Sunday, January 31, 2016

Two Frugality Meters

These days, my frugality is a pretty big part of my identity. After all, I write about personal finance and smart shopping for Money Crashers and ConsumerSearch during the week, and then I come here on the weekend to post about my thrift shopping adventures and DIY projects. When someone asks me, "What do you do?" the most honest answer I could give would probably be, "I tell people how to save money."

So on those rare occasions when I do spend a large chunk of money, it kind of throws me for a loop. Yesterday, for instance, I went on a bit of a shoe-shopping spree. As I've noted before, it's very hard for me to find shoes that fit both my oddly shaped feet and my vegetarian lifestyle, so any time I see a pair that looks like it could possibly be suitable, it's very tempting to snap it up—even if I know I might end up just having to return it. Last year, in fact, I ended up buying and returning several pairs of shoes in quick succession, spending about $20 in shipping fees and still having no shoes to show for it. After that, I started refusing on principle to buy shoes online unless both shipping and returns were free, so at least I wouldn't have to pay just to try the shoes on.

This time, however, I found a way around that problem. After discovering an attractive, comfortable-looking, leather-free pair of three-season shoes on a website that did not offer free returns, I did a little investigation and found that the same shoes were also available online at Kohl's—so if they didn't fit, I could return them to a Kohl's store at no charge. And since several reviewers on the site said the shoes run large, I decided to order them in both my usual 6 1/2 wide and a 6 wide, figuring I could keep whichever pair fits and return the other. While I was at it, I decided to check the same site for a nice pair of boots—and when I didn't find any, I surfed over to Payless and took advantage of a sale there to buy two pairs of boots, a dressy pair and a sturdy snow boot.

So altogether, I spent about $140 on shoes in one day—something that's extremely out of character for me. Admittedly, no single pair cost more than $60...and I was able to use coupon codes on both purchases to knock an additional 15 to 30 percent off...and I know I'm going to return at least one of the four pairs. But even so, it kind of shook my self-image. Could anyone who spends that much on footwear, I asked myself, really describe herself as frugal?

Fortunately, I knew just how to set my mind at ease on this point. There are two different tools available online that prove I'm frugal—at least compared to other Americans of my income level.

The first one, called the Frugal Meter, lives on the Shnugi Personal Finance website (a name I swear I am not making up). It's incredibly simple to use: you just punch in your monthly expenses, based on your household budget, and then list the income range to which you want to compare yourself. When I tried it, the site told us we spend "a bit less than average" compared to others in our income range: however, by "a bit less," it means "for every 100 people there are about 7 who spend less or the same." To me, that sounds like a lot less, but I guess it's the number that really matters.

Unfortunately, after looking at the comments on the article, I started wondering whether the number itself was all that useful. For instance, one commenter asked whether the figure for expenses was supposed to include taxes and got the reply "Expenses include all taxes." Well, my household budget doesn't cover taxes as an expense, so I had to go consult last year's tax returns to figure out how much we actually pay in taxes per month—and when I tacked those on, our household expenses jumped from the 7th to the 21st percentile. But then I realized the numbers still weren't right, because the site also says expenses should not include "your retirement saving contributions (pension, SS, 401k or IRA)," and the figure I was using for taxes included Social Security taxes. And trying to sift out how much of last year's tax payment was for Social Security, while allowing for all the various deductions we take, was just too tangled a task to be worth the effort.

So, since this simple little calculator proved so complicated in practice, I moved on to the Frugalometer on the Frugal Fringe site, which looked a little more sophisticated. This one asks for three numbers—your annual pre-tax income, your annual expenses ("excluding social security and pension payments"), and your annual state and federal taxes—and gives specific instructions on how to calculate each one. Once you enter them all in, it compares the numbers to data from the Bureau of Labor's annual Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) and gives you a "Frugalometer score" to show how you stack up.

When I punched in our numbers on this one, it gave me a score of 251 (as compared to the average of 100) and a grade of A+++. However, I quickly realized that this calculator, too, had one serious flaw. I was already familiar enough with the CES to know that it includes health care costs as part of "annual household expenses"—but our biggest health care expense is the insurance premiums that get deducted directly from Brian's paycheck, and thus never make it into our household budget at all. Frugal Fringe's instructions for calculating your annual expenses don't account for this; they just say to figure out how much you charge to each of your credit cards in a year, how much you pay in checks and online bill payments, and so on, and add it all together. A pre-tax premium that never makes it into your bank account obviously doesn't come out of it. Given that the average "consumer unit" spends $2,868 a year on health insurance, and the average couple spends $4,040, that's a pretty big expense to leave out.

So, once again, I turned to our records, using Brian's final paystub for 2015 to figure out how much we'd spent in pre-tax dollars on health and dental expenses. That came to about $5,840, which I tacked on to our income in box 2. Our Frugalometer score instantly dropped from 251 to 209—still good, but not nearly as outstanding as it looked at first blush. (I wrote a comment on the Frugal Fringe site to point out the flaw in the Frugalometer's formula and proposed adding a fourth box for health expenses, but so far my comment hasn't showed up on the site.)

