27 February 2009

The Virtues of Thrift, Part 5

I have to confess that I don't have an item for today. When I started putting this together at the beginning of the week, I decided to split up the posts because the ideas were turning into too much for just one post. I assumed that by the time I got to today, I would have thought of something.

Well, here it is Friday afternoon and inspiration hasn't struck. But that's okay; I can still offer a couple of quick tips. First, some of the Stop & Shop supermarkets in our area have gas stations, and if you have one of their rewards cards you get something like five cents per gallon off the posted price. But periodically they run promotions where, over a certain period of time, each dollar you spend on groceries earns a point, and when you reach a certain number of points (100, I think) you get ten cents off per gallon on your next fill-up. I don't drive, so I don't buy gas, but this discount seems to make the Mrs. happy.

In a similar vein, warehouse clubs like BJ's and Costco sell gas at discounted prices (though not in our part of the country). That's just one of many reasons why joining one of these facilities can be beneficial. But how do you know if a club membership will be worth it to you? It depends on where you live (whether or not a club is conveniently located); how often you shop and how much you buy; whether or not you have the room to store bulk quantities of cheese, toilet paper, cat litter, or whatever; the size of your family, etc.

If you have a friend who belongs to a club, ask to tag along so you can get a look at the merchandise and the prices. Also, I know that BJ's frequently sends out free trial membership offers that give you 30 to 60 days to shop and evaluate. Or maybe your employer (like mine) offers discounted memberships as an employee benefit. Clubs in some parts of the US (but again, not in New England) also sell wine, beer, and liquor. Oh, how I wish...

But above all (and I've said this before, but it bears repeating) you need to know what stuff costs in order to know if you're getting a good deal. This is true not just for warehouse club shopping, but everywhere you spend money. You have to do your homework. If you're not willing to invest even a little time and effort, you're probably going to end up spending too much.

26 February 2009

The Virtues of Thrift, Part 4

Check your clearance. Clearance shopping can be something of a sport for some people (APB, I'm looking in you...) and about as much fun as a root canal for others. But if you have the inclination you can find excellent deals, especially at the end of a season when stores are trying to get rid of what's left to make way for the new stuff.

It also helps if you're an odd size. Logically, the more average sizes tend to be gone first, but if you happen to be very small or somewhat larger than average, you may find things left in your size after everything else is gone. Also, consider that many clothing lines tend to run small these days; you might think you're a large, but if extra large is all that's left, try it on anyway--it might be the size that fits you best.

It can be useful to get on email lists for stores whose clothing you like. That way you'll get first notice when sales or markdowns occur. Be aware, though, that the same item can be one price on the store's web site and a different price in the store. Sometimes you have to make the purchase whatever way you're getting the best deal.

Sometimes you'll see an item at the beginning of a season and decide you don't think it's worth the asking price, but if maybe a couple of months later you're back in the same store and that same item is now 50% or more off, the value equation changes somewhat.

I don't make a habit of buying a lot of clothing at Target, but I do find things there occasionally. And I usually take a spin through the clearance racks when I'm in the store, because you never know. A couple of months back I found a nice shirt on a Target clearance rack for $6.24, which was 75% off its original price. For about what I pay for lunch on a typical day, I would have been foolish not to buy it.

25 February 2009

The Virtues of Thrift, Part 3

I've realized that perhaps I was unintentionally being a bit misleading by referring to these ideas as "thrift." I don't consider myself thrifty, even though my mother is (and her mother was) an enthusiastic practitioner of thrift. But I do consider myself a smart consumer, and one of the things I'm always trying to do here is help you spend your money more wisely.

Web savings. If you're going to shop online anyway, why not get a little something extra out of it? Several months back, a friend suggested I sign up for Ebates, a site that offers money back on your web purchases. When you sign up, they start you out by giving you (and the friend who referred you) $5. Then, when you want to shop on the web, you first go to the Ebates site and click on the link for the sites you want to visit, which is how the purchases get tagged to your Ebates account.

