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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

To Nap or Not to Nap?

Feeling well is important to living well. And I've read lately that the quantity and quality of your sleep is very important to your health and feeling of well being. But... my sleep pattern is not at all regular. I've found myself taking short naps lately, too, sometimes falling asleep while I'm lying down reading a book after lunch. I've heard that people don't need as much sleep when they get older, but is that true? Are naps messing up my nighttime sleep even more? Do I need to worry that my sleep habits seem to have changed as I've gotten older?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Picking up a Pencil

It's Sunday, a "day off" for me, since I usually don't schedule work or even social activities on Sundays. I think even us retired folks can benefit from having one day a week with no responsibilities. Observing the Sabbath has traditionally been seen as a strict rule for behavior, but actually I think it was intended as a gift to hard-working humans. Life offers lots of gifts, but we don't always take advantage of them. Along this line, I was thinking recently about an incident that happened with one of my ESL students a while back.

I was on a break from my teaching job, and as I walked through a big parking lot to a nearby K-Mart, I noticed one of my students walking ahead of me, going in the same direction. I watched as she stopped, bent down, picked something up, examined it closely, and then tucked it into her pocket.
I walked a little faster, and when I caught up with her I asked her what she had found. She showed me - it was an almost-new yellow pencil. That student, Helen, was one of my favorites. She was from Taiwan, in her late 50’s, and didn't speak a lot of English even after having been in classes for a year. She did not work and lived with her grown son, who was a manager at an Amazon warehouse. One thing I learned about Helen was that she was very thrifty and an expert at finding bargains. She would occasionally gift me with things she'd found on sale and thought I might be able to use: a family pack of frozen, breaded chicken patties; a reusable shopping bag; two pairs of cotton trousers.
At the time, I was a little surprised and then amused at Helen's picking up the discarded pencil. How many of us would have done that? But later I thought about it... why not? It was a perfectly usable pencil, almost new, and would just have been ruined or swept up and thrown away if someone hadn't rescued it. In a way, it was a gift, and clearly Helen saw it as such. After all, most of us find ourselves having to spend our money to buy pens or pencils from time to time. Granted, pencils are cheap, about 20 cents apiece. But to Helen, 20 cents was 20 cents. If you saved 20 cents every day for a year, that would be $73! What could you do with an extra $73?
So why don't we all do this? Why don't we take advantage of the tiny gifts life constantly offers up to us... the pencils we see lying on the street, the small savings we notice but then pass up, the offers we just don't get around to taking up?
There are a lot of factors that probably go into play here: pride, habit, laziness, a false sense of privilege, an I’ll-do-it-myself mindset. I know I've had a tendency to think I'm "too good" somehow to pick up a usable item off the street. I feel more comfortable buying it. Or it may be soiled or tarnished, and I'm just too lazy to want to clean it up. I know a lot of people feel like used goods are somehow "contaminated," and they are not OK with shopping at yard sales, for example. Now, I don't think I'd buy used socks or underwear, but little by little I've gotten comfortable with most other kinds of used (or found) items. I can't even fathom it, but I know that there are people out there who don't even like to buy things on sale! As if a sale price somehow devalues the item or themselves. I guess those attitudes are fine if you are rolling in money, but when you are financially limited, it sure pays to learn to divest yourself of attitudes that prevent you from taking advantage of "gifts" that come your way.
Starting a couple weeks ago, an ad started popping up on my Kindle tablet. It informed me that if I changed my one-click buying option to a Citibank credit card, I would get a $10 credit. Now, a Citicard is one of my three credit cards (I refuse to have more), so why did it take me until today to take a couple of minutes to make that change and get a free $10 gift? There is nothing at all wrong with the card or its terms, especially since I pay off all charges on my cards every month. So why not? Laziness, I guess. So anyway, now I've done it and I have $10 to apply to a purchase on Amazon. 
As I was at my desk, I also took a minute to do the on-line validation of a replacement credit card I just got in the mail from another bank. As I cut up the old, outdated card, I realized the scissors I used were sturdier than the ones I used to use, and that this was the pair of scissors I found lying at the curb in the snow last month. They had been a little rusty, but I took them inside, washed them, took a second to scour the bits of rust off the blades, and noticed they were a good brand and nice and sharp. I'd been thinking of buying a new pair of scissors - these were better than what I'd probably have purchased.
Why was the pencil lying in the parking lot, or the scissors at my curb? Who knows. Things fall out of bags, kids throw away all kinds of perfectly good stuff. I live on a moderately busy corner, and every so often I find boxes or bags of things lying in the street. Do they fall out of overloaded trucks? I don't know, but in the last year I've salvaged a couple of plastic storage crates, a few earthenware saucers perfect for under my plant pots, those scissors, and a reusable shopping bag containing a new YMCA t-shirt and a new pair of Nike tennis shoes, both in my size. I just washed everything thoroughly and put it to use. These were all things I needed and would probably have ended up buying at some point. I'd estimate that I probably saved $50 at minimum, even if I'd gotten lesser quality items on sale. 
Life really does seem to offer up gifts big and small. But it's up to us to notice them and then be able to take advantage of them. I've had to make the effort to consciously adjust my attitudes in order to be able to do this, I'll admit. But when you're on a limited budget, that effort is well worth it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Virtual Museum Excursion

