and reliable. The main reason I very much prefer Evernote, though, is the ease of clipping material from the web and adding to Evernote. You can't do that nearly as quickly on Google Drive. I also use Dropbox for some things, such as tranferring photos or other files from my phone to my computer. It gives you 2 GB free storage. Microsoft SkyDrive is good, with a great interface. I keep my lesson plan materials backed up on it. They give you 7 GB of free storage when you sign up, and you also get free access to simple web-based versions of the Office programs Word, Excel, OneNote, and Power Point. There are lots of others, but these are the biggest names, and possibly will be the most reliable over time.

Two caveats I try to remember are, first, that any web/cloud-based storage service can be subject to reliability issues, and could go down for hours, days, even weeks or longer in the event of a natural disaster. Anything you're actively working on should be also kept on your computer. Anything particularly important should be backed up on another server, and for some things you should keep paper/hard copies somewhere safe. Second, security may be an issue for some kinds of information. Anything can be hacked. So use common sense.

That said, I've found paperless cloud storage to be a huge time saver. So long as you have reasonable access to the internet (something faster than dial-up, if anyone still uses that), it's easy to find what you need from any computer, and searching for things is a lot faster than hunting through boxes. The added advantage is that you can access your files from anywhere in the world you have a computer with an internet connection. If your home connection is down, you can take your laptop and go to McDonald's or the library. And you can do it all for free. Well, except for the home internet connection.