Thursday, September 18, 2014

Do not disparage

I just read an article in Money Talks News about a new California law that makes it illegal for companies to enforce "non-disparagement clauses" against consumers. I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing, but according to the article, there are some companies that actually prohibit their customers from posting negative reviews online. If they do, they can be hit with hefty fines. An article about the same law in The Consumerist offers the examples of, which "tried to slap customers with $3,500 penalties if they complain about a purchase in a public forum," and Accessory Outlet, which "charges customers $250 for even threatening to complain online or to issue a credit card chargeback."

You may wonder why any consumer would ever do business with a company that had a clause like this in its contract. Surely its mere presence should be a giant red flag, since companies that actually provide fair treatment and decent service don't need to suppress negative reviews. In particular, a clause that prohibits you from refusing the charges on your credit card seems to say, in essence, "When you enter into an agreement with us, you agree to pay us whether we meet our end of the bargain or not." Why would anyone ever agree to this?

The answer, according to the Consumerist article, is that most consumers didn't agree to it, or didn't know they were doing so. The non-disparagement clause at was "buried two pages deep on the site’s Terms of Sale, where no reasonable person would be expected to find it." The one at Accessory Outlet was in a Terms of Sale agreement that "customers are not required to agree to before making a purchase." You have to wonder how the company can argue that its customers are bound by an agreement they never actually signed, but apparently they're counting on the fact that most individuals can't afford to take a big company to court even if the law is very clearly on their side.

California's new law makes clauses of this sort unenforceable in California. Companies that try to enforce one will face civil penalties of $2,500 for the first offense and $5,000 for each subsequent one, plus an extra $10,000 fine for "a willful, intentional, or reckless violation" of the new law. Unfortunately, that doesn't help those of us who live in other states, such as New York, where, according to CNN, the Union Street Guest House threatened to "fine wedding parties $500 for any negative online reviews posted by any members of their parties." (The hotel later claimed this policy was put on their site as a joke and "was never meant to be enforced," but one Yelp reviewer says the hotel management sent an e-mail informing him that "your recent on-line review of our Inn will cost the wedding party that left us a deposit $500. This money be charged via the deposit they have left us unless/until it is removed.")

So, for those of us who don't live in California, it looks like the best defense against these ridiculous clauses—at least until they're outlawed nationwide or slapped down by the courts—is to refuse to do business with any company that has one. And since you apparently can't count on the companies to tell you about these clause themselves, that means seeking out the Terms of Sale for any site where you do business and actually reading them in full—or failing that, at least scanning for the words "non-disparagement clause" and treating it as a great big flashing warning sign. After all, as this article from the popular review site Angie's List points out, "If somebody doesn’t want you to say something negative about them, there’s probably something negative to say."

The article also notes that, while those who have actually done business with the company may be prohibited from posting bad reviews, there's nothing to stop people who haven't done business with the company from going online and saying that they refused to do so because the company has a non-disparagement clause. That would also warn other users of the review site that the uniformly positive reviews they see for the company don't mean it has no dissatisfied customers; it just means they don't care complain for fear of being fined hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Personally, I think that would be even more damaging to the company than a negative review of its products or services. I'm not going to refuse to do business with a company just because of one or two bad reviews out of a mostly positive lot, because I know that will always be a few cranks out there who just can't be satisfied. But if I see just a single review saying, "This company will fine you hundreds of dollars for complaining about it," my gut reaction is going to be, "Whoa, stay away from these guys."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Presenting the portable pocket

One of my biggest pet peeves about women's clothing is that it so often lacks pockets. I understand the reasoning behind it: women are more likely to worry about looking fat, so they often prefer the slimmer profile of pants or skirts without pockets. But even full, voluminous skirts, like the one I bought for my local shopping challenge last spring, are often pocketless. I guess in these cases, the designers figure there's no need to go to the extra expense of adding pockets when most women carry purses anyway. But although I never go out without my purse, it really isn't a handy way to carry anything I need easy access to, such as a handkerchief. Although my current handbag is actually rather small by my usual standards, it still holds nearly as wide an assortment of stuff as Mary Poppins' carpet bag, and I'd never manage to hold off a sneeze long enough to find my handkerchief in amongst that lot.

I've seen various tutorials online on how to add pockets to a garment that lacks them, but with my rather rudimentary sewing skills, I've hesitated to try it for fear of ruining a perfectly good skirt. Besides, even if it worked, I'd still have to do it over again several times to modify every pocketless garment I own. What I really want is some sort of portable pocket that I can move from one garment to another, tucking it discreetly under the waistband. But how to hold it in place? Safety pins? Velcro? Hooks on the edge of the pocket that could attach to eyes sewed into the waistband of the skirt?

