March 30, 2009

Broke as Character Test, or Truth Serum?

"A Cold Season in the Hamptons," so led off the New York Times article of rueing owners and their cooling real estate values in the area very near the town Business Week recently reported to be the nation's richest: Brookville, New York.

Well this line in the aforementioned article certainly caught my attention:

"Prices were propelled upward by a tautological justification: if you were rich enough to buy in the Hamptons, you were, by definition, a superior judge of the market."

Huh? That line disgusts me more than anything I have read in a long time. My dear reader, I say emphatically and passionately: Rich and stupid are NOT mutually exclusive character descriptors. In fact, in my experience, I've often seen such adjectives accurately strung across the same person.


Second thought: When things go sour is when you find out the truth about someone. It's not when fortunes are high, the sky is blue, hopes are coming to fruition, and you are livin' large that you get to know the truth about those with whom you are in relationship. (Includes relationship with yourself.)

I read the story of a family whose home was heavily damaged by multiple sprays of a skunk that was sort of trapped and burrowed under their house. It took two years to gut and essentially rebuild the house, making it liveable and ready for the family to return. Meanwhile, the stress helped to fatally fracture the marriage. Six family members moved out; two years later, only two returned to the five-bedroom home.

Whether it is your spouse, neighbor, office mate, or junior's baseball coach, when things go badly, true natures cannot help but be revealed. Like a ferocious wind, a Katrina-strong force, ripping away the facade, true colors come forth.

Hmmm... in this way, "broke" might act as a worthy threshold or test run for a relationship. Yeah, there is an upside here...

March 27, 2009

Money Diary

Financial Observation 1: Google Saves Money in the Kitchen

I throw away far too much food—which often spoils because I forget I have it or I do not know what to prepare with it. Had buttermilk that I'd bought for some (now forgotten reason) that was still fresh; decided to use it up. Incorporated my new favorite cooking utensil, which is already saving me major $$$ by using perfectly good food before it spoils. That is: Google.

I do not enjoy cooking; I am not a great cook. I don't know which of those came first. But for the last year, my new successful kitchen trick is to input ingredients found in my cupboards in a Google search, and hoping a decent and doable recipe will appear. It nearly always works.

So I printed the very first recipe that appeared under "buttermilk" and "muffins." and voilà, soon had a batch of tasty orange-rind buttermilk blueberry muffins.

Financial Observation 2: Getting a 12" Sandwich for $5.00 is Not a Better Value than Getting a 6' Sandwich for $4.00

My mother and I went to a sandwich shop today to get lunch for her twin sister who is recovering from surgery. The plan was we would bring lunch and enjoy it with her. I ordered two subs, because there would be four of us and we would split them in two. The store associate said, "Do you want the foot-long? It's only $1 more and you get twice as much." "Sure," I said. That was smart—get twice as much sandwich for $5 as you would have for $4?

Wrong. We only ate half of the two foot-long sandwiches. The other six-inch tuna and six-inch turkey are in the refrigerator tonight and quite soggy by now. (They didn't taste so good in the first place.) I'm guessing we'll throw them out tomorrow.

Financial Observation 3: Look, Notice, Ask

Parched with thirst and 15 miles from home, I stopped at McDonald's for a medium Diet Coke. (I know, that is not an antidote to thirst, and is actually a dehydrative entity, but tell my body that on a warm March afternoon). The prices were like: Small: $0.99; Medium: $1.39; Large $1.69. So I dug around for $1.39 plus a little, knowing tax in Michigan would be less than the Chicago rate of 10.25%.

The store associate asked me for $1.06. I said, "Shouldn't I be paying you more? I ordered the medium, that is a buck thirty-nine."

"All sizes are the same price, ninety-nine cents," she said.

"Ooh," I said, "Then is it not too late for me to order a large?" And put my change back to recount $1.06.

"Of course not," she answered.


