May 23, 2010

Self-interested cheapskates: an extremely brief history, 250 BC - 2010 AD

From Lottie Durling's journals, circa 1924 AD:

"[My husband] Harold put up ice in the winter, hauling it from Lime Lake for our family's use. Then folks began buying it from us. Blanche Wenig came on horseback and took it home in a sack. Eleven-year-old Ansel Fellows picked up a load with a one-horse wagon.

So Harold built an ice house and began delivering to nearby towns. Children would come to buy a few pennies’ worth. But there was an elderly couple in Fayette for which Harold felt sorry, because they seemed to have to be so tight with their little bits of money. He always give them a little more than they could pay for. Harold once mentioned this to our neighbor Merv Berlin who replied, “Don’t you know the Ackers have mortgages on most of our neighbors’ farms!?” 

Turned out to be true. The entire town was in hock to the Ackers, who, as mortgagees (but unlike 2010 AD holders of toxic CMOs*) held real, tangible, deliverable collateral.

Aaah, markets and finance vehicles -- so much simpler in those times, but the people behind them? Not much new. 
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." -- 250 BC**
* CMO = Collateralized Mortgage Obligation - Broke Girl's imprecise micro-definition: Mortgages smashed together into inedible mis-matched garbage-salads presented prettily on fine China (by self-important Wall Streeters in Armani) so as to appear as delectable cuisine.

[Note: CMOs, in and of themselves, are simply an object--a financial instrument allowing for convenient packaging and exchange of mortgages. Just like cash or stocks, or bonds, CMOs have no morality, rightness, or wrongness, goodness or badness. The bad rap, per my definition above, comes about by self-interested tactics that became commonplace in the oughts. Because Harry did it, it was okay for Marlene to do it.) Follow me?

** Biblical reference: Ecclesiastes 3:2

May 17, 2010

Thrift Stores R A Gold Mine

I have bought just about everything I could buy at thrift stores, excepting underpants. Example:

  • Facial tissue (unopened boxes of course)
  • Environmentally friendly indoor and exterior Halogen "flood" and "spotlight" bulbs
  • Hand-made stationery
  • Wine glasses
  • Shoes (since put a halt to this, deciding it wasn't good for my feet and bones)
  • Room-size wool rugs (2)
  • Brand new wooden porch swing
  • Caulk, bathroom towel rods
  • Espresso machine
  • Leather desk accessories
  • Fur-trimmed wool coats (2)
  • iPod dock / radio
  • Ion hairdryers 2)
  • Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer, new in box and wrapper

Things I've never purchased at a thrift store: live plants, food, toiletries, running shoes, my iPhone and MacBook Pro, a Sharpie, current calendars.

I'm thrilled to find I'm in fine company. That of Church Norris Mailer, author, sixth wife and now widow of Norman Mailer (who was 26 years her senior), step-mother and mother to nine.

She was profiled in the 4 April 2010 New York Times Magazine, and I was interested to discover that whilst meeting with the story's interviewer, Alex Witchel, she stopped into Housing Works, a thrift store she visits every week.

Stopping in the store re-energized Ms. Mailer, who has cancer.

"'They had nothing last week,' she said, whipping through the first rack...She found a copper-colored double strand of beads with crystals for $8. 'That's going home with me.' ...Was her Louis Vuitton bag real? 'Yeah, you've got to have one or two good things so no one knows you're wearing Housing Works.'"

One thrift store near my home has survived since the Great Depression. I walk by it daily, and for years thought it just a bunch of junk, never entering the store. It wasn't odiferous, but neither did it have that scent-sational effect you get when you step into an Origins store.

For every trip I've made to Bloomingdale's or Macy's in the last five years, I've probably gone into the two Salvation Army stores nearest me five times as frequently.

Truth is, Broke Girl really isn't broke, and that is one of several reasons why. She regularly collects gushy compliments from shopgirls the few times she goes into snobby boutiques--while wearing one of her two vintage, mint-condition, wool and mink-collared coats she's picked up for $25 and $35 each. She never reveals this to the shopgirls, of course, Let them surmise she inherited them, or picked them up at a Parisian flea market.

