Don’t Buy Underwear at Marshall’s

I went to Marshall’s yesterday to buy underwear.

I walked in.  BOOM, shoe section.  I looked through all of the shoes, but didn’t see anything I “needed.”  But right next door – SWEATERS!  Such a nice looking French Connection sweater, only $29.99.  I love that brand, but don’t buy it because of the price – kismet!  And then another beige sweater by Michael Kors.  $29.99, which would look great with leggings.  I grabbed those and continued on towards the underwear section.

Five steps later I was deep in to the handbag section.  And then I was trying on sheer-ling Ugg gloves, gorgeous, marked down to $79.99.  And then I was considering whether I needed a new mud mask.

I put the Ugg gloves back.  Underwear.  I came here for underwear.

But what’s that?  Gorgeous socks!  Beautiful, patterned, high quality, comfy socks!  Snowflake patterns, SmartWool, I was swooning.  I grabbed three pairs.  At this point I was juggling two sweaters and three pairs of socks, more than $80 of merchandise.  On to the underwear!

But first – pajamas!  I haven’t bought new pajamas in forever and there was such cute Christmas-themed stuff.  And wouldn’t my husband like me better if I wore fuzzy pj pants with candy canes?  No!  Focus, Nicole!

Finally, I got to the underwear.  It took all of thirty seconds to see they didn’t have what I was looking for.  So I turned to leave and landed smack in the middle of… the kitchen section.  The evil, evil kitchen section.

And didn’t they just get a gorgeous shipment of “handpainted, made in Japan” little bowls and food savers-  super cute!  And only $3.99 per bowl and $6.99 per food saver.

I needed this stuff.  I was down several food savers from gifting food in the past few months, and this stuff was gorgeous.  And cheap!  I also scooped up a spoon rest for $2.99.  I already have one, but wouldn’t it be convenient to have two?

At this point, I ditched the sweaters on a rack of dish towels.  And the socks.  I had pulled out four little coordinating bowls and two food savers.  So I was “down” to $30.  That’s not bad, right?

I was already over the sweaters, but at this point I still badly wanted the socks and had my heart set on the bowls and food savers.

Then I started thinking big picture.  Shit from Marshall’s is the kind of stuff that immediately gets absorbed into a home and becomes lost money.  I started to imagine seeing the thirty bucks on my credit card statement a few days down the road and to think hard, what was it that I bought?

Also, my mother just gave me some very nice little bowls.  Why did I think I needed more?

Ugh.  I put it all back and left the store.  I hate Marshall’s.

You Don’t Ever Need to Go in to the Hallmark Store

But what about…

Figurines

AKA dust collectors.  You don’t need these, and your mother and grandmother are real tired of pretending to enjoy receiving them as gifts.

Snow Globes

No one actually likes these.  Only wistful movie characters.

Christmas Ornaments

You have enough.  Also, check out this link.  Would you ever buy a Barbie or Star Trek Christmas ornament online?  No?  Then you shouldn’t buy it in the store, either.

Gift wrap, bags, tissue paper, bows

Buy it on super sale after the holidays at the grocery store.  Before the holidays?  Wrap in brown paper or newsprint, have the kids decorate.

A single ball of Lindt chocolate by the register

75 calories and 55 cents.

“Active Lifestyle” shoes

C’mon now.  No one goes in to the Hallmark store planning to buy orthotic shoes.  It’s hella expensive collateral damage.

Painted Wine Glass

Again, no one actually likes these.  People seem to enjoy purchasing them, but no one wants to drink wine from these monstrosities.  They frequently show up at garage sales covered with dust.

Special card that Sings

These singing cards are annoying AND crazy pricey.  Get a silent card at the grocery store. 

Puzzle of a Kitchen

Ask around – your friends are dying to unload several puzzles.

Fun socks

Ugh. 

Here’s the bottom line: when people try to re-sell stuff from the Hallmark store – be it at a yard sale, or online – no one wants to buy it.  No one.