It takes a little while to get used to doing your online shopping this way, but it's worth it. I just received my rebate last week, which amounted to around $36. Normally the rebate covers a three-month period, but this one went back to when I had signed up during the summer. The rebate comes in the form of a PayPal payment, or you can choose to have them send you a check.

Many online retailers pay for referrals, which is where the rebate money comes from. Ebates claims that they are simply passing that money along to their members instead of keeping it. Works for me.

24 February 2009


I went into CVS to get a birthday card for my mother, and I came out with "Dance into the Light" stuck in my head. Is that one of the so-called "bonuses" you get for having a CVS card? Yeah, thanks for that.

The Virtues of Thrift, Part 2

Get changed. Perhaps you've noticed those green Coinstar machines at the front of your local supermarket (these days, likely being used by an older person trying to scrape together enough to buy some saltine crackers and a scratch ticket). Not everyone is aware of this, but these machines also offer gift cards from several major retailers, both brick-and-mortar stores like Lowe's and online-only retailers like Amazon. Coinstar charges a transaction fee of around 9% if you turn your coins into cash, but if you turn them into a gift card no fee is charged, so you get the full value of your coinage.

In the mood for a cup of coffee? You can turn your pennies into a Starbucks card. Want to see a movie? Get a card for AMC Theatres. Itching for some new music? They even have iTunes gift cards. Other choices include Eddie Bauer, Old Navy, Borders, CVS, Overstock.com, and a few more. I'd imagine that Coinstar is actively pursuing other such partnerships, so the selection is likely to improve over time, though when I was using the machine at our local Stop & Shop, the Mrs. wondered why you couldn't redeem coins for a Stop & Shop gift card, which is a very good point.

I am one of those people who tends to save up change for a long time. I used to then put it into rolls and deposit it in my bank account. Thanks to the Coinstar machine, I was able to avoid that huge waste of time; I had enough change to get an Eddie Bauer gift card that I used to buy a badly-needed pair of shearling-lined slippers, and I paid only the shipping charge (because the slippers were on clearance, I was afraid they would be gone if I waited for the next free shipping promotion, which would have made it an even better deal).

You do have to have at least $5 in change to get any sort of gift card. One other potential drawback worth mentioning is that you kind of have to know in advance what you want, or at least what store you want to shop at. Also, the selection of gift card choices can vary from machine to machine; your best bet is to use the Coinstar web site to search for machines in your area (the site tells you what cards are available in each machine, which is actually pretty handy).

It's also worth noting that Coinstar recently purchased Redbox, the company behind those other machines at the front of the supermarket, so I would think that you'll be able to turn your loose change into movie rentals at some point in the not-too-distant future.

23 February 2009

The Virtues of Thrift

I had hoped to get something else up before the end of the work week, but deadlines took precedence. And it wasn't exactly a hectic weekend, so there wasn't any good reason for me not to post then. Mea culpa.

With all sorts of horrible financial news assaulting us pretty much daily, I thought I would share a few tips on how I lead what I consider a comfortable lifestyle without overspending. I decided to break up the post into daily (sort of) bite-size pieces, and I'll post one every day this week.

Sell some stuff. I recently sold a couple of items on eBay, one of which was a vintage watch that brought in nearly $200. I then used that money, in the form of a PayPal balance, to buy other things. Some of it was stuff I needed, some was stuff I just wanted. Among other things, I got the DVD set of the first season of Mad Men, and a couple of new cashmere sweaters for $20 each.

One caveat about buying sweaters on eBay: a lot of people seem to have a tendency to put their sweaters on hangers, which is terrible, because it causes a sweater to stretch out of shape. A sweater should never be stored on a hanger. Sometimes they do this just to take the pictures, but you can bet sometimes it gets left on the hanger for weeks or months. If it's an extreme case, you may be able to tell just by looking at the photos, but if you think you might want to wear something to work or on any occasion when you want to look good, it might be worth your time to ask the seller how the sweater has been treated. Now, some people might say, "If you're only spending $20 what's the difference?" but it's your money, and a bargain isn't really a bargain if it's all stretched out and fits poorly and you end up not wearing it or having to give it away.

