Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saving Money at the Holidays

It's no secret that the--well, "secret"-- to having more money is basically to earn more and spend less. But knowing this and doing this is very much like knowing the secret to weight loss is essentially to eat less and burn more calories. It's easy to comprehend the math; it's difficult to figure out how to change your life in order to incorporate it. Our American lives have so much capitalist momentum--so much STUFF--and we've developed such bad habits, with both food and money, that stopping ourselves and making changes feels a lot like trying to stop a supertanker going full tilt at an iceberg.

The secret, by the way, to saving the Titanic was to accelerate, not slow down. The oceanliner couldn't stop in time to avoid the iceberg. What Captain Smith needed--apart from heeding the iceberg warnings in the first place--was to accelerate in order to fuel the powerful turn that was needed. It's against our instinct, though, to step on the gas when headed for a crisis. So, of course, he ordered the opposite of what was needed, and the ship slowed down, couldn't turn fast enough, and it grazed the iceberg all along the side of its hull--a fate more deadly that if it had simply hit the thing head-on, it would seem. Well, you know the rest.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. Mostly.

Where am I going with all of this? I'm going to Christmas. Or, to other holidays, if you celebrate them at this time of year and if they tend to wear you out and cost you lots.

Reduce, re-use, recycle

I just finished wrapping what I think is my last Christmas gift of the season. I may still have one more to go, depending on whether we can find the wireless doorbell my brother and sister-in-law are hoping for.

I'm the world's worst wrapper, I confess. But all of the gifts are wrapped, labeled, and some of them even have lovely bows. And I wrapped them all--about 20 gifts in total--without purchasing a single ribbon, bow, or sheet of paper this year.

Every year, I carefully unwrap and save paper when possible--at all occasions--and I gather up and save bows, ribbons, and gift bags. I also planned ahead and bought six rolls of wrapping paper 75% off on clearance after Christmas last year. This allowed me to get away with not spending a single penny on wrapping this season. And, I still have four and a half rolls left for next year.

I made a point of buying some paper last season that was not exclusively seasonal--silver with polka dots for instance and red and white striped and solid green. I used these throughout the year for birthday gifts and other presents and they worked just fine. So, my total wrapping costs this year? About $2.00, if you count what I invested in paper at the end of last season.

Do you gift wrap?

This question is one of the best ones you can ask this time of year.

"Do you gift wrap?" And "Is it free?" come out of my mouth at any retailer where this seems even remotely likely.

It turns out that a surprising number of stores offer free gift-wrapping, but it's been my experience that almost none of them advertise it.

I got free gift bags with tissue for two gifts I purchased at Silkweeds in Bucksport. I also got gifts wrapped at A Different Drummer's Kitchen in Northampton. Ten Thousand Villages will give you free gift boxes with informative inserts, if you ask. Barnes and Noble also gift wraps, I think.

Set limits and stick to them

Rather than going pell-mell at Christmas, take a firm and reasoned approach. When I spoke about accelerating in a crisis, I did not mean you should accelerate your spending.

It may be too late now, but whether it's this year or next, before you buy one single, solitary gift, figure out what you can really spend. This should be your first step, always. Proceed from there.

Don't think about what others will spend on you. Don't think about what you wish you could give, or--God forbid--what you feel you should give. Don't let guilt guide you. Think about what you honest-to-god can afford to buy, in cash, right now, for Christmas.

I am hear to tell you that it IS possible to buy or make wonderful Christmas presents without breaking your bank.

Finding good deals

I always seem to manage somehow to get by at Christmas and stick to my budget. In the years when I was really broke, it made me super-sad and super stressed out to try and find gifts for measly amounts. Now, I have slightly more freedom, which really does help. Nevertheless, it is possible to spend as little as $5 or $10 and get a nice gift--and by nice, I mean one that will make the recipient happy.