The good news, though, is that even our modified Frugalometer score is high enough to earn us an A+++ grade. So as far as A. Noonan Moose, the blogger at Frugal Fringe, is concerned (this is another name I swear I am not making up), we're doing great—my latest shoe-buying binge notwithstanding. And after all, even if I end up keeping three of the four pairs, that's about $100 for what should be at least a year's worth of shoes—not so bad when you consider that, according to the CES, the average couple spends $367 on footwear each year. If I can manage to make even one of my new pairs of shoes last for two years or more, I should be way ahead of the game.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Money Crashers: Difference Between Needs & Wants

About three years back, I posted some musings on the line between necessities and luxuries. I noted that what was a necessity for one person might be a luxury for another; for instance, high-speed Internet, free-range meats were necessities for me, while air conditioning and a smartphone were luxuries.

This post gave me the idea of writing about the same subject on Money Crashers, where I could explore it in a little more depth and from a less personal viewpoint. Here are a few of the facts I discovered during my research.
  • Gallup tracks Americans' access to 13 "basic necessities," including clean water, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a safe neighborhood, and affordable health care. Currently, nearly 1 in 5 Americans is living without at least one item on the list.
  • Every few years, Pew asks Americans which of several different technologies they consider necessities, and which they view as luxuries. The numbers have changed noticeably over time; most notably, many items that moved from the luxury to the necessity column in 2006 dropped back to luxury status during the latest recession.
  • Economists define "luxury goods" as products that people are much more likely to buy when their income rises. One classic example is a flat-screen TV, which only 5% of respondents rated as a necessity in the last Pew poll.
  • A 2014 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that performing tasks that gave people a feeling of accomplishment made them feel more interested in buying luxury brands. Appealing to their feelings of snobbery didn't trigger a similar interest. Yet when people saw others wearing luxury brands, they tended to view the wearer not as an accomplished person, but as a snob - suggesting that people who give in to the impulse to buy luxury goods are actually sending a message exactly opposite to what they're feeling.
And these are just the highlights. To get the whole story, check out the article here:
Difference Between Needs & Wants (Luxuries) and How to Draw the Line

Friday, January 22, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016, Day 6: Tower Thrift Shop

Of all the thrift shops in Highland Park and its immediate environs, the Tower Thrift Shop is the only one I visit regularly. It's within walking distance, it has a bigger selection than the other Highland Park shops, and its prices are even lower than Goodwill's—just $1 for most tops and $2 for pants. And while the clothes aren't as well organized as at some stores, they are at least loosely grouped into small, medium, and large categories, so I don't have to examine every single garment in the store to figure out which ones are likely to fit me. Its biggest drawback is that its hours are limited, but I can usually manage to make the time to stop by on a Friday—especially during the summer, when our weekly farmers' market is being held in the parking lot just outside the church where the thrift shop lives.

Yet despite these many advantages, my trips to the Tower Thrift Shop are very hit-and-miss. Sometimes I find two pairs of pants in my exact size, just like magic; other times I flip through every rack in the store and find nothing that looks remotely useful. So I had little idea what to expect when I headed down there today. Would I finally hit my thrift-store shopping stride, or would I strike out yet again?

At first, it looked like this trip was going better than any of the others. I actually found several pairs of pants worth trying on, in an assortment of fabrics: shimmery grey fine-wale corduroy, fully lined black wool, and some sort of lightweight synthetic. But alas, not one of them actually fit well enough and looked good enough to be worth the $2 they were asking. I also tried on a grey wool sweater in a boys' size XL that mistakenly got filed on the women's clothing rack. This was something I'd been looking for specifically, and the overall size and sleeve length were actually about right on me, but the boxy boy-sized cut just didn't look good. So, regretfully, I returned that to the rack as well.

In the interests of giving the store every possible chance, I made a point of checking out the bookshelves, as well. Our town doesn't actually have a used bookstore anymore (in the 13 years we've lived here, two of them have gone under, and so far no new one has emerged to take their place), but the Tower Thrift Shop has a rather motley assortment of volumes at truly unbeatable prices: just 25 cents for hardcovers, 10 cents for paperbacks, and if you buy two, you can get a third for nothing. But this time, nothing on the shelves particularly jumped out at me. I suppose I could have bought something just to buy something, but right now, we already have several books at home on the "to be read" pile (including our new Wilkie Collins from Hole in the Wall Books), and I just didn't feel the need to bring home any more. So once again, I walked out with plenty o' nuttin'.

Unfortunately, I fear that I won't be able to make my final Thrift Week excursion tomorrow, either. I was planning to stop by The Second Time Around in Pennington, a somewhat larger and nicer thrift shop that I seldom get a chance to visit, before going on to a belated birthday dinner with my parents. But it looks like both plans are going to have to be postponed, as we're currently expecting blizzard conditions all day long, with total snow accumulation of about a foot. So it looks like my Thrift Week thrift-shop binge is coming to a premature and rather unsatisfying end. Still, I will make a point of visiting the Pennington store some time in the next month or two and reporting on the results. I remember patronizing this store in the past, back when I lived in Hopewell, and it was pretty good back then—and at this point, I feel like it's become my personal quest to discover at least one good thrift store in Central New Jersey where I can reliably find useful stuff.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016, Day 5: Greene Street Consignment

Greene Street Consignment in Princeton is a far cry from our so-called consignment shop here in Highland Park. Where Pure Green is dim and cluttered, Greene Street is bright and spacious. The racks are well organized, with clothing actually sorted by size; there's plenty of room for hangers to slip on and off the rack, and plenty of room between the racks for shoppers to pass by. Shoes are neatly stacked on racks, so you can actually see the entire available selection at a glance. And there are plenty of fitting rooms—clean, well-lit rooms with hooks for your clothing selections and a stool to sit on as you take off your shoes. For me, after the low-rent thrift shops I've been experiencing the rest of this week, this was unimaginable luxury.