Tip of the Day:
Look for your nearest Goodwill store (got an extra wide ironing board I was not able to find anywhere else), Salvation Army Thrift Store (the $35 coat and brand-new Jack LaLanne Juicer), hospital thrift shop (new-in-box-and-wrapper espresso maker), generic thrift store (jigsaw puzzles for family holidays), or junk shop (primitive, carved single-piece wood that may have been used as coin drawer/ register in a general store), $10.00.  I think it's a totally beautiful decor item--one you'll never spot at Pottery Barn.

May 14, 2010

The film set that features you [WARNING: severe graphic]

I just read the following from an article by film producer Carolyn McCulley. Yes! just skipping about the Internets tonight I happened across this single, late-40s, "hottie" (as the kids are saying) and savvy writer, businesswoman, and film producer. I was so excited---someone with whom I fairly closely identified, knowing so few single, happy, healthy, girls-who-have-it-going-on, well-rounded businesswomen my age. McCulley writes:
"If you could make a film about Proverbs, it would make for a colorful film set. Boisterous, brazen harlots would roam the streets, looking for foolish young men. Sluggards would doze at tables, their hands still buried in a dish, or roll over on their beds, like doors on their hinges. Husbands would be living on the roofs of their homes while their contentious wives shout at them from below. Pigs would be running about with gold rings in their noses."
Awesome sight, would that not be? Makes me chuckle and want to produce my own film, showing the reality of life as it really is, not as we see it from our surface view.

Like, not to pick on Tiger Woods, but hey--he's such an easy target. A film portraying the real, inner appearance of Tiger Woods simply wouldn't have a handsome man with that gleaming, toothy smile and cappuccino-colored skin, smooth and taut over trim muscles. And that TAG Heuer at his wrist.

A "Proverbial" film showing the real Tiger would definitely have a contentious and shouting wife, and apparently multitudes of scantily, if not unclad women clamoring for a piece of the man. (Hey--I'm just calling like I see it, folks.) He would appear cowardly, a weakling, unable to care his family's emotional and mental health. So he'd look destitute and wretched, probably with a dumb, grinning expression. He'd be leaning against the Cadillac SUV, a rusted, limping tire-less wreck propped on cement blocks.

Proverbs is much about wisdom, and often defines wisdom by describing its opposite. You know how pointing out what something is not often helps us better grasp what it is?

Look in the mirror. Frankly, I'm liking less what I see as I age. But with more attention to makeup and the fabrics and cut that work for me, I can still get a good look going. But that's just v.e.r.r.r.y. on the surface. What do I look like with that stripped away?

Am I a gnarled hunchback with smelly, hairy armpits, a screaming angry woman who foolishly drapes pearls on the necks of pigs? My nephew Jonathan Durling took this photo of a young girl in Senegal, July 2007. I'm editing out her pretty face for her privacy. But think: If you saw a picture as your legs really are, would they look anything like this horrible condition? The places your legs take you, the things you do, the motives you have, the desires you feed, the disciplines you push aside?

I'll leave you with the visual of a smart, savvy, lovely woman. For today, I will focus on the financial /business aspects of her inner being.

After solid market research, this woman decides to buy real estate with money she has earned and set aside. She keeps track of her cash flow and spending and makes sure it's in good shape. (Prov. 31:16a, 18a)

Know what she looks like?? And I do mean, the looks representing who she truly is, not her actual physicality:  She is one hot mama who turns heads everywhere she goes. Dressed impeccably, she carries herself elegantly but not in an off-putting way, and again--this is her inner appearance, mind you--she has the most luscious hair, face, fingers, figure and smile of all of those featured in People magazine's Most Beautiful 2010 issue combined!

May 12, 2010

Bike Like a Hollander

June 12 to 18 is National Bike to Work Week. If you live in Chicago, don't miss the Bike to Work Day Rally and (free) breakfast in Chicago's Loop. Bicycling year round has become awesomely commonplace in windy, blustery Chicago. Our bike-friendly Mayor Richard M. Daley continues to install new bike lanes and establish great bike-friendly policies.

I used to ride 16-mile r/t from my Roscoe Village loft to my banking job. Fortunately we had a workout room and shower at my office. I saved $$ on train fare, coffee (didn't need it after the ride) and health club membership. And even more by keeping fit, reducing the likelihood of disease. It always gave me a huge mental boost for the day. I'd sometimes leave work fatigued and dreading any hard wind from the north. Yet by the time I got home, I'd feel refreshed again!

