Friday, November 13, 2015

My Best Purchase - A Fire 6

The very best thing I've bought in the last six months is a 6-inch Amazon Fire tablet. I find myself using it for so many different things! After doing a lot of price and feature comparisons, I consider it far and away the most cost effective tablet device available, especially for someone who uses Amazon a lot and/or is a Prime subscriber.

What I Do with My Fire

I've been amazed at how much I do with my Fire. It synchs with my Gmail and Google Calendar, so I can use it to check email and to enter or check appointments. It's really handy to check the weather. I like the Radar Express app (free) for seeing the current radar - can we squeeze in a walk before the rain starts? And the (free) Accuweather app is good for daily forecasts and weather news, including very good local weather news videos. I use the TV Listings app (free) to see what's on the tube. There's a decent calculator. And tons of other apps for whatever you want or need to do. Plus... games.

I watch TV shows and the occasional movie, almost exclusively on my Fire via streaming video from various sources (I've successfully used it with Amazon Prime, Hulu, Xfinity, Netflix, Youtube, and PBS). The case allows me to stand it up for hands-free watching, but I usually hold it. The picture quality is excellent.

I listen to all kinds of podcasts and out-of-my-area radio programs, mostly while knitting. There are free apps that will allow you to stream or download all kind of audio content. I personally use Beyondpod for podcasts and IHeartRadio for radio programs (both free) , but there are many other good apps for these functions.

I search for and read things on the internet, even doing some shopping. If you're as big an Amazon shopper as I've become, it's very easy to use a Fire to place or check on orders, or to do some browsing.

I read books from my rather large Amazon collection, and from the (free) Overdrive collection available through my library, and more free books from the Gutenberg Project collection (non-copyrighted classics). I listen to audiobooks - purchased in the past from Audible (I no longer have a subscription), free from Overdrive, and also free through Librivox (more non-copyrighted classics).

If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, the Fire is particularly good for streaming music. They offer a huge collection of music of all kinds that you can stream or download for free. They have many good playlists, too, but I find the Google Music playlists quite a bit better, frankly.

Less traditionally, I use the Fire as an MP3 player. It's small enough to fit in most of my pants and coat pockets, or in my small handbag, so when I'm going to be out walking or using public transportation I just download a few podcasts or recorded books to listen to. Or for walking for exercise, I like to download a playlist from Amazon Prime music. As mentioned above, I don't find a lot of playlists I like there, but since they do have tons of good music, I just put together my own playlists and then download a few for use away from wifi. My old 7-inch Fire was just a bit too big and heavy to use this way, but the 6-inch is great. The battery died in my old Sansa MP3 player, but I won't need to replace it.

I've discovered that the Fire - amazingly - works pretty well as a phone, too. I have a phone number through Skype, along with unlimited calling in the US and Canada (a frugal  $5.15 per month for everything), so using that number I can both make and receive regular phone calls. I bought a headset (earphones plus microphone) designed for the Fire's single-plug input, and with that the call quality is usually superb. The Kindle works well for video calls, too... better than my Android tablet.

The Fire now has both a front and back camera. The front one is good for those Skype video calls. But I've also been taking pictures with the back camera and they're pretty good! Better than my phone, and because the Fire 6 is so small, I often have it with me. I usually share photos to Dropbox and then upload to my favored photo storage, which is Google. By the way, although Dropbox is not available in the Kindle app store, you can easily download and install it from the Dropbox website - it works perfectly on the Fire and is a good way to transfer photos and documents from one device to another.

Finally, since it's so portable, I have fallen into using the Fire as my alarm clock. The alarm is fast and easy to set. I bought the "official" case (highly recommended), so when I open the case the Fire automatically "wakes up" and shows me the time. When I close it, it turns off... a big battery-saver. I'm trying to learn to live without a wristwatch, so I often set an alarm for 5 minutes before I need to leave or do something. The clock/alarm app I use (free) is very fast and easy to set.

Why I Decided on the 6-Inch Fire

When my old 7-inch Kindle Fire stopped working, I was super-annoyed, but last August I decided to replace it with another Fire. Amazon has so many versions now, but I read all the specs and decided to take the plunge with a smaller, 6-inch version at $119. And I'm so glad I did!

They offer a 7-inch Fire now for an unbelievable $49, not a bad choice, but I chose to go with the 6-inch. First, the sound is a lot better. I use my Fire for virtually all my TV show-watching, as well as for video and voice calls, and the sound makes a big difference to me. I just don't like to have to always wear earphones. Second, I wanted the 16 GB internal storage, which is not available in the 7-inch, although this cheaper model does allow you to add an SD card to increase storage. I wish my 6-inch had that, but the sound outweighed the storage issue. 16 GB meets my needs since I keep most stuff in the cloud.

I shouldn't have worried about the smaller size... in fact, I find it preferable! It's lighter and easier to hold for reading. I learned that the 6- and 7-inch Fires each have the same total number of pixels, so the 6-inch appears a bit sharper, higher-resolution than the 7-inch. Pictures are gorgeous, print sharp and clear. The only reason to go with a larger, higher-resolution tablet (for lots more money) would be if you are far-sighted and it's not well-corrected.

And with the smaller size, I can stick it in my pocket or my little mini-purse and use it as an MP3 player, as mentioned above. It makes up for not having sprung for an expensive smart phone (still using my faithful old Blackberry Curve.) The Fire needs wifi for most things, but wifi seems to be everywhere now!

Bottom Line

For a total outlay of about $164, I have a complete entertainment and communication system that is extremely functional, including a good-quality case and headset. Here's what I got, if you're curious:

My Fire 6 16 GB With Special Offers was $119. The "special offers" are limited, inoffensive ads you see here and there. No way are they annoying enough to justify spending any money to eliminate them.

The case I use is the Amazon Standing Protective Case for Fire 6. At $24.99 it seemed a little pricey, but I've found it well worth the cost. It has the magnetic feature that allows opening the case to turn the tablet on and off, a big advantage in doing things like doing a quick check of the time or notifications. You can listen to your audio with the case closed, and the volume-adjust buttons work nicely even when the case is closed. I got the red, but I'd get a darker color next time. I've had to scrub it because it gets dirty more easily than I'd like.

I like this Headset for Kindle Fire, Chromebook, Android, etc. quite a bit. At $19.99 it was a good buy, and handy to use for voice communication on my Kindle (as well as my Chromebook and Android tablet). You can spend way, way more for headsets, but this one works just fine. It also gives me good sound when I have to use it for streaming video that, for some reason, is set at too low a volume to hear well, notably PBS Masterpiece Theater shows (free, and there's a nice Kindle app, too.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Falling Leaves and a Six-Month Update

It's been a long time since I posted to this blog. We were moving through spring and into summer, and I back then I was thinking about staying cool without air conditioning, as I've done for eight summers now. Turns out not to have been an issue. Happily, the shrubs and trees along the south-facing side of my lot have grown up enough to do a good job of shading the house and keeping it MUCH cooler. I was thinking it had been a cool summer until I checked the weather stats. It was actually a little hotter than normal. So it works! I had zero days last summer when I was uncomfortably hot.

My currently sodden pile of leaves...
and this is not all!
But... there is a downside to all that shade. Leaves. And now in mid-November, FALLING leaves. Lots and lots and lots of them. Fortunately my city does leaf collection, so I just need to sweep them over the curb, but they keep blowing back onto the sidewalk and I keep having to rake them back into the street. Inevitably, on the day the city leaf vacuum trucks come around, one or more of the neighbors will have decided to stay home and will be parked on part of the leaves, rendering them uncollectable. It's become one of those shrug-your-shoulders things... I've learned to stop fretting about it.

Many of the trees in my neighborhood are bare now, especially the tallest, and with the grey, gloomy, damp weather we've been having, things are taking on that dour, dreary, charcoal-drawing look that characterizes late November. Even though temperatures have remained fairly warm. My furnace has come on only a couple of times. I need to remember to change out the filter, though, before the cold weather hits later this month. Clean filters are worth the money and effort, since clogged filters cut down on air flow from the furnace, causing the furnace, and especially its fan, to work harder, translating into additional power usage.