There’s something alluring and nice about the Hallmark store.  Heck, it even smells nice.  These people know how to market the hell out of a  kneeling figurine of a little girl praying in her nightgown.

But once you get those items out of the store… it’s junk.  You don’t need more junk.  Stay out of the Hallmark store.

I Want this Bureau Something Fierce

Today I was scrolling through Craig’s List.  Because I’m an idiot.  Just kidding.  I was scrolling through because it’s sort of my hobby to scroll through.  BUT, just because there are awesome deals to be had in every corner or Craig’s List doesn’t mean they are necessarily awesome for me at a particular time.

Case in point.  This week we are ahead on our budget by a few hundred bucks.  So we have a couple hundred bucks to spend, right?  Well, not really.  For one thing, when I log in to the health insurance web site, I can see $140 of bills coming down the pike (the Explanation of Benefits is sitting there, but we haven’t yet received the bill).  Furthermore, we’re getting a quote Wednesday morning for some maintenance that needs to be done to the furnace.  We don’t know what that will cost.

We have a crummy Ikea bureau in our bedroom.  Two drawers can only be opened by the right pull, else the front pops off.  Wouldn’t you know, Craig’s List has a solution that I absolutely love.  An antique.  Gorgeous.  Well-made.  Matches our beautiful bed.  It’s been sitting on Craig’s List for 8 days, and is only 20 minutes from our house, just two towns over.

1930's Drexel Bureau, mine for "only" $600
1930’s Drexel Bureau, mine for “only” $600

Ain’t she a beaut?  The sales post explains that the family is downsizing.  They bought the bureau at a “certified” antique store in Maine in 2012 for $2,800.  They’re”heartbroken” that they have to sell.  They’re asking $600.

At this point I’ve bought a few bureaus from Craig’s List.  This puppy is right up my alley.  It’s in beautiful shape and I love it.  $600 is more than I’m willing to pay.  But $400 – I would love to offer these folks $400.  After 8 days on the market, they’re probably getting a little antsy to sell it.  And there’s no harm in putting in an offer, right?  It’s such a great deal.  Passing it up would be plain dumb.  Right?  It’s arbitrage – their loss is my gain!

Here’s the problem: it’s not in my budget today.  I haven’t been setting aside money for a piece of furniture.  I didn’t anticipate this cost.  Do I have enough money to buy this?  Yup.  But is it a smart choice today?  Nope.  Damnit.

I’m about $250 “ahead” of my budget for the week.  The “week” ends Thursday.  But this “ahead” mindset has gotten me in to trouble before.  Between now and Thursday, I’ll need gas.  I’ll make a quick trip to the grocery store.  We have that furnace appointment Wednesday morning.  I’m not actually “ahead” until I hit the end of the week, you know?

I'm drooling.
I’m drooling.

I want this bureau.  It kills me not to make an offer.  I can justify it in so many ways.  An opportunity like this might not ever come up again!  I might end up paying more for a less perfect bureau down the road!  $400 will not derail our long-term financial goals!  I deserve nice things, I work hard and I hardly ever “treat” myself (not true, actually, but for the sake of arguing with myself, it’s a strong thought, haha).

So why not buy it?  I can “afford” it.

Well, it’s not in the budget this week.  Or this month.  My husband and I talked about what was important to us this month, and “beautiful antique bureau” did not come up.

What did come up?  A new pair of dress shoes for my husband.  He’s worn the same pair to work each day for 5 years, and had them re-soled twice.  He thought it was time for a new pair.  $185.

What else?  The furnace.  We know there’s an issue, and we need heat.  So we’ll get it fixed.  Not sure how much that will be.  It’s such an un-sexy way to spend money… but sexier than a mid-winter problem, that’s for sure.

The property taxes.  We got the quarterly bill two weeks ago.  It wasn’t due for a month and a half, but we figured we’d go ahead and pay it so that we weren’t dealing with it December 1st.  That was $1,019.