Part of learning to live well, I think, is looking for those little things that make each day nicer - those small touches that educate, entertain, enlighten, inspire. When they are free... all the better.

I just learned that Google has come out with a new extension for its Chrome browser that shows a beautiful piece of art every time you open a new browser tab. It's called the Google Art Project. I immediately went to the Google Web Store, installed it, and I love it! Turns out this is part of the Google Cultural Institute.

The extension (app) only works if you use Google's Chrome browser, which I do. I like the way it links everything across my devices, both my Windows computer and my Chromebook. Art Project is free from the Google Web Store. If you don't use Chrome, you can still visit the Google Cultural Institute and browse to your heart's content. More below.

By the way, the painting it first showed me (in the above screenshot) is called "A Calm at a Mediterranean Port" by Claude-Joseph Vernet, from the J. Paul Getty Museum. I have happy memories of visiting that amazing museum years ago! In case you're worried about losing your "most visited sites" that normally appear on new tabs in Chrome, there is now a little icon at right bottom that will bring those back. And another "refresh" icon near the bottom left that will feed you a new piece of art. So this app is entertaining, inspiring, and educational all at the same time. Highly recommended.

Now, I have to confess that up until now, I didn't even know there even was a Google Cultural Institute! This website provides a portal to an amazing collection of what they call "art projects, historic moments, and world wonders".

If you click around, you'll find an amazing amount and variety of wonderful "stuff" to explore. I found so many things in just a couple of minutes, including pictures of a collection of beautiful southwest Native American baskets and pots from the San Bernardino County Museum in California, another museum I've enjoyed. I wonder if they have pictures of their amazing collection of bird's eggs? And pictured here is just one of a collection of ornithology prints from a collection at the University of Virginia. Anyway, I'll leave you to explore...

I am just so impressed that Google has done this. I knew they scanned huge volumes of printed materials from libraries around the world. But this Cultural Institute offering is incredible. For us seniors who don't have the resources to travel the world visiting museums, it's a gift. And for those who no longer have the mobility or the eyesight to be able to fully enjoy the museums they can get to, this is especially nice I think. We can sit in the comfort of our homes and peruse the collections of museums the world over. Thank you Google!

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Pitfalls of Eating Out

Wednesday I was walking home just after dark, and I realized the air had that soft, moist feel of early spring. I was coming home from picking up my once-monthly Big Mac meal from McDonald's, where several customers were in shorts! Was it just a week ago that we were almost down to single digits?

Big Macs are one of my guilty, but fairly frugal, pleasures. I limit myself to once a month because although I think they taste really good, and so does my dog, they are really not at all healthy, and the fries that accompany them are even worse.