Compared to those other stores, Greene Street also offers a much wider selection, with a focus on upscale brands. For instance, I spotted sweaters on the rack by the likes of Ralph Lauren and Ann Taylor, and pants by Michael Kors (without the words "for Target" tacked on). Clothing tends to be newer, too; I happened to overhear a conversation outside the fitting rooms between an employee and someone who was interested in bringing in some clothes to consign, and the employee was explaining that anything more than a year or so old probably wasn't worth bothering with, because they wouldn't be able to sell it.

Of course, this posh atmosphere comes with much higher price tags than the ones I'm used to seeing at Goodwill, or even at the local "vintage" and "consignment" stores. I saw sweaters ranging from $20 to $50, and some pairs of pants for as much as $70—comparable, or in some cases even more, than I'm accustomed to paying for new clothes off the rack. Of course, I'm sure that it's much less than those particular brands would cost to buy new, but then, I wouldn't be shopping for those particular brands if I had to pay full price.

Still, I was determined not to be put off by the prices. I figured that I probably wouldn't be spending any more on these consigned clothes than I'd pay at Sears or Target, and I thought, or at least hoped, that with the wide selection on the racks, I'd actually have a better chance of finding something I liked. Unlike the local stores I'd visited on Tuesday and Wednesday, this one actually did seem to have a good assortment of practical clothes for everyday wear, including shirts, slacks, and sweaters in a reasonable range of sizes. So it looked like if I was going to find anything, this was my best shot.

At first, matters looked promising. As I browsed up and down the racks, I found several garments worth pulling off the rack for a closer look, but none of them looked like it would really serve to fill a gap in my wardrobe. I did try on one pair of pants that looked like they might fit me—a bit long, perhaps, but they could be hemmed—and weren't too outrageously expensive at $32. But though I was able to get into them, they turned out to be a low-rise style that looks absolutely awful on me (something that wasn't obvious from the way they looked on the hanger). So the entire bottom floor of the store, from sweaters to shoes, yielded no treasures.

Upstairs, in the clearance section, the pickings were slimmer, but the prices were lower—not as low as Goodwill's, but getting closer to that range. I tried on a deep-pink wrap dress that looked like it might be a reasonable deal at $15, but it proved to be too big in the shoulders, too low in the neck, and too skimpy everywhere else—though that might have been partly because I had a lot of trouble figuring out exactly how the thing was supposed to fasten. It was a bit like trying to tie myself into a pink toga.

So, sadly, despite the nice selection and atmosphere, I still left Greene Street empty-handed. It was a bit of a consolation to know that at least I had managed to get a look at everything on the racks, so if I hadn't found anything, it must have been because there was nothing to find, and not because there was some hidden gem buried so deep that I couldn't unearth it. But this was cold comfort when I reflected that even a really good thrift shop apparently couldn't provide anything to suit me. If my ultimate goal for this thrift-shopping binge is to fill all the gaps in my wardrobe, thereby eliminating all need for cheap, mass-produced clothes from third world sweatshops, then the prospect of completing my quest successfully seems to be looking dimmer and dimmer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016, Day 4: Pure Green Consignment

My week of thrift-shop-hopping continued today with a trip to another local establishment, just a block away from the one I visited yesterday. Pure Green Consignment is not a complete store in its own right; it shares a building with Pure Light Gifts, a sort of New-Age-y shop that sells crystals and incense and hosts meditation classes. There's no real overlap between the two businesses, though; Pure Light occupies the back of the store, in an open space smelling faintly of patchouli, while the front half is crammed with overcrowded racks of clothing, tables full of knickknacks, piles of shoes, and ladies busily chatting together in Mandarin. I think there's probably also a dressing room in there somewhere, but I couldn't easily spot it.

The selection of clothing at Pure Green overlaps a lot with what I saw yesterday at Sibel's Vintage: there's a heavy emphasis on coats and shoes, particularly fancy ones. However, the tightly packed racks do also appear to have a reasonable selection of everyday garments. Unfortunately, searching through them was rather difficult, since everything was so tightly crammed onto the racks that it was almost impossible to extricate anything. I managed to pull a few garments partway out so I could get a closer look at them, but what I saw wasn't encouraging. Most of the clothes, particularly the few pairs of jeans on the rack, appeared to be in tiny sizes. I did dig out a colorful skirt—which actually turned out to be two skirts clipped to the same hanger—in a size that looked reasonable, but the price tags on the two skirts were $15 and $16 respectively. I'm sure that's a significant savings over retail, but it's still more than I'm really willing to pay for a garment I definitely don't need and might not ever wear at all.

My search of the shoes was equally fruitless. They weren't sorted in any way by size, of course, but that's par for the course at thrift shops and I didn't really expect anything different. But most of them also weren't set out on any sort of racks; they were just lined up on the floor, pair after pair, where you had to crouch down to get a look at them. I stooped once or twice to pick up a pair that looked like it might be my size, but none of them actually had the right number on them. A couple didn't appear to have any size marked on them at all, and I might have attempted to try them on, but since there was no place in the store to sit down, it didn't seem worth the effort to try and change shoes while standing on one leg.