Some plants for the backyard.  We bought a few plants marked down for the end of the season last weekend (“no guarantee” the salesman helpfully repeated a few times).  We’ve got an uggo back fence situation that I’d like to camouflage.  End-of-season plant discounts are a couple magnitudes less expensive than a new fence.  That “took care” of another $130.

And Salem.  Every October we go to Salem.  So yesterday we spent the day with a nephew walking around and window shopping.  Gas, Dunkin Donuts, burgers for lunch – another $50.

Even though I want a new bureau in general, I didn’t want it enough at the beginning of the month to figure out a way to work it into our budget.  So that means – no bureau 🙁  I don’t want to be making $400 impulse buys.

I think that’s the trouble – we want it in general, we happen across an amazing “deal,” and we justify a purchase to ourselves, but not to our bank accounts.  That’s the wrong way to go about things.

If something is important enough to justify a purchase, make that decision ahead of time.  Determine what you want to spend.  Then set aside the money, over whatever course of time.  Then find something that fits the budget you’ve ear marked for that purchase.  Too often, I get the order of operations mixed up, and it bites me in the end.

The other big trick is to stay off Craig’s List when I don’t have a Craig’s List budget set aside.

So long, beautiful bureau – we hardly knew ye.

<sigh>

 

I can’t even with these “meal” delivery services

We’ve lost our minds.  We’ve collectively lost our minds.

Hello Fresh.  Blue Apron.  Plated.  These companies should not exist.

The gimmick:  companies that deliver pre-measured ingredients and a colorful recipe card instructions to your home… and you cook your own dinner.

These companies have exploded over the past few years.  They advertise meals as about $10/portion, but for Plated at least, for “some specialty dishes, including steak or other upscale ingredients, the prices could reach as high as $30.”

Holy smoke!  $10-$30/person is solidly in the restaurant price range for me.  For that kind of money (and no leftovers) it’s crazy to cook your own meal, nevermind do the clean up.

Ads for these companies are proliferating your newsfeed because the mark up is sick.  These companies are brilliant.  They’re making money hand over fist.  They’ve figured out a way to charge restaurant prices for less food than you’d get in a restaurant, minus the restaurant overhead and labor.  The marketing genius cannot be ignored!  It is somehow so convincing that the customers rave about it, and say, “Thank you!”

These people have never heard of the internet and grocery stores?
These people have never heard of the internet and grocery stores?

The claim:   Planning a meal is stressful.

According to Plated's website, planning a meal is stressful.
According to Plated’s website, planning a meal is stressful.

I started cooking a few years back (by “cooking,” I mean that I transitioned from heating up pre-made boxed meals to starting with whole foods and spices and creating dishes).  At whatever point I run out of food, I make a list of the meals I want to make for the next several days, then I check the cupboards, list the missing meal components, and head to the grocery store.  The whole process takes maybe 35 minutes.  It’s not stressful.  Sometimes I make grilled cheese.  Sometimes we have pancakes for dinner.  Work-week breakfasts and lunches are made ahead of time.  We heat leftovers a few nights each week.  It’s not stressful.

The claim: There’s no food waste.

Hello Fresh, good bye "food waste."
Hello Fresh, good bye “food waste.”  I say good bye leftovers.  No thanks.

I don’t even understand the selling point here, but it is Hello Fresh’s #2 marketing point on the homepage of their website.

For me, you cook for the meal, sure.  But you ALSO cook for several meals in the future at the same time.  I have never, in my life, cooked a dish with two four-ounce portions of protein.  I buy protein by the pound.  If I bake salmon Sunday night (rub lightly with olive oil, sprinkle on Badia Red Fish Seasoning, pop in the oven for 25 minutes at 350 degrees) — you’d better believe I’m eating salmon for 3 more meals over the next several days.  (Have I mentioned my coworkers love me?) Even when I go to a restaurant and spend $15 on an entree, there’s at least two meals there.  At least.

Spending time cooking for a single meal is time well wasted.

The claim: the food is fresher.