If you use PayPal to make a purchase there is no fee or service charge, but if you are the seller then PayPal does take a cut. Some people bristle at this, but it's a cost of doing business, just like stores and catalogs and online retailers have to pay a credit card processing fee. But the nice thing about having a PayPal balance is that you don't have to use it only on eBay. Many sites now accept PayPal as a form of payment, so if you've been a lucky seller you have some flexibility. I was able to use part of my PayPal balance to add an auxiliary hard drive to my TiVo, which roughly quadrupled its recording capacity. Just what he needs, you're thinking, and you're probably right, but it's too late.

One other thing about selling on eBay: be very specific about who can, or cannot, make a purchase from you. I learned this the hard way during my most recent couple of auction sales. The high bidder for the watch I sold had a perfect feedback rating, but after the auction ended and I didn't receive payment for a couple of days, I went and checked the buyer information and found that the person had shut down his/her eBay account and disappeared. Nice.

I was able to make a second-chance offer to the next-highest bidder, who happened to be in Spain. I had specified in the auction listing that I would only ship the item to a US address, but now, thanks to an unsavory bidder, I was no longer in control of the outcome. I could deal with sending the watch overseas, or start over with a relisted item. Fortunately, the second-chance bidder was very conscientious about answering my emails, and agreed to pay a higher shipping fee to cover the added costs and the extra time I would need to invest in completing the transaction.

It happened to be during my holiday break, so I had the time to go to the post office and wade through the confusing forms required to send a package overseas. If you're attempting to make a living selling stuff on eBay, you kind of have to be willing to deal with stuff like this, but if you're just trying to sell one or two items, it can be a hassle. You can always specify in your auction listing that potential buyers from outside the US have to contact you first to discuss whether or not you are willing to sell to them, and any additional shipping costs required to do so. Of course this is no guarantee, but chances are if someone is willing to take the time to email you, he or she is serious about purchasing your item.

This is something I found out during my next auction, which was for a pair of insulated boots that didn't bring in nearly as much as I expected. On the last day of the auction, I was contacted by a guy from Canada who was interested in bidding on them, but this time I had set up the auction so that people from outside the US could not even place a bid. I told him to go ahead and bid and we would work out the additional fees afterward if he won, but I forgot about the restriction I had set, plus the auction ended while I was on my way home from work that day, so I couldn't have changed it in time even if I had remembered.

Would he have been the winner? No way to know, but he almost certainly would have outbid the eventual winner at least once. Then, the person who did place the winning bid contacted me a week or so after I sent off the package to inform me that the postal service mishandled the package after I sent it, and it was at a dead mail recovery center (which was eerily similar to my own experience a few months back with a package sent to me that was mislabeled by the postal service with a zip code that was off by one digit, and spent the better part of two weeks ping-ponging between Albany and Springfield before finally making its way to me). I just checked the status of the package I sent, and it did finally reach its destination, a mere FOUR WEEKS after I sent it. Crap, I could have walked it there faster. I may have to think about getting a FedEx account or something...

18 February 2009

Productivity Is Overrated

Say what you will about Saturday Night Live--that it's inconsistent, that it should be funnier, that it should have been yanked off the air ten years ago--one of the best and most consistently funny parts of the show these days is the Digital Shorts.

The site TV Squad (you may have noticed the link to them over on the right) has compiled a list of the top ten Digital Shorts. It's only one person's opinion, but I think it's a decent list, and I present it in the interest of wasting time. Besides, even if you've seen "Dick In A Box" or "Lazy Sunday" a hundred times, they're still worth watching again, and I'll bet there's at least one clip here you haven't seen before.

Most of these are the brainchild of Andy Samberg and his partners in the band The Lonely Island, and if you weren't paying close attention you might mistake them for genuine songs. But in fact they're generally parodies, and sharp ones at that. They have a definite ear for mimicking popular music styles, and the accompanying visuals are pretty spot-on too. Who didn't know a guy or two in college like "Ras Trent"? Think of any random hip-hop video, then compare it to "I'm On A Boat."

