Thursday, December 24, 2009


Me: How much are those slices of pie*?
Cashier at pie shop: $4.
Me to Jo: I'm not getting it then. (Keep in mind, we'd walked nearly 20 minutes to get to this pie shop.)
(Insert endless agonizing over how these were actually more like two slices of pie, so maybe $4 was OK...)
Me to cashier: (Something affirmative regarding the pie.)
Cashier: I'll give you another one as well, since we're about to close.

It's the little things...

*A brief return to the Americanness discussion here and here: Apparently, 'American' is defined by considering a) pumpkin pie, and b) peanut butter foods worth eating. In that case, call me doubly American.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rampant materialism

What keeps me from posting at Cheapness Studies is that post-exam, I have bought. And bought. Not all for myself, but not all not for myself, either. There were $5 jeans, but also $80 (but fabulous!) ballet flats. There were these $10 leggings, and from the same den of temptation, just before the exam week, these, on sale, but still. Only one book, because of the backlog of unread-because-not-on-lists purchases, and because there was definitely a 48-hour period when I could not look at bound pages of any kind.

Part of this relative binge has been the knowledge that I'm about to go ascetic once more - this is just the moment before the next deadlines - but now I can do the next batch of work in leggings with stars on them. Part has also been the knowledge that a combination of Askhenazi heritage and old age (and like Swann, my Judaism appears atavistically, in my later years) prevents me from engaging in the level of drinking that's expected after such a semester. So, like Jewish women before me, where others drank, I shopped.

I worry, however, that where there was once expertise on seven lists' worth of French literature and history, there's now in-depth knowledge of New York shopping. I realize, for instance, that from this list, which I only just found, I've been to numbers 1, 5, 9, and 26 (but not the branch they mention) recently, and in the not so distant past, 4, 19, 20, 21, 23, and 36. That, and 7 and 38 both sound excellent... Luckily, tomorrow's a work day once more. The cheapness shall return.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

And another

Did you know that buying loads of designer goodies is actually thrifty? Did you? Another entry to this unfortunate bandwagon. (Granted, this from a blogger whose comments policy bans all criticism, not merely trolling, personal-life and body-image commentary, and the sorts of things that are reasonable to discourage. I mean, why have a comments section on a fashion blog, then announce "I’m not looking for pointers"? But I digress.)

Remember, people: 'cost-per-wear' is just the reverse of the advice about how small purchases add up.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sold out

Are we really supposed to be horrified when talented designers accustomed to making clothes the price of a grad-student stipend create a line for Target? According to Erika Kawalek, the Rodarte team sold out by doing just that.

The article itself is a bit confusing - the author announces that she just returned from China, and implies that the Target line was made there, but never says this outright, so for all we know it's not. But it has to be from China, and the result of poor labor conditions, for the argument to make sense. She calls the Target line's garments "Rodarte for Target clothes are commodities" - what, then, are the clothes from the pricier line?

And, um: "Rodarte is synonymous with craft, which means $3,000 to $12,000 price tags, but nobody calls the Mulleavy's elitist or out-of-touch." Because I read too many fashion blogs, I'm aware of who these sisters are, that they look much more 'normal' (read, non-emaciated) than most women in the industry, and wear jeans and not terribly cutting-edge sneakers, so I suppose compared with an Anna Wintour, a Karl Lagerfeld, the phrase "out-of-touch" wouldn't come to mind. But anyone responsible for clothing in this price range is part of the problem, if we are defining down-payment-on-house-priced clothing as a problem.

We are thus once again being confronted with the "slow fashion" argument. Hand-crafted, artisinal, quality, Investment Piece, blah blah, who cares that most of the clothing women actually wear-for-years is from places like Target. Kawalek writes of how the designers' regular line "practically howled with the sadness of environmental degradation, while at the same time inspired a poetic but equally practical mend-and-make-do approach to self-fashioning." Yes, because the solution for The Environment is to make clothing that costs $12,000, so that no one can afford it, so that no clothing - worn-to-shreds or otherwise - ends up in landfills, because there's no clothing left. As in, of course, it must be better to carry your great-grandmother's Hermes purse than a tote bag or backpack - perhaps if my own ancestors had carried purses and not pushcarts, I'd do the same.

OK, I realize the above is as populist as I've ever sounded, ever. My point, though, is not about Real Women who Wear Target, but about, once again, the nonsense that is pretending that there is Quality clothing, which is worn for years, and on the other hand, disposable junk. $40 clothing is only disposable junk if for you, the default is $4,000.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Van Masters

What is the message from this Salon article about a grad student living in a van?

-Stunts pay, if not in cash long-term, in publicity short-term?

-People who claim, "Living in a van was my grand social experiment" should consider a reduction in adjectives? (Other people can call your choice to live in a van "grand." You, the van-dweller, do not have this privilege.)

-People who are "worried" that Facebook groups will form on the topic of their "grand social experiment" could try to sound a tiny bit more sincere?

-Men who pose shirtless online and offer up statements like "I had a penchant for rugged living" must appeal to someone, or else they would not do this?

-College graduates whose parents offer to pay their rent and who nevertheless go for something like living in a van are living in a van because they can leave said van at any time without getting a new job?

-Don't go to a humanities grad program that doesn't at least pay your tuition?

Cans, deposited

I forgot to mention, my roommate and I finally accumulated three bags of cans and went down to the bottle deposit place to get our due. Unlike in New York, apparently, regular stores don't accept deposit cans, so you have to go to some dank, smelly warehouse in east Cambridge to claim your reward. And, as I predicted, this warehouse was full of homeless people plying their trade. Also, you have to sort and arrange your own cans. After all that, we got fully $3.20 for our efforts. This is barely enough to buy a latte.

I concluded from this adventure that in order to get the most out of this deposit law, one really needs to have either 10 beer parties a month or 10 soda-guzzling children. But I still intend to go back in June and get another $3 worth of thrift.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

If you can afford X, you can afford X+Y

A popular argument in favor of the much-debated cosmetic surgery tax is that if you can afford to spend a ridiculous amount on personal upkeep, surely you can afford to spend a bit more for something worthwhile - in this case, health care for others. While the proposal itself does not bother me, the suggestion that if you can pay Amount A, you can also manage Amount A+B, does.

Leave aside for a moment the specific issue of cosmetic surgery. The question here is whether one's intent to pay Amount A should be taken to mean that one could just as well pay A+B, as though B does not change the price and thus the affordability of Unnecessary Item X. My argument is thus not that purchases should never be taxed, but that we should not pretend that taxes have no impact on the affordability of said purchases, even if such purchases could be classified as rich-people-nonsense. If part of the hope with this tax is to discourage consumption of something foolish, fair enough - I'll leave opposition to the more libertarian among us. But it seems the thinking is more, these spoiled, vain fools have money to spare.

Why does any of this matter for those of us not looking for nips and tucks? Because the principle of assuming X's affordability implies X+Y's affordability extends to realms that have nothing to do with taxes, Botox, or spreading the wealth to the less fortunate. Example: at every food store where a per-pound item is selected for you, you have to ask for less than you want to get the amount you're effectively asking for. But if you forget to do this, receive significantly more than you'd asked for, and complain, you will learn that this is just the amount the item comes in, or that it's tough to cut some item (fish, meat, cheese, etc.) to a particular weight (which is plausible in some situations, but does not excuse, say, extra olives, walnuts, etc., and is in any case often used as an excuse to oversell items well beyond the range of error). The store's message: 'If you can afford not to eat only prepackaged foods, you can afford an extra third of a pound of whatever it is you're having.' Only someone cheap would argue over a sliver, or order a quarter of a pound in the first place.

Leaving aside the question of whether cheapness should be penalized (and why wouldn't those on the selling end frown on frugality?), the implication here is that all consumers of X spend a set percentage of their wealth on X, and thus that only those with a particular economic status buy X in the first place. Which, whether X is a nose job or arugula, is false. Different people budget differently. Two people can be said to have a spare $400 to spend on nonsense, but one person's 'spare' $400 might come from his spare $4 million, while another's might be the result of months' worth of lentils in lentil sauce.

So, readers whose knowledge of economics extends beyond what's taught junior year of high school, does any of this make sense?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shopping repression

When I lived in DC and had a real life, I shopped at least once a month. It was easy--I had lunch breaks, and DC had convenient retail. My shopping was not extravagant, in part because I had a lot of time to waste waiting for things I liked to go on sale. Now that has changed. Everything in Cambridge is inconvenient except the Gap, and I make no moneyz, so I rarely shop.

This is apparently only a good cheapness strategy until Black Friday. That's when free shipping starts. Also, free returns. And then, you know, what do you have to lose...?

The answer, as you might expect, is your money. I bought lots of barely justifiable stuff on Black Friday (it was cheaper then!), which arrived, turned out not to look that great, and had to be returned to the store (no free returns on this). It was almost like I had repented of this terrible sin. But, unfortunately, returns require a trip to the mall, where other stores also live, and the sinning began anew. It's just that it's been so long since I had been in an H&M... And then these pants were on sale in exactly my size for only $20...Besides, what if I don't get to shop again for another three months? It's all totally justifiable, bank account, I swear!