One of the racks, near the back of the store, had some men's clothing on it, and I gave it a quick glance—but there aren't really any gaps in Brian's wardrobe that need filling at the moment, and anyhow, I wouldn't want to spend $15 on a garment for him if he couldn't try it on first. So after about ten minutes of browsing, I ended up leaving the store empty-handed.

So, halfway into Thrift Week, my tally is:

Thrift shop visits attempted: 5
Thrift shops successfully visited: 4
Items purchased: 4 (1 book, 2 pairs pants, 1 pair tights)
Items purchased that were actually secondhand: 3
Total spent: $20.50

So far, the numbers aren't exactly encouraging. But tomorrow I'll have a chance to visit a bigger and more upscale thrift shop in Princeton—two of the factors that I usually find add up to a better selection of secondhand merchandise. So perhaps I'll have better luck on that trip.

Money Crashers: 9 Valentine’s Day Ideas on a Budget

Last year, after years of ignoring or stumbling awkwardly around Valentine's Day, I finally decided that I wanted to do something to celebrate the holiday. And since most traditional gifts—like roses imported from Chile and jewelry mined at great environmental cost—are far from ecofrugal, Brian and I both came up with alternative gift ideas that fit our personalities and lifestyle. I gave him an e-book with a romantic theme, with a series of heart-shaped notes as clues to help him find it; he gave me a framed photo of our ailing cat (who actually died not long after, so this turned out to be a final memento of her) and a pair of earrings from Ten Thousand Villages.

These gifts struck me as not only less expensive than the typical Valentine offerings, but also much more personal. I thought other people facing the annual Valentine Dilemma might also benefit from some ideas for ways to get around the problem, so I wrote up a piece on the subject for Money Crashers. First, I calculate the cost of several "traditional" Valentine's Day gifts and activities—cards, candy, flowers, jewelry, and a candlelit dinner—and discuss some ways to give gifts along the same lines for less. Then I explore some less traditional alternatives, such as books, music, heart-themed gifts (such as this pillow from IKEA, a cute idea that got cut from the final version of the article), and inexpensive date ideas like a game night or a rented video.

The other good news is that, unlike my article on green gifts for the holidays, this one actually got published far enough ahead of the holiday for it to be useful. So if you're trying to work your way through the Valentine Dilemma, you can find lots of ideas here: 9 Valentine’s Day Ideas on a Budget – Affordable Gifts & Activities

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016, Day 3: Sibel's Vintage

When I first came up with the idea of thrift shopping for Thrift Week, I couldn't manage to think of enough local thrift shops to fill out the week. So it came as quite a happy discovery when a brand new secondhand store opened up last December in a spot on Raritan Avenue that used to be a bead and jewelry shop. It actually changed hands quite suddenly; one week it was Ashley's Pearl and Jewelry, the next it suddenly had brown paper over all the windows, and before that week was out, the paper had come down to reveal a new display of assorted furniture, tchotchkes, and jewelry, and the awning over the store had been repainted to read "Sibel's Vintage."

Based on the contents of the window, I initially guessed that the "vintage" items for sale at Sibel's were mostly along the lines of furnishings and accessories for the home, but a pile of fliers at my local bank soon dispelled that idea. It promised that Sibel's carried a wide assortment of goods, including:
  • Vintage Silver Jewelry
  • Vintage Furs
  • Vintage '30s and '40s Clothing
  • Vintage Party Dresses
  • Vintage Hats & Shoes
  • Vintage Purses
  • Vintage Accessories
  • Antique Jewelry
  • Antique Furniture
  • Antique Mirrors
  • Antique Lamps
  • Antique Paintings/Art
  • Antique Collectibles
After seeing this mouthwatering menu, I entered Sibel's for the first time today with high hopes. The front of the store was filled with jewelry and various gewgaws, but toward the back, up a short flight of stairs, I found several racks of clothing, as promised. I didn't see much that looked like it dated from the '30s and '40s, but there was indeed a display of colorful party dresses, a rack of antique coats—fur and otherwise—and a wide assortment of shoes and purses, of varying provenance and price.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really in the market for an evening dress or a coat, and there didn't appear to be much in the way of practical, everyday garments. I did examine the racks of shoes, though, and actually went so far as to try on a pair of grey felt booties bearing the label "Blowfish Shoes." I couldn't find this exact style online, but similar styles on their website appear to sell for around $50, which would have made these a bargain at the marked price of $15—but sadly, they were far too tight across the instep. The proprietor, who I assume was Sibel herself, tried to interest me in other pairs of boots, including a size 6 pair of Uggs (definitely too small) and a pair of what I can only describe as mukluks, but nothing seemed suitable.

I felt a bit bad for Sibel, since I was the only customer in the store—perhaps the only one she'd had all day—and she seemed eager, even desperate, to find me something I would like. However, I wasn't about to blow $15 on a pair of shoes that didn't fit, or $75 on a velvet evening bag that I'd almost certainly never have a use for, just for the sake of giving her my business. But I did find a rack of tights for sale behind the shoes—new, not secondhand, though I guess they may have been acquired as remainders from other stores—and I figured I could always use another pair of those, so I spent $5 on a nice black cable-knit pair. They're actually not the ideal size for me, but the stretchy fabric is accommodating enough to adjust, and the price wasn't unreasonable.