I end up in the grocery store several times a week.  This is another one that doesn’t make me want to buy these ingredients.  My food is always fresh.  And I have trouble thinking that food that is shipped in individual packages across the country by FedEx or UPS (that then sits by your front door for several hours) is more fresh than food

Don't think I don't notice your word choice here, Blue Apron.
Don’t think I don’t notice your word choice here, Blue Apron.

shipped directly to grocery stores in refrigerated trailer trucks.

But see what Blue Apron does here?  It’s not claiming that the food is more fresh.  It’s claiming that the “specialty ingredients” are more fresh than in the supermarket.  Mmmm-hmmm.

With the proliferation of specialty grocery stores, spice stores, olive oil and vinegar stores, cheese stores, and internet grocery shopping (for when you can’t find coconut aminos) it’s just not difficult to get a fresh specialty ingredient, when your recipe happens to call for one.

The claim: More variety.

"Seasonal Flavors" available from Plated.com, and also at every grocery store in the country.
“Seasonal Flavors” available from Plated.com, and also at every grocery store in the country.

This one also doesn’t do it for me.  For one thing, when I cook a new dish it always takes me longer than cooking a dish I’ve cooked before.  I venture outside my normal twenty or so dishes when I have time.  Also, grocery stores are great with seasonal food these days.  Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh – the websites all make a big deal about “seasonal” ingredients and recipes.  Frankly it’s nearly impossible not to be “seasonal” these days.  Grocery stores are *on it*.

The claim: Learn to cook like a pro.

Our society is obsessed with food and cooking.  There are dozens of cooking magazines.  Movie stars publish gorgeous cook books.  There are thousands of cooking blogs.  We sit on the couch and watch cooking competitions.  “Celebrity Chef” is an occupation.  We watch Guy Fieri eat greasy diner food.  We spend tens of thousands of dollars renovating our kitchens (granite and stainless!).  We spend tons of money going out to eat at restaurants.

And we don’t cook!  We just watch and say, “wow.”

Somewhere along the line, we started thinking of cooking as difficult.  Lunchables hit the market in 1988, and all of a sudden, making a kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch became work.  Frozen dinners.  Boxed pizza.  Now you can buy a Bertolli pasta meal (“for 1 to 2”) in the freezer section for $7.  Pasta is stupid cheap!  You can get a pound of it, plus a jar of chunky sauce, for well under $3.

Blue Apron gives you access to how-to videos. Who doesn't know how to chop herbs?
Blue Apron gives you access to how-to videos. Who doesn’t know how to chop herbs?

We really, really, really forgot how to cook.  We became obsessed with cooking, as if it’s some exotic act, and lost our damn minds in the process when we stopped cooking.  Blue Apron offers how-to videos.  But the meals they offer, they don’t require blow torches or double boiling or poaching an egg – they require you to chop parsley.  Not sure how to chop parsley?  Blue Apron can help you with that.

Lemme tell you something – buying your meals from these companies will not teach you to cook “like a pro.”  All it will do is teach you how to saute 8 brussel sprouts and a handful of snap peas, mince garlic, and sprinkle salt and pepper on your finished dish.  These are the cooking basics.  Chopping parsley is not mysterious.  It is self explanatory.

<sigh>

My husband and I have been talking about how to make money lately.  The answer is to take something simple and basic, and make it several times more expensive.  Walking.  Why walk, when you can walk on a treadmill?  Cooking.  Most cooking is relatively simple.  Going to the grocery store is simple.  These companies have found ways to jack up the cost of at-home cooking through fancy marketing and packaging.  Amazing.  Truly amazing.

 

 

 

Stop Losing Money in the Kitchen

Life isn’t Million Dollar Listing!

We live in a 24-7 HGTV world.  Magazines, websites, internet shopping, luxury lifestyle reality television… coupled with cheap, readily available credit…. have folks convinced that a super high luxury level is the minimum acceptable baseline.

Nowhere is this trend more out of control than in the kitchen.

It’s so nonsensical.  People are cooking less than ever before (what with going out to eat and prepared grocery meals), yet demand for high end appliances, marble countertops (“stainless and granite!” should be HGTV’s tagline) a farmhouse sink and a subway tile backsplash has never been higher.

