Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I'd rather be poor in a tent in Florida than rich in an igloo: Part One A place to lay your head.

There's a lot in this one so I will write these in parts per topic. My apologies in advance of using the adjective "warm" a ridiculous amount of times.  It is an obsession.

I hate being cold.  My body is equipped with just enough bloodpressure to keep me alive.  And yet some fool put all of the best science schools in the country in the ice cube capital of mainland USA so I have to live here while my husband gets his PHD. It is my lot in life to go through the winter months being swaddled in enough clothes to give me the figure of a corn dog.  I may have aged ten years since we turned the heat on again and the freeze drying has begun but it is hard to tell under all of these layers.   I would  sell the dryer, the stove and the refrigerator...all of which we rent....to get the hell out of here for just a couple of days. To wear shorts and flip flops.  To see the skin on my legs.

 Think you can't go on vacation where its warm because you don't have a thousand dollars?  Think again.   I have devised a plan that does not involve thievery and potential eviction because you sold your landlord's appliances.  It can be done if you are willing to invest some time and research into it, spreading out the expenses over a period of time.   And you must own a tent.  You don't like camping? Buck it up, Rockefeller, and stop being a wuss. It's warm there. Put a decent air mattress in it and it is not nearly as bad as some crap hotels I've been in. The bathrooms are usually kept very clean and you won't freeze to death taking a shower. I have yet to be disappointed in a Florida state park because the ecosystem is so varied throughout the state. Spanish moss hanging from big dramatic oaks in one,  grassy rivers with big birds staring at you from the mangroves,  beautiful white beaches, crystal blue springs, you name it.  It isn't Disney.  It is a different kind of good.

We have one particular park that we love going to called Bahia Honda State Park. It has camping on what is regularly listed as one of the most  beautiful beaches in the country.  I began trying to book a campsite there months and months ago to no avail because word is out on how cool it can be. The last time I was there a manta ray swam over my foot as I stood in the water watching my family kayak on the ocean.  Seriously good. It is important to have a specific goal to get to when you go on vacation, something to shoot for that you can plan the trip around and then adjust to it.  That way, you can build a time frame and travel distances that feel you can handle on a long drive.

And, oh yeah, plan on driving.  Camping is cheap, equipment must be hauled, food supplies need space and a car is necessary. Plus, unless you are planning on going by yourself, I doubt if you have enough round trip frequent flyer miles to get you to somewhere warm with more than one person (which you will need to feed yourself with anyway...more on that later) and you will probably have to rent a car to boot.  Get some decent cd's, download some free podcasts from Itunes (we  listen to a lot of NPR shows on roadtrips) and look at it as an educational trip on Pennsylvania, the most endless not big state in the union.  Or spend some time talking with the people in the car.  Something I don't seem to get enough of these days.

We chose to take one long first leg, switching drivers periodically so that we can have a shorter shot into Florida the next day. Our first stop on our trip will be a Fairfield Inn hotel near Columbia, South Carolina. The hotel is part of the Marriott chain.  I had an enormous amount of rewards accumulated in their program from business trips for my previous job.  I thought that I was eligible for a gift certificate to take the edge off of the hotel price, but, as it turns out, I had enough points to purchase two nights.  Actually, if I wasn't determined to have a really nice room  on the last leg of the trip, I could probably have squeezed one more in a lower end hotel in the Marriott property food chain.  But we opted for  breakfast, a pool and fitness center and, most importantly, high speed free internet because I know you would miss me.  So far the first night of sleep costs us nothing and gets us a free albeit probably carbohydrate laden breakfast.

The next night we land in Florida.  We should be in Orange City home of Blue Springs State Park by the time check in rolls around. It is located about 40 miles north of Orlando.  I chose this one because it is a sane amount of driving time after a long miserable one and because it is the home of the largest population of manatees in Florida during the winter months.  My daughter loves large animals that look like Teddy Roosevelt. The water is a tad over 72 degrees year warm.  And the air ain't bad either.  Take that parka and your ugly friends clunky boots!!! The cost to camp here is $27 including taxes.  

We will spend the next two nights in the Keys which is quite a haul so we will probably kiss the manatees goodbye at a fairly early.....but warm...hour and head on down the state.  This will require pit stopping to pick up some groceries and getting some lunch on the way down but we want to get there at check in so that we get some chilling time in the Keys. Like I said before, I could not get a night or two at Bahia Honda but, after stalking the reservation website, someone canceled a couple of nights at Long Key State Park.  It ain't Bahia Honda but it is a relatively short drive to it and we still get to wake up trying to decide which body of water we prefer to look at in the morning, the Gulf of Mexico or The Carribean, depending on which side of the highway we want to sit on.  Blue blue waters and white sand and as little clothing as possible.  Amen.  Alleluiah.  There will be sanity again.  These campsites are $42 a night including taxes kicking us up to a whopping $84 for two evenings.  Which is actually pretty pricey for a Florida State Park but these parks are special.