Bicycling to work, church, or when running errands around a busy city is a great money saver: No parking fees, parking tickets. Little chance of getting stopped for sliding through a "No turn on Red" sign. Less expense for gas and car upkeep. And don't discount the huge medical costs you may be saving.

Tip of the Day:
Always wear a helmet; ride defensively. An injury by a driver is probably your worst and highest possible cost.

Check out this time-lapse video of rush hour in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands, where bicyclists flow evenly and politely, following traffic guidelines all while looking cute! May it inspire you to get on your bicycle this week. I'm going back to my former self-imposed rule this summer of bicycling to every errand within three miles, wearing my backpack to haul groceries.

May 11, 2010

Celebrity bankruptcy, Oil catastrophe: It's not our fault

Poor Kate Jackson, in financial ruin, so I read this morning on TMZ. She's only about the 'illionth celebrity to have gone bust. Once a Charlie's Angels television actress, today she sounds like an executive from BP, Halliburton or Transocean.

It's not our fault. The oil spill is horrific. I've no idea what went wrong, or who is at fault. But I do know a thing or two about money, blame and responsibility.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D), New Mexico, Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said something this morning to the executives that was apropos to actress Jackson as well as celebs before and after her who lose their financial footing. And the rest of us who point fingers elsewhere when our fortunes go south.

The HuffPo reported that Bingaman said, "I don't believe it is enough to label this catastrophic failure an unpredictable and unforeseeable occurrence."

Kate Jackson's bucks stop with her. She may have signed control to a manager or trusted someone else. But she is responsible for buying a $2MM property with $3MM in total assets and not enough to live on for the rest of her life. The finger-pointing begins:

Kate Jackson: A business manager took advantage of my friendship with Farrah, which caused me to trust him. [Is she blaming the late Farrah?]

Business manager: Whatever.

Kate: Jackson: I was misinformed by him; and he screwed me out of $3MM I thought I had. [But didn't.]

Business manager: Did not.

Kate Jackson: He pressured me into buying a home I could not afford. He said it would never lose value.
Business Manager: But you gave me the go-ahead.

Lessons: Said President Reagan, "Trust, but verify." You have to do some of your own homework. Ask other sources. It is usually greed that compels us to trust someone who peppers their statements with "never" and "always" in regard to finances, markets and business cycles.

So go the executives:

BP: It was the device made by Transocean.

Transocean: But BP gave us the go-ahead.

BP: But the federal Minerals Management Service gave us approval.

Transocean and Halliburton: Whatever. We were just following you.

Transocean: The explosion was after we were done; it's Halliburton's fault.

Halliburton:  Nuh uh; BP was in charge.

The late, best-selling author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck believed keys to mental, emotional and spiritual health (and thus, IMO, societal health as well), are the ability to accept responsibility for one's actions and a dedication to truth.

Until we accept and admit responsibility, and demand same truth from ourselves, politicians and public entities (corporations), we will continue to suffer the pain of societal ills.

The buck starts with you. Accept responsibility and commit to truth. Do this with the wad in your wallet and your retirement investments. Do it such that your disciplines can seep into the public corporations and municipalities of which you are a stakeholders. Don't think it does not matter--even if you're not a rich shareholder, you are still a stakeholder in the consequences of the actions of public and private entities.

[Quoting Mahatma Ghandi] All together now, everyone? Out loud: "Be the change ___ ____ __ ___."

Meanwhile, Kate suffers, unable to afford another face tuck. Oil washes ashore bringing its own detritus in its wake.

May 6, 2010

My Sharpie®

I am guilty of wasting food, perishable and nonperishable.

Last year I tossed a bottle of salad dressing dating from the 1990s. And a half-dozen from the early oughts. I discovered several canned item that had been processed late in the Reagan administration. It is true, it is pathetic, embarrassing, criminal, sinful, all of those. But I keep doing it. Not hoarding, just buying food and not using it. (One reason this is, that I semi-hide in the shadow of my pseudonym Broke Girl.)