This morning, I found this idea niggling at me again, and I decided to go rummage through my bin of scrap fabric and see if any ideas struck me. What I originally had in mind was removing the pocket from an old pair of pants and seeing if I could rig up some sort of suspender for it, but when I came across an old pair of underpants that still had a serviceable waistband, I thought, "Hmm..." and I brought them upstairs to experiment.

First, I traced the rough outline of a U-shaped pocket onto the fabric just below the waistband. I made this one just big enough to hold a hanky, but you could do just about any size as long as you had enough intact fabric.

Next, I cut around the waistband and the outline of the pocket, giving me a circle of fabric with two attached flaps. I was in such a hurry to see how it turned out that I cut through both layers of fabric at once, and the resulting shapes came out a bit scraggly and uneven. If I attempt this again, I'll do it properly, tracing the outline on both sides of the fabric and cutting them separately.

I then sewed all the way around the edges of the flaps, making a little pouch attached to the waistband. At this point, the pocket was usable but not wearable, because the waistband was effectively sewed shut. But that was easy enough to fix... simply cutting across the top of one flap and then hemming it... produce a complete (if somewhat lopsided) pocket attached to a waist belt. Ladies and gentlemen (but especially ladies), I give you...the Underpocket!

This can be worn over top of my regular undies, underneath my skirt. It's not quite as accessible as a side seam pocket, but I can still slip my hand into it through the waistband of the skirt.

I wore this around all day and I found that it's not an ideal solution. Its waistband allows you to position the pocket anywhere you like, from right in front to over one hip, but that's not necessarily an advantage, since it makes it a bit tricky to find the pocket without looking. Also, even if I manage to locate the pocket with my hand, it's not that easy to fish anything out of it (though it's certainly easier than fishing in my pocketbook, which would probably require a rod and reel). So the design probably needs some modifications to make it more useful.

Still, it's far better than nothing, and as far as I can tell from Google, it's the only garment of its kind currently in existence. So unless someone else comes up with a better design, I'm going to keep fiddling around with mine, in the hope of one day bringing pockets to the pocketless masses.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 7: Library loot

To wrap up my 7-day local shopping challenge, I turned to my favorite source of free entertainment: the local library. I'd had my eye for a little while on a book called The Economic Naturalist, which I came across in the library's online catalogue, that promises to explain such "everyday enigmas" as "Why do 24-hour convenience stores have locks on their doors?" and "Why are brown eggs more expensive than white ones, even though the two types taste the same and have identical nutritional value?" I'm a sucker for this sort of "how come" genre, and I've already devoured Freakonomics and several volumes from the Straight Dope and Imponderables series. Because this particular example focuses on economic questions, it may also turn out to provide some useful fodder for future blog entries. But even if all it provides is entertainment, it's still a great value at zero dollars.

All in all, I think this local "shopping" challenge has been a successful one. I've managed to bring home free or near-free stuff in several different categories, from food to reading material to household goods, and I've spent only 75 cents on the whole weeklong project, making it much more cost-effective than my first local shopping challenge. However, like the first one, it was more entertaining than useful. True, all the items I found had some value to me, and none of them cost more than a dollar, but most of them weren't things I actually needed. With the possible exception of the walnuts we found on Sunday, these weren't items I would actually have picked up if I'd had to pay more than a dollar for them.

So next time I set myself a local shopping challenge, I think I'll go about it differently. Instead of just setting a challenge and giving myself a certain amount of time to meet it, I'll wait until there's a specific item that I actually need, and then I'll try to find some way to acquire it locally for as little money as possible. Success will be gauged not just based on whether I found the item or not, but also on whether I was able to buy it without paying significantly more than I would have spent at a big-box store. After all, what really keeps most people from shopping locally is the limited selection and higher prices, so if I can figure out ways to get around both of these problems, that's probably what my ecofrugal readers would most like to know.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 6: Campus news

Today, I must confess, I sort of punted on the Local Shopping Challenge. The item I picked up was one that's available every weekday, and one that I've actually been picking up every day without counting it toward the challenge: a copy of The Daily Targum, the Rutgers campus newspaper. Copies of each day's Targum are available in a box outside the Stop & Shop, and I've made a habit of stopping by there during my daily walk to pick up a copy.

