Saturday, January 6, 2007

Thrift: Great Find

Every summer, the Hospice Thrift Store in Northampton has a bag sale to clear out its inventory. This year, I got two vintage dresses, a pair of shoes, two sweaters, two pairs of pants, a night gown, a blouse, five bras, a nightgown for my niece, a book for my friend Jemma, some ribbon, and an assortment of sewing supplies. Had I paid full-price at the thrift store for them, they would have cost $48.50. I paid $6.00 for the whole bag.

Four months later, I can report that I've worn almost everyhing I purchased at the sale repeatedly. The shoes are cute and fit great. One of the vintage dresses is just waiting for the perfect opportunity to come out and show its stuff. And for a while I was wearing the nightgown every night. It was definitely money well spent.

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Food Budgets

In order to understand exactly how much I spend on grocery bills, I started keeping track of my receipts. The system is simple. I taped a blank sheet of paper inside a convenient cupboard door. Whenever I bring home groceries, I make a note of how much I spent, where, and when. About every three months, the sheet gets full and I tally it up and keep a running average in an Excel spreadsheet.

Because I don't want to take the time to itemize the bills, my food budget actually includes all items bought at the grocery store, including things such as razor blades and cleaning supplies. As of the end of 2006, I've managed to get it down to an average of $128/month. And I almost never eat out, so that pretty much constitutes my entire food bill for the month.

Part of the reason I can keep it so low is that I belong to a CSA farm, so for half the year, I get lots of fresh veggies that are dramatically lower-priced than they would be at the store. I also eat a lot of meals at home, always eat the leftovers, buy limited quantities of fresh foods so that they don't go bad before I can eat them (i hate that!), and I try really hard to plan ahead, so that I only buy what I'll actually eat. I also keep a good stock of emergency foods on hand, so that when sick, tired, or in a rush, I can feed myself without having to resort to take-out or some other pricey alternative.

There's also a store in Northampton called Deals N Steals where I can get great prices on organic and natural food products that are usually 25% more expensive if bought in a regular grocery store.

Trader Joe's also contributes to the affordability of my grocery bill.

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Affordable Solutions: Cord Clutter

Problem: Masses of tangled cords; long expanses of dangling cords; etc.

Pricey Solution: Cord containment products ranging from $15 and up.

Thrift Solution: garbage or bread bag ties; OxoGoodGrips Cord & Cable Clips ($6 for 4, plus shipping); rubber bands.

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Good Deal/Gift Idea

Among my favorite magazines is BUST. It costs $19.95 per year for a six-issue subscription. Which isn't any kind of great deal, BUT, every winter, they offer a two-for-one subscription offer. So, if you subscribe for a year, when you renew, you and a friend can split the subscription and only pay $10 each for your very own year of BUST. Or, you can give a subscription as a gift, which I do every year.

BUST is a fun, indie, feminist magazine that screens its advertisers, which I really love.

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Know Where Your Money Goes

I confess: I don't balance my checkbook. I know I should; I know it would be the smart, responsible thing to do. I used to, years ago, when I was sixteen and had my very first checking account. But times were simpler than. There were no ATM cards, no direct deposits, no freelance accounts receivable or online banking or auto-debit bill pay systems. I've made valiant efforts over the years to balance my checkbook, but it never sticks. And once I'm behind, it just seems like a hopeless task to try to sort it all out.

If you're like me and can't bring yourself to deal with balancing that bottom line each month, take heart. Don't bury your head in the sand, just because you can't face up to the debits and credits and checks outstanding on your statement. Shame often keeps us from doing good things for ourselves. And while it may seem like a little thing, many of us are ashamed that we don't do a better job of balancing our books.

If you--like me--just CAN'T, then find something that DOES work for you, that serves the same purpose. Make sure you open your statement every month, for instance, and skim it for things that seem out of whack. Are there fees you didn't expect? Did your paycheck go through? Are there any charges you don't remember making?

And be sure to keep a rough idea of your balance. Check it online or over the phone or at the ATM, and maintain as much of a buffer as possible. Don't rely on overdraft protection to save you--it frequently comes with devastating charges.

You may not balance your checkbook to the penny, but by keeping an eye on it, you will be more active and alert about your finances, and less likely to bounce checks or make purchases you can't really afford.

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The Value of L.L. Bean

I'm from Maine, so perhaps I'm biased, but I love L.L. Bean. They make merchandise that you know that you can count on. They take their lifetime guarantee very seriously, so even though their products often cost more than comparable alternatives, the investment in Bean's items is always worth it.

For example, in 1990, I was given an L.L. Bean backpack by my grandparents for my high school graduation. Four years later, I ran over it with my car (by accident) and the zipper burst. On my next trip home, I stopped in at Bean's and they replaced the backpack with no hassles whatsoever. I even got to choose a new color that I liked better.

Several years later, I upgraded to a larger backpack in a different color. (I can't remember what went wrong with it the second time.) I paid the difference in price between the two packs and have had that pack ever since.

I also own a collection of luggage-like duffel bags in assorted sizes and colors. After many, many trips across (and around) the country, one of them had worn a few holes in the bottom. Last week, I brought it back to LL Bean. I had no receipt and couldn't even remember when I bought it. They gave me a gift card for the full price of a new bag. I used that money ($61.75) towards the purchase of a new winter coat, which I got on sale for $69.99 (saving $30.00).

The coat was on sale as part of Bean's annual winter sale, which I highly recommend you check out. I also returned a pair of gloves I had bought a few weeks earlier, that were too small, and used that money toward a new nightgown, which was on sale.

All in all, I spent about $20 and came away with $140 in new merchandise--merchandise that is guaranteed to last a lifetime.

If you live within driving distance, shopping at the store is great. I always stop on my way to and/or from visiting my family in Maine. If you're shopping via catalog, I recommend using the Web site. There are always items being discontinued or put on sale for other reasons. For instance, I had been wanting a pair of rain boots, and I found them (a pair of colorful jodhpur Wellies) for 76% off last month. I used SmartPost to get free shipping, so for less than $10, I got a $50 pair of boots. And if I ever have any problem with them, LL Bean will replace or repair them for me.

Whenever I shop for outdoor apparel, I stop by LL Bean's site first. I often also start there when shopping for gifts. The free shipping is great--and there's no sales tax, unless you ship your item to someone in Maine. In the lefthand menu at the home page scroll down to Also From L.L. Bean. The first item in this section is Sale.
Since items are grouped by category, you can poke around pretty quickly and see if there's anything amazing on sale for yourself or someone for whom you are shopping. Over the years, I've gotten presents for my younger sister (who's 11), my niece, my nephew, my dad, my stepmother, my mom, and my brother.

If you shop at Bean's frequently, and are good at paying off your balance each month, I also recommend the L.L. Bean credit card. It has perks that really pay off if you shop there frequently.

Thrift recommendations are the result of my own personal experience and are not paid endorsements. For more on my recommendation policy, see this post.

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Get--and give--free books

My friend Naomi (hi, Naomi!) recently turned me on to BookCrossing. It's a non-profit endeavor designed to help spread the joy of reading. The basic idea is that people give books away and then track their progress around the world. I have registered several books that I will be "releasing into the wild" this weekend. Each book has a BCID that I've printed on a lable inside the front cover. I've written a little journal entry for each book, and then, as people find the books, hopefully they will read them, post their own journal entry, and then re-release them.

It serves several thrifty purposes, including two of my most favorite: free entertainment and clutter-clearing.

Commit random acts of literacy! Read & Release at

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