Eating out, whether at fast food places or more up-scale restaurants, can be hazardous to your budget as well as your health. But face it, restaurant dining is pleasurable and a part of sociable living. I have so many happy memories of eating out. When I was young, the "ladies lunches" of salad with date bread and cream cheese finger sandwiches, served in the dining room of an upscale department store, were a special treat when on a shopping expedition with my mother. Restaurant meals through the years with friends celebrated birthdays, graduations, promotions, engagements, retirements, and anything else that needed a festive gathering.

We don't have to give all this up just because we're now living on a small income. I've found that I can have a good time, and do a lot less financial damage, if I just plan ahead a little. Planning and attitude are key.

A bad example from my week is instructive in what NOT to do. A student and I had planned to have lunch together. The restaurant to which we intended to go, a steakhouse with great food, turned out to be closed for renovations! I thought of a little Peruvian restaurant nearby and my companion was delighted at the choice. Now, I hadn't been there in a couple of years. It's an interesting place, but the food had been kind of hit or miss... some things very good, some not so much. But what I did not realize was that they have raised their lunch prices... a lot! No wonder we found ourselves to be the only diners in the place! And although my student ordered a seafood and rice dish that she seemed to enjoy, the chicken with rice and cilantro I ordered... abysmal. Gloppy and prepared with those frozen peas and cubed carrots, and no cilantro I could discern. My student ordered a really outstanding appetizer that we shared, a small dish of potato with a flavorful sauce topping a layer of savory chicken salad, so I did at least taste something interesting. But the bill was way too high for such a lousy lunch. My student vehemently insisted on paying, and she could well afford it, but still... I regret that I didn't make this a better experience for both of us.

This event was not better because I did not prepare the way I usually do for a meal out. I should have checked the steakhouse, number one, so I would have known that it had closed. Knowing that, I should have found a better alternative, and then, most important of all, checked their menu and prices online. Almost all restaurants post their menus online these days, either on their website or on Facebook. It's part of standard marketing, I guess. I try to always decide on my order before I even enter the restaurant. And if it's a restaurant you don't know much about, reviews on Google, Yahoo, and Yelp can be very helpful in deciding if it's worth a try, and if so, what to order.

When I'm eating with friends, I tend to get caught up in the conversation and the ambiance of the place. I get distracted, and often do a poor job of ordering. That's why I need to decide ahead of time. At the Peruvian restaurant, for instance, I should have gotten something from the appetizer menu, which was a lot more interesting than the entrees, which are also far too much food for me... or anyone, really. That seems to be true at many places. A small dinner salad, plus a bowl of soup or an interesting, flavorful appetizer, is often much more enjoyable than a big entree or one of those humongous full-meal lunch salads. And it may be more nutritious and less expensive, as well.

We did not order anything alcoholic, but my companion ordered a very sweet beverage, a fruity chicha, which was several dollars more. I don't care much for sugary beverages, but I reflexively ordered a diet soda. That was another mistake. Now, I'll sometimes have a glass of wine, but in general, if you really need to watch the pennies but still want to dine out, you'll concentrate on the food and forego beverages, including alcohol, and just have water. After all, the markup on beverages of all kinds, especially alcoholic, is huge at most restaurants, and they are rarely anything special. You can often have dessert for the cost of a glass of wine or a cocktail, and I'd much rather have the dessert. I can always pour a glass of wine at home... not so with the special desserts many restaurants feature.

I also usually ignore the "specials of the day," especially those  recited verbally by the server. Notice how they never tell you the price? According to the experts, in many establishments these specials are things the chef is trying to get rid of... kinda like restaurant overstock... and prices on these specials are often inflated, to give the restaurant a little higher profit margin. Specials may also be listed, with prices, on a menu insert, but I usually just stick to the regular menu. That's the food the restaurant has become known for, after all... specials are often trial runs.