I'm still tutoring (as a volunteer) too much - one of the reasons I've not been updating the blog - and have been increasingly conscious of a need to better balance my life. I have realized that while I still make time for my knitting and gardening and walks, I've been spending a lot more of my time with students than with friends and family. And students aren't really friends. They are nice people, and I enjoy them, but our relationship is not one of mutuality. I give and they mostly take. And I've noticed that while the newer students seem fairly cognizant that having a free small class and weekly one-on-one tutoring is an amazing privilege, students who have been in the program for a longer time start to take it, and me, for granted. You sometimes hear that people don't value things they don't pay for, and I see that being true in this case, at least for most. And I have to examine my own motives in spending so much of my time on this project, teaching newcomers to our country how to speak and write the language.

So I guess that can be a project for the coming months... restoring more balance to my life. Without the structure of a job to go to every day, I suspect that many of us retired folks do have to work at balancing the home, family, recreational, social, and volunteer parts of our new lives. I know I spent decades working too much and rarely finding the time to have an even marginally balanced life. Maybe, since that's practically all I knew, I found it comfortable to somewhat recreate it now in my retirement. And awareness is the first step towards course correction.

Well, the cozy inside days of late fall and winter are a perfect time for contemplation and planning. I turned 69 this year, which sounds very old to me, and I still have so many things I'd like to do. And I don't feel like the tutoring is really part of any of them. I need to deal with that.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Homemade Cleaners Worth Your While?

Back in the 1960’s, housewives read the Heloise column in the morning paper and learned to use hairspray to remove ballpoint pen ink stains from their husband’s shirts, and to use crumpled newspaper with a vinegar-water solution to clean windows. Did you know that, 50 years later, Heloise’s daughter still publishes magazine and newspaper columns, as well as maintaining a Heloise website? There are several books listed on Amazon, too. The latest is Handy Household Hints from Heloise: Hundreds of Great Ideas at Your Fingertips.

I learned a lot from Heloise - about easier ways to clean my home, how to do little things to save pennies here and there (and we know how these really do add up), doing laundry, recycling. She was out at the front of the movement that continues to this day... using nontoxic, everyday products like vinegar and baking soda to do much of your cleaning.

Today’s Sources of Cleaner Recipes

Today it’s not just Heloise. and the blogosphere are full of books and websites about natural, homemade cleaner recipes. Here are a few of the websites:
  • Rodale's recipes for 8 green cleaners that work. These include an all-purpose spray cleaner, a tile cleaner, an oven cleaner, window cleaner, lemon oil dusting liquid, air freshener, a gentle scouring cleaner, and laundry powder.
  • Apartment Therapy one-ups Rodale by providing 25 green cleaning recipes. The author claims that cleaners for almost every purpose can be made using various combinations of baking soda, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, borax, essential oils (such as tea tree oil, lavender oil, and eucalyptus oil), castile soap (such as Dr. Bronnerss), herbs and citrus peels, olive or other vegetable oil, and water.
  • HGTV’s article discusses ingredients used in green cleaning formulas and provides several recipes. Ingredients include white vinegar, baking soda, lemon, and rubbing alcohol. They also suggest adding a little ammonia to make strong cleaning solutions. Ammonia is often left out of “green” recipes because it is a strong alkali and therefore hazardous when undiluted. But it also provides strong grease-cutting power that may be needed at times, and is safe to use when handled properly (wear eye protection when mixing, for example, and NEVER combine ammonia with bleach (unless you want to damage your lungs with chlorine gas). 
  • Good Housekeeping Provides 9 recipes for homemade cleaners. These include the old “green” standbys of vinegar and baking soda, plus some non-natural ingredients such as ammonia, toothpaste, and dishwasher detergent. 

Is It Worth Your While to Make Your Own Cleaning Products?

There are good reasons for both making your own cleaners and for buying commercial products. So whether it's worth your while to make your own depends. It’s really a trade-off between convenience and effectiveness versus cost, environmental considerations and health. And how these balance out for you will probably vary from product to product.


There’s no question that it’s faster and easier to pull a bottle of cleaner off the supermarket shelf and bring it home. When you make a batch of cleaner, you usually need to have multiple ingredients on hand, as well as containers to mix, store, and dispense your cleaner. Many homemade cleaner recipes just call for a few things you might already have on hand, such as baking soda or vinegar. For others, however, you may have to hunt around for things like lemon grass oil or other essential oils, or you may even have to order them online.


Any of us who have purchased “green” cleaners have noticed that many don’t work as well as the “heavy duty” cleaners we used to buy. The same thing will be true for many homemade cleaners. That said, for many cleaning jobs you don’t need super powers. You can usually clean windows and mirror with just water and a towel. Adding a little something to the water is usually all you ever need. The same is true for kitchen counter sprays. Mothers with babies and young children may need a super-powerful laundry detergent. But empty-nesters like us may just need a basic detergent plus a bar of Fels Naptha soap for treating spots.


Most homemade cleaners will be cheaper than purchased cleaning products. There’s no way you’re going to find a bottle of window cleaner for sale that costs less than a cup or two of water, a little bit of vinegar, a drop of dish detergent, and a $1 spray bottle from the dollar store. Homemade may not always be cheaper, however, especially for some of the recipes that use more unusual (and costly) ingredients such as essential oils. There may also be commercial products sold at dollar stores that work as well, or almost as well, as the higher-priced brand name products sold at supermarkets. Some of these dollar store products may actually be cheaper than a homemade cleaner, especially when you include the cost of a container for storage or application.

Environmental and Health Concerns

Commercial cleaning products are made with a large number of chemicals, many of which are not good for the environment, your health, nor the health of your grandchildren and pets. And many or most are not specifically listed on the label.

The truth is, many of these may be causing allergies, sensitivities, and possibly even long term damage to our health we’re not aware of. And things that may not cause you a problem may be harmful to children or pets. For example, many people like to use pine oil cleaners for the fresh “natural” scent they leave behind. But vets recommend against using them around dogs, because they can cause liver damage. If they cause liver damage to dogs, what are they doing to OUR livers?

Homemade cleaning product recipes are now often touted as being “green.” Their ingredients are mostly non-toxic. Even potentially toxic ingredients like bleach and ammonia are quickly neutralized in the environment, when released in small amounts, and don’t cause any lasting harm. Making cleaning products at home from basic ingredients means you can know what is in your cleaner. There will be few, if any, undisclosed chemicals that you don’t understand. For people with allergies, liver damage, or other health problems, this factor may outweigh all the others.

Another environmental consideration is packaging. When you buy a bottle of liquid detergent, for example, its heavy plastic bottle goes into the recycling (hopefully) or the trash. You may feel OK about that if you recycle, but don't forget the additional environmental cost of manufacturing both the product and the packaging. Manufacturing in the US is far cleaner than it used to be, but it still requires a lot of energy, and inevitably results in some level of air and wastewater emissions.

This will also be true, remember, for the raw ingredients you use to make your homemade products. That vinegar and baking soda were manufactured, too, and someone had to produce the plastic or glass jug the vinegar came in, and the printed cardboard baking soda box.

Still, the biggest ingredient in many cleaners is water, and for many homemade cleaners you add only small amounts of other ingredients. Too, you’ll may use an existing container you’ve recycled for use in storing and applying your cleaner, and you’ll certainly reuse it when you need to make another batch. So from a packaging standpoint, homemade will usually come out ahead of purchased.

It’s Confusing... What Should I Do?

I know, it’s confusing for me, too.

Personally, I buy some cleaning products, and others I make. I really can’t see going to the trouble of making up one of those laundry soap recipes when a mid-sized bottle of laundry detergent lasts me for months. I’ve learned that we mostly use way too much detergent, and have cut way back on both that and softener.