Anyway, the moral of this story is that the binge and purge method does not work in any realm of life. Indulge your shopping desires regularly in moderation.


FLG sent me this link a while back for a kind of CNET for not-just-electronics that suggests the cheaper version of stuff you want, but also warns against products whose cheapness is not worth it (a temptation to which I am regularly subject). The site is still a work in progress, but could be good for christmas shopping cheapsters.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lessons in home decor

I'm sure I wasn't alone in identifying with this Greenwich Village couple's attempts to redecorate "On the Cheap," spending a mere $5,000 and using a decorator. Ah, to be young and carefree!

Or, as an alternative, you can go with a couch former roommates found on the street, and for flair, instead of throw pillows, use signs.

Such as:

Jo, who knows me well, got me this "No Peddlers" sign at a hardware store in Downtown Brooklyn. I'd been sort of obsessed with this sign for months, given that a) I'm descended, I believe, from the very peddlers this sign was probably designed to keep out when it first entered this hardware store in 1920 or whenever, and b) it's just such an anachronistic word and problem. No Smoking, Post No Bills, No Solicitation, No Spitting... but peddlers?

Below is a surprisingly inoffensive image of "The Old Jew" from Curmer's 1840s illustrated encyclopedia of French "types" that I believe captures something of my own Ashkenazi heritage. (via Gallica.bnf).

The best home decor includes 19th century as well as more modern touches:

Keeping with the Semitic theme, this sign, made from piece of paper that welcomed us to a Tel Aviv hotel bathroom, offers a positive message if I ever saw one.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Slow Fashion

Why is it that even when they have a point, the various slow-things-down movements - Slow Food, slow art-appreciation, anything else asking us to unplug and return to a simpler time, a slower time - are so very irritating? Is it because we're all in a race of one kind or another, and those telling us to slow down are doing so so that they can get ahead? Is it because pro-slow can mean anti-cosmopolitan which can mean xenophobic?

Or maybe it's because well-meaning attempts to get us to stop being such wasteful Westerners sometimes manifest themselves as pseudo-environmentalist, pseudo-pro-labor arguments for choosing Chanel over H&M, from someone clearly more concerned with helping people not wear what everyone else does to the ball than with landfills. (Via.) The blogger situates himself in a branch of frugality that eschews the obviously correct answer - buy cheap stuff and not much of it - in favor of the more fun-sounding 'buy expensive stuff but not much of it', praise the gods of Quality and I Will Wear This For Years, and feel both smug and thrifty.

Anyway, agreed that the less we spend on clothes, the more disposable we consider them. But! For whom, outside the fashion-and-socialite industry, are 'cheap' clothes that disposable? (And is donation of still-intact used clothes no longer socially acceptable?) For whom, outside these rare exceptions, does the fact that a skirt costs $40 mean huzzah, time to buy a new one every week? No doubt, if I owned a $4,000 dress, I'd take ridiculously good care of it, and could perhaps mimic Golden Age sartorial behavior, wearing just one set of clothes per season, thus saving The Workers and The Environment. But I'm rather fond of my $30 corduroys from Uniqlo, my $17 dress from H&M; for me - and I'm not claiming poverty here - these were monetarily-significant purchases. Designer clothes would mean inability to pay rent; the clothes I own and wear are not "fast fashion", purchased and tossed without a second's thought, but just... clothes. My 'cheap' clothes must be awfully well-made, because they have a tendency to last for years.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Are you being served?"

Saturday night, I was good and ready for dinner beyond what-to-put-on-pasta. Jo and I ended up with lamb chops from the new food-movement-friendly butcher shop in Chelsea Market. Humane treatment (or as humane as killing an animal for deliciousness can ever be) plus a frou-frou cut meant over $20 for barely enough meat for two. Which is to say, it will be a while till we do that again, but it was plenty delicious,* it was still less for two, even given additional ingredients, than an equivalent meal would be for one at just about any restaurant. I know this because I never dare order such a dish at a restaurant, certainly not along with a glass of wine and a cheese-involving salad, because this whole meal would cost... I don't even want to think about it. And the quality of each ingredient was, hands-down, far superior to anything a restaurant even remotely in my price range might provide. Restaurants promising menus rooted in market produce tend to go beyond even a grad-student splurge. Whereas occasional fancy-ingredient home-cooked meals are very much doable.

So far, all I've given an account of is the obvious: it's cheaper to cook than to eat out. Yet restaurants exist, presumably for reasons beyond some people's need to throw money away. Granted, certain contexts call for a non-home environment - a second date, a business lunch, any meal consumed by someone who lives with many kitchen-hogging roommates. And depending what you're used to cooking, some cuisines will remain permanently beyond your repertoire, either for lack of knowledge regarding 'secret ingredients' or for lack of a necessary skill or cooking tool. (If I had a pizza stone, a tandoori oven, the ability to roll sushi and have it come out looking like sushi...). But restaurants typically offer versions of what we could all easily make at home ("arugula, pear, and Gorgonzola salad, $9'), and what those of us with dishwashers can easily enough clean up from.

To enjoy dining out, you need to consider it a plus, rather than a drawback, that food is prepared by someone other than yourself, and that a perfect stranger, rather than you or your dining companion, fetches each dish for you from the kitchen. Despite the hundreds of comments here and here from waitstaff along the lines of 'we're not your servants', dining out is, even for the respectful, non-obnoxious customer, about being served. Otherwise, why would restaurants even offer basic salads, ice cream bowls, and other items simple to prepare for yourself? A diner should, of course, treat staff with respect and follow the local tipping standards. But a customer who followed this advice and spent each meal out feeling grateful not to be too poor to dine out somewhere fancy, and thinking how tough - no, almost tragic - it must be to be a waiter (i.e. reacting to restaurants as Larry David does to chauffeured cars in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), could not possibly enjoy the meal. While my past experience in food service (limited) and other fetching-stuff-type work (more extensive), along with my current salary, prevent me from feeling the requisite rich-yuppie guilt on the rare occasions I find myself in a restaurant, I still, for whatever reason, find someone making me food I could easily make myself, and someone else handing me that food, more of a negative experience, all things equal, than a positive one,** and certainly not worth spending too much of my earnings on. I like the variety restaurants permit, and the possibility of inspiration for home-cooked meals to come, but do not think that if I earned more, I'd be spending much more at all on restaurant dining.

So, fellow cheapskates, is eating out worth the price?

*I have also discovered that everything, absolutely everything, or at the very least, fish and meat, tastes better after first being marinated in a mix of rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Jo just made a sarcastic remark about me putting this next on pasta, but I think he might be onto something...

**This could, again, have something to do with the fact that when I say "restaurants," I mean real restaurants, which I have been to, but am also on some level picturing the sort of places I go to more often, where grad students might go to splurge - this means places where the one waitress speaks ill of each set of customers as they leave, to the one person making the food, in the main dining area, because the food-prep and dining areas combined are four square feet, or a certain spot in Chinatown where a paper napkin I'd blown my nose in and was about to take to a trashcan outside was quickly snatched by a waitress who proceeded to use said napkin to 'clean' the table for the next customers. Who knows.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cans: not so great, actually

Now that I own a lifetime supply of canned tomatoes,* Mark Bittman informs us that can use means IMMINENT DEATH due to toxins in the material that lines cans, or, if not quite that, that "for the moment, it appears we’re looking at boxed tomatoes." We might be looking at boxed tomatoes, but I am most definitely looking at cans. Many, many, many cans. Cans purchased because they were on sale, on sale, perhaps, because other Whole Foods shoppers got the memo before I did.

Meanwhile, Jo and I thought the sale was due to a revelation that the Italian-seeming cans are actually a domestic product. While local is in, canned tomatoes fall into this category of foodstuffs still deemed inferior if not from the assumed location. San Marzano tomatoes are not, in fact, San Marzano tomatoes. Thank you, Red Hook Fairway:

Cheapness note: those same cans are going for 30 cents less at Whole Foods than the Fairway sale price, suggesting the predictable difference in concern about toxins of shoppers at the two stores.

*An artistic rendering of my apartment:

And for fun, a sign on a men's shoe store in my neighborhood:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween costumes cost money... UPDATED

...but they don't have to cost much! After much soul-searching, I've decided to go as a can of San Marzano tomatoes. These have been on sale for forever now at Whole Foods such that we now have a lifetime supply, so in terms of costume-making materials, their easily-removable labels came to mind. Three of them are to be a belt around a silver dress, worn over silver leggings - together these will form 'the can'. Red keds and red nails will, if I'm feeling energetic, complete the look.

Photos forthcoming, assuming this does not look too ridiculous.


