Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Heat Yourself First

Among the best winter heating tips I can offer is this: heat yourself, not the air around you.

It's much more affordable to invest in a good pair of long underwear or cozy socks than it is to turn the thermostat up another five degrees.

I've found these things to be very helpful:

--Sleep in your socks.
--Wear layers, including long underwear top and bottom.
--Don't be afraid to wear scarves, neck warmers, or hats at home.
--Leg warmers and arm warmers make a surprising difference. I got my black leg warmers at Target and my arm warmers at Sock Dreams. Sock Dreams is a woman-owned, independent business based in Portland, OR. Their mail order business offers free shipping on all orders and their customer service is excellent. I wear my chenille arm warmers when I'm working at my computer. They keep my palms and arms warm while I'm typing without interfering with the keyboard or my typing.
--Put extra blankets on the bed and tuck in your top sheet.
--Snuggle. :-)
--Keep cozy blankets any place you find yourself sitting. We keep several on the couch and stuffed armchair in the living room so that we can be comfortable when watching TV or reading, etc.
--I find that wearing long socks helps me, so that my ankles are never bare and there's no gap between the bottom of my pants and my socks.
--I also find that tucking in my bottom layer--usually a tank top--helps me a lot. Keeping my abdomen covered makes a big difference in my overall warmth and comfort.
--Keep your trunk warm--wear a light fleece vest, for instance, as your outer layer at home.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Free Cooking Class

COOKING WITH THE LOCAL HARVEST for Cancer Survivors and Their Loved Ones
Taught in Shutesbury, MA, Sunday, November 9th, 20083:00 PM - 7:00PM
Learn how to use herbs and spices to create flavorful low-fat meals. With a focus on nutrition and cancer, eating locally and with the seasons, we will prepare a scrumptious meal and enjoy it together.
COST: FREE sponsored by www.Forestmoon.org
TO REGISTER CALL OR E-MAIL PAM ROBERTS AT(413) 625-2402 or pamro@aol.com.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Compare Heating Oil Prices

As we move into the dreaded heating oil season, it's important to make an informed choice when you purchase your home heating oil.

To research prices in New England, visit NewEnglandOil.

As of 9/25/08, the best price in my area appears to be $3.43, down from $3.89 this summer. (I'm so glad I didn't buy then!)

If your dealer doesn't offer it outright, go ahead and ask if they offer a discount for paying in cash/check, or for paying within a certain time period (a week, ten days, 30 days). I've been able to save ten cents a gallon by paying my dealer within ten days by check.

Prices are fluctuating daily, so be sure to call ahead to check pricing and availability in your area. Also ask about the minimum delivery amount.

Crude oil prices dropped to a new low today, so it may be a good time to check in on your local dealers' prices.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Affordable Cross-Country Moving Solutions

I've been doing a little research into cross-country moving alternatives. I've moved across the country three times so far, and cobbled together some strange money-saving techniques that were fairly time-consuming and involved some special circumstances--like access to free storage and lots of free cross-country plane flights--but I'm still looking for the perfect solution.

Recently, I came across this very thoughtful review at epinions.com of ABF, a company that will put your stuff in a tractor trailer and haul it cross country relatively cheaply. The process requires some planning on the part of the mover, and some patience with the flawed system, but can, it seems pay off nicely in the end when properly executed.

If you're considering this option, this woman (who moved 2,000 miles using ABF), has some very helpful tips. Totally Thrift-approved. Click here to read her review.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

To Buy or Not to Buy: Renter's Insurance

I recently got to the point in my life where I felt it was important to insure my belongings. I've been a renter for 14 years and, in general, have been too cash-strapped to invest in renter's insurance. Instead, I invested in extra smoke detectors, a fire extinguisher, and used some common sense. (No burning candles left unattended; know where the shut-off valve for the water and gas lines are, lock the doors and windows at night or when I'm away, etc.)

Also, I've been thrifty about my furniture, dishes, and other belongings. 90% of my books are used and could be replaced easily and affordably. Same with my furniture. For instance, I'm currently living in a two-story, three-bedroom apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, walk-up attic, and full (unfinished) basement. I've fully furnished the property--including stocking the cupboards with pots and pans, and an overabundance of linens--and hardly spent a dime. Most of what I own, I was able to come across free, cheap, or to receive as a gift.

However, now that I have a more stable income and I can actually afford to shell out a bit of cash to protect my possessions, it really does make sense. I know several people who have lost everything to fire. Four were apartment-dwellers; one a homeowner. It happens. I live in a duplex, which means no matter how safe I am in my apartment, if my neighbors (my horrid landlords) were to have an accident or cause a fire, I would likely also suffer damage and loss at my place--an event totally beyond my control.

While I've been thrifty in acquiring my possessions, it would be expensive, disheartening, exhausting, and incredibly time-consuming to replace them. It's taken years to accumulate my thrifty collection of stuff; it would take just as long to replace it using the same method.

Plus, I have a few nice things now. I invested in a delicious set of expensive sheets that make me moan a little bit with joy every time I slip between them. I got them on sale, but they'd cost almost $90 to replace. I have three televisions--all of which I got for free, but they're very nice and replacing them would be costly. Three computers, a printer, three digital cameras, MP3 players, my bed--you get the drift.

So, I went ahead and got a quote from a local insurance agency. I made sure to get replacement coverage, which means that if my house burns down, I can buy a new bed, television, printer, etc. and my insurance will reimburse me. If you don't have this coverage--which costs a little extra--then you'll only be reimbursed for the actual cost of your belongings. How much is a five-year old full-sized bed worth versus the cost of replacing it? Or a one-year old computer? If you don't get replacement value coverage, you may as well not buy insurance at all, in my opinion.

But, here's the catch. After choosing my policy and sending in my first payment, a few weeks went by and I still hadn't received a copy of the policy. I called my agent and she discovered that I had, in fact, been turned down by the insurance company. Why? All they would tell her was that it was my credit--and they sent her back my check.