A few tips:
  1. Start early. Start planning, searching, thinking, researching, saving, and hording gifts as early as September.
  2. Pay attention. If you are a true thrifter, you spend time at discount department stores, thrift stores, yard sales, and the like. Pay attention all year round and you can pick up things that will be beloved by your Christmas gift recipients, but that would be hard to find for such a low price on short notice. Store them someplace safe. If you pay attention to prices and what you can usually find on sale, then when it comes time to buy later in the year, you'll know how much a digital picture frame or your mother's favorite candy usually costs and you won't be taken in by hyped up sales. You'll know a good value when you see one. Last, but not least, pay attention to the people in your life and notice what they really want. This year my boyfriend is unemployed again. Last year, I showered him with gifts thinking it would cheer him up. And he liked them and was sweet about it. But this year, he let slip that Christmas sucks when you're poor. I know this all too well, but I couldn't resist the urge to give last year. This year, I realized that it made him feel crummy that he wasn't able to match my gift-giving. So, this year, even though I wanted to give him the moon, I spent only a fraction of what I spent last year. I got him a few gifts that I know he'll love and spent only about $30. My biggest gift to him was to resist the urge to give. I also paid attention when my stepmother started saying a few years ago that she just can't stand the idea of having any more stuff. For her, gift certificates, edibles (or drinkables), or experiences are much better gifts than another sweater or pair of earrings.
  3. Do due diligence. Don't buy anything unless you're sure it's a good deal. Make sure you know return policies and warranty information where applicable. Research all purchases online to see if you really are getting the best deal. Googling the product name will get you started. You can also go directly to the retailers you'd be likely to buy from. And shopping bots, such as MySimon.com and PriceGrabber.com, are also useful tools.
  4. Use Half.com. I've come to rely on Half.com, which is now owned by eBay, for books and DVDs. You can find new or gently used copies of books, CDs, and DVDs for as much as--and sometimes more than--half off the retail price. I bought my mother a cookbook, for instance. And I bought myself Seasons 1 and 2 of Futurama. All together, I saved about $50 combined just on these three purchases by using Half.com. Just keep in mind that unless you pay for a shipping upgrade, it could take as long as three weeks for your item to arrive. And be sure to read the comments and check up on your seller's feedback--and ask questions if you have them--before you buy.
  5. Look for free shipping--and also beware of it. When shopping online, I have a firm policy never to pay for shipping. Every now and again I make an exception, but in general, if I can't get free shipping, I won't buy online. Lots of times, though, the free shipping depends on consumers spending a specific dollar amount, usually $50, $75, or $100. Be sure to calculate the cost of shipping into any product research you do online. And really think carefully about spending up in order to get the free shipping deal. I recently spent $19 on a candle so that I could get free shipping from Aveda.com. There was an item I wanted there, very badly, that I could have ordered through my local Aveda salon without paying shipping, but for some reason I was so intoxicated by the instant gratification of it showing up at my door without my having to drive almost an hour round-trip to the salon, that I went ahead and spent up in order to get the free shipping. It seemed to make sense at the time. Rather than paying $8 for shipping, I paid $19 for a small (and lovely) candle. And I also got a free sample. It wasn't the thriftiest choice, but in terms of quality of life, it worked for me. I didn't have to call the salon to make the order and I didn't have to drive 45 minutes to get it. I regret having paid $19 for a candle--that's just absurd--but I don't regret taking care of myself. I love the scent of the candle. I burn it during meditation and yoga every day. And I'm glad I didn't have to go to the salon. In the math that is thrift, QOL is always the dominant variable.
  6. Employ coupons and leverage sales. If you have paid attention and planned ahead, you can really make smart choices and get good deals. Let's use yesterday as an example. Because I have been paying attention to digital picture frames for a year, and because I researched online, and because I knew there was a sale at RadioShack, yesterday I got a good deal on a frame. Regularly $79.99, I got it for $49.99. I also got a phone on clearance. We've needed one for months, but I waited until I could get the exact right deal on the one I wanted. Replacing the whole phone was cheaper than buying new batteries. I also got a compact flash card reader for a fair price because ours has stopped working in my computer and I need to figure out if it's the USB port or the device. I then went to a kitchen supply store and bought three items, all of which I'd researched. One of them was a very fancy blender, which I had spent hours researching online and in-person at the gourmet store. Because I'd done so much research and spent so much time contemplating the purchase, I knew I was ready and that this was the right one at the right price. I could have saved $15 and gotten one online using a coupon at Macy's, but (I hate Macy's for this!) the Macy's site was not clear about the product model number and getting help was difficult. So, in the end, I spent more money, but put that money into the local economy and was certain that I'd gotten exactly what I wanted--which I couldn't do at Macys.com. I got free gift-wrapping on all three items that I bought, and while they were wrapping, I picked up dinner at our favorite (very affordable) Mexican place--and saved 10% using a coupon.