Photo credit: the party hostess, via Facebook

Friday, October 30, 2009

The best of cheapness

This is not by any means a sustainable answer to how not to spend any money, ever, but it's certainly the best: don't leave the house. Stay home with a 400-plus page autobiographical novel about a French professor's irrepressible love of pretty young things (and yes, this is my homework), and you will find yourself going the frozen-toast, instant-oatmeal route in no time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Money-and-Time debate, continued

When sidewalk guilt-peddlers ask you to donate to Greenpeace, to a cause promoting gay marriage, or to the ACLU, they ask you not for your money, but for your time. "Do you have a minute for the environment?" Not everyone has a dollar to spare, but all among us who can reasonably expect our lifespans to extend more than one minute into the future might want to consider offering the following minute to a cause so much greater than ourselves. In this, they one-up the "a penny for the homeless" folks down the street - "just one penny is all we ask" is still a request for money, which we accept people might have to hold onto and reserve for their own uses, including charity more thought-out than giving to someone who happens to be asking at a major intersection. Time, however, is seen as basically infinite. Sure, "time is money" - but that's only for high-powered lawyers who bill by the hour. I could not, as a grad student, say with a straight face that my time is money. My time is... time. I value it as such.

The Park Slope Food Co-op (an institution I alienated myself from early on and proceeded to walk past daily for two years, living around the corner from it but stubbornly refusing to join, admittedly in part because I imagined they might have a picture of me somewhere in the back as someone not to allow in, a not entirely unfounded fear given that what I wrote was written up in their newsletter) is premised on the idea that time is not money. OK, it's premised on a number of causes and ideas, but fundamental to the project is the notion that one is getting a discount on groceries. As explained in the most recent take-down of the supermarket-that-isn't:
Unlike many co-ops — including the Flatbush Food Coop in Brooklyn, where guests are allowed to shop without joining and members who don’t want to serve work hours can pay a slight markup for items — Park Slope has one of the stiffest work requirements: 2.75 hours every four weeks for each adult member of a household.

It also has some of the best bargains. The organic spinach that costs $2.97 at the co-op fetches $3.99 at the Whole Foods in Union Square; 17 ounces of Bionaturae Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil costs co-op members $7.80 and Whole Foods shoppers $13.99.

After a moment's consideration, it becomes clear that whatever markup there is at Whole Foods (and, by the way, Whole Foods sells perfectly good 365-brand olive oil for far less than the cost of this overly-voweled organic one) comes from the fact that to shop at Whole Foods, you are not required to work at Whole Foods, and can indeed head there after a day of your own job, shop, go home, and be done with it. Now, I could hold forth once again on how the work requirements of the Co-op are largely about yuppie liberal guilt at being served in a regular supermarket by a cashier from a different class and often race background, and how the We Are All Cashiers Now approach actually takes jobs away from would-be cashiers looking for paid work, but that's not the issue here. The issue here is that if you have to work to get a discount on groceries, you are not getting a discount on groceries.

The same is true, apparently, of apple-picking. I don't believe I've ever picked an apple, but Daniel Gross had me convinced to fully despise apple-picking, once he framed his argument as being anti-terroir:
We've been educated (or bullied, depending on your outlook) by foodies like Alice Waters and Dan Barber to adopt the European concept of terroir—the best stuff to consume is the stuff grown in closest proximity. For people in the Northeast, that's fine in the summer, when the Union Square greenmarket bursts with locally grown exotic greens, yellow squash, and heirloom tomatoes of such flavor (and cost) as to make a gourmand weep.

But in the fall, while the region's landscape lights up with foliage, the farm stands' color palette becomes more drab: potatoes, root vegetables, pumpkins, gourds, and, of course, apples. And so, to the pick-your-own orchards we go.

I could hold forth once more on my deep suspicions of terroir and my conviction that it is a fundamentally racist and anti-Semitic ideology, but the issue here is, once again, money and time, so I'll attempt to focus on that angle.

Gross argues that apple-picking is basically a scam for orchards to place the time and labor burdens of their own businesses into the hands of consumers, who must in fact pay for the pleasure of working. Again, coming at this with no apple-picking prior knowledge, I can't say I'm shocked - the same is apparently true of the DIY archeological digs in Israel, and one could argue that the ever-rising price of coffee drinks coinciding with the ever-reduced services we expect coffee-shop workers to perform (pouring in the milk yourself is generally a good thing; attempting to bus your table into a hard-to-locate and already-full tub of dishes at an understaffed coffee bar is not) falls into this same category.

In all of these cases - moments for the environment, volunteer shifts at the Co-op, apples and archeological shards plucked by consumers, tables bused by paying and often even tipping customers - it starts to look like time has a different and if anything more important value than money for the yuppie mired in guilt. By showing his willingness to take the time to do a task a previous generation would have conferred on an underling, the yuppie of today shows his discomfort with the class system, and that he doesn't see himself as too busy and important to stop and be The Worker at a few particularly visible moments, as appropriate. The archeological shards are perhaps a case not so much of yuppie guilt as Diaspora-Zionist guilt, but the principle's the same. Offering time rather than (much) money might ultimately mean a lower commitment, but it's often a more visible one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Those penny-pinching Jews

Is cheapness a bad thing? If not, why are two Southern politicians accused of anti-Semitism for admiring Jewish frugality?

The answer's easy enough: any mix of a statement about 'the Jews' as an entity mixed with a comment about wealth falls into the realm of Jews-and-money, of classic anti-Semitism, and as such is more or less the equivalent of referring to someone black as "articulate" - what's ostensibly a compliment is, given the context, not quite.

But at the same time, I'm struck by how different this evocation of Jews-and-money is from those politicians of a previous generation (in Europe, say) might have made. These guys want America to be more Jewish - granted according to their own warped idea of what 'Jewish' means. Often, right-wing politicians might have seen 'Jewish' financial acumen as modernity at its most offensive, and sung the praises of small-scale life, a slower pace, dare I say local agriculture. (I just went to the Union Square Greenmarket, where there were I want to say more people taking artsy photographs of the produce than actually shopping for produce.) Yes, things change, although Emile Zola was telling anti-Semites to learn from the Jews' money skillz ages ago.

But are Jews even frugal? Given that four of the six tight fists here are of the Mosaic persuasion, one might say 'yes.' But in my vast experience of Jews and non-Jews - I've got friends who are both, have dated both, and have both in my family - I'm going to have to say, meh. Jewish thrift is a bit like Jews' alleged aversion to alcohol - some relics remain, but that's all. At this point, everyone's heard about how for a long, long time in Europe, Jews were forbidden from owning land and from doing just about anything but peddling/money-lending to earn a living, and so came to have certain skills that turned out to be particularly valuable in the modern world, leading to jealousy, genocide, the works. But sufficient time has past since my family had to peddle anything that I have no special skills in this regard, and I am, it seems no more thrilled by discounted canned tomatoes than certain non-Jews with whom I shop for discounted cans of tomatoes.

But was the Jews-are-frugal stereotype ever even supposed to apply to women? Or is the expectation that The Jew earns and saves, while The Jewess spends and spends? Either way, I don't know what it says about my own prejudices, but when I first read about two South Carolina Republicans thinking Jews are good savers, my first thought was that neither had probably ever interacted with Jews before, regardless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dollar off delights

The canned tomatoes were on sale! I knew it! At least I returned, with Jo, before it was too late.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Report on DIY dry-cleaning

In the comments of a previous post, I lamented the hidden costs of wool and cashmere sweaters buried in the maintenance problem. You can buy 'em for cheap, but then you have to dry-clean when they're dirty, which, within a couple of years, means about a 500% mark-up on the retail price. In response, one of the commenters helpfully directed my attention to DIY dry-cleaning.

This is not dry-cleaning per se, since it is largely based on soaking the sweaters in water and seems like it wouldn't do much for stains, but my sweaters weren't stained so much as just sweaty, so I figured this method was worth a shot. So I bought a mini bottle of baby shampoo, squeezed some into a huge salad bowl (my sink is too gross for any cleaning to conceivably take place in it), filled it with water, and let my sweaters stew in it like marinating steaks for an hour. Then I toweled them per these instructions, and although drying had to take place on a different towel and took somewhat longer than might be hoped given that my apartment is not only dirty but also freezing, the results look good. The sweaters retained their shape just fine, and no longer smell overworn. Total cost: $2.19, for the baby shampoo. Cheapness success!

My roommate did think this was weird though, so maybe this is one of those thrift achievements not worth bragging about socially.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You know you're cheap when...