In case you feel embarrassed at seeming "cheap" by ordering an appetizer rather than a full meal, realize that the wealthiest women, especially, often order the least. They're intent on maintaining their willowy figures, and may order just a salad and mineral water. Waitstaff are well accustomed to that. Just don't skimp on a tip. Especially if your bill is small, leave a generous tip. You should budget for that. Being a poor tipper is just not OK, and if you cannot afford it, you should stay at home until you can. That's assuming the service is at least acceptable. Sometimes servers make the assumption that all women customers are poor tippers, and ignore them. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

I will avoid going back to the Peruvian restaurant, as I don't feel it provides a very good value. But if I could have a do-over, what would I change? I'd check online... but they are one of the few restaurants around without a website. There is a menu on their Facebook page, but prices are not included. Prices are only given for temporary weekend specials. Based on that lack of information, I would have found another place nearby that does post a full menu with prices. I'd order a small salad and a tasty appetizer. Water to drink. Maybe a cup of coffee if my companion wanted to linger over dessert (she didn't). Even though I didn't end up paying for my meal (I tried!), I would have enjoyed it a lot more than that huge mound of gloppy rice topped with a flabby-skinned chicken thigh.

Through bad experiences like this, I've learned that the key to successful restaurant dining on a budget is... advance planning. It is definitely possible to enjoy wonderful meals out on even the tiniest budget, though perhaps not often. I check the menu first and make my selection before I ever enter the establishment. When I do that, I almost always have a successful meal and end up with a smaller bill.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Rethinking Amazon Prime

There are certain services that can be such a good deal, that can help make the most of a small income. I've found Amazon Prime to be such a service, for me anyway, but lately I'm having doubts. If you don't know what it is, Prime is a subscription service provided by It is currently priced at $99 a year (comes to $8.25 per month). Prime members get a number of perks, including free 2-day shipping on all Amazon products, and some affiliated vendors also. You have free access to a large library of streaming video and music, and to a free "lending library" of Kindle-format e-books. You can also select 2 free books per month from a collection of four pre-publication fiction books published by Amazon (Kindle First).

For me, the biggest value was in the streaming video. In the several years I've been a Prime subscriber, I've watched a lot of great TV. But in the last year, many of my favorites have been removed from Prime. No more Midsomer Murders, Matlock, Cheers, As Time Goes By, the Closer, the Andy Griffith Show, and so many more! They do have all the Downton Abby, the Goodwife, and a bunch of the HBO stuff such as the Sopranos. But it seems like most of what they now have on Prime is either shows and movies I've never heard of, or things that appeal more to a younger audience. Lots of violence and raunch. not so much of the older, gentler TV programming I imagine lots of older folks tend to enjoy more than so much of the gory, disturbing newer programming. I looked recently and probably 2/3 of my watchlist had been removed from Prime.

Now. the 2-day shipping is a good deal in and of itself, but only if you do a lot of online ordering from Amazon. And you have to keep in mind that they offer free "whenever" shipping on orders over $25, so unless you need fast shipping all the time, you can probably get free shipping for most of your orders, anyway.

I've read a couple of excellent books from the Amazon First and the Kindle Lending Library, but lately the Amazon First selections have not seemed very interesting, and most of the Lending Library things are not really first-quality. Anyway, they are convenient but not really needed, because I can get a large number of books, audio books, and e-books from my local public library, and the library-affiliated Overdrive (electronic books, audiobooks, and streaming video) service... all totally free.

Amazon's music streaming service is easy to use, and there is a lot available, including some excellent playlists. But... have you tried Pandora, or one of the other free music apps? Or just the radio? There are occasional ads, of course, but I've found Pandora's content to be excellent and I love the way you can build your own custom "stations." And, again... it's free.

