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 clich├ęs - 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.