Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Buying in Bulk... Finally, the Rebate Arrives

Guess what just came in the mail... finally! My $39.00 rebate from Staples!

Now,  I applied online for the Staples rebate last November 29. I had gone shopping the day after Thanksgiving, kind of by accident, when I was out for lunch with family and I asked if we could make a quick stop at Staples for a case of printer paper. It is soooo much cheaper to buy by the case, but a case is far too heavy for me to carry home on the bus. This was the first time, ever, that I have shopped on Black Friday! I checked the shelves for prices and discovered a special Black Friday deal: buy a case for $53.99 and get a $39.00 rebate. That brought my net cost for a case of paper down to $14.99, and my per-ream cost down to $1.50! When I'd run out of my last case of paper last fall, the lowest price I'd found was over $6.00 a ream.

Now, the catch was that when I applied for the rebate, I was informed that there would be an 8 to 11 week wait, and they appear to have stretched that out nearly to the maximum. Still, I now have a prepaid Visa holding $39.00 to use wherever I want... groceries, yarn, whatever. I consider that a much better deal than store credit, because I don't shop at Staples all that regularly... just a couple times a year when I need paper.

But there's a bigger principle here... sometimes buying in bulk can save you a lot of money. It sure did this time, and I appreciate it because the costs for my student handouts add up! When shopping, I try to check the unit price information on store shelf price tags, but too often there is very little difference between small and large packages, whether it be food, socks, or office supplies. Occasionally I find things that are actually MORE expensive in bulk, and I'm always deeply offended.

I usually buy the smaller package if the price difference is small. I do this for three reasons:

  1. Many products diminish in quality with time. We know that about things like eggs and potato chips. But it can be true in less obvious cases. I bought a big bag of cheap ball point pens once, but by the time I had only half-finished the bag, the ink had dried up in the remaining pens.
  2. Storage can be inconvenient. I don't have a lot of storage space in my house, so if I buy a large amount of something I have to find a place to keep it. This may be worth the trouble and clutter for some things, like the printer paper. Probably not for things where unit savings are small.
  3. I tend to use more of things when I have a big supply. This feeling of abundance comes over me, and I just... splurge a little, I guess. It's a nice feeling to have more than I need, but... there is a cost to it.

I guess there is a more fundamental principle here, too. Smart frugality is really all about using the intellect a little more and emotions a little less when making purchases. So don't turn your nose up at Black Friday sales!  If I want to do as well as possible with my limited resources, I can't afford to overlook obvious sources of good deals just because the stores are crowded! And actually, it turned out that Staples wasn't any more crowded that Black Friday than any other weekend afternoon. I think the crowds all head for the mall and big-box discount stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, not the office supply stores.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What's the Cost of the "Good Life" in Retirement?

The Money section of the local newspaper - yes, I still have one delivered each morning - featured, a while back, an article about the cost of The American Dream... the "Good Life." Their estimated cost for a family of four was $130,357, or $32,589 per person. That includes only one car (not very realistic for two adults in most parts of the country) and about $22,000 in savings (probably more than most people save in a year these days.)

These figures surprised me! Especially since that figure is quite a bit higher than the median income for a family of four. What about the Good Life for retired folks, either a single person (like me) or a couple? What kind of price tag would you put on that?

I guess the answer is an obvious. "That depends." I know retired people whose annual incomes approach six figures, but who feel impoverished. And I know other people with incomes below $1,000 a month who seem pretty happy.

As I've thought about this, a couple things come to mind. First, living happily on a shoestring requires a certain mindset. You have to appreciate and creatively use... to the max!... what you do have. The most pathetically unhappy poor people I've known are the ones who are bitter and angry about not having the money and things they used to, and that they think they deserve. Bitter anger is not compatible with happiness or contentment, and it's also not a state of mind that allows you to recognize the blessings you have and to grab onto and use the opportunities that come along... all the time.