... you're at the store and you see that the canned tomatoes you usually buy are on sale, a dollar off the usual price, and - after deciding that you'll also need to call your boyfriend and alert him to this excitement so that he too can bring home many, many cans - proceed to bring to the register more cans than you know full well you could carry home (and you will be carrying them home, because you're too cheap to use that Metrocard)... only to get rung up and see that this sale was not entered into the system... only to stand your ground, while the cashier first attempts a price check and then just goes herself to check the price, only to tell you that it wasn't these cans that were on sale, but some other product. Boo.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Entertain me

My apartment, for reasons that are not worth going into here, lacks both TV (still) and Internet (once more). During the course of a cold that may or may not have come from swine, I got through nearly all the DVDs we own. Netflix offers some entertainment, but on the one-disk-at-a-time plan, this can mean entire weekends DVD-free. Yes, there are free movies at MOMA on Fridays (and brave are those who visit the restrooms once those end), and DVDs that can be borrowed from the public library, but these things require effort. Fixing the TV and Internet situation once and for all would - again, long story - cost an unacceptable $100/month. Going to the movies, however, means paying $12 or whatever ridiculous amount it now is for the privilege of sitting in a pile of foul-smelling artificial-butter popcorn. Reading books for entertainment - how quaint! - is never less appealing than two months before an oral exam. So what's left? Must I up the Netflix to two-at-a-time? Hire a court jester? Stare at walls and use my imagination to project onto them stock sitcom scenarios? Help!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The anti-frugality brigade: the food edition

The food movement can't seem to decide where it stands on frugality. On the one hand, we're told that cooking at home saves money, that we should be buying raw ingredients in bulk and eating virtuous 20-cent meals 'recession friendly' meals rather than the fried deliciousness we now consume. On the other, we're informed that we should shop only the fresh-produce-and-meat aisles of the supermarket, that is, if we absolutely must shop at a supermarket - we should really be setting aside a couple hours each day to farmers' markets, butcher shops, fishmongers, cheesemongers, and other quaintly-titled artisans - and that's before any cooking-time enters into it. We are told that we should - if we care about health, taste, and the environment - spend a larger proportion of our incomes on groceries. Which is it?

What seems like contradictory advice is just lecturing directed at different audiences. The grains-and-lentils bit is meant to argue against the notion that anyone's so poor as to have to eat at McDonalds, while the 'mongers suggestion is aimed at those of us who, the movement wants us to believe, could eat well if only we stopped being so damn cheap.

So, a couple things. Is price even a proxy for health-promotion when it comes to groceries? With restaurant food, it certainly is not - most of what a fancier place serves resembles fast food grease-wise but comes in larger portions. For better taste, to an extent, although attempts to gussy up basic foods - English muffins, potato chips, candy bars - tend to produce inferior results to the low-end brands. What about for sustainability? Shouldn't local foods that are in season - and, in theory, that taste best - be the ones that cost less? I can see how, as it stands, some better food choices cost more than some worse ones. But shouldn't we be striving for a situation in which good foods cost less? Isn't asking the middle-class-and-up consumer to spend a greater proportion of his income on groceries - 'like they do in France' - asking not only something unrealistic, but also something that will make those same groceries a major burden on the less wealthy?

But more to the point: is denouncing consumer frugality really the best road to go down? The food movement has come under so much criticism for ignorance of the poor that, to its credit, it has, I think, become a bit more self-aware when it comes to those for whom 'where does each ingredient come from?' artisinal grocery shopping is logistically inconceivable. But consumers with somewhat more choice in the matter are blamed for wanting to keep costs low, as though thrift is in itself suspect, at least when it comes to food. Which it is, if we're looking at all who sell food-movement-approved establishments as particularly worthy charities, not as places where consumers, you know, consume.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If you have to ask

Everyone knows that baked goods are cheaper to make at home than to purchase on the outside, that the markup on a brownie is far greater than that on, say, steak. But baking takes time, and sometimes you're outside and want a cookie or whatever, and you must make peace with the fact that you're paying vastly more than the ingredients and labor seem they could possibly add up to. This much I can accept.

What I can't accept are baked goods that are price upon request. Many, many New York bakeries and coffee bars decline to affix prices to individual items, or to list prices on a menu of some sort. The idea here is that baked goods are, even if being sold for exorbitant amounts, inherently 'from the heart', and that the homey experience of a pastry would lose something if crude and cold numbers entered one's line of sight. Such establishments assume most people will be too ashamed to ask, because to ask is to admit that you're the sort of person who'd get that muffin if it were $1.75, but that $2.25 isn't going to work for you.

Well, I am that sort of person, so today, at a bakery in Tribeca, I asked the man behind the mini-cake counter how much the cake I was interested in cost. I also asked what it was, because the display lacked labels altogether, not just those involving price. I learned that what I wanted was an opera cake, and that it cost somewhere between $4 and $5.25 - the guy didn't know for sure and apologized for having not put up labels, but did not offer to find out where on the spectrum this particular cake fell. He was, however, quite confident that $5-ish was the most a cake could possibly cost.

Now, normally this would send me running in the opposite direction, but a) the cake was to be split, so I could think of the price as half whichever amount, and b) more to the point, we were at this bakery in the first place because we'd just gone to a brunch place, seen that French toast there cost $11.50, and, disappointed, decided to just buy some bread and stuff and have lunch at home. The cake was meant to compensate, and even $5.25 for two seemed less ridiculous than $23 plus tax, tip, overpriced restaurant coffee...

So we're at the register, and the woman ringing me up enters the amount for the cake: $6. I started to try to correct her, but realized I didn't know how much the cake cost, and she looked at me like I was insane when I started telling her about how we'd received an estimate on the cake from the man behind the cake counter, and that $6 fell above our estimate. Who gets an estimate on a pastry? The cashier then told me that the man I'd asked didn't know what he was talking about, in a tone that implied that I'd been quite foolish to look to that guy - that is, the guy working in the pastry area - for such information. Yes, what was I thinking?

This is where I should have said forget it. But a momentary lapse of judgment later, there I was with a baguette and a $6 cake, both of which we proceeded to take with us grocery shopping. During which I mentioned to my boyfriend, oh, maybe 20 times (his estimate - accurate, I think) that I could not believe I'd bought this cake, and that now we couldn't even enjoy the cake, given the circumstances under which it was purchased, not to mention the price.

(I realize, given the experience, that although I'm unlikely to return to said bakery after this incident, I have not given its name, an omission that normally comes when I think there's a good chance I will want to return somewhere and do not want to burn the bridge entirely. I mean, they have really good croissants, and until I find an alternate source...)

It's moments like this that I think about that time in class when my students and I all discuss our weekend plans, so as to facilitate use of the future tense. And I think, trust me, kids, you don't want to know.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

There's no such thing as a brought lunch

Well-meaning advice-givers will tell you that if you want to save money and eat right, you should bring lunch. Well-intentioned grad students named Phoebe have tried this approach, but found it lacking.

For one thing, bringing lunch means, if not an extra trip to the store, an extra bag to carry to campus, given that The Backpack is permanently at-capacity as is. The 'bring dinner leftovers' approach sounds so efficient, but if I make too much of a dinner I like, I just finish all I made right away, such that if there are leftovers, it's because whatever it was was so-so to begin with. And with lunches prepared specially bread's always stale by the time it comes out of the bag, plus add up the price of all the ingredients - purchased, inevitably, at various NYC establishments - and the difference is hardly that of making coffee or pasta at home.

But I just spent $8.17 (with tax) on a sandwich, and I'm ashamed. (I'm not counting the $1.75 on tea - the second of the day - because this is an investment in my not coughing for the whole duration of the class I'm about to teach, as I so charmingly did on Monday.) This can't be right!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cheapness success!

Near the end of my first month of grad school, my monthly credit card statement is the lowest it's been since I first got a credit card (the years I had one in my name but attached to my parents' account in college to "build credit" but not actually use not counting). This is extremely surprising to me, since I didn't make any kind of extra effort not to spend money this month, and indeed, even went a little overboard on used book purchases. But, the only thing I've spent more than $100 on this month has been books, and, to be fair, it is the beginning of the semester. What I did not spend on was going out because I have no friends and no time, happy hour because it's illegal(!!) in this state, and transportation because I have nowhere to go. Apparently, grad school is habitual cheapness utopia! All you need to do is move somewhere near a school where all the shopping is unaffordable and where you don't know anyone and have no time to do anything but read, which will require only minimal monetary investments in the form of books, coffee, and sandwiches. If this trend holds for the rest of my time here, I may well become not only happy with grad school, but extremely reluctant to leave.

However, I did decide to celebrate my savings by buying a dress, so maybe the savings engendered by the grad student lifestyle will only serve to fuel end-of-month online shopping splurges.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where that money went

Do you ever find yourself looking at your bank account and thinking how much more would be there if only certain purchases hadn't been made? (Note the passive voice, absolving responsibility.)

Such blanket solutions as 'make coffee at home' get you nowhere, because you enjoy that mocha, and would notice if you gave it up. There's sometimes a perverse joy in eliminating something you'd miss, but let's assume non-perversion. What you should give up, then, are the purchases that add nothing to your life.

My own list would include: pants that fit properly that one day at the store and never again; certain books bought on a whim (although these were usually in the dollar range) or for classes I took freshman year of college prior to figuring out the library, grocery items or meals out that were sort of eh in the end, coffee that was hazelnut-flavored with no warning (ugh!) ... purchases that, in short, I could not have known would be mistakes.