In the bathroom, I prefer to use a scouring cleanser (like Comet) and commercial toilet cleaner for heavy cleaning, but I use homemade cleaning solutions for wiping down tile, tub, sinks and other surfaces. And of course vinegar, water, and crumbled newspaper are better than Windex for windows and mirrors.

I’d say just weigh your situation and needs, and the factors listed above, and make the best decision you can. But don’t make spreadsheets or spend hours at it. Use your knowledge and common sense. Remember that as an empty-nester, your need for cleaning products is probably a lot lower than when you had to clean up after a family. On the other hand, because things don’t usually get as dirty, you will likely have less need for really strong cleaners. Above all, your own priorities, such as health, finances, and available time, should be the deciding factors.

Friday, April 3, 2015

How Not to Be Seen as a Needy Old Person

Easter is this Sunday, and holidays are one of the hardest times for many older folks. Isolation and loneliness are hazards of getting older for some of us, and too often we find ourselves feeling even lonelier when our hopes for family contact and togetherness are dashed. If this happens to you, you're not alone. 

Disrespect of the Elderly

It sometimes surprises me how much less our society, nowadays, honors and values its elders, compared to generations past. I wrote about this in a Mother’s Day post a while back, titled Honor Thy Parents? Not so Much for Some

Then the other day I was reading some blog post comments and got a real eye-opener. Someone asked what she should "do about" an aging neighbor who had been making overtures of friendship. The writer, a young mother, said she already taking care of two elderly relatives and didn’t need another old person to take care of. Her first assumption, you see, was that if an older person wanted to be friends, there was an ulterior motive... the older person was obviously looking for younger neighbors to do things for her.

Some subsequent commenters disagreed and said they had older neighbors who were very independent and actually helped out their younger neighbors. But there were more than a few who agreed that old people just expect to have everyone do stuff for them, blah, blah, blah. and that the original poster would do herself a favor by just staying away. 

How Old People Are Viewed by the Younger Generation

These days, younger people are more and more seeing older folks as greedy, sucking up resources that should be theirs (like Social Security, despite the fact that we all paid into it for years and years). We oldsters are all supposedly expecting to be taken care of. I guess this is a reflection of increasing narcissism and looser family ties in our culture, but it is an attitude that exists, even in our own children sometimes, and we need to learn how to deal with it

The Importance of Not Seeming Needy

I more recently wrote, in Don't Be a Pathetic Old Person, that one of the most important tenets in successfully practicing Stealth Frugality is to not be pathetic. It’s partly for our own self-respect, but these days it’s also a form of self-protection. The more needy you seem to younger people, the more many of them will avoid you and disrespect you. We need social ties with people of all ages, including our families, so we need to be sure we’re not unthinkingly doing things that may alienate them.

The good news is that there are many things you can do to make you seem capable, self-sufficient, and abundant if not affluent. These will make family members, younger people, and even more affluent people your own age, feel more comfortable about differences between your situations. 

You're Reframing... Not Faking It

And there are undeniable differences. This is not about lying or covering up! You’re not trying to pretend to have more money than you actually do, or to be in perfect health when you have some serious problems. Maybe what I’ve heard called “reframing” is the best way to describe the new attitude you must learn to project. This requires a positive attitude, optimism, and a bit of faith. You have to learn to view your circumstances in a positive light. Although you aren’t ignoring the negative - and there’s always some of that - you focus on the good in everything.

In other words, you learn to behave and to talk about your situation and choices in a manner that does not make others feel uncomfortable or that they have to "do something" for you. When people, especially younger people, feel your very presence is a call for them to "do something" to help you, sadly, most of them will begin to avoid you like the proverbial plague. 

Some Ways to Seem Independent, not Needy

I am by no means a master at this, but I’m getting better every day. Here are some ideas: 
  • Don’t be asking for help all the time unless you really need it. It is true that a lot of old people are in the habit of asking others to do things for them that they could very well do for themselves. One of my students has an older neighbor who frequently asks my student to get things for her when she goes to the store. My student never complains, but I would get tired of it. Do your own shopping, or learn to order things online. Take care of yourself physically so that with luck, you’ll continue to be able to do your own shopping, shovel snow from your sidewalks and mow your lawn. Learn how to do small household repairs, or hire a handyman. Don’t feed into the stereotype of older people always asking others for help. Save your requests for when you really need it.
  • Instead, do things for others. Try to be generous to everyone, even in little ways. Make a list of birthdays, get a bunch of cards at the dollar store, and send everyone cards for their birthdays. Pick up and put away your neighbor’s trash cans when they blow into the street. Give small gifts as often as possible and to as many people as possible, even if it’s just a clipping from the newspaper about something they’re interested in, a loaf of home baked bread or some cookies, vegetables from your garden, or a small, inexpensive item from your gift stash. Offer to take in mail and water plants when neighbors go on vacation, or to babysit if they have young children.
  • Never say, "I can't afford that." And that's actually true much of the time, by the way. Everything we do involving money is a function of our personal choices, of how we prioritize our needs against what we have available to pay for them. There's very little I couldn't afford, at least briefly, but I just don't want to make the sacrifices that would be needed for a lot of things. I could afford a month-long trip to Europe, for example. Many of us could even if we had to clean out our bank account, max out our credit cards, mortgage our home, sell our stuff, or take out a big loan. But we rarely want to do those things, so we make more modest travel plans. 
  • Express happiness and gratitude at all you do have. When you appreciate what's good in your situation and possessions, it is very appealing to others. And there are always good things in every situation. You can't afford a big, fancy house? Then you learn to appreciate the convenience and reduced upkeep of a small home or apartment. A friend had to move into a small studio apartment, and although she had to give away many of her things, she hasn’t complained but instead enthuses over her gorgeous view, the laundry facilities right on her own floor, and the proximity to shopping. I had to stop driving because of my eyesight, but I tell everyone how good it is that I have a reason to walk a lot, and how convenient it is to take the bus and not to have to deal with car upkeep. This needs to be true, joyful appreciation, by the way, not the grudging kind.
  • Give people valid reasons, other than cost, why you cannot or are not going to do or buy something. Or say nothing at all. I don't go out to eat a lot at restaurants, for example, because restaurant food is just not that healthy. It's also far less expensive to eat at home, but I don't need to say that. 
  • It’s ok to say you like... or love... things you’re not going to buy. Going shopping with a friend at an upscale department store can be fun. It’s fine to admire all the gorgeous things you see (and can’t afford). Just don't express a sad longing for them... that’s a little pathetic. I view upscale “window shopping” like a trip to a museum. You can enjoy without buying. Plus, knowing what good quality merchandise looks like helps you make better choices at discount stores and flea markets, doesn’t it? Sometimes a friend will urge you to buy something you have said you really like. Just say you need to think about it. Personally, I’ve found that when I make impulsive purchases they often turn out not to be what I really need. So I usually just say I have made it a policy to think about things a bit before I buy them, so that I don’t end up with closets crammed with stuff I don’t use. It gets you off the hook, but it’s actually a good habit to form.
  • Use environmental concerns as a rationale for frugalities. Not using a car, keeping your thermostat low in the winter and not using air conditioning? Not using a dishwasher and drying clothes on a clothesline? These are all genuinely good for the environment because they cut back on energy use. They save you money too, but you don’t need to say that.
  • State a decided preference for things that are within your budget. You can give a reason, or not. I tell people I do a lot of shopping at a small discount market in my neighborhood. True, the prices are great and it really keeps my food budget in line. But mostly I explain it by the convenience. And it is super convenient to just dash over there on foot, rather than waiting for a bus and traveling much farther to a big supermarket. I also subscribe only to the Basic cable lineup and so don’t get most of the cable channels my friends and family do. I tell people have the basic only so that my grandchildren have something to watch when they come over. I mostly read, and the few TV programs I watch are via streaming video - Amazon Prime or Netflix. I don’t want to pay the $100 or so many people shell out for their cable packages, but I don’t need to mention that. 

