Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Advantages of the Current Economic Crisis

After my last post, I started thinking about the plus side of the current economy. For one thing, it's kind of fun to have everyone in the same boat.

I can only imagine that this is how it must have felt during World War II when everyone made sacrifices for the war effort. My friend even has her own 'victory garden' ... her personal victory over inflated grocery store produce prices.

Here are some other good things that have come out of the current crisis:

#1) Free Groceries - I have 3 great coupons in my purse right now. The first one was mailed directly to me from Ralphs grocery store. I earned $14 in free groceries by using my Ralphs Reward Card when I shopped. They also included valuable coupons for items I buy from there on a regular basis. The other two coupons came in the mail with the Wednesday circulars ... one is for a free $10 gift card if I buy $50 worth of groceries from Stater Bros. The other is for $5 of free groceries if I buy $30 worth at Fresh & Easy. These incentives are really appreciated. Also some groceries have gone up in price but I've noticed that others have dropped.

2) We have been forced to explore alternative forms of transportation. This is possibly the greatest thing that has come out of this crisis, more and more people sharing cars, using buses, buying scooters, etc. And believe me, I am someone who never would have considered using a bus to go somewhere, now everyone I know seems to be carrying around bus route pamphlets!

3) Recycling is something we do religiously now. Good for the environment plus we usually make enough to go out for lunch after turning in our cans and bottles.

4) As people are unable to sell their homes, more and more properties are coming up for rent and thus rent prices are dropping. We ended up with a two bedroom/one bath unit that rivals what I used to pay for rent $10 years ago!

5) I'm enjoying watching the governments efforts to get people back into all these houses that are sitting around empty. It will be interesting to see what incentives they come up with. I don't know if it will ever be worth my while to own a house again some day though. With house prices falling, all the old reasons for buying one have flown out the window! The only way it would make sense now is if it was an income producing investment, not for personal use.

6) How can I put this delicately, hmmmm ... the people who wait on me now at McDonalds actually speak English! Also, we live in a town that relies heavily on tourism and we appreciate our visiting snowbirds more than ever. This makes us more tolerant of their eccentricities.

7) Besides saving on housing and groceries, a lot of companies are trying to figure out ways to make things more affordable for people. We will all benefit from this, no matter what our economic status is.

8) There are more and more enjoyable reality TV shows about how people with large families manage to make ends meet. Besides being entertaining, a lot of the shows have helpful suggestions for trimming costs.

9) Better health - people are gardening, walking places, trying to make better choices when eating so that the food they have truly counts.

10) Camaraderie - I'm not the Big Loser trying to get by during a time of prosperity, everyone is feeling the pinch and trying to save money. Learning to get by on less is also good for everyone. My daughter and I are in a much smaller place than we've ever lived before and it's suiting us just fine. We enjoy being resourceful in creating storage space ... for example, using my 2 drawer file cabinet as a side table in our living room, using a hope chest as our coffee table, etc.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Current Economy

Oh no! Our economy is in crisis! Wall Street crashed! The president got involved, making a big speech informing us about this sorry state of affairs. Even the candidates acknowledged it! Well, welcome to the party guys, what took you so long to notice?

This is some small ways of how the current economy has affected one person (me!):

1) My sewing basket was reinstated, the sewing machine brought out, dusted off and given a permanent place of honor in our house. No more new clothes … our clothing is patched, repaired and altered instead. If we need something new, it comes from WalMart or a thrift shop.

2) Food – no more experimental recipes using a wide range of ingredients. No more looking at the sides of packages trying to figure out calories, carb counts or fat grams. The only numbers I pay attention to now is price!

3) Pets – no new pets and we cover their little ears whenever we discuss whether we can afford to keep the ones we’ve got. Bob has needed a rabies booster for over a year, as well as eye treatments. Lady is a candidate for new knees, which will probably never happen. Their food is expensive but, since they are Chihuahuas, we keep buying it.

4) We move around to be closer to work to reduce our gas prices. This has to be done cleverly so that the amount spent on the move doesn't add up to more than the gas would have cost but we've pulled it off on more than one occasion.

Am I in favor of the government bailing out those big businesses that are about to go under? No. Am I prepared to deal with the consequences of those businesses going under? Not even. I can’t imagine the trickle down effect of that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Inexpensive Gift Giving

It's about this time of year that I start thinking about Christmas gift giving. I spent my summer of unemployment going through The Family Photos. If I couldn't be out earning money, at least I could be accomplishing something. I came to the conclusion that it has gotten far too cheap and easy to take and develop photographs. I have maybe a handful of photos of my parents and grandparents when they were young but at least a thousand of each of my kids, grandchild, nieces and nephews. My nephew Chris and his wife have a son named Michael that I call The Most Photographed Child in the World (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Prince William of England .)