Second, maximizing the resources you already have... your blessings, really... requires you to learn to plan and make smart choices. If you still have a big mortgage payment in retirement, that can strap you pretty fast. Car payments and expenses can make a big dent, too, as can medical insurance and treatment costs. I recall a statement by a financial planner that made sense. He recommended that you go into retirement debt-free. Now, that's just smart, to reduce your costs as much as possible. People sometimes don't want to down-size, but it makes sense if you can end up living mortgage-free.

Car costs can be significant, too. Per the article, AAA has estimated an  annual cost of $11,039 to own a four-wheel-drive SUV, which is what everybody around here seems to want to drive. That's almost $1,000 a month! If you buy an older car outright (no payments), one that gets good mileage, you can knock a huge amount off AAA's estimate, including fuel, registration, and insurance too. Personally, I chose a place to live that is close to public transportation, so I was able to give up my car. (And that was lucky, because my eyesight then deteriorated to the point I couldn't drive a car even if I wanted to!) I buy a bus pass, heavily discounted for senior citizens, every month or so, and walk to many places I need to go.

I've seen that even people on very low incomes can, with planning and maybe a little luck, manage to live fairly well. I know retired people who have been able to obtain very nice low-income apartments. And food stamps (or SNAP, as it is now called) can keep the cupboards from going bare for those who qualify. A friend of mine who is on a very, very low fixed income was at her wit's end because they kept raising her rent, to the point she had almost nothing left to live on. But she applied for low-cost housing, and in a few months was able to move into a nice efficiency apartment in a decent area of town. It's an older building, but her apartment had just been renovated with new carpet and appliances. Because her income is so low, her rent is less than $200 a month. The place is small but adequate and has spectacular views from the 12th floor. There is a bus stop right in front that will take her downtown or to the mall or various grocery stores. She also gets food stamps that help a lot with her grocery bill.

There are so many ways to save money when you're retired, but you need to stay alert. Many of them are not well-known, and some will require some flexibility, such as shopping at a certain store on a Tuesday rather than Wednesday (not too hard, I don't think). Many cities and counties offer discounts on property taxes and water bills, and I understand that many people don't know about these (somehow they don't seem to advertise them much), or just don't bother to apply.

Another example: I got a flyer in the mail that contains a list of "helpful phone numbers," and I was surprised to see that there is a Senior Citizens Affordable Taxi service. You have to buy tickets and get a picture ID to verify age, but it uses Yellow Cab and offers a 50% discount. Cabs are expensive here, so it still wouldn't be cheap, but this would make it easier to get back and forth to places where the bus doesn't go, or at times when it is not running. I've never heard of anyone even using that service. In fact, if you start looking, there are many, many discounts offered to seniors and most of us don't know about them, or don't bother to use them!

I used to do volunteer work helping adults of all ages and income levels who were having problems involving domestic violence. One thing that really struck me was how differently people on low incomes fared. Some did super well. They figured out how to take advantage of every opportunity that was available to them, and were good at finding those opportunities. They obtained housing they could afford (even if far from ideal), shopped at Goodwill and yard sales, used food stamps to help feed their families, and accepted help from friends and family. Others... well, frankly, they were just very inept. They lived way beyond their means and racked up huge debts. And that, in turn, made their lives so very stressful and chaotic.

We all have choices to make regarding how we're going to live, whether we're luxuriating on a fat pension or investment income, or struggling a bit on a small fixed income. Either way, I've seen that the chaos and discouragement caused by poor decisions, impulsive spending, and failure to just get a grip can be turned around. It just takes a change in mindset, so that opportunities are found and recognized, and more rational, and less emotion-based, decisions about how we use our money and resources are made.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Jared Diamond Talks About Being Careful

I intended to write about exercise today, because my back has been hurting on and off and when I took stock, I realized I had not been getting as much exercise as I should, and have neglected my (minimal) yoga practice almost completely.

But yesterday, as I was finishing up a new knitted cap... a rather nice one, if I do say so myself... I listened to an interview of Jared Diamond, one of my favorite authors. He is best known for Guns, Germs and Steel, which by the way is available to read free on Kindle if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber. I most recently read Collapse, which was very informative and thought-provoking. Dr. Diamond is a brilliant thinker, in my opinion, whose ability to synthesize large amounts of historical, geographical, and scientific information, in a very multidisciplinary way, makes him a very unique author in this age of specialization.