As Joel McHale says on The Soup, please to enjoy... Oh, some of these are probably NSFW, so put on your headphones.

16 February 2009

Lazy Monday

It's been a pleasant long weekend. The weather has been decent for February, though being a lifelong New Englander, I'm not foolish enough to think there isn't going to be any more snow, but at least the bits that are still on the ground have half a chance to finish melting before we get any more.

Anyway, Friday was the 15th anniversary of our first date (in case anyone's wondering, we saw Six Degrees of Separation at the West Newton Cinema, and went for ice cream afterward). Over the years we have treated this as a sort of half-anniversary, so with that in mind I wanted to make it fun and a little more elaborate than usual.

We decided a couple of weeks ago that we would have dinner at Turner's Seafood Grill in Melrose. We've been there one or two times before, and have found the food excellent. I would say it's as good as any seafood place in Boston, and the prices, while not cheap, are comparatively lower. And by going out on the 13th, we avoid the Valentine's Day madness.

I thought that after dinner, it would be nice to spend the night in a hotel. My first thought was to go to Hotwire and find the best deal I could on the fanciest hotel, and I did find a very good rate at what I suspect was the Langham in Post Office Square (when you book on Hotwire, you don't find out the exact property you're staying at until after you pay for the booking, which is part of how they can offer the rates they do).

Now, I have a fascination with hotels that the Mrs. doesn't particularly share. While I didn't think she would not enjoy the place, I know her well enough by now to know she cares more about overall comfort than putative luxury, and I figured her response to a night downtown would be something along the lines of "so where are we going to park?" So I decided to change my approach. I remembered reading last summer about the Aloft hotel opening in Lexington. Aloft is being marketed as a sub-brand of W Hotels, with the intent of providing a boutique hotel atmosphere at a lower rate. I had a look at the site and thought it would be just right. (We'll do the luxe hotel thing another time.)

We stayed in a W once several years ago, so we could see some definite similarities in the room design. The materials and colors are more distinctive than what you find in a typical hotel room. The Aloft rooms have platform beds with down comforters, and the beds face the windows rather than one of the side walls. There's a nice big flat TV on the wall between the windows, and a frosted glass panel next to the bed that lets natural light into the shower stall, which, along with the rest of the bathroom, is on the other side of the wall behind the bed. Cute, a little funky, and comfortable.

We had a friend look after the dog so we could take our time getting home on Saturday morning. I had also ordered Valentine's Day candy from See's, a California company whose stuff the Mrs. grew up with and loves. When the package arrived on Thursday it seemed a little light, and indeed when I opened it one of the items was missing. They sent out a replacement and it arrived today (apparently, UPS doesn't care that it's a holiday).

As for the rest of the weekend, we did a couple of errands, saw Slumdog Millionaire last night, and had a very late breakfast today. The movie was excellent; as the Mrs. put it, "some fascinating storytelling, but also depressing enough that I don't want to see it again."

12 February 2009

Brace Yourselves

On Tuesday I took the first step on a journey that is going to have a profound impact on my life. This is something I have wanted to do for many years, and I finally decided it was time to act.

I got braces. Yes, at age 45, I'm a metal mouth.

When I was a child, braces were not financially feasible for my parents. When I was a teenager I went to a parochial high school, and it was made clear that tuition took precedence over elective cosmetic dentistry, which was perfectly understandable, and at that age I didn't much care how my teeth looked anyway. But as I got older, even as I grew less self-conscious and more comfortable with my overall appearance, I was bothered more and more by the state of my mouth.

I'm very fortunate to have healthy teeth, but they have always been terribly crooked. The bottom teeth are extremely crowded in front, my canines protrude something awful, making me look a little like Spike, and my upper molars are angled inboard of the lower ones, which is called a cross bite. My dentist made molds of my uppers and lowers a couple of weeks ago, and it was kind of shocking to see just how badly messed up my mouth is.