This infuriated me. My credit score is very good. I'm gainfully and stably employed in the same field I've been in for 14 years. I don't have a criminal record. But you know what I do have? A bankruptcy on my record. It's been more than three years. My credit score is on the brink of being in the second highest range possible. My income is twice the median for my region. I have a savings account, an IRA, and a 401(k). I don't smoke or own a dog (things that make it harder to get insured), apart from a four-month period where I stopped paying just before my bankruptcy, I have never missed a payment on anything since my first credit card was opened 16 years ago. And I only took out the minimum--$15,000--on my policy. I'm 35-years old with no history of fraud or any reason for them to believe that I don't deserve their coverage.

But, they rejected me. The good news, I suppose, is that another company was willing to insure me. They don't look at a person's credit history, I'm told. Their rates are 20% higher, though.

Mostly, I'm angry that I'm losing money because of something so unfair. They didn't even talk to me. They just rejected me because of--I assume--my bankruptcy.

It's so odd that I was able to get a car loan with a competitive rate, but not renter's insurance.

At any rate, I'm switching my car insurance over to the same agency that got me the renter's insurance, so I'll save a little bit of money there and make up some of the difference between the first policy's rate and the second.

And, as a bonus, the company that rejected me has been covering me for free until I sign on with another company, so, technically, I'm getting about a month and a half of free renter's insurance from them.

In the end, I'm a little bitter, but at least I am insured. And if I took the time to shop around more, I might even find a more competitive rate. For now, there are just too many other things to take care of, so I'm going to fork over the dough ($175/year) for the company that's willing to take me on (Vermont Mutual).

The company that rejected me, by the way, was Merrimack mutual.

I wonder if this was a soft pull on my credit or not? If they dinged my credit by checking it for this, I'm going to be extra-special pissed off!

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Save Money on Heating Oil

If you live in New England and heat your home or business with oil, before you buy your next batch of heating oil, visit NewEnglandOil.com. Click on your state to get a chart of local rates from various suppliers.

I tried this out recently and was pleased to discover that my supplier is one of the least expensive in the region. However, the rate indicated in the chart did not match what I paid when I ordered oil last week, so clearly the chart isn't up-to-the-minute. But, I think it still pays to check it out and perhaps call around to confirm prices.

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: Two

2. Shop with a list. (And don't shop hungry.)
  • This also falls under the heading of #3, Plan Ahead.
  • Peter and I keep a notepad on the fridge. It cost 79 cents and comes with a magnet that holds it up. One pad lasts almost a year. Whenever we run out of something or think of something we want, we put it on the list. Then, when we go grocery shopping, we bring the list, cross things off as we find them. This saves time and it saves money, because we buy fewer impulse items. It also helps to ensure that we have all of the ingredients for our planned meals.
  • Last week, I sat down with the sales circular from our local Big Y grocery store. I made a list of items we needed that were on sale. We drove three miles to the store, bought the items on our list, plus a few others, and saved over $50.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money: Five

5. Invest in a candle warmer. You can get one online for about $15. In my experience, they make your jarred candles last 200% longer, which, for a typical Yankee Candle candle, means you save up to $40 per candle. (Since new ones cost about $20.) They also reduce (or practically eliminate) the risk of starting a house fire, which is a very expensive proposition. And, they reduce waste.

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Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: Recap

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money this Year: Seven

7. Clear your clutter. Clearing your clutter has myriad money-saving advantages.
  1. If you donate items to non-profits, you can deduct the donation on your taxes. This is really only helpful if you take more than the standard deduction, but still...
  2. You can improve the feng shui in your home. It can help you have more energy, be less depressed, manifest greater prosperity, better health and well-being. For an excellent resource on how to clear your clutter with feng shui, read Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui" by Karen Kingston ($10.95 new; about $6 used.)
  3. You can make some money getting rid of unused things. Sell them online via eBay, Half.com, Craigslist, or some other reputable outlet. Last year I made hundreds of dollars selling CDs, books, and consumer electronics that I no longer needed or wanted.
  4. Clearing clutter helps to create order, which helps to create both a sense of well-being and a better perspective on what we own and why we own it. Clearing clutter can help you purchase fewer things, because once you've cleaned everything up, you may not want to mess it all up again. It can also help you to identify poor spending habits. Are you buying clothes in the wrong sizes in the hope that you'll get smaller (or larger)? Do you find that you have more shoes than you can ever wear, or a closet full of craft supplies you never use? Clear your clutter lovingly, consciously, and intentionally and you will reap thrift many rewards.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money this Year: Nine

9. Pay your bills online. If your bank doesn't offer free online bill pay, you can generally set it up directly through the company to whom you owe money (such as your phone or cable company).

The savings will vary, but include the cost of checks and the cost of stamps (roughly $25/year if you pay five bills per month through the mail). (Can you think of anything you'd rather do with $25 than buy stamps?)

Additional savings include late fees associated with lost checks, lost or misplaced bills, and late payments.

Automatic online bill pay features can also be advantageous if you are trying to pay down debts, such as credit cards, mortgages, or car loans. If you set a certain amount (above what's due) to go every month, it will definitely happen--and on time--versus the old-fashioned check-writing method, which is more fallible. Some months you may feel you can't afford the extra cash toward a credit card or mortgage if you are the one taking the time to physically write the check, but, if your checking account just does it automatically, you only have to make the decision once.
The one caveat here: if you are a person without a regular income, without direct deposit, with a shared checking account and a flawed system for managing it, etc., don't set up auto bill pay features. Remember, in order for auto bill pay to be beneficial, you have to have the money in your account. If an auto bill pay feature causes overdraft fees, you'll only be causing yourself additional stress, strain, and expense, so skip the tempting convenience and keep writing checks or using manual online bill pay.