I couldn't get more campground time in the Keys no matter how hard I staked out the sites so the following three nights are going to be at the next best thing.  The Everglades National Park.  Moneywise, this is a real saver.  You pay $10 per vehicle for 7 days.  The campsites at the Flamingo area on the Gulf Of Mexico lower side is $16 a night.  The total is $58 dollars for three nights. We are taking a ranger led 4 hour canoe trip complete with all needed equipment in the park for free.  FREE! Yeah us!  There are all sorts of hiking and outdoorsy kind of activities offered by the park to entertain and educate.  Folks fret a little about snakes and alligators.  I don't care as long as they don't make me put on a hat and gloves before they bite me. If it rains?  Oh well.  It's not snow.  We have a car. Carry on.

On the last leg of the trip, we will get up bright and early in the lovely warm Everglades, take one last look at the Gulf of Mexico and begin  to drive to Winston Salem, NC.  It is a very long one so I picked an extra nice hotel to rest up and do one last lovely night before we go back to reality.  We will be staying at the Springhill Suites by Marriott.  They have a microwave and mini-fridge and a livingroom area.  They are higher on the foodchain than the Residence Inn or Fairfield in the Marriott line and, once again, we get a pool, free internet and breakfast.  And best of all it will cost me nothing but a maid's tip.

Drum roll please.....The grand total of all sleeping accomodations on a 8 night venture will come to about $168.  Or less than one night in a decent Boston hotel would cost.  Badow.

Wait till you hear what I am doing to feed us.....


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Look! Your house is on fire! Aren't you glad you sold your books?

Things accumulate.  The item that you held so dear to you  becomes one more thing in you life that you wind up donating to someone because it is too much of a nuisance to pack when you move five years later.  That or you throw it out.  Heaven forbid you are forced to move in a hurry and the opportunity has passed.  Look at all of the crap that you have, even the little stuff.  Do you really love it? Then think of the possibility of your cable getting turned off and having to live without your "Madmen" or ESPN.  Selling that stuff can make the difference between you knowing what happens to Don Draper and if the French soccer team cheats. 

I was avoiding doing a blog on auction sites because this is so damned obvious.  This is Creative Poverty, not everyday knowledge poverty.  But, you know, it ain't your grandmother's Ebay any more and there are a few things that I know that may help you out  if you should decide that you really need help paying that bill.  Creative thinking can apply.  I will do several blogs on different types of items you may consider moving along into other hands for money.  I am going to assume that you can read the instructions on auction sites enough to set yourself up.  Ebay is a well policed entity that has worked out its kinks in the last couple of years. I will focus on the goods.

Let's start this first one by looking on your bookshelf.  Most people think that a book is more valuable if it is old or signed by someone.  The truth is they wrote bad books a long time ago too.  And sometimes they signed them.  Besides, if it is one that is old, signed and worth something, maybe you should make that a last resort unless you are really in a bad financial bind.  You probably have something less dramatic to sell first.

The books that sell the best are usually brand new best sellers that came out within the last couple of  weeks (because everyone is looking for a deal); true first editions of a book that was a famous author's first publication (that is one that either says "first edition" somewhere in the book or starts on the number line with the number "1"); technical books that are well known in their field;  children's books in great shape with illustrations done by well known artists  (rare since kids tend to love their books to pieces) or a signed autobiography of a well loved or infamous person who is dead.  Sometimes not dead depending on how many book signings they did.  All books must be in excellent condition, including the dust jacket.  Expect to have to explain the condition in detail or incur the wrath of angry collectors.

There are some authors that are on the best seller list so often that the publishers print a ridiculous amount of copies.  Often it is not worth the posting fee on an auction site to put a book up for bidding.  So do some research.  Look at the auction site's completed items listing for that book and find out if it is selling.  That is how you determine demand.  And an item is only worth what a person is willing to pay for it in Ebay land.