Kitchens are now a status symbol.

But just like a 2008 Ford Focus will still get you from Point A to Point B, a 1990 kitchen will still churn out great food.

Here’s my kitchen.  White appliances, laminate countertop, linoleum floor.  Horrible layout.

Every time my mother walks into my kitchen, she talks about how someday I’ll update it.  Maybe, but probably not.

For one thing, I’m not convinced it would be a “dollars in/dollars out” situation.  The house has so many pluses – location, driveway, yard, space, charm – that I’m not convinced an updated kitchen would add to the value all that much.  We did the wrong thing in terms of real estate in that we bought the most expensive home on the block.  In our case, sinking money into a kitchen upgrades would literally be sinking money.

Second, we don’t plan to move any time soon.  Therefore even if the home did come up in value commensurate with a kitchen renovation… it doesn’t matter.  Bottom line, it would be dollars out of our pocket.

Third, it would be crazy to spend tens of thousands of dollars on home renovations while we still have a mortgage.  Financing a renovation is out of the question.  We believe that decreasing the equity in our home is a bad idea.  Therefore we pay for any home upgrades with cash.  It just doesn’t make sense to use our emergency cash fund for a non-essential, luxury upgrade.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us in an awesome house with a dated kitchen.  So what? The kitchen is clean.  I got a little rolling island to add to the counter space.  And importantly, the food I cook in our dated little kitchen tastes the exact same as if it was prepared on a granite or marble or corian countertop and cooked on a stainless steel 6 burner with red knobs.

There will always be a way – several ways – to spend lots more money in the kitchen.  There will always be nicer knives to buy, cooler pans, a more beautiful countertop, a fancier this or that.

  • Got a cool $4,894 burning a hole in your pocket?  You can now buy a fridge from Samsung with interior cameras and a digital display that connects with your smartphone.  You can see your food while avoiding the “hassle” of opening your fridge door.  That’s absurd.
  • Kitchen all tricked out with the latest?  Well now you need two!  Two ovens (and a warming drawer!).  Two dishwashers.  Two (or three) sinks.  Two islands, even- “kitchen with two islands” populates on google search!
  • Already have double everything?  What about restaurant-grade appliances? A deep fryer, an Italian espresso machine, a wine fridge, a pizza oven…
  • Have all that?  Well what about an outdoor kitchen?  Sure, you already have a grill, but a grill is just a small component of a tricked out outdoor kitchen.  Don’t worry, HGTV can help you if you need ideas.

The point is that a kitchen – like a car – will only be the latest and greatest for a moment.  The next moment, a new thing or trend will emerge that makes your perfect kitchen seem lacking.  I sat next to a kitchen designer on a plane in April and she told me she’s done a $250,000 kitchen renovation!

I’m not anti-kitchen updates.  I spend a ton of time in my kitchen, and theoretically, sure, I’d love it to be updated.  But kitchen updates need to make sense.  All updates should be done with cash.  Big updates should be undertaken by people without debt.

I’m constantly surprised by the friends and coworkers who classify financed kitchen upgrades as “needs.”  It’s difficult to stick with a budget when we’re constantly barraged by so many convincing voices telling us that we need beautiful things, and we deserve the best of the best.  It’s so hard to keep the Big Picture in mind!  But the Big Picture is: no house is perfect.  Don’t sacrifice a trajectory to financial independence by trying to spend your way to perfection in a house.  Decide what elements of a home are most important.  Size, location, kitchen?  Be prepared to make trade-offs.  Don’t go broke chasing perfection.  Find contentment.  And remember, food tastes just as good when it’s made on white appliances 🙂

 

Debt Consolidation is not the same as Debt Elimination

There seems to be a lot of confusion about debt consolidation.

Debt consolidation, presumably at a lower interest rate, is not debt elimination.