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Ten Things You Can Do To Save Money This Year: Number Ten

10. Stop watching (commercial) television.
If you are a TV-lover like me, this might seem shocking and impossible-slash-obnoxiously-liberal-intellectual, but hear me out. Commercial television's primary purpose is to create desire in you. Unnecessary desire. To be different than you are, have more and different things; the primary purpose of commercial television, in short, is to get you to buy stuff.

According to Tom Bell, Staff Writer for the Portland Press Herald business section, "Consumer debt is at record levels, and the personal savings rate has fallen into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent. The savings rate has only been negative for a full year twice before, in 1932 and 1933, when Americans were struggling through the Great Depression."

I believe this lack of savings is due in large part to our near constant contact with television and other forms of advertising. It's everywhere! Football stadiums, magazines, tee-shirts, even in some schools. We'll get to those other things later, but for now, if you want to save a substantial sum of money this year, stop watching commercial television. Here's how:
  1. Invest in TiVo or another DVR technology and fast-forward through commercials. Become a conscious consumer of television. Choose your shows, make a schedule, watch the things you know you want to watch and skip all the commercials. You'll be amazed at how light you eventually feel! Without watching all the ads in between the segments of your shows, you are left only with the desire you create yourself (plus the desire created by the things in the show itself and the other ads you consume, but still, it's an improvement!). It feels really good to want only what you really want, not what someone is trying to sell you. On your own would you want an iPhone, or is it just the ads that make them seem irresistible? On your own, would you sit on the couch and feel that you needed a new Toyota/a Thighmaster/a freezer full of Lean Cuisine/a pair of jeans from Old Navy? Odds are, that no, you wouldn't generate that desire on your own. Spending on things that aren't coming from your authentic desire is a huge waste. Investing in a TiVo or DVR is a case where spending money can ultimately save you money.
  2. Stop watching altogether. Cancel your cable and listen to the radio, read the paper, and watch shows and movies on DVD or online. Netflix has an excellent selection and presents a good bang-for-your-buck. Choose this method and you can save money (by not spending on cable) and save even more by cutting out *even more* unnecessary desire than with the TiVo/fast forward solution. Yay! My friend Maria is doing this this winter and so far, it's been a great success for her.
  3. Go old school. I still tape all of my shows using VCRs. I have three VCRs. Two built-in to TVs and one separate. I have a complex system of taping and reviewing and I manage to tape and watch all of my shows without viewing hardly any commercials. This method is more affordable than the DVR version, but also takes more commitment.
  4. Cut back on your cable package. Are you paying for channels you don't really watch? In Massachusetts, most Red Sox games are on NESN, a network you have to pay extra for. But there's no rule that says you have to pay for that channel all year long. If you added a channel for a certain benefit--to watch Dexter, The Sopranos, the Red Sox, etc.--cancel it once that benefit is over. I don't need to pay for NESN during the winter. I don't need to pay for HBO or Showtime when none of the shows I like are airing new episodes. If you don't want or need any premium channels at all, you can call your cable company and ask for "reception" cable. It's the most basic of the basic, and they often won't tell you they offer it, but they are required by law to do so. The price should be about $5 per month, and it should give you all the major networks (ABC, NBC, PBS, CBS, FOX) plus some others. I've used this version of cable in Massachusetts and California and received as few as 13 channels and as many as 57. No matter what your cable operator tells you, they are required to give this to you, so if they give you a hard time, keep at it until they acquiesce.

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Dealing with Deadbeats

As most of you know by now, my one most passionate dream is to own a home of my own. Having spent much of my childhood homeless or on the verge of it--and being a Cancer, of course--I crave a nice, safe, clean, wonderful home of my own with an unparalleled constancy. This urge has driven my every move since my last intense craving--a college education--and is with me every waking moment, and often in my sleep as well.

Several things have stood in the way. Student loans, illness, an unsteady and frequently very low income, six years spent renting in one of the most expensive cities in America, and an inability to figure out exactly where I want to settle down top the list of obstacles to my home ownership.

Last March (2007), I publicly declared my desire to own my own home and I set about trying to bring that dream to fruition. The first step was to leave the overpriced apartment I was renting in a (terrible) co-housing community in Northampton. I was paying $825 plus utilities for a tiny, basement 2BR apartment. In order to cut my overhead, I relocated to Easthampton, the smaller, more working class neighbor to Northampton, and rented a 3BR duplex for $900. My intention was to rent one of the bedrooms and split utilities with someone, while still having rooms in which to sleep and work. The apartment was perfect for this, but the plan has not worked as I hoped.

I moved in on May 1st, covered the nearly $3,000 in move-in costs, and then looked for a roommate for June 1st. Only one person showed up for his scheduled interview, but he brought me iced coffee, seemed very easy-going and personable, and said that he had made more than $100,000 the year before. I liked him, so even though he said his credit was bad, didn't have a checking account, and couldn't pay the move-in costs all at once, I took him.

I have regretted this decision ever since. While he is a very good guy in many ways, he is not a good roommate. In all the months he's lived here (nearly eight) he has never paid his rent or any of his bills on time. For the first four months, I paid our rent with my credit card. I had my portion (which is nearly 2/3 of the rent), but not his. Since the lease is in my name, it was my obligation to pay the rent on time, even when he didn't.

Every month, he had a story. Once he said he set himself on fire. Twice he was in the hospital with kidney stones. Once he fell 14 feet off a building. Three times someone died. Twice his employer didn't pay him for a total of one month's wages. The last time, he just didn't come home on the day rent was due. He showed up the next day in tears and said he'd almost killed himself because he felt so bad about not having rent. I had promised myself the month before that if he didn't pay his rent on time one more time, I'd kick him out, but when faced with a sobbing 26-year old ironworker, I could only offer him hugs...and candy.

I think he's probably not a bad guy. Twice I've gone out of town and he took good care of my kitty. He has helped me move heavy things. If I ask him to do something--like turn the TV down or use the bathmat--he does it. But the entire point of having him here was to get myself into a better, more relaxing financial position, and instead, I have been frustrated, stressed out, and angry.