So today's mission was, at best, a partial success. I managed to find something useful and give a bit of support to a local thrift shop that I certainly hope will thrive, even if it didn't happen to have anything to my taste. But if my ultimate goal was to devote more of my clothing budget to secondhand clothes rather than cheap, mass-produced ones, I'm afraid I didn't do anything to further it today.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016, Day 2: East Brunswick Goodwill Store

To prepare for my Thrift Week thrift store series, I did a little research into thrift stores in the New Brunswick area. There was one in particular that I was curious about: a funky-looking little vintage store on Hamilton Street called Kru & Krahn. I'd often passed by it on my way through New Brunswick, but invariably, it was closed. Once I made a point of stopping by there on foot during the day, on my way back from a doctor's appointment, but it was closed then too—even though the sign in the window indicated that it should have been open at that time. So I hoped that by doing a little digging, I might be able to find out when this store was actually open and finally get a look inside.

After a quick search, I uncovered an article on local thrift shops from Inside Beat, the Rutgers student magazine. It claimed that Kru & Krahn was open every day from 1pm to 7pm, but I wasn't prepared to take the article's word for it—especially after having recently seen an article on local businesses in our own local quarterly, the Highland Park News, that claimed there was "a great selection of new and used books" at the Author's Bookstore, a store that I knew for a fact had never actually opened. So first I found Kru & Krahn's website, which had information about their mission, pictures of their merchandise, and "trends we admire," but no information at all about where the store was located or what its hours were. However, after clicking a few more links, I found the store's Facebook page, which gave its address and assured me that it was indeed open from 1pm to 7pm today.

So, with Brian, who was off work for the holiday, I drove into New Brunswick around 2pm to check the place out. On-street parking spots in New Brunswick being as scarce as hens' teeth, we parked in the nearest faculty parking lot and made our way across seven city blocks, through frigid air and biting wind...only to find the store with paper over all the windows and no indication of when it had closed or where it was gone. All we knew was that apparently no one had bothered to take down or modify the store's Facebook page.

So, with that particular thrift store no longer available, we decided to go to plan B: a visit to the Goodwill store in East Brunswick. I wasn't as enthusiastic about this, as I'd been to this Goodwill store before and seldom found anything useful, but I figured at least it would allow me to fulfill my mission of visiting one thrift store each day.

When we got there, we discovered that the store was actually running a sale for Martin Luther King Day: 35% off all items (except for blue-tag items, which were already marked down by 50%). The bad news was, apparently word of this sale had reached far and wide, and the store was much more crowded than usual. Not only that, a large percentage of the shoppers were loading up carts with merchandise, and since the narrow aisles can just barely admit one of these carts, it was absolutely impossible for anyone else to get past on foot. So I did a lot of ducking and maneuvering and backtracking to work my way around them. That, and the fact that this store sorts all its merchandise by color rather than by size (which is undoubtedly easier for the workers, but a lot harder for the shoppers), made it really difficult to check out all the merchandise.

However, I did manage, after a lot of twisting and dodging, to dig out several items to try on. Amazingly, there was no line at all for the fitting rooms—although it looked like every single person who'd been in there before me had simply left all their unwanted garments hanging on the pegs or scattered on the floor, rather than going to the obviously overwhelming effort of carrying them back out and hanging them on the rack just outside the door. So I did my good deed for the day by clearing out and hanging up all these discarded garments after I was done.

In the end, I managed to find two pairs of black pants that fit tolerably well. Neither was exactly a great fit, but with the 35% discount, they were only $3.25 each, which seemed to be an acceptable amount to risk. One is a soft, stretchy velour that I figure I can wear for dressy occasions in the wintertime, and the other is just a basic cotton blend that should be okay for everyday wear. So for $6.50, I figure that's not too bad a deal. Of course, we also had to wait about half an hour in the checkout line to pay for them, since naturally the store had no more than its usual number of checkers to deal with the massive sale crowds and their huge loads of merchandise. Brian observed that the store was looking "even more like an unattended garage sale" than usual.

I have to say, after just two days of thrift-shopping, I think I'm beginning to understand why it is that 90% of all the clothes donated to thrift shops go unsold. I mean, here we are, in the middle of a heavily populated area in Central Jersey, and of the six thrift stores I was able to find within a short drive from us, one had a website that left out such minor details as its location, its hours, and, oh yes, the fact that it was closing—and the other is an overcrowded firetrap with unsorted merchandise, insufficient staff, and barely enough room to move. If we can't find a single decent thrift store in an urban area like this, what wonder is it that these stores are faring so poorly nationwide?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016

Last month, while researching prices for my Money Crashers article on things that have fallen in price, I started digging into the topic of clothing prices. I found that, while clothing prices have been rising in the short term, over the long term - the past several decades - they have grown dramatically cheaper. Yet according to the 2015 documentary True Cost, as covered here on CNN, that's not a good thing. The cost of clothing today, the film argues, is far too low; it doesn't adequately reflect the true economic and social cost of producing the garments. It dwells on such topics as rising debt (and, relatedly, suicides) among Indian cotton farmers, the appalling conditions in third-world textile mills, and the amount of fabric waste in the US each year.

