Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frugal Living and Simple Living

We live in complicated times. Technology is progressing at tremendous rates and the world we live in is becoming all the more complex on account of it. I think those two statements are so commonly accepted that they're almost not worth mentioning. We've all heard such statements before and all we have to do is look around us and see that it's true.

Such complexity certainly has brought about it's conveniences and made certain tasks easier to accomplish. For example, in the past, someone who decided to simplify their life and live more frugally would not have a lot of the useful resources available today. In the past when you cleaned your home and decided to get rid of stuff you considered clutter but figured others might find useful, you'd resort to a yard sale or use word-of-mouth amongst friends to give away your stuff for free. These days, if you want to generate extra income, you'd forgo the yard sale and post your unneeded items on Ebay or Craigslist. If like many frugal minded people, you have things you don't think would sell but just can't bear to throw them away, you no longer have to ask around and see who wants them. Now you can offer them on Freecyle and anybody interested will gladly come pick up your unwanted goods. These services made it less difficult to reach much more potentially interested people, with much less effort, than it took before the internet era. When technology has clearly practical uses, the complexity it adds to the world is seen as an addition of valuable options and useful tools. It serves the kind of role I personally believe it should.

Pardon my inner Luddite, but although I see the benefits of technological advances, I also see their drawbacks. The increasingly complex world that technology has created is littered with massive amounts of distraction that can be difficult to filter out. I know everyone is guilty of signing on to Facebook and passing time when they are supposed to be working on something of importance. There are plenty of times where I initially plan on checking my bank account online and two hours later, realize I spent my time posting on my favorite forum or reading album reviews and never once checked my account balances. Although the internet has provided a means for the average user to access information on any given topic, it's used much more for entertainment than to increase productivity. I'm sure the amount of hours that are spent by people on video games, Facebook, forums, Twitter and YouTube eclipses the amount of time spent creating useful documents, reading fascinating articles or learning about something new and practical.

So how does one deal with distraction and still use technology for it's beneficial purposes? Well, like anything else, you learn to weed out the unimportant and devote more energy to that which truly matters. The way we deal with multiple options presented to us is by choosing those which we deem worth pursuing and focusing on them. When trying to increase productivity, we do the same with technology. If you're a college student and you have a major paper due in a couple of hours, you know not to spend your limited time on your favorite sports forum. Since you must complete your paper, you avoid distractions and put all your focus and energy into doing so. If you're signing online briefly to check your email, you decide to do so and move on with your day instead of clicking some advertisers link and deciding you feel like browsing new cookware for awhile. This ability to streamline is what separates the people who use the internet only for productive purposes (Are these people real?) and the people who spend three hours or more a day online but somehow never seem to learn anything practical to use within their lives (I know that guy).

"So Mr. I can't stay focused online so I resort to calling the internet a mess of distractions, how does any of this relate to frugal living?"

Well the key idea I was illustrating is the need to filter out distraction and focus on what is helpful in the face of complexity. I used technology because I think we all know what it's like to waste time on the internet. On top of this, in this day and age, the amount of time we spend online makes up a significant portion of our day. In our present era, I'm sure everyone has at point or another had to find a way to avoid distraction online and focus on a relevant task at hand. It's a necessary method of dealing with a complicated world and it is the same kind of thinking that thoroughly drives frugal living, and it's older cousin of sorts, simple living. Those who practice simple living do so as a means of focusing on that which they feel is important. They give up a lot of what they feel is unnecessary and try and stick to the essentials. By owning less and wanting less, they achieve a freedom they couldn't have without doing so and are free to do that which they find a valuable use of time. It is an effective means of dealing with complexity. To make the technology analogy complete, simple living would be like choosing only to use the internet for purposes that you care about as opposed to using the internet mindlessly when you could be doing something better.