Part two of my home ownership plan was to increase my income, which I have done successfully. On October 1st, I took a full-time work-from-home editing job for which I am well-compensated. It takes away much of the stress associated with rent, because I can now afford to pay both mine and my roommate's without resorting to credit cards, but it does not take away the anger, resentment, and frustration.

I have talked with him about the toll this takes on me. He seems sincerely sorry. He pledges to do better. I have told him, month after month, that this can't continue. He says it won't. But then it does.

Two months ago, my concession was to agree to a weekly payment plan. He would pay me $100 per week, rather than trying to come up with his $385 in rent all at once on the 1st of the month. He never came through with any payments, though.

In December, he paid his rent ten days late. As of today, January 6th, he owes me $276 for November, December, and part of January's utilities.

The good news is that I finally kicked him out. Just before Christmas, I talked it over with him, and he agreed that he could leave by February 1st. Since my boyfriend is here now, hopefully the finances will balance out again. But since Peter just moved here, he hasn't found work yet, so for the time being, it's all on me.

Even though my roommate didn't have to pay rent this month (because he paid his last month up front)--and has no student loans, credit card bills, car payments, or other debts that I'm aware of--he still hasn't paid the utilities. His security deposit is only $230, so even if I changed the locks today, I would lose money. I would lose part of what he owes me for utilities. I would lose the money for the locksmith. And I would lose the cost of hiring someone to clean his filthy, stinking room.

From a Thrift standpoint, where did I go wrong?

  • The plan was a solid one, but I think I overestimated the appeal of living in Easthampton. There were almost no takers for my roommate listing, where I thought I would have a good selection. So, I would up taking someone unsavory.
  • I should have seen his inability to pay the first, last, and security up front as a sign of his financial instability and reconsidered him at that point.
  • I should not have reduced the security deposit from $385 (the maximum allowable by Massachusetts law in this case) to $230. I knew this was unwise, but I caved and I regret it now.
  • I should have drawn up a sublease and had him sign it, but I didn't. Again, this was very uncharacteristic of me. With all other roommates, I have had a legally binding document that spelled out the terms of the arrangement and the penalties for non-payment of rent, etc. But, in this case, he convinced me this wasn't necessary.
  • I should have put him on notice after the first late rent, and removed him after the second. However, in my defense, I suffered a terrible injury at the end of his first month here, and was unable to walk, drive, or take care of myself. I was in no position to switch roommates, and couldn't handle the payments--or living alone--if he left, so it was an extenuating circumstance.
At this point, I have, at least, asked him to leave. So, that's step one. I am taking a harder line with him this month about the overdue utilities, but I don't know if it will create results. I've told him he can't do his laundry here until he pays the gas and electric bills. If he doesn't pay today, then I will take away his parking privileges. I can insist that he be out no later than January 31st, whereas before, I had told him he could pay week-to-week if he needed to stay longer.

What kills me about this situation is that he showed me a check for $2700 that he'd gotten just last weekend for selling his Pats/Giants tickets. So, I know he has the money. And yet, he hasn't paid me.

Having Peter here helps because I think my roommate may be less likely to make up stories or behave badly...but still. It's a lot like the frustration of freelancing. I would complete a job on time, but then a client would take weeks or months to pay me. The work is done, but the payment doesn't come. In this case, I pay Seth's bills, but he drags his heels for days or weeks before paying me back. In his defense, he doesn't spend much time here, but that doesn't excuse him from his obligation to pay the rent and his half of the utilities.

It seemed like such a good idea to get a bigger place and get a roommate. I should have saved more than $400 a month, but that's not what's happened. Even though he always has gotten around to paying me eventually, the lag in payment has caused stress, budgeting crises, and incurred interest payments on my end. Even though the money has always come eventually, there is a feeling of always being behind and never knowing if or when he would pay his bills.

I'm so glad it's ending and I just can't wait for him to be gone. I want to tell him to just get out tomorrow. I could keep his security deposit and suck up the loss (the difference between what he owes and the deposit, plus any costs associated with cleaning up after him or changing the locks, etc.) Sigh.

But, for now, I'm going to continue to ask him to pay his bills and hope that he goes peacefully on time.

Once Seth is gone and Peter is working, the path to home ownership will, hopefully, me more clear and swiftly traveled.

In addition to sorting out this roommate revenue stream issue and getting a better job, I am also paying down my credit card debt in order to increase my credit score and improve my solvency, so as to be in a better position to shop for mortgages, possibly as soon as the end of the year.

3% of my pre-tax income goes into my 401(k), to be matched by my employer. I've set up an auto-transfer of a certain amount every week from my checking into my savings. And I've created a comprehensive budget that will get me out of credit card debt by the end of 2009--sooner if I'm lucky and aggressive.

More on this is future posts, but for now, wish me luck in my dealings with Seth. He's promised to give me the $276 tomorrow. But, I've heard that before. I've told him not to come home until he's paid me, but I don't know if he'll take heed.

Good luck to all of you thrifters out there. I hope 2008 is prosperous for you all!

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Furniture Shopping

I moved in May, and when I did, the old behemoth of a dresser I'd been using finally broke to the point where it was more satisfying to dispose of it than to find a way to repair it. I'd gotten it for free and used it for more than three years, so I felt that the $15 I gave the guy at the dump to take it off my hands was worth it in the end. (Although it really is sad to send anything to the landfill, isn't it?)

Since then, I've been living without a dresser. I've shopped around, but everything was super expensive, cheaply made, or not my style. For a while, my temporary solution was to use a plastic set of drawers that I bought on sale at Target. I don't like bringing more plastic furniture into my home. It's not attractive; you can't recycle it; it always breaks; the potential bad effects of the off-gassing make me nervous; and it's made from petroleum. But, one night just after I got my new job, I was so frustrated by my lack of storage space and the complete absence of drawers in my life, that I drove down to Target and bought the drawers.