With clothes, cost-per-wear is a fabulous idea in theory, but there's the slight matter of you don't know how long something will last, or how long you'll want it to last, until the time comes. I thought red Keds were a brilliant idea and at $35 so sensible a purchase, but morning after morning I wake up with no desire whatsoever to have red Keds on my feet. Looking back at apparel purchases generally, I find no patterns - according to practicality, price, or any other quantifiable - leading me to which turned out worth it and which did not. And of course with food, until you taste it there's no way to know. Failure to stock up on staples means the dreaded eating out, but doing so means overestimating how many times any one person will actually want microwaved edamame in a given lease period.

So, is there any way to systematically isolate bad-idea purchases? Or is the answer to learn to like red Keds, hazelnut coffee...

Monday, September 14, 2009

How cheap is too cheap?

An important part of cheapness is the specific psychological reaction of the cheapster to a rare bargain find. The cheapster feels both that the hunt for cheap is a kind of epic adventure worth the perils and travails required, and a sense of gloating vindication when the cheap item is finally secured. At least I do. (And I am not alone: watch the Dupont Circle video in this segment and look for the Korean woman who recounts all her eBay finds.) I don't mind if I have to go to ridiculous lengths to get my cheap stuff, like wheeling my Craigslist desk more than a mile to my apartment because it doesn't fit in Seb's car. That is part of the experience, and it is a noble labor which I can then relay to other (entirely uninterested) people as part of my narrative of miserliness.

But how much should I be willing to undergo for the sake of a bargain? Seb, for example, thinks that I am willing to go so far to get a bargain that I am not thrifty at all--I am just a militant Scrooge with no sense of dignity or ability to appraise the value of my time. We've talked before about the slippery calculations involved in ascertaining opportunity cost of time, though that measure is what is supposed to stand between me and professional beach-combing for lost pennies. Otherwise, all that remains is my outsized sense of accomplishment at finding a discount.

So here is the dilemma: Massachusetts has a can and bottle deposit of five cents a container. So...? I mean, it only takes 20 empty Diet Coke cans to earn me a whole dollar. On the other hand, I think homeless people do this for a living.

On another spending on grad school stipend note, while certain expenditures have been restricted lately (shopping, haircuts, frilly things like that), my budget for books has simply faded into oblivion. Whereas I used to hate buying them because it would just mean more heavy boxes when I inevitably moved, I am now in the midst of an Amazon free-for-all. Why print out excerpts at 50% of readable size when they are just so cheap, and I may need them at some point, for papers, or generals, or things...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cheapness podcasts and more

-The WNYC Leonard Lopate show has two recent podcasts all about our subject of interest. One's from the pro-cheap Lauren Weber, whose book I now have to read. The other, which I have yet to listen to, is an interview with Ellen Ruppel Shell, who (as I know from a previous podcast - jogging will do this) argues that bargain-hunting is sociopathic behavior, or some milder version thereof, and that because we are cheapskates unwilling to pay for quality the way our grandparents did, today, They Don't Make Things Like They Used To, and the market's divided between disposable crap and frou-frou designer goods. I was not sympathetic, but will save this podcast for the next run and see if I can be convinced to feel bad about paying $5.90 for Uniqlo tank tops.

-Storage spaces - worth it or evil? I get why in many cases they make no sense, but, as with credit cards, if used right, they can save tons. If you need storage for two months (of which one is free, thanks to a promotional offer) between apartments and are not paying rent in that time, you will be glad when you don't need to up and buy all new clothes, books, and furniture. If, however, you refuse to part with stacks of old newspapers and decide to rent them out their own studio apartment, perhaps self-storage is not your friend.

-Finally, shoe repair: the essence of frugality or a scam that preys on the thrifty? I just dropped off three boots (note: not three pairs of boots) in need of various rather desperate adjustments, and the total cost could, yes, buy another, if inferior, pair. But I did it anyway. Why?

So, read, listen and discuss!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Brooklyn tax

After two years in a fourth-floor, absolutely-no-frills walk-up in Brooklyn, I've moved on up to a lower Manhattan elevator building, to an apartment of the same size as the old one, but with laundry on the same floor, and with a dishwasher. A dishwasher. I haven't used it yet, on account of still needing to unpack my dishes, but soon, soon.

How did this happen? Did I sell out, abandoning grad school for something sensible? Ha! Did the recession benefit sad little renters like myself after all? Not so much - in none of the many, many neighborhoods in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn I looked into did it appear that rents had gone down - if anything did change, it was the creativity of scammers, which has skyrocketed. Astoria remains a dishwasher-free zone, and the Village is still a place where the proximity of bars is supposed to make $20,000 a month seem reasonable for a hovel too small to fit more than a twin bed and a vial of whatever drug makes people think such apartments are a good idea.

Yet I'm paying neither more nor less than I was in Brooklyn. I attribute this to the fact that with my old place, around the corner from the Food Co-op and across from the most precious cheese shop known to man (albeit one I went to all the time, because, cheese), the money that might have gone to quality-of-life concerns such as dishwasher-laundry-proximity to school instead went to the Brooklundian Mystique. I have to face facts that I was paying for the privilege of living in an outer borough whose ethos perfectly matches that of our moment, a privilege I never saw as such, and consequently that I'm glad to be rid of.

I used to think Brooklynites who claim they wouldn't trade for Manhattan if given the chance were just being defensive, claiming to enjoy the slow pace and small scale and women in practical shoes while secretly pining to get back where the action was. With some, no doubt that's the case, but Brooklyn, hip since I don't know, the late 1990s? earlier still?, is today above all so very now. Brooklyn is helicopter parenting. Brooklyn is Obamania. Brooklyn is local-sustainable. Brooklyn is ostentatiously rejecting modernity while benefiting from whichever aspects of it you see fit. Brooklyn is wealth posing as poverty. New Yorkers often stand accused of thinking themselves at the center of the universe, but today's Brooklynites can't be faulted for seeing their own experience as basically the dominant culture of 2009 America but more so.

But which Brooklynites? Surely not all. The 'new' Brooklyn, the one of - pardon the clichés - recent elite-college grads; moms who couldn't imagine feeding their kids non-organic milk; artsy drifters with family money (trust-funds or otherwise), is often said to be just a tiny, if well-publicized, corridor in a huge and diverse borough unexplored by Corcoran and Western European tourists. The 'new', according to this understanding, is highly visible to NYT-reading, NPR-listening, Michael Pollan-worshiping white folk, while the 'old' or 'real', however, remain the borough's essential truth.

But if you count up the number of neighborhoods that have fully or partially 'switched' (setting aside Brooklyn Heights, which was posh in prehistoric times, and neighborhoods like Gravesend where wealthy and arguably white people are nevertheless separate culturally from new-Brooklyn mores), you get: Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Windsor Terrace, parts of Bushwick... I might be forgetting something, but this gives some sense of just how substantial a force new-Brooklyn has become. Again, these areas are not uniformly canvas-tote-bagified, but in all of them, that influence is felt.

Perhaps we're looking at a full-on transformation of the borough, starting with neighborhoods a quick subway trip to Manhattan, but one that will eventually extend so far out as to make a contiguous upper-crust paradise all the way to the Hamptons. Bensonhurst, beware.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Craigslist: a study in the long-term effects of the cheapness/quality trade-off

Having just moved (again), I've spent the past two weeks browsing Craigslist in a concerted effort to furnish my entire apartment for no money, and this is my question: Does anyone actually buy stuff from Craigslist for more than $100, give or take?

My mentality--and I assume that of most other people my age--when furnishing a place through Craigslist is that the whole setup will be temporary, hence my disinclination to purchase "real" (read: expensive, solid) furniture and my resorting to Craigslist in the first place. I want to buy the cheapest, lightest, easiest-to-transport version of the thing I'm looking for--$25 collapsible bookshelves, $20 laminate desks, etc. The goal is to furnish on the cheap, then re-sell for even cheaper when I move out, and repeat the process in the new place (until at some point in the extremely distant future, I finally settle down somewhere for good, and the first thing I will do then is have a bed built out of living trees so it can never be moved again). By buying cheap and selling slightly cheaper instead of buying at retail and selling for way less to compete with the even cheaper resold stuff on Craigslist, I lose the least amount of money in the process of moving.

So, when I'm browsing the options on Craigslist and come across such things as $300 solid oak dressers or $700 mahogany dining room sets, I ignore them entirely even though 1) the discount on these items is substantially bigger than the discount on the recycled Target and Ikea junk I actually buy, and 2) they're obviously way better quality. The reason I don't buy a $300 dresser is pretty obvious, but I do note that this dresser probably cost over $600 originally, whereas the ubiquitous Ikea "Malm" dresser made of pressed sawdust and cardboard(!) that I buy instead for $60 only cost $100 originally and is, obviously, a piece of crap. The solid oak dresser is by far the thriftier buy, if thrift is taken to mean quality+price and not just pennies saved.