An alternative to Christmas

I'll say more about this in another post, but I also want to mention that the bloated and frenzied spending ritual that has become Christmas is not really what Christmas is all about--you do have alternatives.

If you are a practicing Christian, perhaps it's time to turn Christmas into a more spiritually-based event? Scale back the buying and spending and invest in service, charitable giving, church attendance, or other forms of worship and observance. Establish new rituals--light of candles, eat special (biblically traditional?) foods, spend time with your family reading the story of Christmas, singing, or making themed arts and crafts.

If, like my family, you are not Christians, or not practicing Christians, you might do what we do. For myself, I celebrate the solstice. I conduct a pagan spiritual ritual and host a gathering for friends where I serve traditional food and drink (such as glog). The focus of the event is an appreciation of darkness and a celebration of light. It's beautiful and costs next to nothing.

With my family on my mother's side, we have the Annual Family Winter Games. My mother hosts--on any day other than December 25th. We gather to eat and drink together and compete in a series of clever games and projects that my very creative mother devises. There are scavenger hunts, craft projects, riddles, puzzles, and an amazing assortment of contests appropriate for almost all ages. We exchange small gifts and there are also lots of little prizes for the winner of each game. (I hope to write more about these alternatives to spend-heavy Christmases in a future post.)

Iceberg dead ahead

The Titanic sank--and most of its passengers and crew perished--because of the greed and hubris of its makers and its captain. It's time for American consumers to remember that we are the captains of our own financial ships. We do not have to cave in to pressure to behave recklessly. We can stock our ship with plenty of lifeboats and we can chart a course through dangerous waters that will allow us to reach our destination safely.

And we can start with our approach to Christmas.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

My Favorite Things

If I were a billionaire talk show hostess, this season I would offer my audience the following things:

1) LL Bean Holiday Flannel Pants ($29.50). These pajama bottoms are so comfy and scrumptious I literally have worn them every day since I brought them home from the store.

2) BUST magazine ($19.95/year). Feminism, fashion, crafts, smart writing, independent artists--even the ads are great.

3) Burt's Bees Radiance Night Creme ($15/2 oz). It's gooey and delicious--and natural enough to eat. I apply it every night at bedtime and I think my skin is better for it.

4) Earth shoes. In vegan and non-vegan varieties, mine are funky little Mary Jane alternatives that are cute, comfy and feature Earth Shoe's inverted heel (which is hard to get used to, but is supposed to be really good for you.) They don't seem to sell mine any more, so I would give my audience these ($119), the next closest thing.

5) Lexie Barnes totes ($130). Sturdy comfortable straps, striking fabric pattern, water-resistant taffeta, deep, spacious, belly lined with pink! I LOVE my Lexie Barnes tote. I want a hundred more, but they don't make them like this any more. Next best thing--maybe even better, I don't know: The Lady B.

6) Netflix Player by Roku ($99). Oh, Netflix Player, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. If you love Netflix and have a broadband Internet connection at home (and, ideally, 802.11n Wi-Fi), run out and get this NOW. Read my full review here.

7) Futurama, Vol 1 ($39.98). Every season is great, but the first one is maybe my favorite. At any rate, it's a great place to start. Studio audience: enjoy.

8) Canvas Panels (45 cents) and paints ($3.78 each). One of the best things I did all year was paint a picture at Anna and Heidi's east coast wedding reception. I want to supply myself and paint some more. I haven't done it yet, so I don't know which paints or panels are best yet, but the experience was so great, I'd rather give my audience these to get started--and then maybe by next year, I'll have a favorite brand, color, or type of paint to share.

9) Harry Potter books on CD ($454.75). The entire collection, unabridged. Even though the reader mispronounces "Voldemort," it's still fantastic to listen to these books on CD, especially on long road trips.

10) Mead Five Star 2 Subject notebooks ($4.89). My favorite notebook to journal or write in. I'm currently writing a novel by hand in them. Hopefully my audience will love them as much as I do!

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