Think I'm crazy? You might be right. But I have this idea that teeny tiny financial observations; cognizance about coins, all this stuff adds up to a data input that helps your decision out-put when it comes to the big money things. Like mortgage planning and strategy, investment choices, etc. Think I'm right about this? Or totally cooked? I'd like to know what you think. I already know that a few friends of mine believe I am nuts to think this way—Shirley is one (she is a banker friend I have not seen since she relocated to Florida, but used to say that I still hung on to the first dollar I'd ever earned), and Bob, another (but I'll keep mute on Bob; he has his own highly odd fiscal idiosyncrasies).

March 26, 2009

Clothes and Morals

When one is broke, yet in pursuit of happiness, she tends to purchase more cheaply produced clothing and goods than when one is rich, in pursuit of happiness, and inclined to spend freely.

I went to a Wal-Mart yesterday to buy some tees. Yes, dear readers, I've moved from Bloomies to Wal-Mart for stocking wardrobe essentials without skipping a beat. I bought a few tees, noting they read "Made in India."

As I pulled on a shirt in the dressing room, I wondered about the girl who had sewn it. Was she young and forced into labor? Had she perhaps been raped and forced into a life of fear and servitude and given, like, stale bread for producing this? Do you think I am crazy to be imagining such things in the dressing room? I have never investigated the source of the things I buy, nor researched how to do that.

I started thinking that maybe I should not be buying this stuff. Especially after seeing Slumdog Millionaire. What about the stuff I buy that is made in Myanmar or China?

After coming home, I picked up the March 22 Parade newspaper magazine insert. Feature story: "The World's 10 Worst Dictators," which announced Nos. 4 and 6 are Than Shwe and Hu Jintao, of Myanmar and China, respectively. (Worst, China just edged out Japan as being my number one creditor. Speaking for my country, that is.)

Being a little bit or even a lot broke is an awful excuse for buying in a manner that supports immorality (or crime, slavery and poverty). But is buying something made super cheaply in another country supporting poverty-level wages?

I recently posted a Hall of Inspiration on my Facebook page of eight people who are my personal heros, beginning with John Woolman, a Quaker activist in the 1700s, to Denver Moore, a present-day 72-year-old and former Louisiana slave—during the 1960s!

A friend commented on my page, "Love your Hall of Inspiration. Now I know who John Woolman is." So I Googled to see what she may have discovered online. Indeed, I read that Woolman refused to wear colored clothing because, apparently, slaves were the producers of dye.

It would be awful to think that three centuries later, I might be joining the trend against that one little standard Woolman took. (Woolman did much more than wear beige clothing, by the way. The man has been called the father of the abolitionist movement.)

March 23, 2009

Juxtaposition

Another new (this one, a beautiful wood-paneled and modern) mansion going up in the neighborhood.

This one, across the street from a park where, just 80 yards from the front door of this single-family home I spotted a man sleeping on a bench at 7:10 this morning surrounded by a few bags that appeared to be his net assets.


March 17, 2009

Hiatus

Broke Girl is on hiatus until the flu passes. See you soon.

March 13, 2009

Money, Loss and Control

I mentioned that I locked myself out of my car for five hours last week.

I didn't mention how that scenario served as a little therapeutic help for a financially frenzied friend of mine.

I could have called a tow service for $55 to get me back in the car immediately. But I had an open schedule that day, the weather was sunny and warm, and so I opted for a free, but time-intensive alternative. (It is true, what they say, Time is money. I had the time, so chose not to spend the money.)

I took six subway trips. First to a girlfriend's Loop office at Major Multi-National Bank to retrieve her house keys. Then to her northside condo to let myself in, turn off alarm system, and rummage through the drawer where she kept a spare key to my house. Back to my house, where I've another car key, only to discover that hers was an old copy; my locks had since been re-keyed.

So took fourth trip to second friend's house where her au pair let me in and found that friend's spare key to my house. Trekked home, neither did it work, so took sixth subway ride back to my car.

Meantime, a friend who has suffered a series of business setbacks in the current economy called saying, "I heard you were locked out. Where is your car? I'm coming to help." At this point, I did have a solution, but it would be another two hours before that happened.