So I wonder, what becomes of the $300 solid oak dressers when everyone my age adopts my version of home economics? I assume that old rich people are still buying new, expensive, solid furniture, so there remains a market for producing it. But I doubt they're buying it on Craigslist for $300, because people who think in terms of solid oak probably don't overlap much with people who think in terms of Craigslist and driving around town sticking mismatched used things in the backs of their Toyotas. As a result, the people who would otherwise buy expensive furniture with the thought of reselling at a reasonable discount later are doomed in their efforts, and thus is the market for cheap crap from Ikea enlarged. And for places like Target and Ikea, which are in effect competing with Craigslist for the same cheapo furniture buyers, does this pressure drive down their quality even farther so that they can beat the $25 resale price tag on their own merchandise?

Basically, what I'm asking is: will my cheapness result in a massive furniture apocalypse in which the Malm dressers and custom-made, hand-crafted teak dressers are the only two options left?

Friday, August 28, 2009

DIY Eiskaffee

The best thing in the whole world is the Eiskaffee at Florian Steiner, in the Neuenheim section of Heidelberg. On the remote off-chance any of Cheapness Studies's three readers are currently in or around the Lutherstrasse but not up for spending the requisite 4.90 euros, here's a step-by-step guide to recreating that nectar of the gods in your own home:

-Prepare some cold-brewed iced coffee. You'll only need half a cup or so for the final product, but it's good stuff to have around. Instructions here, but you can skip the step where it says you need to dilute the mixture with water. It will be diluted plenty by the other ingredients. Once brewed, refrigerate.

-Chill an elongated, conical glass. Or just do as I did, because I don't have one, and use a mug slightly warmed by the dishwasher.* Do what you've got to do.

-While that's brewing, get some ice cream. The classic Eiskaffee is with vanilla, but Florian Steiner's used Ben and Jerry's (carbon footprint be damned), either the chocolate-brownie flavor or the cookie-dough one, and either way, it was spectacular.

-Before assembling the final product, you'll need one more ingredient. The all-important difference between the typical Eiskaffee, which is amazing, and the Florian Steiner one, which is almost indecent to eat in public, is that the latter uses foamed milk on top rather than (shudder) whipped cream. To foam milk without any device specially designed for this, heat a small amount of milk (a third of a mug) in the microwave for 30 seconds or less, then quickly pour it into a small French press. Then, using a vigorous and vaguely obscene motion, push the assembled press up and down, up and down, until the texture turns into something indistinguishable from the top of a cappuccino.

-Assemble: Put a scoop of ice cream at the bottom of the glass, followed by the cold coffee (no ice needed), followed by the foamed milk, so the whole thing looks something like the Platonic ideal:

Strange fact: in this photo, my nose looks hooked, which it does not in any other I've ever seen of myself. (Prominent, yes, hooked, no.) Something to do with being in Germany? Anyhow, no photo of the DIY one, because in a mug, it really does just look like a cappuccino, latte, something along those lines.

*I am - you guessed it! - staying at my parents'.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cheapness tip: do not wear clothes as intended

All attempts to dress like an adult - a chic one at that - are rendered futile by certain shopping habits I can't seem to overcome. These are as follows:

1) Not shopping: I will look around a store, perhaps even try some things on, decide I really shouldn't buy anything, and leave empty-handed. This is probably a good thing overall, but explains those cotton tank tops from 2003 that I still think of as among my better clothes.

2) The kids' section: Yesterday my friend Nick and I went, among other more notable places, to the Gap. Before even looking at the women's stuff, I'd already tried - and ultimately rejected - both this girls' sweater and this boys' jacket. While I'm small enough for some kids' clothes, I'm not shall we say built for them, but this fact has not stopped me in the past. When choosing between one item meant for someone with curves, and an ill-fitting version $10 cheaper...

3) The underwear section: Why buy a dress when a nightgown will do? (Note: I am probably a foot and a half shorter than that model, so the thing is far less scandalous than it might appear.)

4) Refusal to wear garments as intended: It's my belief that if a shirt is long enough, it's a dress. Shirts are cheaper than dresses! Who are marketers to tell me how to wear this or that stretch of cotton-blend sewn together in Indonesia? What I fail to take into account is that shirts, with some exceptions, are quite clearly shirts, and that the ones that look like dresses in the store (and by 'the store' I mean H&M, where shirts-that-can-be-dresses now go for $7.95) are one round in the dryer away from being shirts. And it's not as if I need any new shirts, what with all the shirt-successes of 2003.

5) Self-declared retro revivals: I will find something from years ago that is not what they call a 'timeless piece' and think, 'I haven't worn that in a while,' and all of a sudden, the studded belt I adored when I got it senior year of high school has made its triumphant return.

These factors, and I'm sure others, prevent me from achieving the heights of glamor that would otherwise be mine. Till then, I've gotten a non-studded belt (70%-off at agnes b.! the upside of the recession forcing beautiful-clothes shops to close branches) to 'accessorize' the Gap nightgown and the H&M sort-of-dress t-shirt. Surely this will make all the difference in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Brooklyn: no cheaper to live in than Manhattan?

Pardon the NYC-specificity of this question (although there are surely analogous questions for other cities re: charming outskirts versus aseptic downtowns), but I'm feeling not so bloggy at the moment. When I am, there will be a longer post in which I answer my own question, but till then, readers (reader? anyone?), comment away.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Making excuses, the European edition

The exchange rate, along with my schoolyear-only stipend and the impending cost of a new (Manhattan, fingers crossed) apartment, makes me frugal indeed while away. The way I deal with the euro is not to calculate what each purchase would be in dollars, but just to set a higher standard than I normally would for what’s a necessary purchase. I think of euros, then, as really big dollars, or just shift my cheapness up a degree, and that seems to amount to what a more mathematical approach would. That, and I eat a lot of wheat bread and this bland but strangely addictive Austrian cheese.

The one place I make an exception and lose all sense of euros is at the café. When it comes to cappuccinos, which I rarely order at home, here I see a "2" next to the item and simply must have one. Cappuccinos in NY are rarely below the $3 mark, so it's like I'm getting a deal! I know rationally that a 2-something euro cappuccino is not in fact cheaper – or much cheaper – than its NY equivalent, but for whatever reason, for this item, I decide it’s acceptable to pretend a euro is just a dollar, nothing more. Part of it could be that here, there’s less of a gap between what a regular coffee costs and what a fancy one does – anything purchased on the outside is by definition fancy, and sometimes a person is outside and in need of a coffee, and with an upgrade so simple... Or maybe it’s that caffeinated purchases are work aids, or can be justified as such, and for whatever reason the books on my orals lists keep being 500 pages long. It could also be that here, whole milk is a given, and cappuccinos really are better with whole than skim. But in all honesty, I think it comes down to two being a smaller number than three.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cheapness abroad

It can be cheaper to spend the summer in Europe than to stay put, if staying put means a Brooklyn apartment that, if renewed, would have been well above post-recession market rate. So, for that and other reasons, here I am, ready to offer tips on not spending any money, ever, in the land of hideous exchange rates and beautiful housewares, pastries, books, shoes...

I will now judge the Cheapness Studies merit of entire countries on the basis of brief experiences in tiny parts of each. Those with deeper knowledge, you're encouraged to correct as necessary.

Switzerland: We flew to Zurich because the flight was the cheapest one that got us vaguely near Germany, our ultimate destination; however, the price of the bottle of water we shared at the Zurich train station about canceled out this benefit. Had there only been water fountains somewhere obvious, or water for less than the price of a glass of wine in NY, I'd have much more fond feelings towards Switzerland, which I am indeed judging on the basis of this one incident, along with similar ones flying through there in the past. Is everything in Switzerland that expensive, or just things in transport hubs, as a way of exacting revenge on those who are only in Switzerland because for whatever reason flights there seem to be cheaper than to elsewhere?

Italy: Like Italian food? Your best bet, if you can't afford a villa in the countryside, is to stay put, or to travel somewhere that isn't Italy, assuming wherever you are has decent Italian groceries, restaurants, or both. We chose Italy for our vacation because of its proximity to Switzerland, and because the guide books we read through at the bookstore made it look most appealing. And while obviously a week in Italy is not to be sneezed at, the anxiety it provoked, budget-wise, was significant and unexpected, a definitive Cheapness Studies fail.

Let me explain. Hotels (well, hostels and hotel-ish things near train stations) were OK, sightseeing was as always mostly free, but eating was tough going. Dining out in Italian cities was if anything worse than reported, rip-off wise. Our first attempt - a place not far from our hostel in Milan - took advantage of being among very few places open in the area (at the time of our entering, the only we'd seen) to charge 5 euros a person as a cover charge. Our total meal, one not-terribly-glamorous dish a person, water only to drink, came to 51 euros. That scare had the positive effect of making us remarkably stingy from then on, but I still shudder to think of it, and wish the meal had at least been unusually good.

