Monday, April 29, 2013

We're boring, but happy

The other day, I made the mistake of mentioning to a friend that CodeMonkey and I are not interested in vacationing or travel. Not now, and not in the foreseeable future. We're not morally opposed to it or anything, it's just unappealing. I work in tourism, so I obviously don't want other people to stop traveling; I just don't fancy doing it myself.

Given my industry, this is an unusual sentiment, and my friend was flabbergasted. The conversation ended with him joking that we must be "boring" people, since we don't vacation, don't have a TV and don't "do anything."

I was surprised, as I honestly can't remember the last time I felt bored, surely a prerequisite for being boring. I have a happy marriage, a good relationship with my family, close friends, fulfilling hobbies, and enough work to keep me busy. My life is rarely thrilling, but it is rich, very rich, in satisfying emotional bonds. Until I got out of college and started working in the travel industry, it never occurred to me vacationing was normal or common. In adulthood, I've continued the patterns I learned from my parents. When I was a kid, vacations happened rarely and were usually just renting a cabin in the middle of the woods. We spent most evenings at home, cooking, reading, talking and doing handiwork. It never occurred to me we were dull or lacking anything, and I was happy then and now.

I'm not an inveterate cheapskate, either. When spending on non-essentials, I try to look at how much happiness a dollar will buy me. My knitting group meets at an Italian restaurant, and I consider the money spent on meals there an excellent value for the happiness it buys me. On the other hand, I've cut back on buying lunches out, since I don't enjoy a carryout burrito enough to make it worth not packing in the morning. I have no TV, but I have an subscription. I follow Ramit Sethi's philosophy of conscious spending: spend extravagantly on things you love; cut ruthlessly everywhere else. I'd rather buy a super-expensive mattress than a vacation. I'd rather pay off my last student loan before going on vacation. I'd rather own an apartment than spend on a vacation. Those things make me happy; travel mostly makes me tired and cranky.

In light of what makes us happy and how we want to spend our money and time, vacationing is a poor use of resources. Does that really make us boring? Is this entire post protesting too much?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Internet Sales Taxes

There's been a lot of chatter lately about charging sales tax on internet purchases, since Congress is currently considering measure to levy taxes on online sales. I'm sympathetic to both sides; my parents own a small retail store, and I'm and avid online shopper. The merits of the bill aside, I'm skeptical that this will be the saving grace that brick and mortar retail is looking for.

I've been shopping online since I got my first debit card at 16. At first, it wasn't because it was cheaper; it was because I  didn't have a car, so how else was I to get to the mall? The lack of sales tax might have been a bonus, but I would have shopped online regardless. I continued shopping online because it was a cheaper and easier way to get used books, because my favorite clothing and yarn retailers are online-only and because online stores are far more likely to cater to my niche, obscure tastes. Brick and mortar stores necessarily cater to the broad middle, selling the products most people are most likely to buy. This is particularly true if you don't live in a large city like New York. And my tastes have never aligned with the broad middle.

For me at least, online shopping has been great:

I could shlep into Manhattan and visit a few cookware shops trying to find a Pullman pan, but is not only cheaper, they will ship it to my apartment, saving me an errand.

I could comb thrift stores trying to find used clothes I like, or I could have Ebay e-mail me daily with new listings matching "Boden skirt 10," allowing me to peruse and bid at my leisure.

I could comb through the library's offerings at the annual book sale, hoping my taste matches that of the locals (it often didn't) or I could hit, and find a used copy for $5, shipped.

I could visit a yarn store or three, hoping they carry tiny crochet hooks, or I could get a full set on Ebay, shipped from the manufacturer.

It's worth noting that in three of the four above examples, I ended up purchasing the items from small businesses, with Ebay or AbeBooks facilitating the transaction. Internet shopping does not mean I don't spend my money with small companies, although it usually means I don't spend it with local ones.

For the last three tax years, I have conscientiously reviewed my online purchases, totaled them to the best of my ability, and paid use tax on the amount, so this bill is unlikely to change my out of pocket costs. Now, obviously everyone isn't as rule-abiding as I am, or this bill wouldn't be before Congress. But this means that I have been taking sales tax into account when making online purchases for the last few years and online purchasing has still won out, time and again. I think that if traditional retailers think Amazon et al.'s only advantage is a lack of sales tax, they are likely in for a rude awakening.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Purse Accident Avoided

Wht, you've never had a handbag related accident?

Last winter, I splurged on a Coach purse, wallet and gloves. They're beautiful pieces; I'm still thrilled with them, and I expect to carry them for years to come. (I'd better, at what they cost!)

Somewhere in all this purchasing, I gave Coach my phone number and address. I've been receiving mailers from them regularly, which I dutifully discarded. Last week, a sales rep called me, inviting me to check out their new spring collection and sale.

I checked out their website. BAD IDEA. They have released pieces in this stunning dark purple, my absolute favorite color, ever. I was seized with immediate bag lust. I put down the computer. I walked away. I showed them to my husband, who unhelpfully loved the pieces.

Then I heard it. The voice of Mr. Money Mustache. Yes, I have a personal finance blogger living in my brain. I realized that one $300 handbag is a silly extravagance; multiples are absurd. I noticed that none of the bags were in sizes or shapes I enjoyed carrying, unlike my current bag. I calculated the amount of principal required to generate returns sufficient to cover the cost of a new bag. And I closed the web page.

Given the speed with which Coach cycles in new colors and removes the old ones, if I can hang on for just eight more weeks, the bags will no longer be for sale and I will have escaped.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Not an Emergency

Last week, CodeMonkey called me in a panic, "I HAVE AN EMERGENCY!!!!" He's naturally high strung, but I'm prone to panicking, so I immediately started imagining him across town, hemorrhaging after being hit by a bus. Once I choked down my terror, I asked him what had happened.

Further investigation revealed that a lens had fallen from his glasses, leaving him temporarily blinded. I calmed him down on the phone, he found an optician, they fixed him up, and when he got home, we had a talk about things that do and do not constitute emergencies.

This weekend, CodeMonkey called me from his gig Upstate. "I know you told me not to call frivolous things emergencies but..." His trousers had split down the rear seam, leaving him stranded with half a day of teaching left to go. We decided to tie his sweater around his waist and sort out the pants situation when he got home.

Then we had another talk about what constitutes an emergency. Progress is slow, but we're getting there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to Save Money at Target...and Everywhere Else

I manage to find myself in Target multiple times a week, picking up shampoo, printer paper, or Western groceries. Given my husband's recent career transition, we have been trying to cut back, and I'm happy to have found another way to stretch our budget without affecting our quality of life.

For any chain stores we patronize regularly, I try to buy gift cards at a discount on the secondary market. Cardpool and Plastic Jungle both sell below value gift cards.* The balance on the gift cardsis verified by the seller, and they ship out quickly via USPS.  I have used both sites extensively without a problem (and they aren't paying me to write this.) I usually check both sites, and purchase from the one that offers the high discount on a particular vendor's card. Currently, I buy Target gift cards at 6% off face value to stret our grocery budget. Since CodeMonkey frequently uses Starbucks to work or meet clients, I buy their gift cards at 15% off and transfer the balance to his Starbucks account. If we were in the position of needing to buy either of us a large work wardrobe again, I'd definitely look to these sites first, as certain clothing store gift cards seem to go for 20% off face value. When you combine that with sales and discount codes, the savings can be substantial.

*If you have unwanted gift cards lying around the house, they'll buy those too, at a percentage below face value.