Not having seen the film, I can't really respond to its argument as a whole. But my attention was grabbed by one particular statistic cited in the CNN piece: "Only 10% of the clothes people donate to thrift stores get sold - the rest end up in landfills or flood markets in developing countries."

I'd never heard this fact before, and I still don't know where the filmakers got it from. But if it's anywhere near close to true, it shows that even in thrift shops, which I've always considered a classic example of stuff green people like, aren't nearly as green as they could be. Yes, they're keeping some clothes out of landfills - but only about 10 percent of the clothes they receive.

Now, the filmmakers' conclusion about cheap clothing is that American consumers ought to "back off this endless, constant purchasing" and spend their clothing budget on a few high-quality items that will last. But it seems to me, based on the statistic above, that one other thing we could all be doing that would be at least as helpful is to support our local thrift shops. Buying more of our clothing secondhand would reduce textile waste, while also reducing the profitability of the cheap clothes made in third-world factories - an ecofrugal win-win.

Thus, Thrift Week 2016 is going to be Thrift Shop Week 2016. I'm planning to visit a different local thrift shop each day, buying something if I find anything useful, but at the very least familiarizing myself with the stores and what they have to offer - and providing them with a little free publicity here on the blog. I've decided that for purposes of this series, a "thrift shop" is any store that sells all or mostly secondhand goods - not just clothing, but secondhand items of any kind, including furniture and books. I'll focus on clothing stores mainly, since that's what inspired me to tackle the topic, but I won't limit myself to clothing stores, since there probably aren't enough of them in our area to get me through the whole week.

One additional complication is that, as I kick off this year's Thrift Week, I'm not actually at home; I'm visiting some friends down in Falls Church, VA. So my first thrift shop of Thrift Shop Week isn't one of my local thrift shops, but one of theirs: a secondhand bookstore called Hole in the Wall Books. As you can see from the pictures on their website, the place lives up to its name. It's a used bookstore of the old school, a dense, crowded warren of tiny rooms, all lined with shelves overflowing with books of every type: paperbacks, hardcovers, comics, fiction and nonfiction, classics, sci-fi, mysteries, horror, and anything else you care to name.

Mind you, if you're looking for something in particular, finding it in this maze isn't exactly easy. But the books are at least grouped roughly into categories and sorted approximately alphabetically, so Brian and I were able to determine after a brief search that most of the authors we look for in places like this - Jim Butcher, Ilona Andrews, Rex Stout - weren't represented on the shelves. However, I did manage to locate one volume by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. He was pretty hot stuff in his day, but nowadays, it seems the only works of his you can find anywhere - at our local library, at the bookstores, and even at most online libraries - are The Moonstone and The Woman in White, both of which we've already read. So when I found a collection of three lesser-known Collins novels we'd never seen before, I decided not to balk at the $9 price tag. (Although this place looks like an old-school used bookstore, it definitely doesn't follow the old-school pricing model of half the cover price for most books. If it did, we'd almost certainly have bought more books and spent more money altogether.) Sure, $9 for works that are officially out of copyright may seem a bit steep, but if we can't actually find them anywhere else, it's still a bargain.

So that was my first Thrift Week score, and the first of what I hope will be seven secondhand birthday presents from me to myself.  Stay tuned throughout the week to hear of our further adventures in thrifting.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My birthday present

Ever since we first bought this house, seven and a half years ago, there's been one thing about it that drives me completely nuts. The office closet has a pair of sliding doors, and they're incredibly awkward to use.

First of all, like all sliding doors, they only allow you access to half the closet at a time. That means that if you want to put something large in there (like the box we use to store Christmas presents before wrapping), you have to open one side completely, stick the box in as far as it will go, and then sort of maneuver it into place.

But I could live with that if it weren't so bloody difficult to get one door open in the first place. As you can see from the picture, they don't have real handles, only tiny little finger holes. So to open one, you have to sort of poke the tip of one finger into this shallow little hole and pull as hard as you can with just that one finger, and the door resists and resists until you finally manage to squeeeeeeze it open just a half inch or so, at which point you can stick your hand in the gap and push it open from the other side. (Brian maintains that it's actually easier to squeeze your fingers in around the edge of the door, close to the top, and pry it open—but Brian's a foot taller than I am.)

It used to be even harder, because the doors are secured to a track at the top, but the bottoms were just dangling loose about an inch above the floor (like all the other doors on the main level of the house after the removal of the old, thick carpeting). So they would just wobble all over the place whenever you tried to pull or push them. Eventually, Brian added a little dingus at the bottom (I believe that's its technical name) to keep them loosely aligned, but they're still not at all cooperative.

Fixing these doors has been on our to-do list for over seven years, but it kept getting put off because other things were more urgent, and so the doors just stayed as they were, continuing to annoy me every single time I attempted to open or close them. Things came to a head one morning when I was trying to wrestle these doors open so I could retrieve the laundry basket we keep in there on an upper shelf, and the whole mess kept bumping and shifting, and it somehow managed to jar the laundry basket loose so that it came down on my head. After hurling it into the bedroom with perhaps unnecessary force, I managed to tell Brian very calmly that what I wanted for my birthday this year was a new set of closet doors.