Meanwhile, I continued to troll Salvation Army, yard sales, and other sources of inexpensive furniture with no luck. Finally, I asked a friend who used to buy, refurbish, and sell furniture where she might go for an affordable, attractive dresser and she sent me to the antique shops on Market Street (in Northampton, MA).

I had a great time shopping, so on its own it was a good, affordable way to spend time, but it also turned out to be an excellent source of quality used furniture.

Before I went, I thought about what I'd like. I measured the spaces in my room where I wanted a dresser to fit. I wrote the measurements down and I brought along my tape measure and as much cash as I was willing to spend.

I found two dressers I liked in my price range at one store, but didn't buy them that day. I went home and mulled it over. It was clear that I wanted the larger of the two dressers for sure, so on Monday, I went back and made the purchase. Two friends went by the next day with their SUV and picked it up and delivered it for me.

A couple of weeks later, I realized that I was still thinking about the other dresser, the smaller of the two. I was also still using the plastic dresser because the first set of drawers wasn't quite big enough to hold everything. I also had an extra motivation: I wanted to clear out one of my closets for my boyfriend who's moving in next month. So, today on my lunch break, I decided to go back and get it. It was still there. I never seem to have the courage to dicker, although I think in general it's expected. But, when I went to pay, I took a deep breath and then asked the woman if they gave a discount for paying cash. She happily took off $4, about seven percent.

By paying cash I saved about seven percent, plus the interest I would have paid if I'd used a credit card.

Altogether, my purchases cost about $110. I have two beautiful, functional antique dressers and I love them.

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Free Stuff: o.b. tampons

Johnson and Johnson has set up a web site called mighty small where you can sign up to get a free sample pack of o.b. tampons along with an attractive little carrying case. You have to provide them with shipping information and an e-mail address, but you can opt out of receiving future e-mails and promotional material. You don't have to pay shipping. It takes 6-8 weeks for your sample to arrive.

I don't know how large the sample pack is or what the retail value of the case is, but o.b. tampons go for $5.91 plus shipping for a pack of 40 at Drugstore.com.

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Bankruptcy Advice

It's been a long time since I've contributed to my Thrift blog, and a lot has happened in the interim. I'll update you at some point, but for now, I wanted to share an e-mail I sent to the mother of a friend over the weekend. The mother, whom I'm very fond of, had written me for advice about bankruptcy, because her other daughter is planning to file. I'm sharing the e-mail here because I think it might be helpful to others. The names have been changed. **Please don't make a bankruptcy decision based solely on my advice. I am not an attorney and strongly urge you to consult one before making a decision this important.**

One thing to keep in mind if you find yourself considering bankruptcy: you are not alone. Personal bankruptcies are up nearly 50% this year. Collectively, Americans carry almost $980 billion in credit card debt. It's time for things to change.

Also, one thing I don't mention below is that I think it's possible that you may have to report the amount of debt discharged as income in the tax year in which it was discharged. This all depends on whether the creditors report it...and this is a matter for you, your accountant, and your attorney to sort out. The laws have changed since I filed, but this was the law when I went through it.

The attorney I mention below is Denise Shear of the Ostrander Law Office in Northampton, MA. If you are in Western Mass. and need a bankruptcy attorney, I can't recommend her highly enough.
Here's my e-mail:

Hi, Mary,

I'm so sorry to hear that Julia is in this bind, but I'm so glad
that she has the courage to make the right decision for herself.

My parents are visiting for the weekend, so I don't have a lot of
time, but wanted to get some thoughts down to you quickly. (There's
actually a lot here. Once I started, I couldn't stop!)

I filed before the laws changed, so some of what I know may not be
applicable, but most of it will be, I think.

I can say, right off the bat, that it's important to find a good
lawyer. And by good, I mean affordable, knowledgeable, and kind. My
lawyer was crucial to making my bankruptcy bearable. The hardest part
is the shame and guilt. She helped me to see that that wasn't
necessary or helpful. She cost $1009 and that was payable up front.

My attorney practices in Mass. and I think Julia is in California,
right? If Julia would like to contact her she may be able to
provide her with a good referral. I also have some attorney friends
with California connections who might be able to help. Just let me
know.

My second piece of quick, major advice, apart from forgiving herself
and getting a good attorney, is to open a new credit card before her
debts are discharged, if she can. This will give her a new line of
credit that can a) help her in an emergency in the next two years when
it will be hard to get a card and b) help her re-build her credit.

When she goes through bankruptcy, she will choose which creditors to
include. If she has a card with a zero balance, she should NOT include
it. Her rate will likely skyrocket, but the card should still stay
active, and this will be a vital part of recovery for her.

My attorney advised me to stop making payments on my cards as soon as
I knew I'd file for bankruptcy. I don't know if this is still an
advisable practice--and I think in the end it did more damage to my
credit history...but she should ask her attorney about this. If she's
already fallen behind in her payments, then it's a moot point.

I was careful to always pay my rent and my utilities, no matter what,
even if I had to use credit cards. This is wise because it will make
it easier to get apartments and utilities after the bankruptcy. I
would advise using her cards to pay these things off before the
bankruptcy, but again, she may want to ask an attorney if this is her
situation and is advisable.

I would also want to make sure that she understands that student loans
and back taxes can never be forgiven. If her debt is largely made up
of these things, it may not be the right choice for her to file
bankruptcy. These things will follow her to her grave.

also, if she has an IRA, she should NOT touch it. She is allowed to
protect up to $10,000 of her own assets, I think, and she should
absolutely NOT drain an IRA to pay for credit cards, particularly if
she's filing bankruptcy.

One important to statistic to keep in mind: more than half of all
people who file bankruptcy once, file twice. I know that Julia does
NOT want to be in that category. The reason this happens is that
whatever was wrong in a person's life the first time--if it doesn't
get fixed, it'll just keep happening. Especially since now they are
burdened with shame and a bad credit score.