I've been going to the same dentist for more than 15 years, and I think he and all his staff are fantastic. My comfort with and confidence in them is a big part of why I chose to do this. My dentist has spent most of his career learning how to do new stuff, and when he showed me the Damon System braces, which were designed specifically for adult mouths, I could see how excited he was about them. They achieve results faster than other types of braces, and they are not painful.

The upper bracess went on first, because my cross bite needs to be opened up somewhat before the bottoms can be fitted. Little metal brackets were glued to each of my upper teeth, a wire was fed through them, and the brackets were then snapped shut to hold the wire taut and in place. In six weeks I'll go back to get the wire changed to one that is slightly thicker and will thus put a little more tension on the teeth. Six weeks after that, the dentist should be able to put on the lower braces. After that, I only have to go in about every three months to get the wires changed.

It took me only about four hours to dislodge two of the brackets, so I had to go back to the office yesterday to have them reglued. The doc said he didn't do a good enough job attaching one of them, and the other was knocked loose by one of my lower teeth while I was eating, due to my cross bite. To prevent that from happening again, he had to glue pegs onto a lower molar on each side to create some space between the upper and lower teeth. (Fortunately, if a bracket comes loose, it's still on the wire so it can't go anywhere, i.e. you don't need to worry about accidentally swallowing it.)

Eating is now profoundly strange, and awkward, and a little gross. Food feels completely different in my mouth. Chewing is almost an alien activity. Even taking bites has been affected, because the pegs mean my teeth don't quite come together in front the way they used to, and they are a little tingly from having brackets glued to them. As a result, I have to take smaller bites and chew much more slowly and carefully. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as I've always eaten too fast and knew that I needed to slow down. Between that and the various snacky things (nuts, caramels, chips) that are now either off-limits or suddenly much more difficult to eat, I have a feeling I'm going to end up losing a few pounds, which again is okay.

Another ancillary benefit is that, as my upper bite is widened, my palate will also be opened, which will help me breathe better when I'm asleep, which may cut down on my snoring. Obviously there's no guarantee, but any gain achieved in this area will make the Mrs. happier.

All of this is going to cost about one-eighth of my gross yearly salary. Crazy, right? Maybe. But people pay far more for nose jobs, breast implants, liposuction, and any number of other cosmetic procedures. Everyone who chooses to do so has a reason, and most of them probably come down to self-esteem. I've never thought of myself as having low self-esteem, but I won't deny that a straighter smile will nonetheless make me feel better about myself. I could live the rest of my life with crooked teeth, but I have the opportunity and the means to correct them, so I'm doing it. Wouldn't you?

10 February 2009

Cheesecake and Slots

It was a fairly busy weekend for us. "Busy" for us normally means we leave the house some time before dark. But Saturday was filled with errands like dropping off piles of clothing at the Salvation Army and shopping (unsuccessfully, this time around) for a new living room rug at Building 19.

On Sunday we had a little adventure of sorts. For a couple of weeks, the Mrs. has been jonesing for some cheesecake. Not just any cheesecake, but Junior's cheesecake. Junior's is in Brooklyn, but last year they opened a location at the MGM Grand casino at Foxwoods, which is somewhat closer. So she decided that we needed to drive there. Since we would be passing through Rhode Island on our way, she suggested I ask my mother if she wanted to come along with us.

On Sunday we drove down to RI and picked up my mother, and made the 45-minute drive to Ledyard, CT. The complex is about eight miles off route 95 and is very easy to get to, if you're considering a visit. We arrived a litle before 1 PM, and since we hadn't eaten breakfast we headed straight for Junior's, which is just off the main hotel lobby. By this point I was ready for lunch, so I ordered a pastrami sandwich. The Mrs. wanted Junior's famous french toast, but unfortunately they stop serving breakfast at noon on Sundays. She settled for matzo ball soup.