I figured replacing the sliding doors with new sliding doors wouldn't really help matters, since there would still be no good way to keep them aligned, and it would still be impossible to open more than half the closet at once. A pair of French-style double doors, hinge-mounted on opposite sides, would give us access to the whole closet, but we'd have to leave a lot of room for the swing of the door on both sides, and we'd have to completely redo the doorframe to accommodate the new hardware. So we decided compact bifold doors looked like our best bet, and we headed down to the big-box stores to see what types they had available.

One requirement for both of us was that they had to be real wood. Neither of us could stand the idea of putting up a huge hunk of plastic in our house, even plastic etched with fake wood-grain to make it look (from a distance) like real wood. Besides, with the off-white walls, we thought a pair of plain white doors would leave that whole wall looking too flat and blank. With wood, we could stain the closet doors to match the rest of the interior doors on the main level, so they'd blend in with the rest of the house.

That requirement narrowed our choices down to two:
  1. A solid-core, six-panel door in unfinished pine, for $89 apiece (marked down from $99), or about $180 for the pair.
  2. A much cheaper hollow-core door with no trim of any kind, covered in "lauan" (which my dictionary informed me was "another term for Philippine mahogany"), for about $28 each.
Despite the high price tag, the first door looked like a better bet. A more solid door would not only hold up better, it would also have more weight, which would probably enable it to hang better and not flop around like the original sliding doors. (We also considered trying to make our own doors out of plywood, but a trip through the lumber aisle showed that this would cost nearly as much as buying the nicer doors, and it would be a lot more work.)

The main problem with the nicer doors wasn't actually their price; it was, as Brian put it, that hanging them in our office would make it clear just how shabby the rest of the room was. In the seven years we've owned the house, we've redone all of the downstairs rooms, but most of the upstairs ones haven't even been touched; the office still has its original unmatched wall outlets, wrinkled corner tape, painted-over wall hardware, a small section of patched wall that's never been painted over, and a badly damaged (and inexpertly patched) outer door with a mismatched knob. By buying these nice closet doors, we'd basically be throwing our caps over the wall, forcing ourselves to tackle a complete top-to-bottom makeover of this room.

But as you can see from the picture, we went ahead and got them anyway. So getting these stained and finished and installed is going to be our next project—and presumably, it will also be the first phase of the much larger project of redoing this entire room. Fortunately, the floors are okay, and we have decent furnishings and window treatments—but all the little things, from entrance door to wall sockets to paint and trim, will have to be redone. We're hoping that we've learned enough from our experience stripping and painting the guest room to get this one done a bit in a bit less than the three months we spent on that one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Make a Grocery Price Book to Save at the Supermarket

As I've noted before, when it comes to grocery shopping, Brian and I don't exactly play by the rules. Most money-saving articles recommend that you make just one big trip to the grocery store each week, or even each month, to stock up on everything you need. The idea is that by limiting the number of trips you make to the store, you reduce the number of impulse purchases you can (or, as some of them claim, invariably will) make.

The problem with this is that if you make only one shopping trip a week, you have to buy everything you need that week at one store. And when you do this, you can't possibly be getting the lowest price on everything, because every store has better prices on some items than others. So our system involves stopping by multiple stores over the course of a week or a month, whenever we happen to be in the area, to buy the items that are the best deals at that particular store.

What I haven't talked about all that much is how we keep track of all those prices at all those different stores, so we know what to get where. The answer is, we write them down in a price book: a little loose-leaf notebook small enough to tuck in my purse, with a page devoted to each item we buy regularly, listing the prices at all the stores where we habitually shop. If we're in need of anything and not sure where to buy it, all we have to do is check the price book to see where we can get it cheapest (or find the cheapest regular price and then wait for a sale price that's even less). Keeping a price book is a strategy we learned from Amy Dacyczyn of The Tightwad Gazette (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), and it's probably the single most useful tool we have for keeping our grocery bill in check.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I go into more details about price books, their benefits, and how to make your own. I discuss the different ways to do it (a notebook like ours, an Excel spreadsheet, a smartphone app) and the pros and cons of each, and then I outline some strategies for getting the most benefit out of your price book.

Check it out here: How to Make a Grocery Price Book to Save at the Supermarket

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best Budget Decor, Part 5

It's been a while since we had one of my budget decor posts, so I thought a new one might be a good way to start off the new year. (You can see my previous posts on budget room redos here: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. I've also added a new "budget decor" tag so you can see them all on one page.)

Thus far, all my budget decor posts have focused on room makeovers within a specific dollar limit: up to $1,000 for a kitchen, $500 for a bath or basement remodel, and $250 for any other room. Those limits left me unsure about including a redesigned breakfast nook posted on This Old House. If you count it as a kitchen, it's well under the $1,000 limit, but it seems like cheating to call this a kitchen remodel when they didn't touch the appliances or, indeed, any of the actual cooking space. But on the other hand, it doesn't seem quite fair to exclude this under-$350 remodel because it's over the $250 limit for "other" when it's technically part of a kitchen. So I've decided to create a new category called "partial kitchen makeover," with a $500 limit, for any project that involves redoing some part of a kitchen without tackling the entire room.