Make This a Gift to Yourself

Notice that nothing I say to explain my choices, if necessary, is untrue. You don’t have to be a liar to do this reframing. Just focus on the positive. Appreciate the heck out of all you do have. Be as frugal as you need to, but do it in a way that is “stealthy,” rather than talking about it to everyone. Doing this will make you feel more abundant. That in turn will not only make you feel happy, but it will also help you be more generous with others And doing all this, my friend, will keep YOU from becoming one of those pathetic, needy old people that others avoid.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Start a Stash for Frugal Impromptu Gifting

Giving gifts has definitely gotten harder as I’ve gotten older. It takes more thought to find nice things that I can afford. But even getting out to comb the malls for something suitable, not to mention the perfect wrapping and card, has gotten more difficult, especially since I stopped driving. But even in “reduced circumstances,” we all want to do what it takes to give presents to our friends and family that they like and appreciate.

And there are so many possible occasions for gift giving!  Sometimes they come up unexpectedly. But you can be prepared for these times. Say you’re invited to dinner at a friend’s, and you want to bring a hostess gift. Or you learn that one of your new friends at your book group is having a birthday and you want to give her something. Or your neighbors invite you to come over for cake and ice cream to celebrate their little boy’s birthday. No problem... just go to your “Gift Stash.” Few things you do to plan ahead will save you more money, time, and aggravation.

It was maybe 30 years ago that I learned how to do this, and it was quite the revelation. I was visiting my friend Connie and her boyfriend, and I’d just announced some kind of happy milestone event. I don’t even remember any more what it was! What I do remember is that after congratulating me, Connie ducked into the hallway, returned just a minute later with a prettily-wrapped gift, and presented it to me. It was a beautiful hand-bound journal, covered in printed raw silk and with handmade paper pages.

Now, this was not an expensive book. Maybe less than $10 at an import store. But it was just beautiful, and I loved it. Moreover, I was surprised and impressed that they had a gift on hand for me, just in case a celebration-worthy event should occur. Some weeks later, her boyfriend Matt explained that when they were out and about, shopping or on vacation, whenever they saw things that would make nice gifts, they bought them, wrapped and tagged them, and kept them in a box in the closet. They didn’t buy for specific people, but just bought attractive or useful things that they thought likely to be admired by most people. Some were more for women than men, and vice-versa, and they also had things for boys and girls. They didn’t say it, but I later learned that they often bought things on sale, or at prices they thought were particularly attractive. We were all pretty much living on a shoestring back in those days.

I always loved this idea, but followed up on it for myself only recently. I have started a Gift Stash with a deep box in my office closet where I put the things I find. I wrap them in nice paper and curling ribbon - I have a thing for curling ribbon - and attach a little tag that says what the gift is. I really should have a written inventory... soon, maybe.

These days, when I don’t drive and getting to the mall can be a big time drain, I’ve pulled things out of my Gift Stash for a number of occasions. Birthdays, celebrations, hostess gifts... anything where I need something, but it doesn’t need to be very expensive. When my children or grandchildren have birthdays or at the holidays, I always shop specifically for them - not from my Gift Stash. But for other occasions, it has really come in handy. And because the things I buy for the Stash are usually marked down, I save a lot of money and can afford to give nicer little presents more often. And everybody loves getting a gift.

So... what kinds of things do I put in my Gift Stash? All kinds of things. Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Boxed stationery and notes, often from TJ Maxx or Marshall’s. This is a staple, something everyone can use.
  • Pretty earrings, bracelets, and pins, some from craft fairs I visit.
  • Scented soaps, lotions, and liquid hand soaps. Who can't use these?
  • Scarves. Last year my daughter bought me a beautiful paisley scarf from India at a local import shop, priced at about $40. Not long after, I found an almost identical one, at the AC Moore craft store, for $4.99 at half price. So I bought a few. They are lovely, look like they cost a lot more money, and make nice gifts.
  • Gadgety kinds of small electronics and tools, but only reasonably good-quality ones. I’ve gotten these on sale at all kinds of places, including hardware stores, the men’s department at department stores (usually after the holidays), and technology stores. These are for the guys.
  • Hardware stores often have all kinds of interesting, small items that make good gifts. Smaller local stores tend to have better findings than the big-box stores, though. I've gotten the cutest small flashlights, keyholders, and kid's toys at my local Ace Hardware store.
  • Ornamental boxes, small plates, and vases from import and overstock stores. I try to avoid obvious tschotskes, but small ornamental containers of all kinds can be very useful and make nice gifts.
  • Books that have been marked down severely can be found at bookstores, of course. Barnes & Noble has always had great bargain book shelves. But I’ve found some really nice things at other types of stores, notably TJ Maxx. I’ve even found some excellent books at the dollar store. Coffee table-type books, with lots of pictures, seem to be on sale quite often.
  • Wine is a great gift. I don’t buy a lot of wine, but the owner at my local liquor store is interested in wines, and even though they don’t have a huge inventory, he can always point out something good at a good price. When I buy something I like, I try to remember to go back to get a few more bottles for the Stash. Wine makes a great hostess gift, of course.
  • Dollar stores often have really cute things for kids. Some of it is a little junky, but they seem to enjoy them anyway. And no kid is likely to hate a coloring or activity book plus a pack of washable colored pens, or a yoyo, or some of the amusing little games they sell.
  • Handmade items - made by you! - are fantastic gifts, and usually quite frugal. Whatever your hobbies are, you can probably use them to make small gifts. I’m a knitter, and I can use small amounts of leftover yarn to make all kinds of gifts - scarves, mittens, hats, dishcloths, and so on. Crocheters can do the same... I was recently gifted with a really nice crocheted market bag and a beautiful crocheted flower with a long stem to be used as a bookmark. Woodworkers, painters, soap makers, gardeners (think potpourri)... all can make wonderful, unique small gifts.
  • Candles can often be found marked down at gift shops, import stores, and overstock stores. They make nice, small gifts.
  • Luxury candies and snacks are good additions to the Stash Box. Be careful of chocolate, though, as it tends to “flower” when not fresh, and while that doesn’t affect it’s flavor, the white film is unattractive and reveals that the candy is not fresh. I’ve gotten delicious gourmet specialty food items at overstock stores like Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. For example, I used to find some specialty Texas salsas, in colorful jars, that were absolutely delicious and perfect for gifting. If you’re unsure, try one yourself, and if it’s good, go back and buy more for your Gift Stash.

The possibilities for impromptu small gifts are endless. Your imagination will likely supply many more ideas.

The key is to keep an eye out for gifts to stash wherever you’re shopping. Being able to provide a thoughtful, well-received gift at a moment’s notice has definitely made my life easier and more abundant.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Is It Time for Spring Cleaning?

I’ve never been one of those who enjoys cleaning my home and keeping it organized. And yet, I’ve found over the years that I function better and am happier when my living and working environments are neat, tidy, and clean. Now that I am retired, you’d think it would have become simpler to maintain order here at home... but it has not! It’s by no means the proverbial pigsty my mother used to occasionally compare my messy childhood room to, but it’s typically not as organized and company-ready as I’d like. From as far back as I can remember, spring has been the traditional time to do a really thorough housecleaning.

My local newspaper recently featured information from a book about the history of house cleaning, Never Done: a History of American Housework, by Susan Strasser, a local professor emeritus of history. (She has written some books that sound fascinating, by the way, including a history of trash!) Then, as now, where winter weather is cold, people keep their windows tightly shut to conserve warmth. But when coal and wood were used to heat homes, and kerosene and candles were used for lighting, a lot of dirt accumulated during the cold season. It wasn’t just dust - oily soot had to be removed from surfaces, and that was hard work. Spring cleaning was an absolute necessity back then. According to Strasser, women would typically set aside a full week, and work daily, from dawn to dark, on their spring cleaning.