My favorite way around turning over less valued books is to define their categories and turn them into bulk lots.  Multiple copies in certain areas can be sold together and increase the possibility of selling. A large paperback that has been dragged around the beach all summer and is a little bent in places is not worth much.  But if you have a couple of really good titles in the same kind of genre like chick lit or mystery or how to's in one specialty (knitting, writing, gardening,etc.), then you may have the makings of a decent book lot.   If the condition of the lot is passable.  List them as "Summer Reading Lot" or "A Great Mystery Lot" or whatever catchy phrase to describes the genre appealingly.  Hell, you may even put together a bunch of the previously mentioned worthless overprinted authors and get something.  Start them at a bid a wee higher than the cost of posting (a little more if they are more recent books) and make sure you post shipping as media mail. 

I know that sometimes it feels better to donate these things to groups that are in need.  But, friend, right now, there is a strong possibility that you  are the needy.  Better to get rid of the loose bits and live to donate another day. You probably won't get a ton but you can get a little coin for the trouble and one less bunch of books in your house that you more than likely will never touch again. It's one more dollar or two on the utility bill payment pile. In your house.  Now. And, who knows, maybe you will get lucky and find a hidden treasure  on your bookshelf.  And then you can buy a latte and pay your cable bill too.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Mama needs her Outside Magazine

Most folks know about focus groups.  There are a ton of them out there.  And they are worth registering with although I've noticed that they tend to favor a more income heavy demographic .  The competition is stiff since the credit card companies have raised prices and stock dividends have gone into hopper.  More "desirable" candidates are making themselves available when they would not have considered giving there time to answer questions about a topic for a hundred bucks.   The good news is that if you happen to fall into a category that your income is still good on paper....say you are still employed but you are being battered by the overhead of your existence like debt ....this may be a decent way to pick up a couple of bucks.  The big drawback is that if you don't live near a major city that you can access, you probably won't be eligible.

That's why I like doing online surveys.  They don't take much time. This is the one that I use: http://www.e-rewards.com.  I register with the program and when the company feels like I would fit the demographic for a certain online survey, they email me with a link with a defined topic, like "consumer products" or "financial institutions".  If I don't like the topic, I don't respond, and so far I have not been penalized for lack of response.   The company gives me a price that I would earn for doing the survey and approximate time it will take to finish it. Upon completion of the survey, the agreed upon price is dropped into my account that can be redeemed for different rewards.

It usually starts with a couple of questions to accertain if I am a good fit and, if I don't, they throw me a little something (like fifty cents or so) into my account.  If I do fit what they are looking for, I spend any where from 10 to 20 minutes answering questions regarding the topic.  This is how I have managed to keep my Smithsonian magazine subscription as well as my Outside magazine and my husband's Men's Health as well as $15 that were added onto my Border's rewards program among other things.

The drawback is that the rewards can be a little limited.  There aren't tons in each price range and I seem to have used a lot of the magazines already.  But then again, no one says that a soul needs to cash them in right away.  Keep chipping away at them till you hit a money bracket that does have something that you like.  They also has frequent flyer mileage, gift cards, etc.  Tap a gift card that you don't want and flip it over on Ebay (you will see this mantra a lot in this blog). That makes you that much closer to one more latte in your life.

A good source of other sites like this is http://www.surveypolice.com/epoll.  This site tells you what's out there and details the level of trust they put in them. I give very little detailed personal information to the reward site and feel like its an easy safe way to get one more thing in your life that you may miss out on because of this whole poverty thing.  But this will give you details to help you make a decision on who you want to go to. With a good survey company, the only thing this is costing is your time and, if you want to get picky,  a small amount electricity to run your computer.  You don't even have to leave your house.


Bankrupt by Cheeseburger

Our family were big credit card abusers in grocery stores.  We hadn't gone to the grocery store with a list on a regular basis in a long time. We would go and grab what we needed, usually supplementing our groceries with a lot of indulgent items like corn chips with flaxseeds, pure and virtuous cookies made by celebrities, antipasto from the olive bar by the pound.

Well, those darned credit card companies started a war with us, raising those rates so high that we can barely pay them.  And it may be the best thing that happen to us in a long time because we began to really look at those little extras and ask, "What do we need?"  And, even more importantly, "How much of a hippy are you really?"  Surprisingly, we're still pretty much still a where the hell did my food come from eaters. Just because I'm broke doesn't give me the right to abuse my child with preservatives.

So this is what we came up with: the husband and I are dieting.  Or that's what we tell ourselves in our denial of our poverty.  We create menus and shop according to specific dining issues.  We will still buy good cheese but we do not eat the whole damned thing in two days.  It has to last because otherwise we are overindulging, off our "diet."  Like a certain successful diet plan on a point system, we consider portions and  content.  For instance fiber heavy food fills you up and you don't eat as much.  Items high in sugar tend to make be behave like a junkie.  Same goes for salt.  Must. Have. More.   We think about what we are shoveling in our pie holes.   We are on a diet. And we are saving at least a hundred bucks a month, probably more.