Frugal living is founded upon a similar mentality concerning the way we use our money. In this increasingly complex world, alongside technology, the amount of goods one can spend money on has drastically increased. No longer is the bulk of someone's income spent on necessities. Though I concede that there are people out there in poverty who spend their entire incomes on food and shelter, I still insist that a large group of people with extra income exists. The majority of people have some kind of steady, disposable income which can be spent without much consequence. Once your monthly bills are covered and you are sitting on an extra one hundred to one thousand dollars (I'm attempting to span economic classes here) you have the choice to do as you wish with this surplus income. Or at least you think you do. With so many options presented to us for using this surplus, it becomes exceptionally difficult to focus on a valuable use of money and avoid the distracting temptations. The advertising industry has succeeded in this department to the point where they have messed with people's ability to distinguish between what is essential and what is simply a commodity. Frugal living looks at this situation and attempts to regain a sense of focus amidst the distraction of unnecessary spending. It's taking a minute to think about that extra pair of shoes before purchasing them and wondering whether you need them or are about to purchase them because some subtle message has been planted in your mind about their worth. It's about protesting a trendy bar's insistence that you can only have a good time there and should be paying four dollars a beer by deciding to go to the hole in the wall down the street with some friends and enjoy dollar drafts instead. It's about looking at a thirty five dollar item and acknowledging that it took you five hours at work (Assuming you're paid Florida's minimum wage) to produce the income necessary to purchase that item. Frugal living is about awareness and focus. It's the antonym of impulse buys.

I've found that a lot of the frugal living blogs that I visit also contain articles about simplifying your life. I've seen articles about how to clean out your closet and catalog your clothes to avoid overspending on clothing. There have been articles written about how to stay on task when cleaning your home or working on a project. There is clearly a kind of reverence towards a streamlined life amongst these blogs. It could be because showing discipline and wisdom in one area of your life is bound to appear in other areas. I know for one, I love the feeling a get when I walk into a clean house. There is a certain kind of peacefulness that I never seem to experience in a house littered with junk. I've experienced a similar feeling when I look at my account balances before I pick up my next paycheck, and find there is actually money left. I feel like I'm in control and focused for once and get a real sense of pride and satisfaction with that feeling. It is during these moments that I feel that I have successfully navigated through this complex world and arrived where I intended to go instead of being somehow led to the country of "Brokeland" once more. I hope as I continue to learn more about living frugally, I experience such moments more frequently.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When Frugal Becomes Fun

I often times find it difficult to write about frugal living practically. I'm more drawn to the philosophical and reflective side of frugal living and that's probably why I tend to write long, analytical posts as opposed to simply listing a bunch of stuff I found on sale or providing clear, impersonal how-to posts on saving money. It could be because I'm young and in college (busy "finding myself" as the cliche goes) that I prefer to focus on reasons why one should care about living frugally versus how to actually live frugally. I had a conversation with some friends about actually putting ideas into practice as opposed to pretending that simply having the idea is enough. In accordance with that discussion, I'm going to shift focus today. In this post I'm going to discuss some shopping I did last weekend that actually meets the standards I set for myself regarding personal finance and finding ways to save money.

Photo: Dauvit Alexander, via Flickr

Though I don't go there enough, I've always been fond of my local flea market, USA Flea Market. I had fond memories of the place from my childhood, as my brother and I used to love their fake ninja swords. I don't remember when I first decided to go again as an adult, I think probably on some occasion with my father (one of the many notorious cheapskates in my family) in search of a cheap wallet. I came to realize that the flea market had a lot to offer and have since gone whenever I happen to be free on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon. This particular flea market is closed the rest of the week.

There is a lot of overlooked treasure at the flea market. I've picked up some exceptionally fresh sunglasses at some of it's shops. These pairs are similar to the high-end fashion pairs you see rock stars, actors and models and such wear except because they don't say "Oakley" in small print somewhere they cost two to five dollars instead of one hundred dollars. I can already hear someone saying "Yeah, but I've had my Oakley's for years and they are still in perfect condition". Well my five dollar flea-market sunglasses are still alive and well two years later, and I'd have to have broken them and repurchased them a whopping twenty times (I don't know anyone that careless) in order to justify having purchased a name brand pair instead.