There were no vacuum cleaners back then. No rug shampooers, Swiffers, or even washing machines. Before water was piped into homes, the water for cleaning often had to be fetched in buckets from the nearest hydrant, well, or creek, and then heated on the stove. After use, dirty water had to be carried back outside and dumped. Rugs and upholstered furniture were hauled outside to be cleaned. Rugs were hung and beaten with paddles, and upholstered furniture was wiped down and/or brushed thoroughly. Every interior surface, including walls, floors, windows, cabinets, and furniture, was scrubbed during that week.

There was no Mr. Clean, either, so women usually had to make the soap they used for cleaning. Sand and salt were sometimes used for scouring, and vinegar provided yet another cleaning aid. So time consuming was this cleaning that families had to make do with cold dinners, because women didn’t have time to cook when spring cleaning was going on.

Nowadays, even those of us who perform a spring cleaning ritual can have a hot dinner. We are indeed very fortunate to live in an era where so much less indoor grime is caused by heating and lighting, and cleaning is so much easier. In fact, many Americans no longer do spring cleaning at all, but rather do the “deep cleaning” incrementally, from month to month, or as the need arises.

Back in 1977, Pam Young and Peggy Jones wrote their defining book on the new, incremental approach to keeping your house clean: Sidetracked Home Executives. In it, they advised women to set up a schedule for cleaning and other household tasks, and to spread out tasks that used to be included in spring cleaning over the months. They recommended keeping track of housekeeping jobs in a 3x5” cardfile, something I still do to this day (albeit intermittently). It was a good system, though, and helped a lot of women (and men) to get organized around the home. Peggy has retired, but Pam is still writing and inspiring from her website, Make it Fun and It Will Get Done.

Following up on Pam and Peggy’s no-spring-cleaning methods was the Flylady, known in real life as Marla Cilley. Marla also published her own book on the subject, Sink Reflections. The Flylady program has well over half a million followers worldwide, and features a free website with detailed instructions for achieving a clean and organized home. Many people sign up for free Flylady e-mail that puts reminders and task lists right in their inboxes. Pam Young is a regular participant in the website, too.

Well... to spring clean or not to spring clean? It’s still a little too early here in Delaware, where temperatures are dipping below freezing many nights and it’s too cold, yet, to open the windows. I mostly follow the Pam Young-Peggy Jones and Flylady recommendations for not doing too much all at one time. I think that’s particularly good advice for retirees, because we now have the time to do a little “deep cleaning” every day, and don’t have to set aside weekends or vacation time to get it done (been there, done that). Also, getting on ladders and scrubbing and moving furniture is hard work, and doing too much at one time can cause sore muscles and joints. I know my hands, particularly, get very sore if I do too much scrubbing.

But even though I’ll have to wait for a month or so till the weather warms up and I can open the windows while using strong cleaners, I’m already thinking about scrubbing tile, shampooing carpets, washing slipcovers, and hanging dusty blinds outside to wash them down.

Coming up: Is it worth your time to make homemade household cleaners?

Friday, March 27, 2015

You Can Still Get Free Tax Help

Volunteers have taken over the big meeting room at the library where I teach and do volunteer tutoring, and there has been a steady stream of people flowing in to have their taxes done, sometimes with shoeboxes or bags of receipts in hand. Like every year, they'll be coming in right up until April 15. Yes, the US tax filing deadline is looming - not much more than two weeks away!

One nice thing about being retired on a small income is that you may not even need to file a return! There’s always a silver lining. But if you need help doing your taxes, assistance is going to be a little harder to find this year, especially from the government.

The IRS has traditionally offered assistance through both walk-in centers and phone assistance. But according to recent news stories, such as this one in the Washington Post, the number of taxpayers having trouble getting through to an IRS agent for assistance over the phone has been at an all-time high this year. And the IRS has warned that the availability of in-person assistance at local Tax Assistance Centers will be very limited. As reported in Forbes, the IRS is attempting to establish an appointment system at some centers, but they are blaming budget cuts plus a large burden of new work related to the Affordable Care Act for their inability to provide much tax assistance this year.

Fortunately, there are a number of other sources of free tax assistance available to those with lower incomes (usually under $53,000) and relatively uncomplicated tax situations. And it's not too late to get help!

The IRS’s website provides links to Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program locations around the country.
These centers are staffed by IRS-certified volunteers.

The AARP Foundation also provides volunteer-staffed programs for free tax filing assistance, for all ages, at centers around the country. You can find out more about the program and locations at the AARP Foundation Tax Aide program website.

In addition, there are other non-profit organizations that work at libraries and other community centers to help qualifying taxpayers prepare and electronically file their returns. In my area, the libraries will give you a list of tax preparation programs with locations, days and hours, and phone numbers to get information and make appointments. Some centers do offer appointments, while others operate on a walk-in basis. Since I tutor and teach at the library several times a week, I’ve seen floods of people come in to have their taxes done by one of several groups, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about the help they got. If you want to find free local tax filing that may not be included on the IRS lists, I’d start by calling your local library and senior center.

You can prepare your own tax returns using free online software that will electronically file your return. I’ve always done my own taxes and have found that the commercial online electronic services have gotten better and better over the years. My only complaint has been that the online no-cost filing forms sometimes aggressively try to steer you to choose options that you have to pay for, and that can get very annoying! However, they are easy to use, do a good job, do all the work of filing for you, and seem to be pretty reliable in terms of sorting out deductions and stuff like that. Plus, you don’t have to keep checking and rechecking your math to avoid errors. Here are the three top free commercial services that received top user votes in a survey published by Keep in mind that although these providers offer free basic preparation and e-filing, they will charge you for additional services, including state taxes and other add-ons. And as I found, they can be pretty aggressive and even tricky in trying to convince you that you need and should pay for those extras.
  • Turbotax was the most popular free tax return preparation tool in Lifehacker’s survey.
However you do it, be sure to file your return by the deadline. Because paying penalties isn't frugal. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Don't Be a Pathetic Old Person

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I like to find ways to enjoy myself, to make myself feel happy and optimistic. Don't you know a lot of old people who complain all the time, who always have a million things wrong in their lives and no hesitation about sharing? They always seems so pathetic, even when they genuinely do have a lot of problems. Most of us have a natural instinct to avoid others who are needy and depressing.

One important tenet in practicing stealth frugality is to not seem pathetic. Seeming needy, pitiable, and unhappy can be an easy trap to fall into, especially when you're old, definitely not feeling 21 any more, and trying to live on a small income. But pathos is just not necessary, even when you have a lot to be sad or worried about. Optimism is a learned skill, and using it benefits both you and everyone around you.

I guess old people have always been infamous for harping on their illnesses, aches, and pains. I can remember family gatherings back when I was a kid, wondering why the old folks talked so much abut their infirmities. It was puzzling and a little repellent to me at the time. Nowadays, it doesn't surprise me all that much, but I still find it somewhere between annoying and repellent. What ever happened to the virtues of stoicism? Do some folks think it's no longer operative when you hit 65? Has their world become so small and involuted that they don't have anything to talk about but their illnesses, aches, medications, and doctor's appointments?

I've been thinking about this recently, because a friend's birthday fell on Thursday of last week. And I really, really did not want to call her. I steeled myself and did it anyway. Sure enough, after a cursory "And how are you, my dear?" she was off and running with a litany of health problems, financial problems, and complaints about her children. The children, of course, have as little to do with her as possible. And who can blame them? First they have to listen to tales of her health woes, many exaggerated in hopes of engendering sympathy, and then they are hit up for money.

I just don't ever want to be that way, no matter how bad things get. I don't think it's prideful to want NOT to seem pathetic or a leech. That's not to say that we should never ask others for help if we need it, by the way. But we haven't obtained a free pass for mooching and grumbling and general selfcenteredness just by virtue of having lived for more than 60 years. Instead, it's fully my own responsibility to do my best to keep myself healthy, happy, and solvent.