I usually don't read more than a couple of the stories, which tend heavily toward sports coverage (as you would expect from a Big Ten school), but the "Diversions" section offers an assortment of comic strips and puzzles that are always good for a few minutes' entertainment. The comics include reruns of "Doonesbury," current editions of "Dilbert" and "Pearls Before Swine," and a few others that are at least occasionally funny. The crossword is a pretty easy one (ten minutes max), but it usually has a cute theme that makes it more entertaining. I do the Jumble and word find puzzles as well, and sometimes the sudoku if it's an easy one (too much bookkeeping and it ceases to be fun for me).

To get the most out of my freebie, I'll even read the horoscope and try to figure out if there's any conceivable way that it could apply to my life. While I don't put any faith in astrology, I find that the advice in these columns is usually so general that, if you try and fit it to your personal situation, you can usually find some nugget of useful guidance there. For example, today's column for Capricorn advises me to "Correspond and discuss project details"—something I've been putting off doing with a friend of mine who's asked for help in fixing up his house, and it's probably time I got on it. Of course, I could have found the same basic idea if I'd been a Scorpio ("Chart the road map to a future you envision, and plot the financial requirements") or Aries ("Discuss collaborations and let others lead"). But even if the stars aren't actually telling me I need to take action on this, I already know it in my heart, and seeing it in black and white helps nudge me toward actually doing it.

So that little morsel of midday entertainment, coupled with some vague but still helpful advice, is my freebie for today. Seventy-five cents spent so far on this challenge, and only one day left to go.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Days 4-5: The Big Sale

You might think it was a bit of a cheat for me to schedule my weeklong local shopping challenge to coincide with the weekend of Highland Park's town-wide yard sales. Surely on a weekend when nearly there are literally hundreds of yard sales in town, it should be ridiculously easy to find something useful for under a dollar. And yet, as we made our way through the sales on Saturday morning, it looked like we might have less luck looking for free and cheap goodies at these sales than I did just wandering around town on Days 1 through 3. Even with a map to guide us toward the most sale-rich parts of town, we were finding almost nothing that we could use, and the few items we did pick up all cost more than a dollar. Plus, the sky had been grey and ominous all morning, and we knew that once the rain started, the rest of the yard-sellers would almost surely pack up their wares and head inside. I was beginning to fear that the only freebie I'd have to report for Saturday would be a handful of colorful leaves for my little fall basket, which adorns the railings of my side porch every year from Labor Day through spring.

Fortunately, the rain held off until after lunch, so we had time to hit some additional sales on the south side of town, ending up with the big rummage sale at the Reformed Church. There are always lots of household items there, such as the kneeling chair we picked up two years ago, and this time we managed to find several that were useful and priced under a dollar. The best find of the lot was a short-handled metal spatula, one of the few items that we were specifically looking for after our old spatula parted ways with its handle last week. And as you can see from the picture, it was only 25 cents. And just in time, too, as the rain had already started coming down by the time we entered the church; as we made our way back to the car, the few sales still out on the streets were all being packed in.

Sunday's weather was better than Saturday's, but the pickings were still slim. Or rather, slim for us; we actually passed quite a few sales with lots of good stuff, like furniture and appliances, but nothing that we could use. However, shortly before lunch, following a tip from a seller we met, we found ourselves down at one of the local synagogues, which was having its own version of a rummage sale—heavy on the rummaging part. It was a lot bigger and a lot more chaotic than the one at the Reformed Church, with a huge variety of goods of every kind—clothing, kitchen equipment, games, books, toys, and even foodstuffs. Everything had been sort of loosely grouped together into categories, but otherwise it was just laid out willy-nilly, some crammed into boxes, some spread on the ground, and absolutely nothing labeled with a price. Out of the jumble, we managed to lay hands on one thing that looked decidedly useful, an unopened can of walnuts that was still a month away from its "best by" date. We had a bit of trouble locating someone in charge among the throng of shoppers milling around and chatting in half a dozen languages, but eventually, by just sort of holding it up and calling out, "How much?" we managed to get a clear answer of "Fifty cents" from a youngish woman passing by. Since a good price for walnuts normally is five bucks a pound, we handed over our two quarters without hesitation and considered this single find a good enough bargain to justify the trip.

So those are our two bargains for Saturday and Sunday. That's not all we bought at the sales, of course, and perhaps I'll share the rest of our haul in a future post, but these are probably the two under-a-dollar bargains of the lot. Five days down, two to go, and only 75 cents spent.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 3: A feast for the senses

I knew going into this weeklong challenge that Friday would be the easiest day to meet it. For starters, Friday is the only day when our local thrift shop is open all day. (It's also open on Saturday mornings and for a few hours on Thursday, but even if you manage to get there during its alleged business hours, you may find the doors shut.) This store, as I've noted before, has a very limited selection that seldom changes, so most of the times I go in I leave empty-handed, but on those rare occasions when I find something I like, I can walk out with it for a dollar or less. Moreover, the store has recently expanded its selection to include several shelves of books, which are priced even cheaper than the clothes: just 25 cents for hardcovers and 10 cents for paperbacks. Plus, if you buy three of either, you can get a fourth free.