Proof of my healthy gastrointestinal system: A guest recently asked for meds for indigestion. I went right to the kitchen cupboard where I keep that stuff. And found a roll of Dairy Ease. The expiry date, October 1992, prevented my friend from taking it. I have carted this item from the Roscoe Village loft where I lived until 1993 to a Lincoln Park house, to Pasadena, to Chicago, a Michigan farmhouse, and for one year, a peripatetic squatter of various locales, then a Gold Coast apartment, and back to my house.

I decided to make brownies last night; found three egg cartons in the fridge. But I only needed one egg. My houseguests for the month of December had left a carton, a friend who stayed recently while I was out of town left some, plus I had bought some. Of all the cartons, there was not one egg that, when cracked open, didn't look so thick that a little chickie might just pop out. I discarded them all. So I looked further and tossed 2 lbs of frozen tilapia that expired 16 months ago ago. Cooking for one makes it difficult to manage volumes of fruits and vegetables, which are often cheaper by the dozen.

So I've implemented a new discipline in my household.

I date every food item that enters the kitchen. Before unpacking groceries I reach for a Sharpie. I write the current date on every single can, glass, box, carton, and plastic bag. I will also mark the date I open a carton of soymilk or juice. This is a big struggle.

I've a habit of keeping food items around that I won't eat because I think it might be a tad old; just a bit less than fresh, yet I am reluctant to toss. So I keep it around until it is for sure too old and okay to discard--like when it starts to look a bit petri-dish colorful.

Broke Girl's bragging rights to her awesome and savvy money management skills are at risk. Really, I've got it so together in so many areas that count. But not in the refrigerator and pantry.  And that is real money, left for the garbage pick up, like wadding up a C-note. It is just wrong.

Can this girl be saved by her Sharpie®?

May 1, 2010

I keep learning the same things

Good news here, whether you're a young broke girl, or a veering-toward-middle-age girl. If you've found yourself making some pretty screwy financial judgments (and who amongst my seven loyal readers haven't; you there--throw the first coin) there is hope for improvement.

In an interview about her new book on the aging brain, New York Times health columnist Barbara Strauch said, "Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age."A lot of things get better with age. Wine, cheese (may I say teenagers?), a new garden, and well, maybe more stuff, but I'm kind of stumped here. At least a few things improve with age.

If you find yourself repeating the same mistakes over and over again, hey--not to be discouraged. One sage matriarch of a small southern Michigan community whose life ultimately influenced folks across the globe--okay, yes, this is my Grandmother Durling, who we all thought terribly wise, partly just because she was old and witty and still ahead of some of us at age 106. Well, wise she was was. (In my desire to post some visuals to my opinion pieces, well, this is what I came up with: A century-old farmhouse across the seasons in which Grandma lived for some of her years.)

Even she said, "I have found in my life that I learn the same lessons over and over again."

Duped into home equity loans over the last half decade and now upside-down in your mortgage? Overspent without enough set-aside to send to Uncle Sam last month? Purchased a pair of shoes at such a high markdown they're not returnable--yet discover the exact pair in your own closet? (This happened to a friend of mine, which is how I came to own the second pair.)

With age comes wisdom--whether you're trying or not. Experience gives perspective and--speaking for me--has changed my financial priorities and diminished some of my (single-girl) financial fears.

That's one reason I happily skipped away from my corporate career to live on the lam--financially speaking. Here's another New York Times clip from today's Modern Love column: "...I’d grown accustomed to the romance associated with not having money." It's not just Broke Girl who feels some freedom in underemployment or not having much. The writer, Rachel Sontag continued:
"I’ve always loved the way life slows down when the unexpected happens: a 48-hour power failure that causes people to flock to the streets with food for their neighbors; a subway strike that forces businessmen to roller-skate to work."
The closer to middle-age and even passing beyond it, the more we know how much money we are going to earn and have in life, as well as how much money we are not going to have and not earn and not save in life. That knowledge is somewhat comfortable, actually, to this Broke Girl. Like the way watching the derby from the stands is more comfortable than the jockey's position in the heat of the track. I don't crave adrenaline as I once did.

And y'all know what Lily Tomlin famously said about the trouble with winning the rat race...when it's all over, you still are one.