If a 4-year car loan is rolled into a refinanced 15-year mortgage, the net effect is that the 4-year car loan became a 15-year car loan.  Of course the payments are lower – only a tiny percentage of the (rapidly depreciating) car is paid off each year.

Don’t consolidate debts.

Pay them off, one by one.

The Bargain is a Poor Man’s Scapegoat

J.Crew Factory is having a 50% off Summer Styles sale.  How do I know?  I get several emails from J.Crew Factory each week.  This week I clicked the link and found two really great shirts for my husband.  My thought train went something like this:

  • 50% off – that’s a bargain. 
  • He already has a t-shirt with a crab, but I’m from Maine.  He should really have a lobster t-shirt.
  • We’re going to Bar Harbor next weekend for our anniversary.  He can wear these in Bar Harbor… and they can be an anniversary gift!
  • I love him and he deserves nice things.
  • He’ll love the Hawaiian shirt because it’s along the lines of something Kramer would wear.
  • It’s only $45.  It’s not much.  Especially for an anniversary gift.  We have the money.

The justifications for the purchase were so obvious.  My husband’s life would be better with these shirts.  Right?

But then I hesitated.  I didn’t need to spend $45 on two shirts.  So I had to think myself down:

  • J.Crew Factory sends me a 50% off email every few weeks.  50% off is practically their baseline price.  It’s not actually a bargain.
  • My husband asked me last year to stop buying him t-shirts.  He’s out of drawer space.  It’s not as if I had planned to buy him a new t-shirt when I got up this morning.
  • Fine.  He doesn’t need a lobster t-shirt.  Just the Hawaiian shirt.
  • We are $60 over this week’s budget.  That’s not terrible.  If I just bought the Hawaiian shirt, it would only be less than $100 over the budget.
  • $100 over this week’s budget is too much.  He doesn’t need the shirt.  He has lots of nice shirts.
  • One night in our Bar Harbor hotel doesn’t cost much more than this shirt. This doesn’t really make sense.
  • I still want to buy those shirts.  Or at least the one.  But I know I’ll be mad at myself if I do.  So I won’t.
  • Grrrr.  [as I closed the website]

That’s the anatomy of my “no.”  Some “no-s” are easier than others.  This was a tough one.  Particularly when I got an email from J.Crew Factory a few days later, Re: Oops, you forgot something (Get it Before it’s Gone) with the shirts pictured in the email’s body.

Thanks a lot, J.Crew Factory.  A reminder and a threat.

Plenty of personal finance/early retirement bloggers preach “buy nothing,” etc. etc.  But it’s not that easy.  It’s emotional.  I have a similar conversation with myself before most purchase considerations.  Some things are an easier “No” than others.  It’s difficult to think Big Picture when the immediate path to satisfaction is right there.

“Bargains” are an excuse to spend money that doesn’t need to be spent.  “Bargains” will lead me to the poor house.  One year I had a RueLaLa membership.  At the end of the year, my RueLaLa purchases totaled $1,500+, most of it gifts, or sheets that sure didn’t feel like “hotel quality,” or green suede boots I didn’t really like.  I needed to stop RueLaLa-ing my paycheck into thin air, stat.  I blocked the gorgeous RueLaLa emails and began my effort to make more conscious purchases going forward.

When I plan to buy a specific item, of course I look for the best deal.  Often on Craig’s List.  Sometimes I hold off until a good deal crosses my path.  To think of random spending on a sale as getting a “bargain” is treading in dangerous territory.  When I spend money that I would not otherwise have spent, it’s the opposite of a bargain.

So, no new shirts, no spending money in the [false] name of saving money, and no “anniversary present” excuse.

The trip is our gift to each other.  Not having these shirts will not affect our vacation.  When we bike on the Acadia carriage trails, I won’t think, “he would look so much better if he was wearing that Hawaiian shirt, ” and in a year I will not look at pictures of our trip and think, “if only he was wearing a lobster shirt.”

I believe this type of small decision adds up.

Sitting happily in Bah Ha-bah without a lobster shirt.
Sitting happily in Bah Ha-bah without a lobster shirt.