Whatever has been the cause of her insolvency, she needs to face it.
No matter how hard it is. If she has health issues, depression, career
confusion. If it is the result of a bad relationship or reckless
spending--whatever is at the heart of the problem needs loving, brave,
honest attention.

I would recommend any and all of Suze Orman's books. Most importantly,
"Young, Fabulous, and Broke," which will give easy-to-digest practical
advice. I think she should immediately read that and either "Money and
Women" or "The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom" (or all three).

What she needs is a way to understand her relationship to money so
that she can get herself back on track. These books will help her to
understand her self and they will also help her to craft a realistic
budget and make a plan for moving forward, with or without bankruptcy.

Before the bankruptcy, she should do some practical things. She should
take care of anything and everything she can that she will need that
depends on a good credit score.

So, apart from getting a new credit card with zero balance, she should
get herself some health insurance. (I think Alice mentioned that
Julia didn't have any and is self-employed?) If she is going to
stay in California, then she has lots of affordable options. It will
be easier to get health insurance without a bankruptcy on her record.
And it will be easier to avoid future financial disaster if you have
insurance, and also it is an important step towards taking good care
of yourself, to invest in health insurance.

I suggest she start here:
https://www.blueshieldcaplans.com/(ykulyw45h25qigvz41ttxxvb)/default2.aspx?marketcode=00000203MC

Second, she should sort out her living arrangements. If she needs to
rent a room or get a new apartment, she should try to do that BEFORE
her debts are discharged. Same with a car. She will not be able to get
an auto loan for some time after the bankruptcy. (She may not be able
to get one now...but if she depends on having a vehicle, she should at
least consider her options.)

She should also come up with a solid plan for how she will live after
the bankruptcy. If she has been meeting her basic living expenses by
borrowing, the she will have to have a way to live once her credit
cards or other creditors are gone.

She should also check her credit score and print out her full credit
report now. She should keep this on file and then check it once a year
to be sure that everything is in order, and hopefully to watch her
score climb.

Once her debts are discharged, her job will be to a) continue to be
kind and forgiving with herself b) live within her means c) establish
good credit and raise her credit score to 760.

She can establish good credit and raise her score to 760 by continuing
to make regular payments on debts that didn't go away (student loans,
taxes). And by making small purchases on that zero balance credit card
she kept and then paying it off EVERY month in full. This card is
never, ever to be used for things she cannot afford to pay off
immediately, unless there is a dire emergency.

Six months after the debts have been discharged, she should apply for
one new credit card. Never accept a card that requires an annual fee.
Every six months, she should apply for a new card, based on offers she
receives in the mail or offers she finds online, until finally she is
approved for a new one. No matter how high the interest rate, she
should take it, and use it for small monthly purchases--a tank of gas,
her cable bill, etc.

It's important to only apply for credit once every six months because
applying for credit LOWERS your credit score, and our goal here is to
get her score UP. it's a balancing act.

She should never close a card, no matter how high the interest. We
want her to have a good debt-to-income ratio. And we want her to have
a good available credit to debt ratio. So, for instance, a person with
$25,000 of available credit (on cards) who is carrying a balance of
$5,000 will have a better credit score than a person with no credit
cards or a person with one $500 credit card and a zero balance.

But, all that stuff will come later.

For now, it's important to make a wise decision about whether
bankruptcy is the right thing, and then proceed bravely, gently, and
responsibly.

So, quick review of the most essential things:

1) Forgive yourself.
2) Get a kind, affordable, knowledgeable attorney.
3) Do not touch your IRA
4) Do everything you can to make sure you have one credit card,
active, with a zero balance at the time your debts are discharged.
5) Remember that taxes and student loans cannot EVER be discharged.
6) Get Suze Orman's books, read them, and do the work.
7) The Orman books will help her to do the most important thing (after
forgiveness), which is to understand why it happened and how you will
keep it from happening again. If watching is easier for her than
reading, I think there may be Orman DVDs...or she also has a TV
show...but, really, the books are vital.
8) Get health insurance. Blue Cross Blue Shield of CA is good and has
affordable plans for individuals.
9) Get an apartment or a car or anything else you really need squared
away before the debts are discharged.
10) Make a solid plan for how you will meet your living expenses
without credit cards or other loans available to you. If she's
thinking of going back to school, for instance, it's important to
understand that even though student loans cannot be discharged by
bankruptcy, a bankruptcy can make you ineligible to get new student
loans. So, if her plan is to start fresh with graduate school and a
new career, she should find out if she'll be able to get the loans
BEFORE she files. I was prevented from going to law school for this
very reason.
11) Print out a full credit report and KEEP it on file. www.myfico.com
is a good place to go. Re-check it every year, but not too often.
Inquiries into your credit score lower your credit score.
12) Immediately after your debts are discharged, begin working on
re-establishing credit.

I'll end with some good news. Bankruptcy is not the end of the world.
In fact, if you truly are insolvent, it is the most caring,
responsible thing you can do for yourself. Get the load off. Start
(sort of) fresh.

In my case, I was able to re-establish my credit relatively quickly.
Within two years, my credit score was back above 700, I was able to
get a car loan when my truck died, and I have lots of revolving credit
available to me, some of it at 0%. And, some mortgage lenders won't
consider a bankruptcy against you as early as one year after your
debts are discharged.

oh--that's one more thing. there is a lapse in time (I think it might
be a couple of months?) from when you file to when your debts are
discharged. you won't be free (or a person saddled with a bankruptcy)
until the debts are actually discharged.

I would suggest getting caller ID, if she doesn't have it already
and/or changing her number because the creditors will call,
constantly, at all hours until the debts are discharged.

It took a lot of very hard, very difficult work to climb back up. And
I'm still working on it. But it is possible if you're committed.

