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 cafĂ©. 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.