"Thanks, but you really do not have to do that. I've kind of got the situation resolved."

"No, no," my thoughtful friend said, "There is so little in my life now over which I have control. Your situation is bugging me, and this is one thing I could accomplish. It would do me well to fix something."

What a good friend. I was happy to oblige, and enjoyed the therapeutic effect myself when we finally heard the satisfying sound of that car door lock click open.

March 12, 2009

Phone revolution

Okay, well, maybe I spoke a tad too quickly. As I said, I haven't yet started up my new ALLVOI phone service because the equipment hasn't arrived.

I just read about the soon-to-be-released Google Voice, a revised version of GrandCentral, the phone manager service it acquired two years ago. I think I'll take a look at subscribing to Google Voice instead.

It could take a serious swipe at telephone companies, tech start ups and maybe even Skype. Although the latter has an enormous following and is hugely advanced in terms of video. For one thing, I'm not keen on being seen at my phone. Skype is perfect, of course, for my nephew, who lives on a different continent than his steady girlfriend. I have met her via his Skype conversations with her, so I certainly see the value. (And she is very pretty.)

VOIP Gets Cheaper, and I Get Smarter

Need to buy, rent or borrow? In a recession, everything's up for re-valuation. That's exactly what the stock market is—a re-valuation or re-pricing of the value of a company every day. And with the stock market valued lower, everything else might as well follow.

Which is why I cannot figure out why Vonage just increased my phone service cost by 20% effective April 1. To $29.63.

I have since discovered a newer, cheaper alternative, which, also being VOIP, will likely give me similarly reliable service. I signed on with ALLVOI.com.* After paying $47.48 for the equipment and getting free activation, the cost is $3.99 /month for the first six months and $6.99 /month thereafter. I can't yet speak to the service, since haven't received the equipment yet. (No contract; no cancellation fee.)

I also happened into a T-Mobile retail store last week where the sales associate quoted VOIP phone service at $10/month. Once taxes and fees are added in, I am sure it is still a decent savings over Vonage. Goodbye Vonage, hello ALLVOI.

You really have to keep up with communications service providers. One year ago I discovered that Vonage was billing me for a service that I did not use. AT&T also charged my dry loop DSL service for a speed that, as it turns out, they are entirely unable to deliver in my service area! So once I figured that out, I insisted they put a stop to that nonsense!

Net, I currently spend less for the same wireless, home phone and Internet connectivity than in the past. Here is the drop in my costs for equivalent services over two years:

Monthly exp, Feb 07: $ 150
Monthly exp, Jul 08: $ 140
Monthly exp, Dec 08: $ 115**
Monthly exp, Mar 09 : $ 95**

The drop in rates over time—with the same services, mind you—has always been a result of my reviewing bills, or calling to ask about what I am charged versus what I am actually being provided. I am getting smarter, or just paying better attention, I suppose.


*I, of course, have no relationship with ALLVOI other than that as a just-signed-on customer, and receive no advantage, discount or payment for naming the company on this blog.

**Sometime in 2008, I actually received more services for my expenditures, having added email and Internet connectivity to my iPhone—
an additional $20 /month, so the effective service cost reductions are actually closer to $95 and $75 for Dec 08 and Mar 09.

March 10, 2009

Who is Rich?

Went to cocktail party at quite possibly the swankiest estate I have set foot on. (Excepting that black-tie soirée I attended in the Throne Room of King George V's summer palace just outside Lisbon on the coast of Portugal, but that was years ago.) Anyway, when I drove up to the stone and iron-gated estate to roll down my window to inter-com the butler (well, the 16-year old son), it was clear this was a party waay beyond my normal Saturday night lounge-around in the city with friends.

Indeed, Broke Girl had a gay old time, knowing she enjoys her life and presumably suffers no more (and possibly less) angst than those recently-forcefully-but-happily retired-from-their-seven-figure-income investment-banking-gig partygoers who will never have to work another day even if the stock market continues to crumble, because they have so much cash.