It may also be possible for her to do something OTHER than bankruptcy.
As I said, if taxes or student loans are the biggest problem, don't
file. There are also ways to negotiate payment plans that involve debt
reduction. She may not need to pay back ALL of her debt. She should
start with the debt counselors at the National Foundation for Credit
Counseling. www.nfcc.org, 18003882227. If they think they can find a
way to get you out of debt in five years, they'll sign you up for a
repayment plan. It will be better--SO MUCH--better than bankruptcy and
will resolve the matter more quickly, actually, because bankruptcy
lasts for more than five years on your record.

She may also be able to negotiate directly with the card companies or
other creditors. Or, if it's possible to get the money from a family
member or other benefactor as a gift or loan, that would be
preferable.

She may also want to consider other drastic measures--like moving back
home, if that's an option, or leaving California (which is so darn
expensive). If she suffers through a year in CT (or Massachusetts
where the state gives you health insurance, for instance), and could
live for free or cheap, then she might actually be able to
realistically reduce her credit card debt substantially. For instance,
if she could live for free or really cheap and could devote 50% of her
income to paying down debts for one year, could she reduce the debts
by $15,000 maybe? that's great progress! and maybe realistic. I would
urge her to consider that.

I had absolutely no where to go and no one to help. If she has
somewhere to go and someone to help, she should strongly consider
that. If that option is absolutely unavailable or unacceptable, then
she can choose not to do it, and choose bankruptcy instead. But it
should just be an INFORMED choice.

The new bankruptcy laws are pretty vicious. So, this is NOT something
to enter into out of sheer desperation. It should be carefully
considered and she should get good advice from an attorney and from
the NFCC. (Although, I think the NFCC is funded by credit card
companies, so they have a vested interest in making sure they get
their money...)

If any of this doesn't make sense, or if there's anything else I can
do, please don't hesitate to ask!

I hope you and Victor are well. I'm so glad Julia has your support.

I haven't talked to Alice since the baby's surgery, but I'm thinking of
them constantly and hoping all is well. You must have been out of your
mind with worry.

Much love,

Naomi

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Friday, March 2, 2007

A Place to Call 'Home': 3.2.07

Since I became clear that my main focus--the thing I want most in the world--is a home of my own, I have learned and done the following things:

1) Checked my credit score. It's up 40 points since this time last year! This moves me into a whole new realm of lending rate possibilities! Combed over three credit reports from the three major companies that produce them to make sure the information was correct. Devised a strategy for raising that score even more in the next six months. (Seriously pay down balances, in part by borrowing money from my mom short-term at 0%; increase credit limits; don't apply for or open any new cards; continue to pay on time and pay more than minimum payments; don't use the cards for new purchases; transfer balances to lower rate cards whenever practical.)

2) Sat with a friend and looked on the Internet at every single available house we could find in Greenfield (half an hour north of here) as well as the ones near my price range in Northampton and other towns. Found one near my price range that I absolutely loved, but by the time I got up the courage to call a realtor, the listing had been removed.

3) Asked a homeowning friend if her home-improvement wiz partner would possibly help me in my search by doing some walkthroughs or helping to answer questions or talk to realtors and/or sellers.

4) Investigated options at the USDA. Their rural development office may just have a program that could assist someone like me. Requested information via e-mail, but was told it would be better to come in person.

5) Instituted a new spending policy and budget method. I have alotted $50/week for groceries and I do not go over this amount. I have allotted $30 per week for entertainment and I keep that cash in my wallet. I re-up on Wednesdays. I do not go over. It's tremendously satisfying to still have cash in my wallet at the end of the week. And it prevents me from making purchases because I have to think--do I really want this? This way, I only get the things I really do want. This week, I only was able to give myself $10 of entertainment money because I didn't earn enough to do more, but I spent less on groceries, so the combination of food and entertainment money seems to be happening sort of organically. I can make choices about how to re-allocate funds on an as needed basis, as long as I don't go over. For instance, there was plenty of food in the cupboards, so I had enough money to treat myself to take out food twice, a coffee, and a soda so far this week--entertainment expenses that came out of my grocery budget.

6) Began investigating alternatives to traditional homes. For example, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Perhaps buying land and building a home like one of these will be the answer. I'm also interested in looking into Cob houses, and found a woman who does how-to workshops. She doesn't have a web site, but you can e-mail her at amlywig@yahoo.com. (Her name is Amber DeVoss.) I haven't contacted her yet, but if I do, I'll post the results here.

7) Got some information about local resources, including a lead on classes for potential first-time hoembuyers; a recommendation for a good loan officer at a local bank; and the name of a local housing organization (HAP).

8) Created a notebook where I can take notes, keep track of ideas, and form a coherent plan.

9) Read part of a book for first-time homebuyers.

10) Pursued work with higher-paying clients; completed and invoice for work more quickly.

11) Was conscious of every purchase I made--from underwear to coffee to gas--in terms of my home ownership project. Every dollar I spend on something other than a home is a dollar I spend on something other than a home. It's okay to do this; I just want to be really aware of and satisfied by my choices as I go. I don't feel deprived. I feel excited and alive.

12) Created this category at my Thrift blog.

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A Place to Call 'Home'

My biggest thrifting accomplishment was my education. It took twenty years and I honestly don't even know how many thousands of dollars and (wo)man hours, but in 2004, I paid off my last student loan and at last—thank god, almighty—I was free at last.

I say it took twenty years because I was 14 when my mother told me that I would be on my own when it came to paying for college. I started working immediately. Twenty years later I wrote the last check for my student loans, and my priceless ($125,000+) Smith College education was finally paid for. Project complete.

Now, I have a new goal. I want to own a house. I want a home of my own. It seems far-fetched, overwhelming, virtually impossible, and very scary. Just like going to college once did.