But for me, the real deal-breaker is the marked reduction in the quality of their Prime streaming video offerings. I prefer to watch TV on my tablet, because I have a small TV and my eyesight is bad. I can hold my tablet and see quite well. Comcast's tablet app now actually works... most of the time (I was shocked that they finally got it together, actually.) I can watch my new telenovela (La Sombra del Pasado, on Univision), and my new favorite comedy, Fresh off the Boat (ABC), plus my secret vice, General Hospital (also ABC) on my tablet, free of any charge beyond my Comcast monthly basic cable subscription. I'm more of a reader, but I could watch a lot more Comcast programming if I wanted, or get a $7.99 Netflix subscription and watch just about anything. Netflix has an immensely better library than Amazon Prime. You can also watch Hulu on a computer to see many of the recent TV shows... you need to pay for HuluPlus only if you want to watch on a tablet or have a bigger archive available. In addition, I'm gradually discovering how much older TV programming is available on Youtube. Last night, for example, I watched an episode from the final season of the Inspector Morse series on Youtube... free of charge.

My Amazon Prime subscription doesn't end until next January, unfortunately. So I guess I'll catch up on Downton Abby and Parks and Recreation. But unless things change, I won't be renewing. It just isn't a good deal for me any more. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Retirement and Wasting Time

Since I've been retired, I have to admit that I am simply NOT using my time well. I suppose Parkinson's Law is at play here:
"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Cyril Northcote Parkinson, in The Economist, 1955.
When I was working, I'd get up early, fit in a few chores before leaving the house, and then in the evening get more done before I headed upstairs to my office to work on lesson materials for the next day. There were some things that didn't get done, however. I did not get in a walk with the dog every day, for example, and I always had catching up to do on the weekends.

Now I do a couple day's worth of volunteer work each week, and have much less travel time than I did when working, but... sadly, I don't seem to get much more done. Without the structure of a specific departure time each morning, my coffee and newspaper and reading time often stretches into late morning. I am reading more and knitting more... a lot more. For awhile I was watching multiple episodes of various TV shows on my Kindle. But I've been behind on household chores. Lately, I never completely catch up on laundry, for instance.

This is probably one of the biggest challenges of retirement. When you retire, you have all this additional time. It's such a relief, having all the time you want to do whatever you want. But most people who retire these days find they have less money... often much less money than when they worked. A lot of the leisure activities I pictured myself doing in retirement... those cubicle daydreams... cost money... the money that is now in short supply.

Of course we're still working in retirement, just not for money. Many people take up various kinds of volunteer work, like my tutoring. But we often spend more time doing things around the house and yard. We cook more and go for takeout less, which is good for our limited budgets. We do more repairs and improvements ourselves, rather than hiring someone. And we do more crafting... like my knitting. Men take up woodwork.

I really like the more relaxed lifestyle, not having to get up before first light and rush around to get out the door. Not coming home after dark and struggling to find something halfway healthful to eat before collapsing in front of the TV, then falling asleep in front of the TV, waking later and stumbling off to bed. Only to wake the next morning and do the same thing. I always had a fantasy about getting home early enough to watch the McNeill Lehrer Report (now The News Hour) on PBS. Now that I have the time, I rarely watch TV at all, even The News Hour, but I do relish drinking a morning coffee and reading the paper.

Recently I decided to get a bit more serious about learning Spanish, a goal I've had for years. So I downloaded some audio MP3's to my tablet and hauled out my old Spanish texts and a fresh, lined notebook. I've been spending some time every day doing audio lessons and reading and doing exercises from my text. And I found a Spanish-language telenovela (kind of like the American soap operas, but better.) It feels good to be working on this goal rather than reading more sort of junky novels or watching more episodes of Scandal on my tablet. And really, Scandal's plots just keep getting increasingly absurd, don't they? If I want to watch absurd plotlines, I can at least watch them on Univision and learn some Spanish into the bargain.

I still feel like I need a little more structure in my days. I'm torn between the comfort of regularity and the freedom of a spontaneous lifestyle, I guess. But I notice that I can enjoy the spontaneity a little more when I've been regular about getting necessary chores completed, keeping the laundry done, the closets cleaned and organized, and the rugs vacuumed. There is a certain freedom that comes from order.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Vitamin D vs. Diabetes

Yesterday's post, Vitamin D Versus Disease, told how I discovered the positive effects Vitamin D seemed to have on my immune system. I just hardly ever get sick these days. But there is a new study out suggesting that Vitamin D deficiency may increase your risk of developing type II diabetes, and that this effect was present even in non-obese people. You can read about these findings here.

