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Bargains? What Bargains?! Deconstructing the Shopping Day…

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Last Friday, otherwise known as Black Friday, was a bit ho-hum for me.  The news just announced that 3.8% more people hit the stores, but that sales were down by 1.8%.  I’m not surprised.  I thought the stuff on offer mostly sucked.  Before I left to see what was to be had, I searched the sales papers like everyone else.  I marked a few things down and then headed out not at the ungodly crack of dawn, but at a more reasonable mid-morning start.

This is the first Black Friday where I went looking for mostly deals on things for the home as well as a hopefully good Christmas present or two.  But truthfully, I haven’t shopped Black Friday purely for Christmas presents in a long, long time.  Why?  There just doesn’t seem to be much value in it for a budget glam girl.  I guess to me, it seems as though you either need to roll in cash to take advantage of the electronics on sale, or aim for a much more modest list of possible deals for the home and *maybe* you’ll find something nice for someone in the process.  I went in search of sheet sets at a good price, and I didn’t really find any that fit my bill.  Maybe I’m too picky.  I did come away with a wonderful red quilt at a steep discount, given that one of my quilts is in tatters at this point.  A couple of clothing items, dog doodads and beauty supplies later, and I was done.  Just like that.  There are a few reasons for my shopping malaise.

First, I make a list pretty early about what I am buying for other people.  I may not put “Betsydoodle Art Kit” down for little Susie, but I will put “art supplies” or some category like that and then I look for deals.  I try to figure out what I can make (like fudge!) to help pad the Christmas giving each year.  So, when I go to the mall or other stores, I’m looking for some very specific categories.  I will browse the rest of the store, but I get overwhelmed pretty easily.  Having a list for family members helps keep me from just grabbing a sweater here, a piece of jewelry there and calling it done.  I try to put some thought into my giving and I find it helps my budget.  This year, very few things in any of my categories were on sale.

Also again, just like decluttering helped with my closet, decluttering the home helped me know what I really needed.  Do I want one more fluffy and comforting throw?  YES.  Do I  need them?  No.  But I do need a quilt and after 7 years, I can give myself permission to buy one!  So my home categories were pretty slim.  I needed a coffee maker, a quilt and a sheet set as well as a good, safe space heater for downstairs.  I *wanted* a fire pit for the yard.  My sister asked to get me the coffee pot (getting stuff for me has been trickier since I decluttered and do a lot more with fewer things), I did find my quilt, but the sheet sets were disappointing.  I got the heater and it’s wonderful, and the fire pit was 50% off, so I’m picking that up today.  Getting things for other people is trickier.  If most other people’s homes are any indication, they don’t really need one more set of dishes or towels or fluffy throws.  They especially don’t need (in most situations, at least) any stupid coffee machines or other devices that lock them into buying *other* products just to use them.  So finding stuff for others in the home area was difficult.

I don’t think there were as many things on sale this time around as in years past.  This is all anecdotal, of course, but many of my friends were commenting that they, too, were unmoved by the sales papers.  Couple this with the fact that I find many things made today to be either unflattering, cheaply made or otherwise a piece of junk, and you have a recipe for Black Friday let down.  I find many of the clothes to be too bizarre, made out of poor fabrics and poorly sewn, though the prices have climbed higher and higher.  The trends are a bit bizarre for my tastes and the color schemes I find a bit garish.  Maybe I just need to get my eyes checked…

It could be too, though, that some stores are just saving it for later.  The aforementioned art kits I noticed are suddenly on sale this week at a screaming deal (some as low as $5).  So, maybe there is more to come!  Maybe I just have no idea how to find a bargain.

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Resoling Boots & Budget Glam Fashion!

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Doesn’t it seem like everything happens to the budget at once?  If it’s not a car insurance payment and a car repair bill, it’s death by a thousand nickle-ings and dime-ings.  I am in such a budgeting conundrum when it comes to clothes.  Slowly but surely, though, I plan to solve these issues without going into the hole and not sacrificing quality (I hope!).