Friday is also the best day for finding free samples. While you can sometimes find samples at the Stop & Shop on other days of the week, Friday is the day when you're likeliest to see them. It's also the day when the local farmers' market is open during the summer months, and a couple of the vendors there either routinely or occasionally offer samples of their wares. And on top of that, there's often live music, which is a freebie of a different kind.

So I decided that when I headed out for my walk today, I would try to catch as many of these different freebies as I could. First I tried the supermarket, and I found that, sure enough, there was a big tray of bakery items cut into nice bite-sized slivers. There were fragments of both corn muffins and chocolate chip muffins, as well as one little chunk of doughnut, but the tray that was most picked over was the apple crumb cake. It certainly looked the most appetizing to me, and when I tried a piece, it did not disappoint: moist and flavorful and small enough that I didn't feel too guilty about indulging.

After that, I popped over to the Reformed Church to visit the thrift shop. It was open, but as usual, I didn't find anything new and exciting on the racks. I could have tried the bookshelves as well, but I decided that since I already had several unread books waiting in the queue at home, I shouldn't add to the pile.

Outside the church, in the community parking lot, the farmers' market was in full swing—and I mean swing in more than one sense of the word, as a local jazz trio had set up shop between the stands. When I emerged, they were playing an instrumental version of Pink Floyd's "Us and Them," which sounded really odd to me without the words. After that, they moved on to more traditional fare, like "Paper Moon." I also scouted the stands for free samples, but the only stall that had any was the pickle vendor, and he was already swamped. So I just bought some apples and a dozen free-range eggs and came home.

So I didn't find as many under-a-dollar items as I'd hoped, but I still think I did pretty well. Without spending a penny, I got to indulge all five of my senses: sight and sound with the free music and carnival atmosphere of the farmers' market, and touch, smell, and taste with the moist, cinnamon-y sweetness of the crumb cake. Three days down, and so far this "shopping" challenge hasn't cost me a cent. Though that may change tomorrow when we hit the town-wide yard sales.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 2: A treasure map

For the second day of my dollar-and-under local shopping challenge, I scored a freebie that comes but once a year: the program for our Highland Park's annual town-wide yard sale, which will take place this weekend. This annual event is sponsored by a local real estate office, which signs people up for the sale and, the week before, puts out a list of all the addresses where residents will be taking part. On the opposite page is a map of the town, for those who need help finding the addresses. It's an incredibly useful tool for getting the most out of yard sale weekend; instead of just roaming the streets randomly looking for sales, you can plot out a course that will take you through the most sale-heavy areas. This, according to Livingston's First Law of Yard Sales, will maximize your chances of finding the good stuff.

As I noted in my post about last year's sale, I like to cross-reference the list and the map by filling in all the sites of sales with x's on the map, coded by color to indicate whether they're Saturday only, Sunday only, or both days. This year, however, as I made my way back and forth from list to map with my colored pens, it occurred to me that there ought to be an easier way to do this by just inputting the addresses into Google maps and having it mark all the locations. And sure enough, I found a tutorial on how to do just that on this site. I found the site kept hanging for me due to some kind of wonky script on the page, so in case you have trouble with it too, here's a quick summary of what to do:
  1. Sign in to Google maps and enter your home address.
  2. Click on the marker and select, "Save to map." Then tell it to create a new map and give it a simple title like "Yard sale map."
  3. Then start entering the addresses of known sales and selecting "save to map" for each one. You can change the marker from a basic teardrop to some other shape and color if you like. I selected pushpins, color coded according to my usual scheme: green for Saturday, red for Sunday, or blue for both days.
It took a bit of time to enter all the sale addresses, but it was still a lot simpler than doing it by hand. (There's also an app called Yard Sale Treasure Map that's supposed to make finding and adding sales even easier, but I couldn't get it to work on my Mac.) In case any local readers were thinking of going to these sales, you can view a copy of my yard sale map here.

This may well be the most useful freebie I pick up in this whole week-long challenge: a genuine treasure map. OK, the treasures (mostly) won't be free for the taking, and we may have to search a whole bunch of sales to find them, but at least we don't have to sail all the way across the ocean to get to them and then dig them up by hand. (Too bad the sales aren't next weekend; then they'd overlap with Talk Like a Pirate Day, and my treasure map would be even more appropriate. And we could refer to it as Yarrrrrrd Sale Weekend.)