Next week, I'll write about some of the ways I've found to avoid becoming a pathetic old person. It really does make life nicer for everyone.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Reward-Yourself Trap

Because We Can Get You to Pay a Lot More!
I had just come home from the library last Tuesday, where I tutored for several hours. It was a 25-minute walk each way, and I was bushed. And the first thing I did was to fix a big mug of strong, hot tea with milk. It seemed like a little reward, although It was just plain Jane Lipton... a thrifty reward.

I've been thinking about how we tend to reward ourselves a lot these days, and how the rewards often add up to quite a bit of money. We've become a more hedonistic society in many ways, but I think advertising has played more than a small role in fostering this reward thing.

"Go on, you're worked hard... you deserve it!" Don't we hear variations of this theme in advertisements for everything from beer and fast food to shampoo and coffee drinks? Who can't remember the L'Oreal ads that urged you to splurge on their more expensive hair color... "Because you're worth it"? I used to color my hair, and I honestly noticed very little difference between brands, other than the conditioner packets that came with different brands.

That theme, that mindset... spend more on yourself, buy the more expensive item... you deserve a special little treat... you need it to brighten your day, to reward yourself for all your hard work... or just because... was picked up and continues to be used, either directly or implicitly, by a host of advertisers and their handmaidens in journalism and social media.

Clearly these Madison Avenue-inspired blandishments have worked over the years to get us to spend more and more on all the little things we use during the day. I'm not sure when my focus was first directed to this fact... I think it may have been something from Suze Orman decades ago. But it's stuck with me, and I've learned to filter some of my buying decisions through it.

Remember when you just bought a plain bar of (inexpensive) soap? Maybe Ivory, or a generic store brand. But for many people that's not good enough any more. We want "special" soaps - with lotion, or deodorants, and costing 50% more. Or we want specially scented soaps that cost 5 or 10 times as much as that bar of Ivory. Leafing through a magazine yesterday, I saw suggestions for perfumed soaps that cost $10 a bar. But... don't you deserve to have a really great scent in your morning shower? Isn't starting the day with something that makes you feel good worth the price? Uh... not necessarily.

We're being continuously upsold on everything these days. We don't just buy a jar of instant coffee, or a pound of ground Maxwell House. We buy special organic custom dark roast beans from wherever, at three or more times the price. Or we have to have K-cups that allow us to brew ever-more-expensive cups of coffee using even more expensive equipment. We don't buy the inexpensive Banquet frozen pot pie for 75 cents, but rather the big, luxurious Marie Callendar pot pie for three or four times Banquet's price, even though it has too many calories, is no more nutritious, and actually doesn't taste much better. We no longer want to eat boring old American cheese, either - we "deserve" imported gruyere, extra-sharp Vermont cheddar, or goat cheese, all at prices double (or quadruple) that of the American cheese.

OK, so the special roast really is better, and perhaps the Marie Callendar pie is a little tastier.  The gruyere is definitely delish. None of these choices is bad in and of itself. The problem is that as a society we've come to do this with everything. And as a result, we're spending more, way more, on our needs. At the grocery store, at the drug store, everywhere and on everything.

Those of us who have hit retirement age can remember when we (or our parents) mostly just bought basic items. Sure, we usually had the choice of several brands, but not the enormous choice offered today. We bought basic ingredients and created delicious meals, without using packets of expensive "special" spice mixes or "gourmet" sauces from jars. We bought plain coffee, plain soap, plain jelly or jam, and only occasionally did we "splurge" on something less basic. Splurges were the exception, not the rule that they have become.

And sometimes the splurges are a rip-off. I remember reading about a study of women's face creams ranging in price from a few dollars to over $100 a jar. Objectively, despite the claims in glossy magazine ads, no advantage was found in using the expensive creams. The best results came from one of the less expensive brands. The more expensive house cleaning products are sometimes a little more effective than the old fashioned, cheaper brands, but they also often contain more toxic ingredients. Often we're better off health-wise by sticking with more frugal, less hazardous products or even the old-fashioned staples of soap and vinegar and baking soda.

I like good coffee, but long ago decided to use a store-brand instant most of the time. My rationale is that when I make good coffee, I drink too much, so the instant is better for my health. Once in a while I have a cup of really good coffee and it's quite a treat, but I don't need to treat myself every morning. I also find the cheapest bar soap gets my skin just as clean as expensive scented soaps. I get my fix of a good scent on mornings when I shampoo my hair, because I buy inexpensive shampoos that come in a variety of wonderful aromas - I'm currently luxuriating in a coconut hibiscus-scented shampoo from White Rain, which I got at a dollar store. And by the way, my experience says that the $1 shampoo cleans my hair just as well as the $6.95 brand. I like a good gruyere now and then, but I mostly use a standard American-type cheese for cooking and eating, and it tastes just fine with my apple slices.

Living well on a small income requires finding good, or at least acceptable, low-cost staples, and then deciding, based on personal priorities, where you want to occasionally splurge. Advertising, and our friends and family who mindlessly follow advertising's dictates, will tell us to splurge on everything... because we deserve it. I'm not saying it's wrong to splurge, but it's our tendency to splurge on everything that has contributed to an unnecessarily high cost of living. Constant splurging - 'cause you deserve it! - is a trap that can ruin our budgetary goals. The good news is that we can substantially reduce our cost of living by giving a little more thought to what we choose to buy, and what we decide to splurge on.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Free Text Messaging from Your Computer

It's Saturday morning, the first full day of spring, and there's an inch of snow on the ground. That's just wrong! I will teach a class at the library this afternoon, and I expect to get at least one or two text messages from students. "I'll be late to class." "Sorry, teacher, I can't come to class today."

Have you noticed that everybody under the age of 50 texts these days? It seems like nobody makes actual telephone calls any more. My oldest grandson doesn't like phone calls at all... he would much rather text back and forth, even with his grandmother. Now, because of my volunteer teaching and tutoring, I regularly have to send and receive a lot of text (SMS) messages. And I have come to just hate typing on the teensy little keyboard on my Blackberry. I know I'm not alone in this!

So even though my Virgin Mobile cellphone plan provides unlimited free texting, I use my computer to send texts whenever I can because it’s just so much less frustrating. And I've started using Google Voice for that because it lets me both send and receive text (SMS) messages... for free. And the best of all is that you can set it so that it sends a copy of every received text message to your e-mail. Before, I sometimes used Skype for texting, but they charge me for every text sent, and I cannot receive texts on Skype.

This Google Voice text message service is yet another useful, free service that a lot of folks don't know about. I've been successfully using various parts of Voice for a few years now. I have been sending all my text messages through Voice recently, and am so happy with it that I think it's time to share.

Now, if I still had an Android phone I could just send and receive texts from either my phone or my computer. But I'm still using my old Blackberry (I dropped and broke my shiny new Android phone a while back and returned to using the Blackberry) and there is no Voice app for it. I can't send texts from Google Voice from my phone. But no problem! When I leave the house and a time-sensitive text message comes in (Teacher, I can't come to our tutoring session that starts in 5 minutes. sorry!), the text will appear in G-mail on my Blackberry, clearly marked as a text message. I can check e-mail as quickly on my Blackberry as I can text messages, and that's true of any even semi-smart phone. If I need to reply, I can wait till I get home or send a reply text from my Blackberry phone number.

When I am at home, and a text comes in to my Google Number, I get both a Google popup on my computer screen and an e-mail with the text message. I’ll also see it if I check e-mail from my tablet. Unlike a lot of young people, I don’t carry my cell phone around the house with me all day and I may not remember to look at my phone for hours, but I’m usually on the computer and tablet more often. So I'm less likely to miss a text that comes to my Voice number.

Another thing I like is that my Google Voice inbox, accessed from my computer, keeps a searchable record of every text I send and receive. I can go back several years if I want, unlike my phone where text messages just kind of roll off and disappear after a week or two. In addition, I keep all my contacts in G-mail, and the list both syncs with my Blackberry and is available on any other device on which I can sign in to Google. That makes it very easy to find cell phone numbers of the individuals I need to text, no matter where I am.