First, I have tried to develop a good sense of what I actually wear by decluttering the closet regularly.  Every single season I look at what I’m putting in the closet or what I’m trying to store away.  If I haven’t worn it and likely won’t, it goes.  Decluttering has the odd outcome of creating a list of things you actually need to buy.  But it’s what you actually need, not just what looks good to you at the time.  This is how I know that I need, among a few other things, a trench coat, boots, some new jeans and a pair of red cargo pants, lol.  I don’t need new suits no matter how pretty they are.  There isn’t anything wrong with the suits I have.  But until I went through my closet thoroughly, I had no idea what I actually owned or how nice some of it really was.

After getting a real list of things I need, the next thing to do is figure out how much I can afford.  The real answer is, not much.  But I’ve also learned that if you’re not careful, paying $20 when you should’ve probably paid $100 only guarantees you’ll end up buying something that comes apart in the wash.  It’s not a bargain if it falls apart, is sewn improperly, etc.  Unless you simply cannot afford anything else, I’ve learned that it’s best to wait, save that money up for the one good thing, and then get it.  OR, you can shop consignment!  I had turned away from consignment for many years, the result of my mother having dragged us through so many “nearly new” stores it would make your head spin.  The items were usually very out of date or very worn.  I’ve realized later that this was probably because of what a depressed area we were in.  Here, though, I’ve managed to find a lovely leather swing skirt jacket with a real fur collar for about $15.  There is also a store that offers designer or upscale brand items for a great price.  Jeans normally priced $100 – 150 are in the store for about $20.  Still, it pays to carefully try things on and really study it.  Sometimes people give what looks like a good item away because it fits funny.  Been there, wasted money on that!

But by far the smartest thing I’ve done for the budget and my wardrobe this fall has been resoling two pairs of boots.  In our throwaway society, I don’t think many people in my generation or certainly younger think to resole boots.  But really, that’s usually where the most damage is done.  I paid about $150 apiece for each pair of boots.  To me, that’s a lot of money.  Even with Black Friday “savings” on many shoes coming up, I stalked the stores for weeks and couldn’t find things that were comparable to what I already had.  I really liked those boots!  While whining about not being able to find comparable things, a friend suggested I get them resoled.  But good luck, she said, in finding someone to do it.  It is a dying trade, apparently, as people just chuck their shoes in favor of getting something new.  And while I did find a few people had gone out of business, I found a shop right on main street that dealt in leather goods and were capable of resoling shoes.  Resoling them cost about $30 – 40 per pair of boots.  So between the two pairs, I paid less than I probably would’ve had to for one new pair, and I’ve breathed new life into them!  They came back to me all shined up and I swear they looked like new.  The soles are actually better, I think, than the original ones.  I bought those boots at least three years ago, I’m thinking more like four or five years ago.  These new soles have bought me at least another 2 years, I’m thinking!

What a great deal and a great way to support local artisans!

Budget Glam’s Home for International Kiddos

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I thought it might be helpful for me to outline how I got involved in international student homestay as well as pointing out the pros and the cons of the whole thing, in case there is an opportunity for you to do the same!

I live in a university town and work at a good sized public university.  The school also offers international English programs that are not exactly undergraduate degrees, but more like the sort of thing where a person comes over for six weeks, three months, a semester, a year in order to better their English communication and culture skills.  It’s not a degree.  Sort of like how we might go abroad to better learn a foreign language in a school situation but not necessarily get college credit for it.  The university tries to place these students in local homes (the regular foreign exchange students stay in the dorms) to try to speed up and improve their English culture and language learning.  The student pays a lump sum for the whole she-bang to the university; the university cuts me a check for my part.