I don't understand about mortgage rates or points or closing costs or how one goes about choosing a solid home for the best price. I don't know how to leverage my assets, few though they may be, in the most powerful way. Whenever I start to do research, I get lost amidst price tags and interest rates--fixed and variable--and percentage points swim before my eyes like the spots that burst in my vision just before I pass out.

I've tried researching programs for low-income people, for first-time homebuyers, rural folk. I've tried looking at mortgage calculators and talking to realtors. I've read books and pamphlets and web sites. But I always wind up feeling stonewalled. It's just too much intimidating information. So, I retreat and vow to try again when I have more money.

This happened to me again recently.

But a few things have happened to renew my determination that this can happen for me.

The first took place during an ordinary call to my younger brother (who, at the age of 31 has already owned two homes and is now building a third) to ask him a question about electricity. (He can fix, build, or figure out anything. He's a great resource.)

I didn't expect to find him at home because for the past few months, he's been spending every free minute working on his new house. But, lucky for me, he was home. (It turns out he only came home because he was vomiting at the job site due to a flu he denies that he has. My brother has a very high threshold for pain and suffering, mostly because he just refuses to acknowledge that it's happening.)

Anyway, I had a really good talk with him, and came away feeling a longing to be as fantastically committed to something as he is to this house. He's literally building it himself from the ground up, while also working a full-time job and making as much time as he can for his two children and his wife. He spent two weeks—his vacation time—putting on siding in the rain in near-freezing temperatures (remember, it was December in Maine) by himself. He's now doing the electrical and plumbing. His wife insulated the entire two-car garage herself. My brother says she's the hardest worker he knows. (She says she's learning a lot and that her husband is a stubborn ass.)

I am proud of his commitment and a little envious, I guess, of the passion it takes to commit to something so fully. It's been a really long time since I did that, since I willed something incredible into being, since I gave every crazy ounce of myself to make a dream come true. I did it with college. I did it with my book. I did it with Sister Spit. I did it with moving across the country—and back again. But aside from college, none of those things really gratified me the way I'd hoped. And now I'm getting timid in my old age. It's harder to pick a project to commit to. It's as though I'm less willing to jump off a cliff because I'm aware there's a small chance I might not fly; or perhaps I'm just doubting that I really do want to fly. Either way, it results in a lack of momentum that keeps me stranded, marooned in an apartment I don't love and can't afford, in a job I don't love (and can't afford), in a town I'm bored with, with a manuscript I never bothered to really send out, etc. etc. etc.

My talk with my brother inspired me. I decided to go for a walk, get some exercise, clear my head. My mom called just as I was leaving, so I called her from my (free) cell phone and talked to her about home buying. I asked her some questions about how she managed to do it on less money than I make. It turns out that she bought a very inexpensive house and put no money down. That's easier to do in Maine. I had hoped that she used a more helpful magic bullet—some government program or way of working the numbers that somehow would allow a low-income person to afford a $150,000 home—the bottom of the scale in Massachusetts. But, 'twas not the case.

My problem is that I have a down payment, but my annual income is too low to afford the mortgage on even the smallest homes in this area. Plus, I went through a bankruptcy, so my credit score isn't as high as it used to be. It would seem that I either need to make more, save enough to make a larger down payment, or move someplace where homes are more affordable. None of these things are easy for me to do. They each involve drastic changes and an extensive series of decisions all hinged together to make what feels like a very complicated labyrinth of choices.

Nevertheless, I came home from my walk and checked online again at the MLS database to see what was out there in what I think is my price range. I was disheartened by the rundown homes in rural locations that my meager budget could afford. I also visited the web site of a local bank that I trust and used an online calculator to figure out how much I would likely be approved for. According to the calculator, I could afford to buy a house for $68,953. Egad. That wouldn't even cover a mobile home.

As I sat musing about the futility of my situation, a little memory started to wriggle around in the back of my mind. Amy Dacyczyn, The Frugal Zealot herself, my first and best thrifting hero. I remembered seeing her on the Phil Donahue show when I was younger. She told a story about how she was able to buy a farmhouse in her (and my) home state of Maine on just one small income with two adults and four kids to feed, cloth, keep healthy, and entertain.

So, I searched on the web and found an article Amy had written, that told that same story. As I read it, I felt revitalized, re-committed. I remembered, then, what I had accomplished with college. When I was fourteen, I was in a much worse situation than I am now, with more daunting odds and fewer resources, but I made that education happen. I figured out all of the myriad things a kid needs to know in order to apply to (what's an SAT?), get into, transport oneself to, and pay for a top-notch college education. In fact, the cost of the education was almost the same as the home I want to buy. It was not too much for me to dream of—and fully believe in—my right to that education. While there may not be any merit- or need-based scholarship or grant aid for potential homebuyers out there, there must be a way to make this work. I have to infuse myself with that same focused determination that I put toward school--and that my brother is putting toward his home--if I'm going to make this happen. If Amy could do it, I can do it; if Lucas can do it, I can at least (galdang) try.

I think that in order to make it happen, I have to commit myself to it as fully as I committed myself to the college education project. I have to know what I want and settle for nothing else. I'm thinking that if I declare it here, publicly, and keep you posted about my progress, then my dream of owning the perfect home (for me) will be more likely to come true. And perhaps my journey to home ownership will help others to achieve it as well.

Consider this my official declaration: I want a home I can afford, someplace quiet, not too far from Northampton (or perhaps someplace else in the country that I can equally enjoy) with room for a garden and animals, and lots of sunlight, especially in the kitchen. I want a home with a pool or on the water, that is affordable to heat (and cool) and comfortable to live in for me and my friends and family who will come to visit. I want to have the potential to live off the grid, to grow my own food and make all the power I need to use. There will be fresh, clean air. And, more than anything, I want a place I can call home, that will not be too difficult to pay for. I want to stop being frightened all the time that my home will go away. I want to be solid. I want my home to be my own for as long as I want it to be.

Buy Amy Dacyczyn's book.

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