Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spend less, have more

Stuff accumulates (this is universal, in the Universe sense). Some forces collect more stuff than others. E.g. growing up, my house was extremely cluttered, there were stacks of unopened mail on the kitchen table, heaps of laundry piled on the couch, and underutilized kitchen gadgets on the counter.

Today, my couch has Viola's stuffed animals, my table has the remnants of lunch, and I don't even own a microwave. It's all part of my habit of living with what I need, and letting the universe sort out the rest. Spending like a drunkin' sailor was fun when I knew how to tie my knots and got paid like a SiVl engineer. But even before I had fewer doubloons in my purse, Tammy and I experimented with The Compact. We pledged to buy nothing new for a whole year. What I learned was an invaluable life lesson: what I want is not necessarily what I need.

What do I need? I need shelter for me and Tammy and Viola. I need good food on our table. I need furniture and clothes. I need entertainment.

The first is my mortgage. We own our tiny one-bath house. Having your bank own your home for the privilege to repay them is quite a burden and deserves its own post. Buy, rent, squat, whatever the right ratio of thick walls to debt to noisy neighbors is right for you.

Food was covered in the previous post. Briefly, buying local and fresh is cheaper and healthier than eating out or eating crappy processed food. I need good food to fuel my brain for these posts.

Toys for the baby, toys for me, dishes in the cupboard, an enormous plastic castle in the backyard, the tables and chairs, clothes for everyone, and even the kitchen appliances, that's the stuff that can clutter your physical life, and when it does that, it spills over into your mental one.

As The Minimalist, I've distilled what I need to survive to pretty much what you see in my house and my yard. Yet I don't live an austere livestyle. I have my books and my kitchen whisks to protect me. What I don't have a McMansion, weird you-saw-it-on-TV gadgets, and plastic crap. My space is filled with the loves of my life: What I want is what I need.

DISCLAIMER: If you own a microwave, a three-story mansion, and tons of electronic crap for your kids...AND...you still come in under-budget ever month, bully for you! Keep rocking the party and don't forget to invite me (You've got my number, I like red wine, no pinot, and beer from the Pacific Northwest.)

But if you want more stuff to gravitate towards you without fear of it eventually being consumed by a larger mass (i.e. the bank, the repo man, etc.), then you need to buy it for less.

Craigslist is a good start. Tammy found Camelot--a Tiny Tikes plastic playset that retails for $400 but used was $65--on Craiglist. While I admit it was a pain in the arse to make two trips to South San Jose to get it, the benefit was enormous: backyard yard playhouse for Viola, entertainment for my father-in-law (who had to re-assemble it), and an under-budget birthday gift. Re-using older goods is good for everyone: the seller rids themselves of unneeded merchandise (and they threw in a tree swing), the buyer gets what they want--and if it's plastic, it's already out-gassed most of it worst toxins--and the dump doesn't get cluttered with yet another non-biodegradable item.

DISCLAIMER PART DEUX: On Craigslist you'll find the best and worst of humanity with little in between. People will flake when you or the item you want to buy isn't as advertised. All that said, Craigslist has rewarded us with a great guest bed, the aforementioned backyard playset, Blue (my Mini Cooper S), and lots of baby stuff (much if it free). And it has also rid of us chests-of-drawers, river rocks, and our own cars. The best advice I can offer for Craigslist : if you make an appointment with a buyer/seller, and they flake by more than 5 minutes, they aren't interested.

Threads, we all wear them (If you're a nudist, get the laptop off your lap! Seriously, bad for the boys). I prefer clothing from used-clothing stores. Why? Usually it was worn once (if at all), it looks like it was worn three years ago, about where my fashion sense gravitates, and I look good in it (ask Tammy). I recommend Crossroads Trading Company in The Castro, but I've had some success in their locations in San Jose and Santa Cruz. Tammy has good luck at Goodwill, as well as Thrift Town in The Mission.

If used-clothes hunting isn't your sport, do you have friends or family about the same size as you? Tammy and her sister have had a long tradition of swapping clothes when one gets bored with an outfit. My sister gave us tons of pregnancy and baby clothes before Viola was born, and now that she's pregnant again we sending some of it back along with new finds we picked up along the way.

Obviously, if you can't find it used and it meets your needs (not just your wants), Do-It-Yourself costs far less than pre-made. Our friends made a play kitchen for their children, and I think it looks better than anything you can find in the store, as well.

Other avenues to explore:

Ebay. We found a matching set of used dishes this way.

Scavenge. Drive around your neighborhood (or richer neighborhoods). People leave free stuff out all the time. I got a new desk for Viola this way in Berkeley.

Garage sales. My city hosts a city-wide garage sale day once a year in the Spring. We've gotten tons of stuff this way. Tools, clothes, utensils to name a few.

There are lots of ways getting stuff, and if you've found other creative ways of doing it on the cheap, let me know! I'm in the market for a computer desk for Viola right now...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Credit cards: the new scam, same as the old

It seems that my best efforts to be the credit-card company's worst customer has hit a snag. The bank has hit upon a new scam, and it's going to cost me $15 in finance charges this month.

Three things happened. First, my 0% interest on purchases went up to 2.99%. I'm sure they sent me some stupid piece of paper in the mail notifying me of this, and I'm sure you all diligently read them with a magnifying glass, but I just toss them into the recycled paper bin.

Second on Feb 13, a new federal law went into effect: the bank has to disclose it's interest payments on purchases, and separate them out from other interest (balance transfers and cash advances).

Third thing: the bank decided that it's going to start charging interest beginning from the statement date, not the due date. This is written down nowhere that I can find and I think they just made it up. Update: Via Chris Ing on Facebook, I've learned that this is called the Grace Period. My CC bank has altered it with minimal warning (if any). Scum bags.

Then I get hit with a $15 interest payment on a statement that only earned me 20 reward points; I would only make out $5 ahead. Huh? I have my auto pay set up to always pay my cards down on the due date, thinking I was being clever by holding onto my money for as long as I could.

We have a BS from Berkeley, a BA from Berkeley, and an MS from Stanford combined between the two of us, and it still took two calls to the bank to figure out what had happened.

I have obviously changed my auto pay to now pay the balance on the statement date.

I tried shopping around for a card to give me 0% interest again, but they're rare, and the rate is only introductory. According to this web site on Yahoo!, low-interest cards are going to get even rarer, and even then only for businessmen and the wealthy.

Lessons (re)-learned: 0) The bank is not my friend, 1) Always look at your statements, and 2) pay down your balance on the statement date. I had to modify the third to reflect the new reality of an industry that always finds more ways to scrape scum from the bottom of the barrel.