Tourists come to Italy to eat well, but judging by a week's worth of encounters in Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Rome, many working in the Italian food-service industry seem interested in making this as difficult as possible. It is expected (hoped?) that tourists will be too flummoxed by the Italian language to order off a non-translated menu (although Italian restaurants outside of Italy regularly have menus in Italian), and so will stick to officially-designated tourist establishments. Tourists sophisticated enough to have figured out what spaghetti bolognese is are still asked, by unwritten law, not to seek this out in a place frequented by actual Italians. I didn't much care who the fellow diners were, nationality-wise, and was not seeking an 'authentic' experience, but I didn't want to be ripped off time and time again, and the more languages the menu comes in, the worse value your pasta.

It is, in theory, possible to eat well for cheap in Italy, even near sites, on main streets, etc. The cafeterias (more like lunchtime cafes) where locals - often quite chic, particularly in Milan - dine well for barely any euros at all, are hardly hidden off-the-beaten-path establishments, and are in just about every city. We ate in some, but generally speaking the servers' and cashiers' hostility even to polite foreign intruders with some high-school Italian and without Pub Crawl t-shirts is such that the affordable and delicious dishes ostensibly available - visible, at any rate, behind a counter - require so much strained interaction to obtain that your best bet will ultimately be supermarkets.

As the week came to an end, I found myself nostalgic for linguine at home, at 33 cents (US) a portion, slightly but hardly much more if made bolognese. While I did have fun generally in Italy, and ultimately didn't spend that much, everything having to do with food was stressful, and for a country where food's allegedly a selling point, this is not ideal.

Belgium: We were not in Belgium as tourists, so I can't really report on that angle. All I can help with is to say, beware the Belgian HEMA - the amazing, affordable housewares are in fact cheaper still in the Netherlands, perhaps because the chain is Dutch, so if you're going to be in both countries, restrain yourself. What you should do is get a 1.30 euro scoop of creme brulee ice cream, a 30 euro-cent French novel at a Flemish thrift store, and things of this nature. And supermarket chocolate. Oh yes. In fact, just about anything from the supermarket will be a delight.

The Netherlands: I have just about no idea what things cost in the Netherlands, because I don't speak Dutch, and so entering most stores was too intimidating. There's a cheapness tip - failure to communicate is a quick way to set frivolous purchases at zero. Yes, people speak English, but I didn't feel like bringing it out, which was OK for getting coffee, going to supermarkets, and that's about it. With limited human interaction, it's still possible to get rolls and cheese enough for a week for a couple Euros, although that cheese will be Gouda or something very much like Gouda, Dutch cheeses not varying quite as much as French, Italian, Belgian, even American these days... But overall, Leiden was a Cheapness Studies success. While Jo was at a conference, I read orals-list readings down by the canals, in disbelief that work could feel so much like vacation, and, yeah, ate a lot of those rolls. However, fast food in both Leiden and Amsterdam - chosen both times because we'd imagined it would be both quick and affordable - is only the former, and is - going by that sample of one hamburger place and one falafel stop - all but inedible. So, either investigate Dutch specialties or stick with the rolls.

Germany: The best thing here in Heidelberg in terms of not spending any money, ever, is that in this city clothing- and shoe-store windows are not the wanty-inspiring religious experiences they are in, say, Paris, or even Cologne. Yes, it's still Europe, and things are still just a tiny bit different in that way that makes them seem fun to own and prance around in in the US, but for the most part, they look to be both more expensive and less chic than back home. Whenever I've passed a store here and thought something along these lines looked nice, I realized the store was either H&M or (I'm embarrassed to say, given their current windows) American Apparel. I will have no problem holding out until my current clothes start to fall apart and just doing another round at Uniqlo as needed. (If there is some avant-garde-boutique neighborhood in Heidelberg, I don't want to know about it!)

Meanwhile, the most enjoyable aspects of being here are cheap or free. Jogging down by the river and across various bridges, and ending up with an 80-cent cone of tiramisu ice cream, can't much argue with that. Frying up a plate of spaetzles with some onion, salt, and pepper, is the quickest route to a cheap and delicious meal. Beer and wine are also on the shockingly inexpensive side. Falafel, too, is about half the price as in Leiden and was, at this one place right off the main tourist drag, the most meticulously-made falafel sandwich I've ever seen prepared, as well as quite tasty. Aside from the 4.90 Eiskaffee (basically a very cold iced cappuccino where instead of ice, there's a scoop of ice cream) I find that here I can be most responsible. I still justify the Eiskaffee as being both a coffee and a dessert, because otherwise I will never be able to get one again, but other than that, I may well still be coming out ahead as versus staying home and handing over all those potential Eiskaffees to a NY landlord, as I will promptly be doing in the fall.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The thought of the money I'm saving cools me off

Since this article captures a practice I have been implementing for two years already without the impetus of recession, I enjoyed it as a means of self-vindication against my (many) detractors. Surprisingly, very few people are able to see the virtues of life without air-conditioning. I'd think it would be obvious.

First, you can save fully hundreds of dollars a summer. The people in this article claim to have saved thousands, but either their house is massive or their local energy costs tremendous, because my poorly-insulated five-BR house never costs anywhere near that much to cool. So let's put the savings at hundreds. HUNDREDS of dollars. That is a lot of money. Think of how many cups of work-escape coffee that will buy you.

Second, there is no second. This is a blog about saving money, and not using air-conditioning pretty much only saves money, but A LOT of money. Maybe it will bring your family closer together or help you lose weight as the interviewees claim, but I have not tested either of these assertions, so I can't say. It will sort of get you more in touch with nature, if only to the extent that it will familiarize you with the actual temperature outside, which it's possible you haven't had many opportunities to know. Then, after a particularly hot day, your un-cooled home will have retained all the heat of the afternoon, likely forcing you outdoors into the waiting arms of Nature (and her insect friends) in the evening. However, I bet the Pennsylvanian quoted in the article as an advocate of "rolling with nature" would not also endorse spending a winter without heat, so I suspect that this non-cooling for the sake of natural living platform is a limited one.

But most of the complaints about life without air-conditioning are overblown (!). Sure, it's hot and that makes you sluggish and sleepy. But anything under 100 degrees is perfectly livable for most healthy people. If you don't know what to do with yourself in the heat, may I suggest a nap? Maybe a few hours with a book? Or, you could head over to those places whose air-conditioning you're subsidizing and get your money's worth (the library), or to those places whose air-conditioning is like a free gift to you (the mall). Perhaps what should be added to this article is that life without residential cooling builds community. How about that, yuppies?

The article also points out that keeping the air off can kill your cat. This may be true. My cat becomes sluggish in the heat, but I hope that putting out extra water dishes around the house will keep him hydrated so that I will not have to abandon this great money-saving tradition for the comfort of an angry beast.

The real problem of life without air-conditioning is convincing other people that it's really not a problem. For example, my roommates, who ask, "Why is the air always getting turned off?" (Conveniently, the thermostat lives right outside my bedroom and I am the Supreme Controller of House Temperature.) They do not understand my logic, which I have articulated for them several times clearly enough, "The thought of the money I'm saving cools me off."

Monday, June 29, 2009

This blows

So the DIY haircut grew out into the predictable not-quite-mullet form, with a long piece in the back that was too involved to just chop off. I figured the time had come for professional intervention. I figured wrong.

Running out of ideas, I headed to a chain one rung above Super-Cuts in the classiness hierarchy, noticing that a cut was $45, a full $15 less than the ones to which I'd grown accustomed prior to the DIY revelation. A cut with a blow-dry was $70, but given that summer weather has finally arrived in NY, I figured there'd be no need.

Once again, wrong I was. The hairdresser assigned to my case informed me that without the blow-dry, my haircut would not be even. The whole purpose of this haircut was the evening-out of my hair, but it struck me that if they openly offer such a thing as a cut without a blow-dry, surely such a thing is possible, assuming a client not obsessed with perfection. A client, that is, such as myself. It occurred to me that, if this was being pushed on me despite my short hair, the $45/$70 disparity is probably just a PC way of saying what the salon feels is the difference between a men's and women's haircut, regardless of length. Hmm.

So it wasn't that I was wrong about an even haircut resulting from a cut without a blowdry - that much was achieved. Where I erred was in assuming the hairdresser would just go with it once I said that this was what I wanted, minor imperfections being the price I was willing to pay. She kept repeating that I really should get the blow-dry as well, on and on until finally I just explained outright that I'm a student and $45 is possible for me in a way that $70 is not. She either didn't hear or didn't choose to acknowledge this the first time, so after several more urgings to get a blow-out, I repeated my occupation status. She seemed suspicious and wanted to know where I studied. When I said which school (not specifying the program or anything), she held forth about how very smart I must be, which, no hard feelings to my university, surprised me. No one refers euphemistically to going to school 'in Greenwich Village.' I was getting suspicious.