And what is my part?  Room and limited board.  Many programs function similarly to mine; any student who stays with me needs to have his or her own bedroom.  They need some sort of work space within that bedroom (like a desk or table).  I have to provide either breakfast and dinner or food they can have access to.  (Lunch is on their own.)  So, if I make dinner, we all eat.  If not, I make sure that there are plenty of things a student can fix for himself.  I’m not required to provide a computer.  I do provide them my cell phone for local calls, though most of them tend to get a trac-phone, which is an excellent idea.  I have to either be on a bus route, within walking distance, or otherwise ensure that the student has access to transportation.  There are some people who live out in the country who drive their students in daily.  I wouldn’t want to be so transportation dependent, so I’m lucky that my students can both walk and take the bus, if necessary.  They have to be provided with a spare key.

What makes things go smoothly:  being patient, first and foremost.  I have a Japanese student right now who would never, ever tell me if something was going wrong.  So, I have to patiently figure that out.  You can usually (but not always) tell a few things from a student’s profile submitted by the university whether the two of you would be a good fit or a poor fit.  But these things aren’t foolproof, obviously.  Having good people skills is pretty important, too.  After all, most of these students are usually younger — 19 years old, sometimes.  They don’t always do things exactly the way you’d want them to.  They’re not always as clean as you might hope they would be.  So, when your standards aren’t met, you either have to pick your battles or be able to communicate your needs to them.

I would also add that in my opinion, it helps if the house is set up so that the student (and you) do not feel as though you’re in each others’ faces all the time.  My basement is completely finished, which makes this lovely little 725 square foot house really 1450 square feet.  There is a full bedroom and bath down here, as well as a communal work/entertainment space that I’ve worked to make functional, fun and creative.  The basement door lets out onto the back yard.  Eventually, I’ll have a simple but nice deck there as well.  My students stay down in that bedroom; they virtually have that bathroom also to themselves (though that is not a requirement).  So, we don’t bump into each other over the bathroom and we can be in completely different parts of the house (even though it is a small house, really) and not feel like we’re stepping on each other’s toes.  Them living here doesn’t keep me from working or playing.

What makes things go poorly.  When the student isn’t ready to travel abroad, it can be a miserable experience for them.  That’s not really something you have control of until they’re already in your home, of course.  The homestay program I am working with would still pay me the full amount if the student left early (because that would obviously prevent me from taking another student).  In many ways, your agreement should operate like a rental contract; having no protection can be a huge mistake.  After all, this person doesn’t even have a home address in your home country!  How will you fix something they break or collect for damages they may cause?  Poor communication can also wreck this experience, whether that is with your student or with the person running the program.  Test cases to follow!

How long does this last?  Programs vary.  Usually when the university is in regular session, most homestays last for one semester.  I have yet to see one offered for the whole 9 month school year.  During the summer, however, there are all kinds of other opportunities.  This is usually when business folks travel and you may get a student who is much older.  Those programs can be anywhere from 3 months to 4 weeks.  Choosing to do a 4 week program will get you a bit of money and let you dip your toe in the experience to see if it’s really for you.  My first homestay student only lasted 4 weeks, essentially for the month of July.  My current student is here for the whole semester.  Both of these experiences have been like night and day.  Well, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but the experiences were very different.

Jiani from Brazil:  She was my first homestay experience and she stayed for four weeks.  I think that was about 4 1/2 weeks longer than she wanted to stay.  Even though she was 21, there were many ways in which she seemed very immature.  She came as part of a university group and her English was labeled as “beginner.”  She knew exactly two words:  hello and thank you.  When she left, that’s still all she knew.  She was very homesick from the start and really didn’t embrace the idea of trying to speak English as often as possible.  I tried to engage her in conversation and she would just laugh and shrug.  After about a week and a half, she rarely talked to me.  I’d fix dinner and she’d wave it off.  So eventually, I stopped wasting the food, given that my son was visiting his father that summer and there really was just me in the house.  We also had a communication issue that went beyond English.  She frequently took group trips and upon return simply went somewhere else.  So, I’ve driven downtown to pick her up and I’m waiting…and waiting…and waiting…only to make a few frantic phone calls and find out that she lied to her supervisor and went off with her friends.  Boy, that made me mad.  My friends and I tried to take her places, such as the fireworks for the 4th of July, to neighboring states, etc.  There is nothing in the homestay contract that requires me to do that.  We were just trying to give her a good experience and we were already going anyway.  She didn’t seem to enjoy herself.  Oh well.  Travel is what you make of it.  Still, it was a mildly frustrating experience.