This past Saturday I visited the flea market because I was in need of some new belts. I had browsed new ones at various stores like TJ Maxx, Ross, Wal-Mart and a Levi's store but found that it was pretty much impossible to find a belt for under eight dollars. In true tightwad fashion, I put the belts down immediately upon seeing the price and begin to think of where I could find a better deal. Eventually, my cheapskate dad's voice came into my head saying "El flea market tiene correas por cinco pesos". My father, like the rest of my family is Puerto Rican, so when his voice pops into my head it's either in Spanish or heavily accented English. So to translate his statement quite literally, it says "The flea market has belts for five dollars". One of the first stores I saw upon entering the flea market had a two for five dollars sale on belts. I found two I liked quite a bit and purchased them.

Finding those belts reminded me that saving money can actually be kind of enjoyable. I got a sense of satisfaction from knowing I protested the retail price of a product while simultaneously supporting a more independent business (most the flea-market shops are run by individuals and/or families). My wallet was also happy as I only had to part from five dollars to acquire two belts. Had I gone the retail route, it would've been more like sixteen dollars.

On top of the good feeling I got from saving money, I also tend to enjoy the flea market's atmosphere. In an article by Mishri Bhatia about the Waldo Flea Market in North Florida, Bhatia uses a lot of quotes from customers and vendors, alongside her own observations, to portray the flea market as having a friendly, social and personal spirit. I agree that the flea market has such an environment because my experience at my local flea market confirms it. The shop owners are generally interested in you as a customer and are more than happy to field any questions you may have. The customers stroll through the aisles at a relaxed pace, taking in the sights and sounds and browsing tables of goods for anything that catches their eye. You get a look inside the world of hobbies that you won't encounter in a retail setting. It's much different for example, to see action figures in the context of a collector's store full of adults searching for obscure toys is a lot more fascinating than to see a lifeless isle full of toys at Walmart. There is a certain personal touch to each store that welcomes and attracts customers.

Next time you're in need of something, try your local flea market. Aside from aforementioned products, most of them have electronics stores, furniture stores, pet stores, fruit stands, a food court, used video games, music and movies for sale, discounted clothing and just about anything else you might need. I know one thing's for sure, you're guaranteed to walk away with that great I-just-found-a-bargain feeling more often than you ever will at your local mall or retail store, something your bank account will thank you for later.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Free Entertainment!

We live in fairly materialistic, money-minded times. Anybody taking an objective look at various civilized cultures throughout the world probably figure that out pretty quickly. This isn't a new phenomenon attributable to my generation, so I don't consider this a sign that our current era is a particularly shallow one. There probably hasn't been a truly frugal culture to be found anywhere in the world since the times of primitive mankind, when survival dictated necessity and left little room to contemplate entertainment or hoarding unnecessary goods. Though most of us aren't so materialistic as to think that a new, stylish pair of shoes will deeply change our character, we have all experienced the slight confidence boost gained from wearing a new pair of shoes that we really love.

It's much easier to spot this kind of materialistic behavior and use some restraint when dealing with something concrete such as purchasing items. You can look inside any room in your home and spot some things you bought that you know are totally unnecessary or useless. It is more difficult to work on another common expense dominated by the idea that the more money one has, the better time one has. I'm talking about entertainment. I know personally, it's a rare to non-existent occurrence that a relative or friend invites me to an outing that doesn't require me to spend money. My fiance and I are likely to go out somewhere for coffee or a bite to eat when we find ourselves with absolutely nothing to do. I went through the all too common college drinking phase a couple of years ago, where I found it nearly impossible to have a fun night on the town without some kind of alcohol consumption. As one would expect, this meant dropping at least ten dollars a night (usually much more than that) and devoured my meager student income. Aside from the money spent on alcohol, lowered inhibitions and poor judgment usually lead me to a Denny's or I-HOP at three thirty in the morning to fritter away more cash than I originally planned to spend. I don't recommend going grocery shopping intoxicated, as you're liable to regret your dietary choices in the morning and find you spent money you wish you hadn't. Even when choosing to avoid bars and the like as a means of wasteful spending, popular alternatives don't get much more affordable. When a friend would suggest we go to the movies for the evening and have a calmer night, I'd leave the theater feeling ripped off for having spent nine dollars for two hours of entertainment.