When my mother died, I inherited all of her photo albums. In addition to the 32 I had ... groan ... I now had 28 more! My lifestyle does not lend itself to hauling around tons of photo albums SO right before a big cross country move I took a deep breath and plunged in … I tore all the pics out of all the albums and put them in one big box that I schlepped to Boston with me.

Late one night I got an idea of what to do with them. It was precipitated by a drunken phone call from my brother imploring me to send him any pictures I might have of him with our deceased father and grandfather. I warily eyed the giant box of photos, not knowing where to start. I reached in and grabbed a random photo which turned out to be of my niece with my grandfather who had passed away 30+ years ago. Why did I have this photo? Shouldn't my niece have it? Does she even know it exists?

Right then and there it became my goal in life to rid myself of most all of these photos and get them back out to the younger family members they should be with. So during the summer of 2006, I started sorting. Everyone in the family had their own pile and the treasured group photos went to either the youngest person in the picture or the “star” of the photo – the one person front and center smiling into the camera. For Christmas that year, I put together photo albums for everyone. They weren’t even fancy or scrapbooked, just colored paper hole punched, bound with ribbon with a sheet of plastic on the cover. Christmas Eve everyone started tearing into their gifts and suddenly the room became silent. People had found their photo albums! There was tears and laughter (and we’re NOT an emotional family.) The photo albums, which cost me practically nothing, were the hit of the holidays!

This summer I started going through the photos that were left. I still have tons of them – what to do, what to do, what to do. I realized as I looked through them that most of these would have been duplicates. Most were photos of my mother’s kids and grand kids, which had been sent to her for every occasion. I needed a way to return LOTS of pictures back to the original givers without insulting them. I decided to make Photo Collage Place mats for the Christmas of 2008, one for each family member.

I had a great time dividing the photos into sets or themes and learned that it takes approximately 35-50 photos to make a place mat-sized collage. I cut and stuck the photos by glue stick onto cheap plastic place mats that I found at a street fair. Once finished, I covered my creation front & back with clear plastic contact paper. Still with me? It was fast and easy and could be done while watching TV. The photos I had of my ex-husband and his family were given to my daughter so that she can make photo place mats for them.

Guess what, even after all of this, I STILL have plenty of photos left for my private collection! A lot of the photos are of our ancestors and parents, all of who are deceased. My parents were big party animals and I have a photos of them and their friends taken at random parties over the years. How do I evenly divide those among family members? I’m thinking about making scrapbook pages of our ancestors, or of Christmases past and then copying them on a colored copier and making sure that everyone gets a set.

Another puzzlement is what to do with pics of my exes? Not just my ex husband, but do I really need a million pictures from another relationship that lasted for 4 years and ended badly? The problem was how to let go and what to do with these pics. I decided to keep any photos of my ex(s) in which I or my family, friends or pets also appear, the rest got tossed. It was extremely cathartic. I highly recommend it!

Food Cost and Quality

The harder times get, the more fun it seems to be. Don't get me wrong, poverty is always a grind but when everyone else is feeling the pinch people start getting creative and enjoy wallowing in it together. I'm still spending a lot of time shopping for food deals and thinking about cooking.

A couple of years ago my friend Diane & I were hooked on the Food Network Channel. We co hosted a food blog and started experimenting with various recipes from Food Network shows and cookbooks, much to our families dismay. No matter what we made, nothing tasted very good! Our families started to revolt and we went back to the basics – meat and potatoes. But as I was eating my old meatloaf standby, I wrote to Diane and complained that food just doesn’t taste the same anymore. Was it me and my aging tastebuds or is this true?

Don’t even get me started on restaurants! A couple of years ago I went with a group of people to a restaurant for their $45 New Years Eve dinner special. My lamb chops were gross – too fatty to be eaten. I didn’t say anything, didn’t want to spoil every one else’s expensive meal. It made me wonder how many substandard meals they got away with serving that night, due to thinking like mine. I never went back to that restaurant of course, and the list of local restaurants I no longer patronize (for the same reason) has grown rapidly over the years.

Surprisingly I tend to get the most consistently good meals at chain restaurants – Applebees, Cocos, etc. Perhaps it’s their quality control. It’s just so disappointing to try to make an event out of going out to eat and end up paying for a meal that is substandard to what you could make at home more cheaply.