So anyhow, you don't want someone cutting your hair who's angry at you, and by requesting no-blow, I'd set things up to go in this direction. Hoping to mend things, I said very early on in the cut, before much change was detectable, how lovely it looked. This seemed to work, in that superficial way things do when the baseline hostility level's already been established.

Onto the haircut itself: everything about it, other than the price, reminded me why I'd left salons behind in the first place. As someone with hair that's thick not in a Pantene-commercial way, but in an I-can't-fall-asleep-with-it-wet-without-looking-like-I-need-to-be-committed way, I don't especially enjoy when a straight-and-fine-haired hairdresser spends the whole time telling me that I have so much hair, while taking every opportunity to thin it out with special scissors for people with so much hair. Yes, yes, a ton of hair, I'm well aware, yes, it's better than not enough hair, but no, I really have no response to the thickness of my hair being pointed out every time I get my hair cut. (One hairdresser once referred to the thickness of my hair, which was making a blow-dry - included in that cut - take forever by saying 'so hairy', while giggling. That was the best, by far.)

I could tell, as my hair was being cut, that the back was not so much being evened out as turning into a classic men's haircut. Not what I'd asked for at all, but not totally unreasonable for an angled bob, and perhaps pleasant for summer. It was when the hairdresser gelled the back into a bangs-free version of this that I got concerned. Had my cheapness gone that far?

Long story short, after shampooing out the gel and styling the results in a way that did not involve anything being 'spiked', it looks like no hat will be necessary. Beyond that, I'll say no more.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Need a New One

Most of thrift is about balancing what you need or want to buy with how much money you've got to spend. But there's an extra category: the things you neither need nor want to replace nor wished to buy in the first place, but that Society tells you you really ought to 'invest' in. Not making these purchases, They inform you, means that you are socially-inept, unhygienic, or just stingy to the point of ignoring your own needs. You might be OK using the same soap for your face and body, wearing the same dress to the office and a bar, and these are things no one would even know about if you didn't tell them, but if you did tell them, They would be horrified. Teenagers, who famously care what others think, are particularly susceptible to the You Need a New One message, but they're hardly alone.

So, some categories to watch out for:

Specialization: To an extent, this is something we're all guilty of. Using different products for shampoo and soap, say, or different outfits for formal and casual occasions. But there are degrees. This is particularly relevant when it comes to kitchen utensils. Anything designed just for a banana, a tomato, etc., can probably be skipped.

Replacements: It's clear enough why 'I needed a new one' is so often summoned as the reason for a purchase. It's not that you wanted a new pair of shoes, but that a particular pair wore out and needs replacement. (I, for one, cannot buy shoes without going through these motions.) But let's get real: not everything that wears out needs replacing, and not everything wears out when They say it does. A commenter here insisted recently that running shoes must be replaced after a certain number of miles and/or years. To me this sounded unnecessary, and I may not be as off as all that. Says one expert, a marathon winner and running-shoe salesman: "I know the shoe companies say 500 miles. I never go by things like that. I go by feel. When you’re on a run and you land on a rock and you feel it on your foot, when that happens you know your shoes have lost a lot of their cushioning or support and you might be wise to invest in another pair of shoes." Indeed. My running shoes are as hideous as can be, and are quite old, but until something changes perceptibly in the fit, no change is necessary.

Personal maintenance: As the recession lifestyle articles courageously reported, it is in fact possible to paint your own nails, rather than go to a salon. This did not surprise anyone other than women from Magical Lifestyle-Journalism Land. But forget about the lavish and the urban. Many basic expectations are, in fact, unnecessary. As MSI has investigated, a daily shampoo is at most a necessity according to season. And, a hint for those of us whose 'ethnic' hair is coarser and thus less societally-desirable than 'white' hair typically is - our hair takes forever to get greasy, so barring intense workouts or extreme heat, we can go the every-other-day (or, dare I say, every-two-day) route year-round. Yes, our hair gets interesting in the rain, but not having to shampoo every five minutes in order to avoid clumping at the scalp is a blessing indeed.

And, more generally, when it comes to beauty products, if you don't already use it, and 'it' isn't deodorant, toothpaste, or eyeliner, best not to start now.

: Massages, yoga, days at the spa, months in the wilderness. I sympathize with the need to break up arduous tasks (like, say, returning 26 books to the library, from one's apartment in another borough, all in one go) with treats (say, iced coffee). But the notion that everyone These Days is just so stressed, that Life Today is so fast-paced that we all need to decompress, and that this decompression must manifest itself in ways more involved than parking one's self for a solid three hours in front of reality TV, has gotten out-of-hand. So while I don't advocate denying one's self the small indulgences that make life bearable, I think we'd all be wise to consider the restorative powers of staring at a wall or, failing that, a gossip website, before signing up for anything for which the promised de-stressing will be accompanied by a stress-inducing bill.

In other words, spending 'for others' has its place - going out with friends, gifts - but spending on yourself should not, with some obvious exceptions, take Society into account.

Bringing back the victory garden, indoors

I've been considering how I could go about growing my own herbs for some time now, even before FLG suggested it. It wouldn't really be a move towards actual cost savings in the way not washing my hair would, since I don't currently buy fresh herbs very often. It would a kind of hypothetical cheapness, since I could be paying more if I were paying anything. Plus, I like projects, and basil.

The problem is two-fold, however. First, the garden needs to be indoors so that I can eat basil all year. Second, it needs to be cat-proof. I've considered two options in this direction:
1. I could grow it under artificial lights in my closet. The downside of this is that the LED lamps cost at least $50 (not thrifty), and also that I couldn't use my closet for more useful ends, like clothing storage. Plus, I'd have to constantly explain to people about the "herbs" I'm growing in there.
2. A chicken-wire covering for the plants so that the sun can reach them, but the cat's teeth can't. Chicken wire is only a few bucks, so the cost wouldn't be a huge issue, but it's possible that space constraints in my new apartment will be. How can I convince my roommates that the best use of half our living room floor is for a chicken-wire domed indoor farm?

On a related note, I was recently hunting for Amazon cart filler to get my order up to $25 and qualify for free shipping, and I realized this is always a bad idea to do at the last minute when you just need to stick something--anything--in there to avoid a shipping charge. I typically select ridiculous things like cat toys and muffin pan liners because I don't have time to take stock of all the little things I actually do need. So, to remedy this problem, I started a shopping list on Amazon dedicated specifically to cart filler items that I need generally but not urgently. Now, whenever I think, "Oh, I could really use an X at times like these," I add it to the list. So that next time I need to add $4.70 to my cart, I will remember to buy a tape measure or a flashlight or, now, chicken wire for my basil farm.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When cheapness goes too far: or, tales of my weekend

Like my co-blogger, I'm in the process of moving apartments. Technically this means putting stuff into storage, running off to lower-rent lands, and returning come the fall, in the hopes of finding a recession-priced townhouse in the West Village, by which I mean studio apartment within walking distance of NYU. While we have hired (Brooklyn's least expensive!) movers for the furniture, the storage space happens to be on the same bus route as our apartment, and it was cheaper to 'claim' the storage space early, so we figured we might as well start the move ourselves. For whatever reason, the fact that a street fair blocked the entirety of that bus route did not stop us from thinking this course of action made sense. My arms are now in fine shape indeed. Jo suggested I try weight training, but to go to the campus gym in the summer now costs $50, so boxes it is.

Speaking of carrying things, here's another area where frugality adversely impacted my quality of life. After carrying around a backpack with every-expanding holes at the bottom and an ever-thickening layer of filth (as happens to things you put regularly on the floor of the subway) for some time, it occurred to me that perhaps the bag had had it's day. Which it had, so I threw it out. What I didn't do was buy a replacement. Because that would require the exchange of money for stuff, stuff that isn't fun in any way, and I figured that through some combination of tote bags and reused plastic shopping bags, I could get through the great Library Book Shift of 2009. I figured wrong. Thank you, Brooklyn Industries, for having one of your periodic bag sales just in time.


In news of thrift on a larger scale, colleges are now cutting back on 'extras'. Predictably, in that the linked-to story is a lifestyle piece in the New York Times, and one that allows comments, after reading about some rather extreme college perks (how many schools ever had HBO in student rooms?) you get to hear from the ranks of those convinced that bratty Kids These Days demand luxuries beyond what they, when young, would have dared ask for.

But is it really the kids who demand these perks? I agree that there's been a trend in abandoning austerity-for-character-building's-sake, and that we no longer as a society believe one must be in a permanent state of physical discomfort, ala British boarding school of yore, in order to get an education. But I simply don't believe the undergrads care about the landscaping, the 'free' laundry, the fancy gyms, and so forth. These are things colleges do to one-up one another. Sure, there's some sense, if a student looks at nine schools with Perk A, that if the tenth lacks that perk, it's perhaps a worse-funded or less-brand-name institution. But it would have never occurred to individual undergrads to ask for most of what's now offered, to set the spartan-to-lavish scale where it's currently at.