Those were merely a few examples that I think the average college student would relate to. If neither happen to relate to your lifestyle, trust me, regardless of your interests in entertainment, it can get costly. If you're a reader, think about how much you spend on new books. Love video games? Consider how much money it costs to purchase a new video game or the price of monthly subscription fees associated with playing online. In other words, it seems spending on entertainment is unavoidable. I can see it's pretty clear that entertainment can be come expensive but what can I do about it? Should I stay in every night rediscovering my childhood imagination and inventing imaginary games to play free of charge?  When my friends call me and suggest we go out for a drink should I tell them to take their wasteful lifestyle elsewhere? It's apparently impossible to have fun without spending money, so maybe I should just renounce fun? Wait a minute...maybe I'm being a little narrow-minded here. I surely can think of ways to have fun that don't involve spending money. Besides, from the first post, I specified where I'm coming from, this blog is called "Finding Frugal" not "Militant Frugality". I don't think it's necessarily against what I'm trying to practice to spend money on entertainment, as long as it's done so responsibly and consciously as opposed to without much thought or restriction.

Now that it's clear I'm not advocating self-imposed prison or being the ultimate "party pooper", let's move ahead and think of ways to have fun where you can leave the debit card at home:
The Public Library:
 "Is this guy serious? The public library! Come on man, I didn't need to read your blog to know this, my grandmothers been advocating this kind of clearly boring outing for years." Yes, my friend, I am indeed serious. Though unlike the trip with your grandmother (I know, it's been ages), I'm not talking about sitting down in the children's book section with a copy of "Green Eggs & Ham", even if it is a good book. I'm talking about overcoming your preconceptions about what the public library is and going there and seeing what they have to offer. Even if they don't have the book you're looking for, they can generally have it ordered in within a week or less. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty certain waiting a week to read a book costs less than rushing to your local bookstore and dropping ten bucks on it. Even if books aren't your thing, these days nearly all libraries carry movies on DVD. If you can find a film that interests you and check it out for free instead of paying a rental fee, well then you've found some money you can leave in your bank account. Some libraries also occasionally have free social events. For those of you with children, many libraries have certain days where they do a "story time" and have a member of the staff read a children's book aloud to a group of kids.

Your Local Recreation Center:
I used to play basketball at least twice a week at my local rec center. How much did it cost me? Absolutely nothing. There was usually a lot of people on the court and I always left feeling I had a great time. Aside from basketball, most of these facilities have tennis courts, football fields, soccer fields, baseball fields, swimming pools and a trail made for running track or taking walks. Some even have indoor facilities featuring ping pong, air hockey and pool tables, foosball and various board games. Recreation centers are usually open to the general public and don't require any kind of membership or application to use. For those of you who are college students, more than likely your University or College has similar facilities open for use to all students.

Good Ol' Fashioned Freeloading and Borrowing:
The term "freeloader" has commonly been used in a derogatory manner to offend people. I remember a friend of ours calling my brother a "freeloader" when my brother would visit him and not want to do anything but play x-box. In actuality though, hanging out with a friend in order to use something she or he has is only "freeloading" if that's the sole reason you're going there. I think all of us have at one point or another gone over to a friend's house in order to access entertainment we couldn't access from our own home. Usually, it's a prearranged, mutual kind of deal. I've known plenty of friends who congregate at a friend's house to watch HBO shows for example. "Freeloading" is just what angry friends who feel unappreciated call getting together to enjoy entertainment. As for borrowing, well I don't feel an explanation is needed to explain what that entails. If you have a friend or a relative that has a lot of movies, books and video games that you haven't seen, read or watched, why not borrow them before running off to rent or purchase them. My father comes over biweekly to check out what movies I've acquired and usually finds at least one he hasn't seen. That's a trip to the rental store or retail store saved.