Then she ordered cheesecake, and as soon as she put the fork in her mouth, I knew from the look on her face that something wasn't right. "It's too sweet." While I myself could not taste any difference, that doesn't mean much; her palate is generally more sensitive to differences in sweetness and saltiness. Disappointed, she lost interest in getting a whole cheesecake to bring home, and worried aloud that they had irrevocably changed the recipe. I suspect it's more likely that the difference is due to it being a distant outpost, far from the mother ship. At least I hope so, for her sake.

After lunch we headed to the casino. After a minute or two, I learned that the Mrs., who is also very sensitive to smoke, did not know that people are allowed to smoke in casinos. She offered to wait in the lobby area, which had fresh, cool air circulating, while my mother and I visited some slot machines. That was a bust as well, because we could not figure out how to work the change machines. You're supposed to put in money and get a ticket with stored value, which you then take to the machine of your choice. But between the two of us, we could not understand the process. It was also kind of dark and very noisy, as every single one of those hundreds of machines has a soundtrack of chirps and blips. So we went home. At least it was a nice day for a drive.

I'm not much of a gambler, which I guess is pretty obvious. I've been to Suffolk Downs, Churchill Downs, and Hialeah Park; I used to go to jai alai in Newport a long, long time ago, and I was in Atlantic City for an afternoon once, a quarter century ago. That's the extent of my gambling experience. I learned later that the casino at Foxwoods proper has a non-smoking area, but I don't see us going back. I do imagine a trip to New York is in our near future, to get a definitive answer to the cheesecake question. And some french toast.


I was just watching New England Cable News, and Mike Nikitas was reading a story about a lawsuit against Ticketmaster related to their scalping reselling service, TicketsNow. But he read the name as "ticket snow" twice. Oh well, probably only a few dozen people watching besides me...

05 February 2009

Caution: Hacked Signage Ahead

One of the web sites I read regularly is a car site called Jalopnik. Last week they posted a story about how to hack roadside information signs, and even linked to a site that had posted the complete instructions.

Naturally, it didn't take long for the mayhem to ensue, and for the photographic evidence of said mayhem to make its way back to Jalopnik. They've kindly created a gallery of the images; interestingly, warnings of zombies seem to be the most popular hack, which strikes me as just a bit uninspired. One also says "Harvard sucks dick" which leads me to think it's probably around here somewhere. Has anyone seen it? If so, where was it? Has it been fixed yet?

(Please note: while I am in no way condoning this behavior, or suggesting that anyone should go out and find their own sign to hack, I think you'll agree that the results are pretty damn funny.)

03 February 2009

Gripe of the Moment

Why do MBTA buses seem to have only two settings for the heat: full-on sauna or full-on walk-in freezer?

02 February 2009

Move Along

Today at lunch I took a walk to a supermarket near the office to get a box of Quaker oatmeal breakfast bars. (I try to keep something breakfasty in my desk at work, in case I don't have time to eat breakfast at home.) I'd wanted to get them on the way into work, but I have a 9:30 meeting every Monday morning so I didn't have extra time today.

I got in line behind a senior citizen, who bought a couple bags' worth of groceries. Since I was buying just the one thing, I had my change in one hand and the bag in the other before she was quite ready to go on her way. I stood behind her, waiting for her to move out of the checkout lane. And I continued standing for 20 or 30 seconds while she fiddled with her bags.

Eventually she realized I was there, kind of half-looked at me over one shoulder and said, "Do you want to get by?" My brain cycled through possible responses: "No, I'd like to stand here looking at the back of your head all afternoon." "What do you think?" "Yes, you fucking idiot." I settled on "Please." Even though I kept my real thoughts to myself, she still acted like I was somehow inconveniencing her.

I'm an impatient person in general, and I get that most people don't move as quickly as I do, but the real annoyance is how people just get lost inside their own heads and give up any semblance of paying attention to the outside world, like people who climb to the top of a flight of stairs or an escalator and come to a dead stop because they aren't quite sure which way to go. As Stephen Colbert so aptly put it to Steve Carell on an old Daily Show segment, "What's the weather like up your own ass?"