One thing I find annoying about the way room makeovers are posted on This Old House is that they insist on showing the "after" picture first—leading off with the big reveal rather than showing just how awful the space was to start with, so that you can really appreciate what a transformation the homeowners achieved on a small budget. So I'm going to direct you first to the before picture, which shows the original breakfast nook as a completely dull brown space: dull brown floors, dull brown furniture, and dull brown wallpaper, without a single hint of color anywhere.

Now that you've had a chance to take in the complete absence of character, take a look at the after picture to see how much of a difference the Crinion family made with a bit of paint and one new piece of furniture. The biggest change from a functional standpoint was replacing two of the four chairs with a new corner bench they found on Craigslist, giving them enough seating for the whole family of five. Then they painted both the bench and the table white, added some cheerful red-and-white cushions, and gave the two chairs they kept a completely new look by cutting down their posts and painting them bright red. An ombre paint design on the walls and new artwork complete the transformation from dull and brown to bright and cheery.

You can read more about this project on their blog, House for Five. And while browsing there, I happened to find a post about how they made over the rest of the kitchen for $663—which means if you lump that together with the breakfast nook, they're only just over the $1,000 limit for a kitchen redo. On the other hand, it may be sort of cheating to count this, since Ms. Crinion admits it was actually the "2nd phase" in their kitchen renovation; they had already replaced all the "ancient" appliances with modern stainless-steel ones back in phase 1, and that was almost surely a whopping expense that isn't included in the $663 budget. So if you put all that together with the breakfast nook, it's definitely too pricey to be considered a budget kitchen remodel. But it is a pretty snazzy transformation, nonetheless, and worth taking a look at.

Fortunately, I also found several kitchen remodels that definitely fit the "budget" criterion. First, from the Remodelista site, is yet another dull-brown kitchen that was converted to a sleek, clean, all-white space for just $350—and, more impressively still, over the course of just two weekends. Remodelista, like This Old House, insists on spoiling the surprise by showing all the "after" pictures first, so you'll have to scroll down to the middle of the page to see what a neutral, featureless space the homeowners had to work with, with builder-grade oak cabinets blending seamlessly into the wood of the floors. They spent the first weekend cutting the oak vista in half by ripping out all those upper cabinets so they could replace them with airy open shelving: hand-painted pine boards from Home Depot mounted on IKEA brackets, supplemented with hanging racks also from IKEA. Personally, I wouldn't care for open shelving in my kitchen because I'd find it a hassle to keep it looking presentable all the time—but since one of the homeowners is a potter by trade, it only makes sense for her to keep her own wares on display. They then added flat white paint to the wall and the lower cabinets and splurged on a new $170 faucet—nearly half their total budget—to replace an old, leaky one. Even though the beige laminate counters weren't touched, they look much less blah in their fresh new surroundings.

Next up is a $468 kitchen also covered on This Old House. Unlike the previous ones, which started out as neutral spaces devoid of color, this kitchen originally had far too much, as you can see in this before picture. With bright blue cabinet doors, blue-and-red-checked flooring, and polka-dot wallpaper, the assortment of vivid colors and patterns drew the eye in every direction at once. So rather than punching it up, the homeowners toned it down with an all-white paint job, plus neutral brown paint on the floors and stone-look paint on the counters. Then, to keep the newly neutral space from feeling boring, they added some extra details to give it character: beadboard wallpaper and 1/4-inch plywood trim on the lower cabinets; open shelves in place of some of the upper ones; a striking new kitchen island built from pine planks in a "distressed" dark finish, creating a new focal point for the space; and to add back in a little touch of color, a new pendant lamp made from blue glass mason jars. Ironically, the new white kitchen looks much brighter and cheerier than the brightly colored original, and the new island makes it more functional as well.

Here's another shoestring kitchen makeover featured on Remodelista. This a tiny Brooklyn kitchen started out with decent bones—new appliances, granite counters, wood floors, and sturdy cabinets—but it lacked character. To bring it up to par with the rest of her 1920s-era apartment, homeowner Danielle Arceneaux painted the light wood cabinets white and added beadboard paneling to the island, giving it an instant vintage feel. A new subway-tile backsplash with dark grout, installed right over the old tiles, made the room look more streamlined, and an extra shelf installed above the upper cabinets added much-needed storage. She did all the work herself, turning to YouTube videos for guidance, and spent less than $300 on materials. You can read more details about the new shelf installation at One Kings Lane and the handmade feather-covered lampshades on Design Sponge.

Finally, here's yet another kitchen from This Old House. The before picture shows a dark, cramped space with generic wood cabinets and overpowering rust-orange walls. Instead of going the easy route and painting everything white, the homeowners brightened the space with white paint on the walls and upper cabinets, then added a pop of color with a sage-green paint on the lower ones. They also ditched the upper cabinet doors in favor of the now-ubiquitous open shelving. Beadboard wallpaper makes yet another appearance in this kitchen makeover, serving as an inexpensive backsplash. To set the dining area apart from the kitchen, they painted one accent wall in a light blue, refinished their dining table with a dark top and white legs, and added a new mirror and a pair of vintage cabinets. Finishing touches included new cabinet hardware, molding, and light fixtures. The finished room now looks much lighter and more open, and all for only $564 total.

That's it for this installment of Budget Decor. Watch this space for more exciting room remodels in the future—possibly even some in our very own house, as we're preparing to tackle a new project in the office that could well end up triggering a reexamination of the entire room. Stay tuned for details!