Get Your Thoreau On
Gather up supplies, find a pond in your town, build a cabin beside it and live there for a year or two. I'm joking, you don't have to go like a legend of literature to learn a thing or two from him. I've been reading Walden and I've come to find that Henry David Thoreau was indeed a master of frugality. He has a lot to say about how one should use available resources and live a simpler, more fulfilling life. What I mean by "get your Thoreau on" though, has more to do with his views on enjoying nature. According to Henry David Thoreau "A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town." The essence of Thoreau's argument is that nature is best experienced in a personal way versus being read about or told about. Looking at a picture of a flower alongside information such as the type of flower it is and where it grows isn't as exciting or interesting as picking up a flower from a garden and holding it in your hands as you inhale it's aroma. Getting a personal experience with nature won't cost you a dime.Next time you're bored, go to a local outdoor park and take a walk on one of it's trails through the woods. If you prefer to ride a bike, then find a scenic route and go spend some time cycling through it. You don't have to be a seasoned outdoors person to enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural earth. Go out and climb a tree, I bet you haven't done that in a couple of years and don't remember what it's like. Go bird watching. Make a bonfire somewhere in the woods, and enjoy it's warmth with some friends.

Get Creative
I really think that part of the reason social network applications like Facebook have grown so popular is because they provide a type of outlet for creativity. Using these kinds of websites, people say what they're presently feeling, post photographs they like, write captions for pictures and share their thoughts on movies they saw, sports events on television or whatever else they feel is a worthy topic. It's like the creators of these applications have tapped into a need to create and be heard that most of us forgot existed within us. Feel passionate about something and want to put your feelings into words? Why not write about it. For those who've never really written for pleasure and are put off by the idea of forcing a school assignment upon themselves, I will highlight the big difference here. When writing for a school assignment, you always have something you have to write about, if you don't really care for the topic, writing about it is a chore. Now if you decide to write about what you're feeling during an emotionally rough day, or write an essay about why your favorite television show is better than others on cable right now, or anything that interests you, you will find you fill pages with a sense of purpose and enjoyment you don't usually associate with writing. Did you used to love drawing as a child? Why not draw something today then. Whether you're "good" or isn't what it's about, you're doing this for your own entertainment, not for an art connoisseur. The same goes for those of you who might enjoy (or used to enjoy) singing, dancing or playing musical instruments. If you have a camera, and I know in this generation specifically, this is hard, but try taking a picture without the idea in mind that it's going to be on Facebook or another social network. Take some picture you find appealing, whether or not other people will, for your own enjoyment.

Suddenly, I see there is quite a bit I can do for free next time I'm bored and considering driving off to get coffee for the sake of going somewhere. This is obviously not the most complete of lists, so I'm certain you can think of other things you can do for free. I know I'll be on the lookout for more ways to have fun, free of charge.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Learning to Trust the Manufacturer

As a consumer, I've had a distrustful attitude towards product manufacturers that dates back to my childhood experience as a young gamer. I remember when my brothers were trading bedrooms, somewhere along the moving process, one of the controllers to our Nintendo 64 game console was lost. After searching for it and realizing we had to purchase a new controller (with my especially frugal mother, this potentially meant waiting months), I remember being annoyed at the fact that controllers were console specific. I thought why couldn't the game manufacturers agree on some universal controller so I could just grab a controller from our Sony PlayStation and plug it into our Nintendo 64. As an adult I understand there are more issues involved than forcing you to purchase replacement products from the manufacturer. In this particular instance, I now realize manufacturers design controllers the way they do for a multitude of reasons, including functionality, comfort and aesthetics. Nonetheless, I considered it my general introduction to manufacturer specific products and I didn't like the lack of options I was presented with to deal with the problem.

Being aware of such products has led me to usually look everywhere but the manufacturer when I have an issue with a product. I will go online and read forums, call a knowledgeable friend, check retail stores for parts, start the trial and error of fixing the product myself, without contacting the manufacturer. I suppose the main reason for doing so is my assumption that the manufacturer will never offer me any kind of solution that doesn't involve having to purchase any necessary parts or a new product at their price. Another presumption of mine is that the manufacturer always sells things at full price and it is certainly cheaper to find the product at a retail store. I think it's pretty clear at this point that I don't consider the company to be a useful resource for product repair and replacement. I'd go further and say our consumer to company relationship is even slightly adversarial. I trust the brand enough to make a product worth buying, but I worry that they are so motivated by profit that they would consider an inquisition about repair as a perfect opportunity to sell more product.