Now, every aspect of this Google Voice setup is completely free. To send text messages to cell phone numbers, you’ll need to first get a Google account and then a Google Voice number. You can usually get a number with your own area code. You can read all about how to get your very own Google VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone number by going to the Google Voice website. They make it pretty easy, but Voice has a lot of features, most of which you don't need to send or receive texts. I've tried most of what they offer... some things worked better than others for me, but so far the texting has been flawless.

I should mention that Google will encourage you to link your Google Voice account with Google Hangouts, which is a (free) video call/conferencing service, similar to Skype. I'm a big fan of Hangouts, too - I use it for video tutoring and like it quite a bit better than Skype these days. But I don't want to be texting or receiving texts from the Hangouts app. Google Voice and it's own, separate extension seems to be a lot easier to use when I'm sending texts to people who are not signed up for Google, let alone Hangouts. So don't connect Voice and Hangouts, would be my advice. (You will still be able to send text messages, from within Hangouts, to the person you're talking to on a video call.)

This all sounds a little fiddly, doesn’t it? But actually it’s pretty easy. I will admit to being a bit of a Google fangirl, but this really is a very useful product, and free is frugal, too. Five stars to Google for its Voice service!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring... Sort of

It will officially be spring later today and we here in the northeast are eagerly anticipating flowers and warmer weather, in place of the snow that is supposed to begin any minute. Snowdrops (pictured above) have been blooming here for a while now, and the generous sweep of daffodils beneath my kitchen window started sprouting while temperatures were still in single digits, with flower buds appearing this week. Cheerful, bright yellow forsythia can't be far behind.

At the same time that I pine a little for warmth and flowers, I realize that in a very short while, we'll all be complaining about the heat and looking forward to the cooler days of autumn and "sweater weather." In truth, it doesn't seem like we get all that much sweater weather here, but that we just alternate between coat-and-muffler weather and shorts-and-t-shirt weather, with but a few transitional "sweater days" in between.

The weather has been a "safe" and interesting conversation-starter for untold generations, hasn't it? For many of our ancestors, those who came from temperate climates, weather was a critical element in their lives. Most people farmed back a couple centuries ago, and changes in the weather, even just a particularly bad storm or long stretch of dry weather, could cause famine, disease, and death. It seems unimaginable now, doesn't it? Many of my students come from more tropical climates, and they don't seem to have our cultural habit of talking about the weather all the time. They mostly complain when it's very cold, something someone from Cuba, say, has a hard time getting used to.

During the most recent cold spell, I've been reading mystery novels set in the American southwest, enjoying descriptions of hot dry desert winds and people perspiring a lot. My reading so far has included Spider Woman's Daughter, by Anne Hillerman, and A Thief of Time, by her father, the late, great author dTony Hillerman. If you love the Colorado Plateau area of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, or think you might, or if you just like well-crafted mystery novels, I can recommend these. By the way, do read A A Thief of Time first, because Anne Hillerman's Spider Woman's Daughter  takes up the storyline, many years later, in A Thief of Time. I read them in reverse order because Anne Hillerman's book is the monthly selection for my detective story book group at the library. If you have access to Overdrive, which is the free e-book lending service many libraries provide for their patrons, both books are available there plus a lot more of Tony Hillerman's.

Reading really is a great way to "get away," isn't it? In the depth of the summer heat you can read stories set in the far north, and almost feel the icy chill. I can recommend Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak mystery series, starting with A Cold Day for Murder. These are also well-written, entertaining mysteries set in an Alaskan national park. And the sense of place is as well done by
Stabenow for the Alaskan wilderness as it is by the Hillermans for the Four Corners area desert. Save Stabenow for deep summer, though. Almost as good as air conditioning.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Daily Paper... Do You Still Subscribe?

After I make a cup of coffee and feed the dog, my next step is to bring in the newspaper. Yes, I'm still a subscriber, even though the price has crept up to $28 a month. I like settling down at the table in the morning with my coffee and the front pages, or relaxing in my armchair later to read the Life section and work the Sudoko puzzle.

But pundits tell us the day of the printed newspaper is numbered. Soon we'll all be reading the news on our tablets, they say. And the personal finance and tech experts almost uniformly tell folks to drop their newspaper subscriptions to save money. But I'm not ready to give up my daily paper. Following are some really good reasons I think having a daily paper delivered is still worth the price.

Browsing a physical, printed newspaper copy is still the fastest, most efficient way to find and read the news that interests me. Random, small local articles, especially, are something I almost never find in the electronic edition, but will stumble across in the local section of the print paper. These have tips on events of interest, people I know, stores and restaurants that are opening or closing, etc. and are invaluable for living a life that is hooked into my community. I just don't get that with electronic versions.

My local paper does an excellent job of “muckraking” and if subscribers don’t support their efforts, we’ll all be the worse for it. Our government representatives and institutions are venal and corrupt enough as it is! We’ve had quite a few local and state-wide exposes in recent years, all fueled by the local press, which have resulted in cleanup of government agencies, downfall of crooked politicians, etc.

A lot of people enjoy the crossword and other puzzles almost all newspapers provide. I'm personally hooked on Sudoko puzzles, and my paper has a daily one that is quite good. This is not available in the electronic edition, and besides I’d have the time and material expense of printing it out. I try to print as little as possible, because those printer cartridges aren’t cheap - even when you refill them at home, as I do. 

I have a square newspaper-sized basket I keep in a corner, and into which I chuck past issues. I use the newsprint for various purposes
  • I use a sheet of newsprint to collect potato or other vegetable peelings as I work in the kitchen, then wrapping them up and disposing in the trash in a nice, non-messy way. 
  • A few layers of newspaper, topped by a single paper towel, is a good way to drain fried foods, such as bacon, minimizing the use of paper towels. 
  • In fact, newspapers make a good layer underneath any small, messy project, such as gluing, painting, stamping and so on. 
  • Crumpled newsprint works very well to clean windows, mirrors, the front of the microwave, and other glass items. I originally learned this from a Heloise (remember her?) book of household hints. There is something about newsprint and printer’s ink that does a great job of polishing, with just enough abrasiveness to remove bits of soil or oil. 
  • I used newspapers when house-training my puppy, and have continued to maintain a little “potty tray” for him to use indoors at night or in bad weather. It consists of a tray which is just the top of a large plastic storage bin, the kind you might use to store out-of-season clothes. I line the tray with several layers of newspapers. When he uses it, it’s simple to fold the papers up from the edges, so as not to soil my fingers, and put it all in the trash. This general system is very popular these days, especially in urban areas where people keep dogs in apartments, but most people go to a big box pet store and spend big bucks on “special” plastic trays and expensive scented “piddle pads.” I've found newspapers work very well. 
  • Layers of newspaper make good insulation. When I have to take a covered hot dish to a pot luck or party, I wrap the hot dish tightly in foil, to avoid spills, and then in thick layers of newspaper. This really works - the dish stays hot for a long time. This works in the summer with cold or frozen dishes, too. I don't drive, so when the weather is hot and I want to buy ice cream, I tuck a stack of folded newspaper in my shopping cart. I then wrap the ice cream carton in plenty of newspaper before putting it in my cart and it doesn't arrive home all drippy and half melted even when I have to wait a long time for the bus. 
These are all good reasons to keep me a subscriber to my local newspaper. I like all the uses I put my newspaper to - so many that I don't put all that much newspaper in my recycle bin. But the most important reasons are really the first two. I can scan the entire paper very quickly when it's in a print edition, much more so than in any electronic edition. But even more importantly, newspapers have been a cornerstone of our democracy for centuries now. Many of the problems with our governmental institutions these days is, I believe, a result of a citizenry that is not well informed. Newspapers seem to do a better job of informing us of many sides of important issues, in less time, than any kind of electronic media I've yet seen. Maybe there needs to be some re-design of electronic news to make it more comparable to printed newspapers. I'm not sure, but for now I'm still reading my news on paper.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Alcohol May Be More of a Problem for Seniors

I'm not much of a drinker, although I occasionally enjoy a nice glass of wine with dinner, a cold craft beer, or an Irish coffee as dessert. Alcohol is expensive, so I have put it in that "luxury" category of purchases that I don't make often because they just aren't high on my priority list. I do know retired folks who seem to spend an awful lot of their retirement cash on booze, and to me that seems like a waste.