All in a day... and I am pretty sure that I enjoy my days of cliff-hangingly broke nearly as much as they do theirs...of hiking Kilimanjaro, Everest, and perfecting their stroke (golf and swim), stance (snowboard), back-cast (flyfish) and backhand (tennis).

Okay, forgive that overwrought attempt. But I'm not sure what those people do other than have their nails buffed every three days and call their banker to check balances.

So what did I do today? My life consists much of hanging out with the dreadfully poor or disenchanted amongst us. So after Saturday night's soirée, I today hung out with my poor peeps.

I am the adoptive mother—so to speak—of a woman whom I'll call "W". She is indigent, but there are twenty other descriptors that better describe this scrappy survivor of a woman; having lived like nobody you'll ever know on the streets of Chicago for the past 30 of her 46 long years.

I am her court-appointed legal guardian, and that is a crazy, ten-volume story for the ages. That is—our 22-year friendship which led to a graying and very Irish-looking Cook County Circuit Court Judge peering over his glasses to nearly bellow at me one day last summer, "Well—what in the world would possibly compel you to want to be this woman's legal guardian. Do you have any idea what you are getting into?" Well, yes, because I have been getting into it for the last 22 years since I met W at a homeless shelter and she glommed on to me and I never let her go.

Anyhow, I don't think our relationship is so different from my relationships with the well-to-do folk at the Saturday night soirée in Barrington Hills. I think they are great and fun people, and über rich; my "adoptive" daughter W is convinced that I am great and fun and also über rich (because I have a house and a car and well, that just makes me wealthy beyond her wildest imagination).

She's sleeping tonight, by the way, either at one of the shelters in the Uptown neighborhood (if she can find one that hasn't permanently barred her), or on the Blue Line (she likes to go to O'Hare, and "watch them helicopters take off—whoooeeee!"). Those are jets, but I know better than to correct her.

So today I picked her up and took her to McDonald's for lunch. And yes, I let her pay for both of us out of her extremely meager funds!

Sometimes that is all it takes to feel rich.

March 9, 2009

A Pictorial, Last Week's Broke Girl Budget

"What Broke Girl did this week in pursuit of a smart, savvy, low-maintenance low-waste lifestyle." Or...

"Living Legally on the Lam: Broke Girl's Pursuit of a Low Cash-Consumption Lifestyle" Or...

"Getting to Overflow on a Trickle of Cash Flow: Life in the New Economy"

(I hate the words frugal, miserly, cheap...even thrifty, so am obliterating them from my vocabulary.) But anyway, here are some of my personal financial details of last week. Visuals included for those of you who process data like I.
  • Bought Burpee seeds ($4.52 + tax); will save money by sprouting and growing my own seedlings for May planting; Used Home Depot gift card from my sister-in-law for dogsitting last autumn.
  • Locked keys in car at 9:00 AM Friday; took six trips on the subway to retrieve house keys so could get car keys from home; that plan failed; friend successfully cracked into my car at 2:00 PM, saving $55.00 service station fee. I tipped $20, so had a sort of net savings of $35.00; Time lost: five hours riding subway train, tracking friends to whom I've given a spare house key. Regularly scheduled car maintenance later that day: $551.46. Ouch, but fair pay for fair work.
  • Went to Dominick's armed with coupons and snagged 1) a free 2-liter bottle 7-Up; 2) pound of unsalted butter for $0.99; Raisin Bran $0.99; the latter two for 75% under the posted price—a darn good take for $1.98 + tax.
  • Went to movie using my not-remotely exclusive membership in the Five Buck Club with Kerasotes Theatres, saving $5.75 off the ticket price of $10.75. Be smart like me, kids! Get your club card here. Zero threshold to join, no hazing, no kissing up the frat prez or paying dues or acting like you're all that.
  • Picked up a pick rubberized case for my iPhone for $1.00 at a dollar store; looks good as the one I saw an hour later at Target for $34.99.
  • Took friend on a sort of anthropological tour of ALDI—her first trip to my favorite grocery store. She's still employed with Major Multi-National Bank, but wanting to get a head start on learning the ropes for thriving in leaner times, if / when they occur.
  • As it happened, two friends treated me to dinner, and then I attended a very lovely Saturday evening soiree in the cloistered Barrington Hills, so pretty much all the weekend eatin and dinin was free. I just brought flowers for the hosts.
Clockwise from top left: pink rubber iPhone case, $1; Burpee seeds to make own seedlings, $4.52+tax; saw movie for $5, with Five Buck Club card—get one free, never pay full fare at Kerasotes Theatres; receipt for groceries from ALDI's, $5.44.