We are lucky enough to live within driving distance of a Trader Joe's, a store that seems to have more reasonable prices than a lot of retailers that are heavy on natural products.  We always get cookies for school and baked tortilla chips for  reasonable prices. Trader Joe's has fair trade large bars of super dark chocolate for around 2 bucks (good luck finding that price in a natural food store).  I find that if I eat a square or two of that, it nails the sweet tooth.

 In fact, anything with a strong flavor tends to keep me from eating much of it.  Strong cheeses, extremely spicy foods, etc. This store is also great for accumulating bags of frozen vegetables, dumplings, peanut butter, mac and cheese without scary ingredients kits (for the kid), other food that can make light lunches.  All are decent prices. And coffee.  Fair Trade even.  That is cheap, won't rot a hole in your stomach and you can grind yourself if you want which can be kind of fun.

Our favorite wholesale warehouse is great for boxed organic chocolate milk at decent prices.  And we can get regular non-hormone ridden milk there at the cheapest price anywhere. We get 2 loaves of decent whole wheat bread for 6 bucks. Also, they have huge pizzas for ten bucks that we split in half, freeze and use for two meals.  We take it home and load it with vegetables and the all natural chicken sausage that we also get in bulk there. Don't know how frozen pizza falls into the closely examined ingredients  food stuff category but, hell, that's five bucks a meal.  I turn a blind eye!  Also, sometimes they have samples of specialty cheesecakes.  Very small.  Won't ruin the "diet." And if it has preservatives, well, its cheesecake. Preservatives wouldn't dare.

Unfortunately,  fresh fruit and vegetables that aren't beamed down from God knows where are a hard one.  We used to live near a farm that had cold storage and could score apples from there at a decent price but most farm stands close for the year.  It can't hurt to look around and see if something local is still open if its close enough not to cost you the difference in gas.  The best I can say is look for deals and hope to get lucky on the non-pesticide products. 

The trick is to plan like you are going to war and that you really need to lose ten pounds.  Think of every snack that you may want.  Every meal that you may have that will not include everyone.  Try to make dinner meals that you can stretch out for lunches too. Know your portions.  Know what options your stores have to offer.    Even if you have to go to several stores, it will save you gas if you don't keep running back again and again.   And add the treats that you want for the week.  These are important because this is a positive blog about surviving financial woes.  Not a punishing blog.  One grass fed steak all month is not going to do nearly the damage of not planning at all and shopping randomly. We do Sunday bacon.  A half pound of fancy schmacy bacon at World Famous Massive Natural Food Store that rhymes with "Mole Thoods" is 4 bucks.  The best four bucks spent all week.  Because we know it is coming and from where it originated. And I am down at least a hundred bucks a month and 5 pounds to boot.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pardon Me, Sir? May I Have Your Printer Cartridge?

An abnormal amount of people I know get a buyer's high going into Staples including me.  There's just something about obtaining more quirky paper clips and high quality notebook paper that makes us get giddy.  It's sort of sad that now I have to limit my number of padded envelopes and can't trust myself to be alone in the digital camera section because I may try to talk ourselves into "needing" one.  The endorphins block out the logic that until there isn't a paycheck to back it up, that credit card money is based on fantasy.  But it is not unjustified to go into Staples.  Sooner or later our ink cartridges will run out.  Resumes can't be printed on the back of phone bills.  And when these expenses pop up....particularly the black printer cartridge one that can run you into the price of a small electric bill...where do you get the money if you ain't got none?

Well, Staples has this nifty program.  You return a printer cartridge at your local Staples and they give $2 store credit for each.  A certificate of your monthly accrued credit arrives in the mail and you get to smile.  Because it is good mail giving you something, not the evil mail asking for more money. All that is required is enrollment in their rewards program and, well, a printer cartridge.  There is a ten per month limit.  That's twenty bucks.

"Ten?" you say.  It can be done.  I have a friend who works on  a college campus.  The department was being moved from one building to the next.  Someone was ditching a copy machine and were going to throw out the catridges.  Sure, they are really supposed to recycle them, but some folks are just plain lazy.  So he opened up his mouth and asked.  And then he put the word out to his friends and relatives.  He let everyone on campus know that he can tell.  So far he has purchased two sets of toners for himself and school supplies for his kid.