But it looks like there may be another reason to go easy on the alcohol. Now, I often listen to the Wall Street Journal Report on the radio in the morning... it's a morning news summary I find very interesting. And not long ago I was surprised to hear them mention a study showing that even a large glass of wine increased the risk of stroke by a third in older folks. With a little Googling I found an article from the Telegraph that gave more information.

This appears to have been a substantial (over 5,500 sets of twins), long term (43 years) study that was published in the medical journal Stroke. Big studies like this, especially those that use genetically identical twins, tend to be more reliable than all the very small studies we read about most often. Still, until a specific causal relationship and mechanism has been established by further research, results from associations discovered in even big studies like this should be considered tentative.

This latest study focused on subjects in their 50's and 60's who regularly consumed two units (drink equivalents) of an alcoholic beverage per day, for example a large glass of wine or a pint of beer. Their stroke risk averaged 34% higher than those who did not drink. The fact that the effect was present even in these identical twins means it was not related to genetic but to lifestyle issues. In this case, probably the alcohol consumption.

I know I've seen other studies showing a benefit from modest alcohol consumption, and this article mentions one in which middle aged male teetotalers had a higher risk of heart failure than those who regularly drank small amounts of alcohol. The conclusion here is that while a little alcohol is probably not harmful and may even have some benefit, larger quantities consumed regularly, even to the tune of two drinks a day, can impair your health. In this case, raise your risk of stroke significantly.

I guess I'll continue to be mostly abstemious. It appears to be healthier and it's definitely more frugal, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Don't Buy It When You Need It

A lot of my purchasing is reactionary, which makes me pretty much like everybody else. I buy things because I've just discovered that I need them. The knob falls off a sink stopper. I'm out of toilet paper or milk. I need a dress for a special luncheon. I notice that my black dress shoes have gotten shabby. So I make a trip to the store or the shopping mall. Or I check my old faithful online stores. Maybe I look for the best prices available online, or check several stores at the mall to get the best price. But according to the best frugalist advice, this is NOT the best way to conserve your resources.

You shouldn't wait to buy things until your need is urgent. This is a concept I originally learned in Champagne Living on a Beer Budget, but Tightwad Gazette covers it, too. The concept is logical. The best deals on any item probably won't happen at the moment we discover we need it. Therefore, we should anticipate that need and keep an ongoing lookout for an excellent deal and purchase the item BEFORE we need it. That makes sense, but as usual, the trouble is in executing this good advice. This way of buying can save you quite a bit of money, but you have to use advance planning. You have to be... ORGANIZED.

I've been aware of this buying model for years, but didn't use it much in the past. I'd stock up on shampoo, maybe, and buy big bargain packages of paper towels and toilet paper, but that was about it. I was so busy working that I didn't have the time. Now I do, but I find that old habits die hard. I still buy most things when I need them, but I'm slowly doing better. After all, I am now retired and have a lot more time for planning and keeping an eye out for bargains.

Keeping lists is a help, but so is simply noticing, when you replenish the shampoo or soap, that there are only two bottles or bars left in the linen cabinet, and putting shampoo or soap on a list of things to scout for. Some things, like shampoo, aren't a problem for me. I like the inexpensive Suave or White Rain brands I can buy for about a dollar at Dollar Tree, so it's just a matter of scheduling a trip to that store sometime before I run out and have to grab more expensive shampoo somewhere else. Likewise, I haven't paid more than a dollar for toothpaste in years. When I do go to the dollar store, I check the toothpaste offerings, and if they have one brand or other at that price, I grab several tubes. Sometimes they don't, so I wait and don't buy. I try to keep several tubes on hand so that I don't end up paying more.

This seems kind of natural for things I buy all the time. But what about one-time purchases, or things I buy much less frequently. There are two keys here. First, try to anticipate your needs well in advance, at least a year if possible, and make a list. Second, if you have an urgent need to buy something right away, try to figure out how you can defer that purchase.

Anticipate Your Needs:  Even the most accomplished frugalist isn't going to be able to do this 100% of the time. But all of us can avoid being surprised by "emergency" needs a lot more often than we are. Just make note of things that you think might need replacing as you notice them. For example, my garden hose is on its last legs, so it's on my list to buy when I see a good special. You should especially do this with your wardrobe. Anticipate every possible type of event you may be called upon to attend and plan what you would wear, down to shoes and accessories. You should have something on hand for weddings, graduations, hking, formal events, "dressy" luncheons, funerals, a day at the beach, anything you remotely think might come up. Then start making lists and little by little, picking things up on sale, so that when one of these events arises unexpectedly you don't have to rush out and buy anything at full price.

This process is kind of an art as much as a science, but it will help you save really a lot of money. It also makes me feel so much more in-control and prepared. To jog my memory, I also sometimes check Consumer Report's list of what goes on sale each month. I know that I need a new pair of good walking shoes, for example, so by checking Consumer Report's list I see that I should probably wait until May, when athletic shoes typically go on sale. If I want to buy new dishes, June would be a good time. This doesn't mean you can't find excellent deals at other times, but retailers do have specific times of the year when they discount items they know a lot of people will be looking for.

If you think you need to buy it right now, especially at full price, find an alternative. This second key is more about discipline and creativity than planning. This concept, very foreign to me at the time, came from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget. The idea here is to just stop the reactionary "emergency" spending. This works on all scales. You have a lingering cough and are thinking about buying a pricey package of Vicks lozenges at the grocery? Buzz buzz buzz... your "reactionary buying" alarm should be going off. Is it really an emergency? You know you could get an equivalent store brand for half the price somewhere else. Also, you have a recipe for a soothing syrup you can make at home from all-natural ingredients you already have on hand. So... the smart money skips the Vicks, makes a batch of natural cough syrup, and puts generic cough lozenges on their discount store shopping list. Savings may be only a couple of dollars, but remember... these little savings add up in a big way.

You use the same concept with bigger items. Your dishwasher breaks down? You can rush over to Sears and buy one at full price. Or you can wash dishes by hand for a few weeks until you spot a good sale. You are invited to an evening wedding that requires semi-formal attire, and you have nothing to wear! A man can always rent formal wear, and rentals are available for women, too. But a women may be able to put something together from what is already in her closet. Every woman should have a long, black skirt in a silky fabric because you can add tops of every degree of formality to put together ensembles ranging from formal to casual.

Granted, there are plenty of times when you really do have to buy something for immediate use: gifts you didn't anticipate, clothes you find you really do need, a refrigerator that unexpectedly stops working and is not repairable, prescription medicine for unanticipated illnesses. There's no putting off some purchases. Even in these cases, however, it helps to have some idea of the most economical sources of such items, and often you can do some shopping around. You should know which pharmacy in your area tends to offer the best prices on prescriptions, where you can find interesting presents that impress but don't cost a fortune, consignment shops where you can buy gently used upscale clothes at a big discount.

I've started a new section in my household notebook to help me with my anticipated purchases. I've got a month-by-month listing of which things I buy and when they are usually marked down. I have a list of holidays and one of birthdays. A list of all the people I buy gifts for, with sizes and ideas for future gifts. A list of outfits (clothing, shoes, bags, and accessories) for reasonably foreseeable special occasions. And I keep shopping lists of things I think I'll be needing in the future, broken down by category. Household items, garden stuff, toiletries and personal care, clothing and accessories, and so on. I'm still working on this, but I think it's going to help me do better at avoiding  "emergency" buying hazards.