March 6, 2009

Your Own Worst Snitch

Some women are clever enough to get away with murder...until they are stupid enough to rat themselves out.

Men have an easier time getting away with murder. As for women—as we saw in the UCLA study I wrote about on Tuesday—when we are under stress, we do not flee like the guys do; we run, and toward our girlfriends. Where we talk it out.

Which is what a suburban Chicago self-proclaimed "high-powered and refined professional" did after she committed* the perfect calculated murder. Frankly, I thought she had some pretty good ideas: practicing at a local shooting range, the boyish disguise, complex plan of renting a car, placing stolen plates on the rental and replacing them after the murder, devising a home-made silencer, and placing the murder weapon in a bucket of wet cement before tossing in a south-side Chicago dumpster, never to be seen again.

No woman is going to shoot another pregnant woman (of whom she is crazy-jealous) seven times and not get a bit stressed over it. Soon as that happens, she is going to run to her girlfriend and be her own worst nightmare—and sing like a canary.

This past Sunday, Marni Yang met a girlfriend for dinner and detailed the October 2007 shooting over a bowl of soup.

"If she kept her mouth shut, we could have been listening to her for the next two weeks, two months or six months," (Deputy Police Chief) Wilk said.

Yes--women are drawn to connect, and thus are far less likely to get away with murder. Remember that.

☆☆☆
What in the world does this have to do with my life as Broke Girl? I dunno. But I have never wanted to kill another person. Never thought of it. I guess I'm appreciative of the bit of emotional and mental strength and health I do have whilst under the stress of being economically battered about. Personal disclosure: Yep, Broke Girl is still far too invested in equity markets (her 401k) and by now is feeling a bit too numb with uncertainty to pull the trigger, reducing her exposure.

Ah, but my future appears far more golden than supposed "refined professional" murderer girl. She should have read the UCLA study and realized that as a woman exposed to stress, she would never, ever be able to keep from spilling her vile secrets. That's why they call them laws of nature.

I said it Tuesday, and I'll say it again: Get out with your girlfriends. Sure, you're no murderer or criminal, but do it for your quality of life.

Yang's nature was such that she was fully incapable of succeeding at hiding her depraved plan which tore into all we hold dear—not to mention the 6th Biblical Commandment. This is a good thing—sort of an innate driver that was functioning properly within Yang's perverted being to smooth the jagged edges of injustice and ensure humankind would be best served by, in this case, her innate compulsion to tell all.

Our similar impulse is such that we gather with our best buddies (male and female alike) to smooth our own angst and economic fears, ensuring our ability to best serve our own circle of humankind—friends, husband, children, neighbors, the check-out clerk and the (well, for me), nice high school boy who wiped my car dry at the carwash today. We had a nice chat, and parted friends, actually.

☆☆☆
God bless us all this week. Dow currently at 6,594. And just weeks ago at a notch over 9,000, I said to self, "Broke Girl, you ought to let a few stocks go and reduce your risk exposure..." I did not.


*Allegedly. All of this is yet only alleged.

March 5, 2009

Haiku for the Times

Receding wealth...
barely employed slacker days,
ever persevering.

Recession, crisis—
deny to identify.
Love: ever hopeful.

Vocabulary:
crisis, afford, debt, casualty;
words not for my lips.