Yuya from Japan:  Yuya was a very different experience right from the outset.  He was only 19 years old, but he emailed me early on to get a sense of what we liked and what he would need to do when he first arrived.  He was definitely ready to be here, but then maybe students who pick the long stay treat it more seriously.  His English is also very advanced, compared to the previous student.  He is also not very clean.  But then, he’s a teenage boy.  So, periodically I just throw his damn bedsheets in the washer and be done with it, lol.  He is not picky at all and is very polite — which has its downfalls when it comes to things he probably should complain about (such as when he might need something or feel sick).  I found out he’s a big fan of American wrestling, so WWE Smackdown is on the TV at certain times.  I try to help him have opportunities for American cultural experiences.  I try to have dinner conversation with him at least, but he treats being a student as he does going to a job, so he’s gone a lot and sometimes comes home and falls asleep after supper (which is fine).  He is very independent and self-directed, which is GREAT.

Parting notes:  Cultural differences can be important and easy to overlook.  For example, Jiani came from a place where you put the toilet paper in the garbage instead of flushing it down the toilet.  That’s not something I even considered telling her.  Yuya continues to put laundry detergent in the fabric softener slot in the washing machine and wonders why it works differently, though we’ve had this conversation numerous times.  LOL.  Wal-Mart seems to be a universal hit in the first few days of visiting America.  They want to see it for themselves and can spend hours there.  Let them do it.  It can be instructive and then you can walk the aisles together and talk about the different categories of words for stuff like food and clothing and car parts and insane people.

Search your local university’s website for English programs.  My bet is, they have a homestay program that could use a few more families!

I’m Not Paid Enough to Deal With This…

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One of my pet peeves in life right now is my coworker.  Read plenty enough about it here.  The latest thing he is doing to bug the everloving literature out of me is the phrase, “I’m not paid enough to do that.”

This irritating burr of a statement seems to follow anything that resembles a request for work.  I will begrudgingly acknowledge that in academia most people are woefully not paid enough to do…that.  I will further acknowledge that we are not paid to industry standard because we work in a poor state.  I only admit it “begrudgingly” because I have always felt that he borrows on other people’s real problems to make his seem comparable.  Compared to the adjuncts, for example, we’re living like kings.  We have a retirement plan and health insurance and a decent wage.  We don’t work in the summer (which is a blessing and a curse).

BUT.  Giant red, baboon-sized monkey-BUTs…

I’ve always felt that there are some things you should buck up on and refuse to do and some things you should just put on your big girl panties and get done.  For example, I bucked up on working for free during the summer to develop this course.  It was a brand new, never been seen before offering that she wanted to pilot as soon as possible.  There is no existing model for it.  It’s not like I’m just adapting a previous syllabus and taking course goals and assignments that were previously all thought out.  This was 100% from scratch.  That’s a lot of work.  And doing that for free is definitely not fair.  But when my co-whiner says, for example, “I’m not paid enough to figure out the fair use requirements so we can take a few selections from this book.”  Or, “I’m not paid enough to figure out how to make that marketing flier any fancier.”  Well, I disagree.

I think most jobs require that you have a little ambition about you and that you figure out how to acquire skills for yourself that you might not have.  Whether I’m making up a new course or not, I have a fair amount of control over my reading selections for my courses.  Shouldn’t fair use be something I know about anyway?  Wouldn’t it behoove me to figure out how to better use technology to gussy up my marketing materials?

I think what irritates me most is the unanswered question that hangs in the air after he bleats out his statement.  OK, if it’s not your job, then whose job is it?!  Who does get paid enough to …what?…spoon feed you the information about fair use rules?  I’m certainly not paid enough to deal with his heel-dragging on virtually everything we’re trying to accomplish, nor am I paid enough to listen to the whining about his working conditions (which are the same as mine) or his pay (which is the same as mine).