This past week I was forced to give in and call the manufacturer of a product. This occurred because a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally broke a piece of my fiance's breast-milk pump. I know that sentence leaves a lot of room for all kinds of questions and strange mental images so I will elaborate. The pump basically has a suction cup (the horn shaped rubber component attached to the bottle) that facilitates the milks movement from the nipple into the attached bottle. When removing this suction cup from the bottle and switching it with a traditional, rubber nipple that the baby actually feeds from, we sometimes absentmindedly leave the suction cup on top of the nearest counter. On one particular day, the nearest counter was on top of the stove. Later on that same day, I had some friends over and offered to make them some tea. I placed the pot of water on the front left burner. The rear left burner had a protective lid on it, on top of which sat the suction cups. After ten minutes of conversation with my friends, I remembered the tea and decide to check on it. I noticed the water isn't boiling and figured maybe I used too much water and it was taking longer to heat up. I decided to return to  chatting with my friends and check on it in five minutes or so. As I was talking to them I picked up on a strange, burning smell and decided to go check the Tea again. I looked on the rear burner, where I forgot the suction cups where, and realized they are melting. Quickly, I shut off the rear burner and examined the suction cups to find they were clearly no longer usable.

As I knew there was no chance to repair the piece I began doing an internet search for the part. I couldn't find it sold individually anywhere. From prior experience trying to find similar parts at retail stores, I knew I wasn't going to find a replacement suction cup there. Looking over the manual that came with the pump, I found the contact phone number for the company, Learning Curve, and prepared to pay $50 or more for a component made entirely of flexible rubber. I dialed the number and as I waited on hold, I thought about how I should have paid more attention when I was making that tea. The hold time was exceptionally short. I probably waited less than a minute before speaking to a representative. I told the woman on the line the story about accidentally melting the suction cup. She thought it was funny and laughed a little as I recounted it. She then proceeded to set me up with an order of new suction cups and another part that goes inside of them I hadn't realized I'd also ruined. I prepared for her to ask for my payment information and she instead asked for my address. She said "OK, we'll have them out you in about one week" to which, still in disbelief, I could only say "So I don't have to pay for anything?". She reassured me that no, I did not have to pay for anything and that the replacement parts were free and would be here in no time. What? Where was the offer to buy an extra set of suction cups at half-price? Why didn't she ask me for a receipt number or UPC code or some other proof of purchase? Could I really have been this wrong when it came to calling the manufacturer for assistance?

I suppose this isn't the first time I've built a seemingly strong opinion almost entirely upon personal experience only to have it shattered when put to the test. From here on out I will definitely call the manufacturer about any necessary part before attempting to purchase the time. Who knows how many products I threw away to avoid the hassle of repair when I could have called the company and got any necessary parts free of charge. Next time, before reaching for my wallet, I'm reaching for the telephone and seeing what the company is willing to do about the problem.

I suppose I should have realized that manufacturer's would be more willing to help than I gave them credit for as customer service is such an important component of running a business. Every employer I've ever worked for had extensive training focusing on customer service skills and how to use them effectively. Why should the companies I contact be any different? In an online article titled "The Importance of Customer Service in Today's Marketplace" by DJ Schwab, I was reminded of why customer service is so valuable. Schwab demonstrates that companies should meet and exceed what customers expect as far as customer service is concerned. He warns companies that having poor customer service will lose them customers in the long run and urges companies to train their employees to showcase great customer service skills to increase customer loyalty. If the company goal is indeed to meet and exceed customer expectations, it's safe to say that Learning Curve did just that. The effect was go great it not only increased my loyalty as a customer (I know when purchasing future products, I can deal with problems easily) but also helped me feel more trustful of the companies I deal with as a consumer.