Another disappointing phenomenon is the price staying the same for items that are shrinking in size. You no longer get 64 ounces of ice cream, you get 48. You can tell easily by looking at candy bars. I remember the size of the bars I used to get as a child for a nickel. Not even close to what you pay a dollar for these days. Cadbury even has a disclaimer on their site that the eggs aren’t getting smaller, we just got bigger … so, not true. Then I read that candy companies are also using cheaper ingredients to make up the price difference, like the oil Hersheys is using in the chocolate. No wonder things don’t taste the same!

Then there’s the problem of meat at the grocery store. If I see the words “Aged Beef” I drop the package and run for the hills! There is nothing grosser tasting than aged beef but grocery stores and restaurants are only too happy to charge you big bucks to come to the same conclusion. Recently I made filet mignons that had been marked down as a “Manager Special” at my local Ralphs. It was completely disgusting. I’m so glad I didn’t pay full price. I had bought several packages (at $1.29 each) and my daughter implored me to just throw them away. I told her that I plan to use the meat in a crockpot stew dish but was there enough gravy and spices to disguise the taste? Finally I made chili out of them and was it good! It gave the chili a really rich, earthy taste.

The one good thing about items shrinking in size is that we Americans can use some portion control. I heard that the size of the burger that kids get in Kids Meals are the size that adults used to receive when fast food places first opened. My daughter and I have decided to order kids meals whenever we eat fast food. We have also learned to share entrees – one person orders a dinner salad, the other gets the entrée. I don’t mind ordering my own entrée occasionally through because I can take the leftovers home and make another meal out of it (and sometimes a third meal!) I don’t want to turn into one of those old ladies who hoard little bits of leftover food, but I think I am well on my way to joining their ranks.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I knew that this summer would be hard as we live in an extremely seasonal area. Last summer was bad enough and I worked full time! What hurt us was the high energy bills ($600+ a month) and the fact that my daughter’s job opportunities tend to dry up in the summer – there are less dogs to groom, less staff needed in retail, etc. To stay afloat, I took in boarders and sold everything that wasn’t nailed down via ebay, craigslist and a couple of garage sales.

Over this past year our circumstances have changed quite a bit. I was able to be rehired by the school district at a very good pay rate, but had to take a job at a school - so I have 7 weeks off in the summer. We moved into a condo inside of a gated community. Our energy bills aren’t as high, rent is less BUT we are unable to take in boarders or hold garage sales. Our computer is dead, so there is no ebay or craigslist, not that there is much left to sell anyway.

How are we managing? We are laying low, staying home, trying not to spend money. One ray of sunshine in all of this is that J misfiled her tax returns back in April which means she hasn’t gotten her refunds yet. We straightened out the mess and are expecting them to show up any day now.

I’m worried because our car is falling apart, literally. The engine is missing a motor mount and our muffler is hanging on by a thread. We need new belts and brakes, not to mention an oil, lube & filter change. If those returns don’t materialize in the next few days, it’s food bank time!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sharing a Car

J and I have been sharing a car for over a year now. This is a hard result of the current economy but something we are also inordinately proud of. To my surprise I discovered that going down to one car instead of two seems to be not at all unusual. Of the 4 women I work with, 3 are sharing a car with their adult daughters (the 4th one can only afford a moped.)

It’s amazing how well J & I have managed to cope with the one car. One way was by living in the same town we both work in and a plus to that was how it cut our gas bill in half. This didn’t just happen to work out that way ... oh no, it involved a move and my daughter limiting her most recent job search to nearby places.

Over time we've also gotten pretty good at figuring out how to eat cheaply. We are intimately familiar with the dollar menu at Burger King. We always eat when we go to Sams Club to pick up our prescriptions. We live near a Fresh and Easy and have learned what time of day to hit the store to get first dibs on the marked-down goodies.

Another treasure trove has turned out to be the 99 cent store! You can get everything at the store near us from fresh produce to frozen goodies. Yesterday we picked up a couple of frozen pizzas for $1.29 each (perfectly meal size for J.) Canned beans and veggies run about one-third of what they do at the grocers. We’ve also been getting our dog treats there and rationing them carefully. The cheap sodas aren’t bad either!

It's amazing how much our lives have changed and yet how enjoyable life still is. Our condo has a huge heated pool right outside our back door and we make a point of swimming at least once a day. We go to the library to check our email and rent free DVDs and books. And we splurged on a TIVO rental from the cable company so we can tape all of our fav TV shows. We hardly ever go out to eat and thus appreciate it so much more when we do.