The lesson in this, my friend, is two fold.  Don't be a pussy about asking for help when it really isn't inconveniencing anyone.  And rewards programs are your friend.  Always.  They bring you coupons.  They give you opportunities.  They treat you special-ish.  Because when you are no longer having to think of them in this desperate manner, you will hold a fond place in your heart for them and be the wonderful customers that you used to be.

July 15, 2015 Update: Yup. Still holds water.  Pricing on this blog has been brought up to speed.


This will keep you from smelling bad

This one started because yours truly is allergic to scented laundry soap and my husband secretly wants to be Martha Stewart.

We used to get them fancy laundry soaps that you can get at natural food stores.  Stuff that had packaging that looked similar to certain natural feminine hygene products and cost an arm and a leg.  We didn't really think about price as much because it was a necessity and we were all about the enviromental effects.  But the stuff was about 12 bucks for 32 loads of laundry.  And with a kid and a decreasing amount of owned clothing articles, that did not last long.

Lucky for me, the husband had a minor in Chemistry and was one of those guys who likes concocting things.  Laundry soap wasn't making home brew, but it did have its appeal.  He did some research and came up with a home made laundry detergent that has three basic ingredients, no allergins, environmentally friendly and...its a miracle...takes the stench out of his gym clothes the first time round.  Even if you use the less utility bill abusive cold water.

Your Basic Laundry Soap That Even Cleans Dirty Gym Clothes Smells

- Makes 2.5 gallons

2 cups Borax
2 cups Washing Soda 
2 small bars (or one large bar) pure Soap
Optional: Essential oil for scent

  • Bring about 6 cups of water to a near boil in a medium sized pot.
  • Use a cheese grater to shred the soap while the water is heating up. 
  • Add the soap to the hot water and stir until completely dissolved.  Be careful not to boil over. 
  • Dissolve Borax and washing soda in at 1.5 gallons of water In a large 2.5 to 3 gallon bucket/container. Add the hot soap solution, mix well, add water so total volume is 2.5 - 3 gallons, cover, and leave overnight. 
  • Add 5-6 drops essential oil for optional scent.

The next day, the mixture will harden and become gelatinous.  You can break the mixture up with a spoon or a hand mixture to place in  used laundry bottles or use a ladle and scoop directly from bucket. This concentration is formulated for 1/4 cup per load although I do tend to use a little more.

The husband recommends that for the soap, you use Ivory because it is really pure soap.  Many others are actually detergent. Also,  he uses Arm and Hammer Washing Soap and 20 Mules Borax.  Nothing fancy.  Real standard.  

He uses a plastic kitty litter container because it has a lid.  We think of it as recycling so we feel virtuous.

He says that every time he goes to shop for about a year's supplies at the local every guy  supermarket chain it has come to around $8.   Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Earth Friendly No Allergins Commercial Hippie Laundry Soap!

It may cost a little more for a bigger family.  It may cost a little more if you buy different basic brands.  It may cost a little more if you use imported essential oils from some far off land  (and you wonder why you are broke?).  But it is probably going to be way cheaper that what you are doing now if you are buying if from a store.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frequent flyer miles can get you that latte.

This is my new favorite discovery! 

For years my husband and I have had a credit card that was attached to an airline.  The airline often had blackout dates when we were flying.  Or we wanted to travel together and we could get tickets that were less expensive on another airline.  Or we just didn't think of using them.  Often frequent flyer program miles expire but because these points were attached to a credit card we accumulated around 30,000. 

So, I found this website called Points.com.  Using this site, you can use your points from a variety of travel and financial rewards programs and exchange them for gift cards for restaurants, department stores, clothing retailers, internet stores, music, etc.  as well as swap them with people and keep balances among other things.  Some partners do not allow you to do all of the exchanges offered but... yeah for me!...our 30K pointer airline that would only allow travel related redemption on their own site scored us 2 $25 Chilis cards (that are also good at a couple of related restaurants), one $25 Sonic gift card and I even found free lattes.  Yes, we got a $47 Starbucks card.  I am tearing up.

The other cool thing about this site is that we also have a credit card company that has decent redemption rewards in their membership points program.  But you can use this site to exchange points for additional redemption partners that the company may not offer you. Signing up has not cost us anything so far that I know of and we did get our cards. 

So if you are tucking those frequent flyer miles away for the next time you have to take a trip.  Or if you have points in a hotel program or  have points that are going to expire, maybe you should consider registering them on this site and turning them into something you can use now.

And if you are truly desperate, you can sell the card on Ebay, buy a single latte and pay your electric bill.