I don’t know.  Maybe I’m too much of a work horse and willing to do too much for free.  I’ve always seen many smaller tasks like learning new tech, for example, as personal and professional development and enrichment.  I don’t have to be paid to do them because I see greater value in taking on that task and learning a new skill.  What do you think?  Where is the line between what you’re paid to do and what you “volunteer” to do on your own?

Glimmer of Summer Funding/Perchance, to Dream

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So, Her Deanliness has dropped in conversation the possibility that there might be more summer funding for further expansion of this new course I’m set to pilot in the Spring.  Wah-hoo!

I, of course, have latched onto this news like a man lost in the desert chasing an oasis mirage.  Money…MONEY!!  If this is true, it means I can develop that course over the summer and have an international student — and almost cover my full costs for summer on paychecks alone.  This will enable me to put saved money earmarked for summer toward something else, speeding me along my goals for debt destruction even sooner.

Of course, I proceed as though that will never happen so that I am not both massively disappointed and caught unawares with my financial panties down.

But how much mileage do we enjoy from a little glimpse of a good prospect?  Mmmm  🙂

Hurt Me, Hurt Me!

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Well, the first of the international student housing checks has rolled in and that has fulfilled the little $1000 emergency fund and allowed me to press onward to summer money savings.

To that end, I’m saving ’til it hurts.

And boy, does it hurt!

What I do is first calculate my bills for that pay period.  I calculate my expenses I know I have to incur after that (for example, birthday presents or car repair).  Then I look at what is left over and I transfer money to the point where it makes me feel uncomfortable into savings.  I know that many people preach pay yourself first, and I sort of do that, too.  I have retirement money direct deposited into my account rather than relying on myself to do it.  But as a single mama, my expenses often vary, so for savings, I do have to look at second rather than first.  So I look at the amount remaining and pinch out of it until I squeal.  And you know what?  It’s working.  I leave myself a pittance for coffee and lunch out, things I cannot seem to do without. But I have to make those dollahs stretch like a yoga beginner!

I realized that if I didn’t feel pinched, I probably wasn’t saving enough.  And so I took a good, hard look at just how much I was saving and whether I could afford to do more.

The obvious upshot of this is, duh, I save more money.

But the unintended upshot of this plan is that it makes my situation feel very real to me.  I effectively make myself live as though I’m broke (or rather, very close to broke) for the whole pay period after the first couple of days post-paycheck.

Now, I’m not broke.  Most of my disposable money went into my online savings account.  But it takes several days for that money to transfer back into my checking account.  So, effectively, I am without funds to just randomly blow on sushi.  It creates in me the mentality that I am broke, and so I act as though I am.  I don’t use the credit card and I make any pennies I do have really stretch.  It just puts me in a whole ‘nother frame of mind.  I pay more attention to where the money goes, because it’s a royal pain to get more of it.  I might have Burger King for lunch, but I’m ordering from the dollar menu instead of the already frugal Junior Whopper meal.

And because I have to actively log on and move money, I don’t do so unless I absolutely have to.  And sushi, apparently, is not a “have to.”  Sad that I have to play psychological warfare with myself.  But hey, whatever gets you to save that dollah, right??

Savings Priorities Revisited

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OK, after I had a whirly-gig malfunction about just how much there was to save and whatnot, I at least sat down and prioritized what has to happen and when.  I have an online savings account that I’m shoving the money into for now, simply because I can’t determine that there is a better choice at this point.  I have a debit card for that account where I can get to some of it quickly if I need to.  Otherwise, it takes several days to transfer to my normal checking account, which is good because I have to think and plan for transfers for the other items anyway.  I need some yield signs when it comes to my relationship with money.  Anyhoo…

Emergency funds come first.  My emergencies average under $1000, so that’s all I’m going to save and call “emergency” before I move on to saving for other things.  This scares me.  But that’s the way it is.  I have a 3 year contract at my current job, so saving my emergency, out of work expenses makes no sense at this point, in light of other impending money issues.  I’m only about $200 away from this goal now.  Woot.