Bailout bombout.
Printing billions of dollars
'til there's no more ink.

Today's sad headline:
Fishermen Lost Hope to Sea;
One Survivor Didn't.


Spring, how I love thee!
Crocuses, tulips, blossoms all—
June: currency for my heart.

March 3, 2009

Men Fight and Flee; Women Tend and Befriend

This just in!

A UCLA study indicates women respond to stress very differently than men. Since testing of human response to stress has always been about men, this (finally) egalitarian study is uncovering all new findings.

Because women are not men.

Gail Berkowitz reported, "It's a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research... upside down." Didn't we know this already? I think you savvy readers already intuited these differences in stress response between the sexes in kindergarten.

Stress triggers one of two responses: a fight or a flight. But not so for the ladies. One of the reseachers, Laura Cousino Klein, PhD says when the stress-response hormone oxytocin is released in a woman, she is compelled to tend children and gather with other women. In this process of connecting and friending, oxytocin is released, creating a calming effect.

It does not work for men because testosterone buffers, whilst estrogen heightens the soothing effects of oxytocin.

So let's take this on home, broke girlfriends! Waste no time, ye financially frantic and frazzled. Get out and meet up with your gal pals, the perfect antidote to the fiscal stresses of our times…such as the all-new all-depressing low on the Dow yesterday to 6,763.

This explains my current social habits that revolve, planet-like, around the best women ever, including nine friends who have met twice monthly for years who share tales and woes, food and wine, love and loss, and who celebrate anything worthy. There is little in life that is better than that.

Anyway, should you need a reason to tell your husband or boyfriend you need a night out, share this study. Plus, think of your savings on anti-depressants and psychotherapists —and nicotine, alcohol, chocolate, Ho Ho's, or whatever your vice of choice.

I'm signing off with a feeling of gratitude to my dear and priceless friends. You know who you are. Like warm sun on spring plantings do our friendships thrive. Here's to you, C, B, D, E, G, J, K, L M, N, R and S. Well, goodness, let's just say from A to Z—and that would include my marvelous aunt Zita Amelia (real name).

To see more WFMW posts, click here.

March 1, 2009

Re-Use a Coffee Filter: How Far is Too Far?

I seriously did that this morning. I was looking forward to enjoying a new caramel-flavored coffee when I discovered I had no filters! I usually stock up before I run out, but have been brewing more coffee intra-day on these cold winter days. I had houseguests yesterday who rose before I did and kindly made coffee using the last filter, so I didn't realize I was out.

But it is snowing this morning, and I wanted coffee—now. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I rustled through the kitchen garbage and pulled out yesterday's coffee filter, untouched by discarded orange rinds. Rinsed out the grinds, which tore a hole in the bottom seam of the No. 4 filters. Stapled the hole shut, re-filled, and brewed away. (I'll make a stop at Trader Joe's en route home from church today to replenish. They've the best price for filters. I picked up the caramel coffee from Trader Joe's parent company—ALDI's, fyi.)


It worked; no grinds came through. But it reminded me of a tightwad tip I read in Amy Dacyczyn's book years ago that I actually considered trying on first thought (but not on second). Dacyczyn detailed how to save money by re-using a vaccuum cleaner bag. I'm thinking it is not worth the risk of an old bag bursting and damaging the motor / filter system of my vac. Plus in the emptying, I'd inhale all those dust mites.

It's good to be resourceful in a pinch, but craziness!? How far is too far? I could better spend my time watching my 401(k) investments go down the sinkhole than rustle through my garbage to save 3¢. Or is it in the saving of 3 or 4
¢ that I am sated with the sense that I do have control over some aspect of my finances? Nah, I haven't gone that far—yet.

I'd love to know the craziest money-saving thing you've tried and whether it backfired or succeeded. And
would you would do it again?

The snow flurries have picked up, and I'm gonna pour my second cup.


Afternoon update: Turns out the filters cost only 1.7 cents per. Although my Miele brand vac bags aren't cheap
about $3.50 each.