The interview was a podcast from The Commonwealth Club of California. I don't know much about this non-profit organization, but they do seem to present some very interesting interviews of all sorts of people and manner of topics. Some are more pertinent to residents of the Golden State (which I no longer am), but many are not and provide a great, free source of entertainment, since they make them available at no cost as podcast recordings. The Diamond interview I listened to can be found here. You can stream it right from the website, or as I do, use a podcatcher on your tablet or phone.

Well, Diamond, who is in his early 70s, talked a bit about risk and mentioned that we tend to worry about things that are statistically extremely unlikely to happen to us, when we should worry more about things that are a genuine risk. He pointed out that as he ascended the dais to speak, he had  kept his hand on the railing and proceeded rather carefully. His point was that falls are a significant risk to the over-65 set and that they happen commonly and can have very serious consequences in people our age. He mentioned a few individuals close to him who had fallen.

OK. This is not something I don't already know. I've read about the danger of falling and hip fractures in seniors, and even that hip fractures in an older population sometimes lead to death. But I haven't been as careful about falling as I should be. Why not? I think that somehow I still don't really see myself as "old." I think that is something common to many of us younger seniors, compared to those from our parents' generation. When we were younger we were active - we jogged, did aerobics, went to the gym. And many of us never stopped, though we have often slowed down.

But I am old. Neither my balance nor my eyesight are what they were a decade ago. So I need to take Diamond's advice and be proactively cautious. This winter has not been as icy as last, in my area, and since I'm avoiding the bus to avoid the flu, I've often walked when I normally might take the bus. But sometimes it's been a bit dicey, even when I wear my lug-soled boots. I need to stop that.

I need to make some new habits. When it's icy out, I will take the bus rather than walking, and when it's particularly bad I'll cancel the activity. I usually walk a little over a half-mile to get my groceries, but I can take the bus almost to the door of the nearest Acme market. My students won't mind if I cancel tutoring sessions or class occasionally. I'll be the one feeling guilty, and I need to get over that.

In addition, I need to just slow down and be mindful of hazards in the home. I usually keep a hand on the railing when going downstairs, but that needs to be 100% of the time. And I will be more diligent about going through the house every day and removing odds and ends that I could trip over. I'm really bad about kicking off my shoes and leaving them lying about, but even small items like that are a trip-and-fall hazard. My house will stay less cluttered, too... a bonus. Diamond pointed out that the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house for oldsters. I think I'm going to find and apply some of those non-skid strips to the bottom of my bathtub, just as a precaution.

Another thing I've never seen anyone talk about. I know that when I do yoga regularly, my balance is better and I'm less likely to stumble or trip. I'm not sure what exactly happens, but yoga somehow makes my "body awareness" more acute. I need to get back to regular yoga sessions for my back, but I think I also need yoga to make me a little less at-risk for falling.

By the way, the last time I hurt myself in a fall was two years ago, and it wasn't even icy. I was walking to the store, wearing clogs (bad idea), and tripped over some broken sidewalk. No damage done, I thought at first, but later I realized the little finger on my right hand was swollen and aching. Not bad, though, so I didn't see a doctor. Well, the swelling got a bit worse and the aching continued for months, and still comes back occasionally! I need to think about that minor incident, and remember that for someone my age, a similar fall, or any fall, could have much more serious consequences. And behave accordingly. Act my age, in other words.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Avoiding Influenza

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is still showing influenza as "widespread" in most of the US. (Go here to see their current map.) This has had me feeling a little concerned, because by all accounts, this year’s influenza is a nasty one. They say it's especially bad for the old. My newspaper announced recently that we’ve had 20 flu deaths in our little state, all but two over 65 and all over 50 and with “underlying conditions.” Well, said "underlying conditions" are the stuff many of us retirees have.

So, I did NOT get a flu shot this year, as usual. But even if I had, as we have been endlessly advised to do, well... too bad. This year’s flu shot didn’t provide any immunity whatsoever to this particular flu.