Summer funding.  In a way, this is another emergency fund, if we consider that having no guaranteed work in the summer is a form of emergency, which it certainly is for me!  Sometimes I get grants to develop courses, sometimes I cobble together copywriting, one-off jobs, temporary international student housing, etc. to make it through.  But whether I’m fully covered or completely money-naked, I need $7500, give or take, to get through the summer.  Where it comes from doesn’t matter.  I think that by the summer time, I can have emergency money and summer money saved up with the combination of things I’m doing to bring money in, cut costs and save it.  So I’m going to save that amount by the summer time.  If I end up with no outside or additional summer funding, I’ll be covered, though I’ll certainly look for temporary work.  If I don’t need a penny of it, awesome — I’ll just save it for next summer and/or put it toward the next goal, which is….

Fixing the roof.  It’s not in bad shape now, but I figure it’s a cheaper fix to go ahead and reshingle it now that it would be to wait and wait until it is a true emergency and a costlier job.   It’ll take a couple thousand dollars, I think.  The bigger thing I realized is that perhaps the house needs its own little fund.  After all, I have to do things like stain the deck and powerwash it periodically.  I have to periodically replace appliances.  I suppose one could look at a regular emergency fund as covering those sorts of things.  But if you’re a homeowner, there is always something.  So maybe this category should stay here beyond the summer and I can slowly develop funds to plan for maintenance issues.

New-to-me car.  I’ll continue to maintain the car I have to the point where it just doesn’t make sense to hang onto it any longer.  At that point, I’ll take whatever money I have set aside for a car and my best negotiating friend, lol, and that’ll be the car I get.  Whether it’s a beater or a nice upgrade, what I have in the account is what I’ll get.  I’m going to cap this money at about $12,000, but again, what I save is what I use.  If no big emergency happens and I keep  making other money happen, I can probably get another car if I had to by two to three years from now.  This is on top of resaving summer money each year.

Divorce Debt.  Blech.  It is what it is, but it’s the last deadline.  The truth is, I can probably do some combo of cash and home equity loan and get it solved.  I want to pay it in full, but again, it is what it is.  $30,000 is a lot of cheddar.  But, if I get a good deal on a car (if I have to get one at all), if I keep finding summer supplement money so I’m not always using up extra money saved, and if I continue bringing other money in, saving tax returns and cutting costs, I *might* be able to pull it off all in cash.  Just maybe! Boy that would make me proud!

De-stressed?  Yes, some!  It was helpful to at least get things organized in my head, if nothing else.  Reminding myself that I had a three year contract made me feel a little more secure.  Realizing that I probably won’t need *all* of that $7500 saved each year to live on in the summer helped me realize I could throw that money onto other things or just hang onto it for next summer.  Realizing I have a few friends who are very talented in negotiating car purchases and might could even help me fix up a used car, if it came to that, helped me calm down about that big financial x-factor.  Realizing that I would once again drive a beater car for a few more years and resave car money, that I don’t *have* to have an upgraded car, just a car that runs and is safe, helped me realize that even if I haven’t completely saved the full amount I’d like to have at my discretion, my problem will still be solved.  Also, the silver lining of the divorce debt is that once it’s gone, that’s the biggest financial hurdle I have.  I have plans to pay off my student loan as well as my mortgage after that, and those things are going to be exciting and nothing will be in the way of getting that done.  If I can plow through all these current money issues in four years, what couldn’t I do with four more?

I *think* I can get summer money, emergency fund and roof money by the start of June.  That’s exciting.  It makes me feel more in control of what’s happening to me.  Knowledge is power.  Things here will be tight while the boy is in high school and these impending money things are happening.  But knowing things are tight and having a plan as to what comes first is much better than being stunned by the realities of it at every turn.  I do feel better.