Obesity is often blamed for causing type II diabetes, although from what I've read it's not clear whether obesity is the cause, or just one of the symptoms of this disease. However, the inverse correlation between blood Vitamin D levels and type II diabetes incidence was studied in both obese and non-obese individuals and found to be present in both groups. This particular study indicates that the association between blood Vitamin D levels and diabetes is actually stronger than that between obesity and diabetes.

Type II diabetes has become a world-wide epidemic, and because it becomes more common with age, it is of particular concerns to us seniors. The effects of diabetes on the body can be devastating: heart and circulatory system disease, kidney disease, blindness, even Alzheimer's disease are all named as effects of diabetes. If something as simple as adding a Vitamin D3 supplement to my diet can help stave off some of these diseases, it would seem to be worth a few dollars a month.

This is an interesting new study, but it's far from the first time I've read about positive effects of Vitamin D supplementation on endocrine function, diabetes, and weight loss. As discussed below, Vitamin D is cheap and there is never going to be a lot of profit from it. It's too bad that in our world, the bulk of research dollars seem to go to studying very expensive pharmaceuticals, so many of which have horrendous side effects, and very little money goes to research of more natural, less harmful, cures.

At any rate, Vitamin D3 supplements are really cheap. The Twinlab Vitamin D dots pictured here can be purchased in a package of 100 from for $4.99. Other brands are even cheaper. I used to pick up a bottle of generic gelcaps at K-Mart for a few dollars. You shouldn't need to pay more than a couple dollars for a month's worth.

As a side note, I've been buying supplements from Netrition for years now, and have found their selection and prices good, and their shipping reasonable ($4.99) and reliable. I'm not getting anything from them from this mention, but as a reader I always like to know which online stores bloggers have had a good experience with. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Vitamin D vs. Disease

I was straightening up my linen cabinet the other day, while it snowed and snowed, and noticed some boxes of tissues that had been stored there, untouched, for a few years now. I realized that although I occasionally grab a tissue, I haven't had to have a box of Kleenex at hand for a long time now. I cannot remember my last cold, and the late summer allergy that used to make my nose run like a leaky faucet, well it hasn't shown up in a few years.

I've been taking a 1,000 Vitamin D3 supplement on and off for about 6 or 7 years now, and I've noticed that whenever I'm taking it regularly, I rarely get sick and my seasonal allergy symptoms are greatly diminished. About 12 years ago, I was getting sick all the time. I was eating a low-fat vegan diet and taking no supplements at all. Although I lost weight and felt ok, I was constantly coming down with something: influenza, colds, repeated bouts of stomach flu. I attributed it to living temporarily with my daughter's family and new grandson. But after I moved into my own home and was no longer exposed to every childhood illness going around the child care facility, I still got sick regularly and my allergies got worse.

Then I read an article that riveted my attention and got me started on Vitamin D. In short, in 2005 a California psychiatrist started giving patients in his psychiatric hospital ward 2,000 iu (International Units) of Vitamin D a day. When influenza swept the hospital, only the patients in his ward were unaffected. Earlier population studies had suggested a link between sunlight exposure and the occurrence of influenza, but the information from this California hospital was stunning. You can read more about this and Vitamin D's affect on the immune system here. I think this 2007 article from Life Extension Magazine may be the very one that I read and that got me started on this supplement. I'd highly recommend reading it... it's not very long.

Vitamin D seems to have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Studies have shown its relationship to diseases other than influenza, including tuberculosis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune diseases. A decade or two ago, most of us, and our doctors, thought Vitamin D was important only for helping the body absorb calcium. Thoughts about this vitamin certainly have changed!

Looking back, I see that my non-supplemented low-fat vegan diet was probably an important factor in my constant illnesses. Vitamin D can be found in many common foods, all exclusively of animal origin: milk, eggs, cheese, sardines, tuna. These had all been completely eliminated from my vegan diet. Sunlight is the other main source of Vitamin D, but studies have shown that sunlight intensity is not adequate to produce optimal levels of Vitamin D during winter months, and many people living in the northern half of the US or who spend much of their time indoors simply never obtain enough Vitamin D via sun exposure. This is even more true for people with darker skin, regardless of season or time outdoors.