Instead, I've been trying to follow some of the good old-fashioned common sense stuff that we've all known about forever. So far they've been working and I haven't had the flu in years now.

  • I keep track of the risk in my area. The sickweather.com website (there are also phone apps), is shown above in local and national screenshots. It tells me what’s going around in my vicinity as well as elsewhere. I checked this morning and found that the three biggies in my area are “common cold, cough, and flu.” I also checked the national Sickweather.com and CDC maps (see above) for more widespresd information. When influenza is widespread, especially in my local area, I make it a habit to avoid unnecessary exposure: large gatherings, public transport, trips to the mall, groups of children. This doesn’t mean I’m going to isolate myself at home, but I may walk rather than take the bus when feasible, make sure the grandkids are healthy before I agree to babysit, and order online rather than make a trip out to the big shopping center. When I have to ride the bus, I try to make my trips at times when I know there will be fewer riders.
  • I avoid getting chilled. This is hard to do here, in the winter when it's so cold. But I've read that getting chilled really can lower your immunity, temporarily anyway. I guess there is some fact behind the old expressions about "catching a cold" or "catching a chill." I have to take my dog out early and late, when it's coldest, and I also walk to do many errands. I can't avoid the cold, but I can avoid getting chilled. I wear long underwear when it's extra-cold, wear a warm jacket with a super-warm hood, and use a thick wooly scarf and warm gloves. I make sure to pull the scarf up over my nose and lower face if they starts feeling icy. I also have ear warmers, but haven't had to use them yet this year.  
  • I don't overheat my home. Cold air doesn't hold as much moisture as warm. But if you take cold, dry air and heat it, the relative humidity gets even lower. The more you heat it, the lower the relative humidity, and the more the linings of your nasal passages dry out. And dry mucus inings in your nose and throat make you more vulnerable to viruses. I have been keeping my thermostat at 60 degrees during the day. I know people who keep theirs even lower, but that is a temperature that keeps me comfortable with a sweater on. It also saves a lot of money. I am always amazed when people tell me about keeping their homes at 72 degrees. My heating bill would be sky high! 
  • I eat well and take my vitamins, especially D3. I make sure I’m getting 1,000 units of D3 every day. I’ve found over the course of almost a decade that D3 really does make a difference in how well my immune system functions. When I don’t take it regularly, I tend to get sick and my allergies flare up. Also, this is not the time to start a new diet. I have found that whenever I make a big change of any kind to my diet, I am more likely to get sick. So I try to eat adequately and healthfully, and neither overindulge nor cut back. Hot soups and beverages are probably a good idea in cold weather. Staying well-hydrated is a benefit in both warding off disease and recovery, from what I’ve read. 
  • I wash my hands often when I’m out and about, and keep them away from my face. Viruses can be spread through the air when people cough or sneeze. But they can be spread even further when people cough, sneeze, or touch surfaces such as doorknobs, papers, tabletops, etc. You pick up the bugs when you wipe your eyes, touch your nose, or use your fingers to put something in your mouth. So I make a conscious effort to get out of the habit of doing those things. It's hard! And I try to always wash my hands before eating. 
  • I get enough rest. Flu season isn’t the time for me to be burning the candle at both ends, if I can help it. Now that I’m retired, I find myself taking short naps sometimes, usually in the afternoon, after lunch, when I lie down to read a book. I’ve noticed over the years that occasionally I’ll get extra-tired for a few days, and I’ll want to take naps or go to bed early. It usually lasts for 3-4 days. Often my sleep needs return to normal, but maybe a third of the time I’ll get sick instead. Maybe just a mild sinus infection, sometimes a cold. But I’ve concluded that, at least for me, needing a little more sleep than usual may be part of my body’s way of fighting off infection. So now that I’m retired, I just go with it. 
There's no way to reduce your chances of getting sick to zero. And the social isolation that would require would not be worth it anyway. But I know that as I get older, the chance of having a serious problem as the result of influenza does increase. So I think it makes sense to take some precautions. So for me, this winter, so far so good. (Knock, knock.)