This is the brand I've been taking.
Did Vitamin D deficiency play a role in my frequent illnesses and allergies? I'll never know for sure, but I see a pretty close correspondence my incidence of illness and my Vitamin D intake, so I'll keep on using it, thank you. I've read that D3 is the more effective form, so that's what I buy. The picture shows the brand I use, except I've been using the 1,000 iu version. But the psychiatric ward study found a 2,000 iu dose to be preventive, and the current recommended upper limit for adults is 4,000 iu. As noted, I've been taking a daily 1,000 iu gelcap, but I'm thinking of upping that to 2,000 iu in the fall and winter. I hesitate to go higher... more is not always better. But I do think the evidence shows supplementation with Vitamin D to be a very prudent health measure for older people. And fortunately, it's pretty cheap!

As always, I'm in no way a health professional. This is just information from what I've read and my own n=1 experiences. Please talk to your own physician and do your own research before taking any dietary supplements!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Feeling Grateful for... Our Plenty

We got socked with quite a snowstorm today. Outside it's beautiful, as you can see, but cold and white, with maybe 5 inches of snow on the ground, and the thermometer in the low 20s and headed down into single digit territory for the night.

Meanwhile, I've been reading a book that spent a couple years in my to-be-read stack before I got to it, The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan. Quite appropriate reading I suppose, but in a broader sense than just today's weather. In this interesting and readable book, the author discusses European climate changes during the period 1300-1850, a period that was often colder and more changeable than our present Modern Warm Period, and that has been referred to as the Little Ice Age. He does not fail to point out the effects of these changes on European and American history, as well as the (to me, anyway) unimaginable human suffering populations endured.

I have been surprised and somewhat horrified to realize that our view of how people lived in the 15th through 19th centuries has apparently been badly distorted by books and movies. The lives we read about, I suppose, are largely those of the middle and upper classes. I know I've read about paupers and starvation and beggars, but I guess I'd always assumed that these were the exception,  not that these were conditions endured by most of the lower classes at many points in European history.

These kinds of brutal conditions seem to be difficult for us to even comprehend, from the comfort of our warm homes with central heating, with kitchens and refrigerators bursting with food, and just a short trip to stores where we can replenish our stores with a fraction of our incomes. It's become apparent to me that the conditions in which even the poorest Americans live are incredibly abundant and luxurious, compared to how the poor lived in the past.

My principal "takeaways" from this book are two: (1) fear, and (2) gratitude. I understand history better now, too.

This information makes me nervous, though, because I cannot help but realize that our whole society is dependent on a complex system of supplies and delivery systems. There is a lot of talk these days about our aging electric grid, and how little it might take to knock it out for an extended period of time, and the effect that could have. For most of human history, human populations have been vulnerable to situations that could, and did, cause deaths in the tens to hundreds of thousands over short periods of time. Many of these resulted from unexpected climate shifts that destroyed harvests, and epidemics resulting from widespread severe malnutrition, but sometimes massive flood events, wars, and government action or inaction were the culprits. The Irish potato famine of the early 19th century is an example of massive loss of life that could have been prevented simply by proactive British government measures.

But we live in a country of abundance that would have been unbelievable in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even those of us living on small retirement incomes have plenty of food, heated homes, and plenty of warm clothing. The poorest of us live as only the very rich lived before the 20th century. I know we sometimes have a nostalgic view of the apple-cheeked farmer's boy living on a prosperous farm somewhere in 18th century Europe, but that apparently would have been an exception for almost everyone in the lower classes (which was most of the population) for most of that time in history.

I have realized how very lucky and blessed we are, in our place and time. We need to give thanks for that every day, and to remember that there are still places on this planet where people live in the kind of vulnerability that is almost forgotten in our western culture.