Monday, January 31, 2011

Just Another Day in the Life of the Uninsured

I went to bed one day last week quite worried. I was having terrible chest pains that shot through my shoulder as well. I tossed and turned worried about possibly losing my battle with debt or even my life if I waited too long for medical attention.

I woke the next morning still in pain, but got ready for work anyway as usual. I did ask my husband not to have a drink while he watched his football game just in case I needed to go to the hospital. He wanted me to call in but it was too late for that.

It's funny, after three days of underlying worry each day I remembered what probably caused this pain. An elderly neighbor had dropped by to borrow my phone. I didn't want my daughters dog to try to jump all over her so I picked up the wiggling 65 pound dog and put her in the bedroom. It was that night that the pain started so I most likely pulled a shoulder muscle.

The pain lessens day by day. Funny how it's possible to get hurt and just not realize it at the time. I'm glad I remembered the dog incident, it eased my mind.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Meeting Goals Slowly

My goal is to pay off my debts as rapidly as possible and place as much as I can in savings at the same time. I'm careful to keep just enough cash to cover normal weekly expenses so I never have to tap into savings.

Savings grows with my excitement. I put all my change in a jar. Every few months I roll the change and deposit it in savings. Sure it may take a little time but I love seeing it all add up, plus I hate to take the time to pay for stuff with change. I never want to be the one holding up the line while I search the bottom of my purse for a nickel.

Groceries and gas are paid for with cash. Leftover cash at the end of the week is deposited into savings. On the day before payday when I get the urge to buy a little something it's usually easy to talk myself out of it when I picture which figure I can write on the deposit slip.

Being more responsible with money allows my husband and I the chance to sit back calmly and observe others. We sometimes discuss the choices of others and think of ways we could improve the situation. We don't sit about judging others, we just recognize mistakes now in others that we've made ourselves in the past. We would have had much easier lives if we would have learned our own lessons earlier in life.

An elderly customer came through my line with her husband. He's on disability and she just retired from her part time job. They have no savings and they barely get by. She had canned soup and potato chips in her order that were BOGO (buy one get one free) but she only had one of each. I explained that our store did not offer items for half price when they were BOGO and I offered to get another of each item so she could get the second one for free. She said she only needed one. The BOGO items usually have a long shelf life, but she couldn't understand it. They will keep.

I have a well stocked pantry. I always have the baking staples flour, sugar, brown sugar, yeast, and loads of spices. I also have plenty of boxed and canned goods that were bought on sale.

Here lately, I've been pretty much ignoring the sales and slacking on couponing. I'm at a point where everything is stocked up enough that, except for perishables, I don't need to shop. For the past month I've spent less than $30.00 a week for groceries. This past week I spent $16.00. I just don't need much of anything.

The money I would have spent on food is going into savings. I'm also slowly shedding my debt. It's a good place to be.

After saying all the above, life isn't just about living as a pauper and fighting debt. It would be very sad if it was. We do have fun, we are just more choosy about what we do. It's like television viewing. I recently asked my husband to turn off the television because it was too much of a distraction. He sometimes likes to flip through watching three or four shows at once and driving me mad. We enjoy it more when we tune in for just a few shows we really like and then turn it off.

We do go out and do things sometimes. We even spend money on occasion. Instead of eating out and going to the movies weekly, we pick low cost things to do like canoeing or going to the beach. Sometimes we do more. This is life - you have to live it.

Recently we went to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa and attended the Chocolate Festival there. This was a splurge for us. We've been in a rut lately and lamenting about how we never do anything. The chocolate festival was crowded but fun. There were all sorts of vendors displays and classes. Our tickets included a movie in the IMAX theatre which is always a treat.

We already spent money on tickets, and a lot of money on a few gourmet cupcakes to bring home, and we had a dog waiting for us with her legs crossed so we opted for dinner at home.

We came home, walked the dog, and together we made the most exquisite pizza I've ever had. It was a great evening. We're already planning our next trip. My husband wants to visit the newly opened Dali Museum, and I have a list of a few places I want to see. Whatever your financial situation at the moment, I'm hoping you make the time to find joy in your life, no matter how small.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Faulty Towers vs Reality

A few years ago I found a job in a hotel. Working in a hotel was something I had never done so it was an adventure to me and a chance to add something completely different to my resume. Some low wage workers, just like actors, don't want to be typecast into only one type of role or job.

I loved working there most of the time. I learned new skills and truly like the people I worked for. I worked the overnight desk position. I checked in a few guests, did the night audit, and then the next of the night was mine until I set up the breakfast. It was the first job I ever held where my manager told me to bring a book, set up my computer and relax after my work was done. You don't get that with other jobs. Restaurants want you to stand at attention during slow times when there isn't any cleaning to be done. Retail workers must be on their feet at all times and will be reprimanded if caught chatting or leaning, even if it is only for one moment. This was a different world.

Now, I will tell you the dark side. There must be a down side after all. One thing I learned about hotels was all the different types of travelers. I had traveled for business and for vacations before. Some workers live in hotels almost year round. Truck drivers, construction crews, road crews, utility company workers and many others travel from one work sight to the next. Their companies often choose a mid-range hotel to put up all the workers. When I was a retail manager we were often put up in higher range hotels when we had training or meetings. They needed rooms for two to four districts worth of managers and ballrooms for lectures and dinners.

I learned that drug dealers also travel from hotel to hotel to conduct their business. You would know that you had one when you would see the traffic coming into and out of the room on cameras late at night. Some would not care what kind of attention they attracted and would have loud parties. Some workers warned me that one of my guests would conduct his business in the back parking lot while he carried a loaded gun openly. We had to kick him out. The police warned us to be careful because they knew him to be extremely dangerous.

One night some young people were partying in a room. One guy who came to visit the two girls who rented the room became upset. He slammed their door and punched every single light fixture on his way down the walk way. There was broken glass and blood everywhere.

Speaking of blood, on another night when I came to work three people were sitting on the bench by the check in window when I clocked in. The evening shift person left and I locked up. I watched the people out front because something wasn't right. I looked out and one of them ran away and there was a big knife and a puddle of blood on the sidewalk. The police came and the ambulance picked up the injured man. He slit his own wrist because his wife was at our hotel with another man.

I learned a useful skill at that hotel. How do you get large quantities of blood out of concrete? You pour straight bleach on it and scrub and rinse with lots of water. It's a skill I have used at my current job. I had a customer who had to pick up money from Western Union. He filled out the paperwork and then he proceeded to bleed. He bled on the counter and on the floor. Instead of taking care of it he continued to bleed until he collected his money. I grabbed surgical gloves and the bleach and cleaned for quite a while after he left. What is wrong with people?

Oh by the way, the cheating wife and the new man called to say their air conditioner wasn't working. They exchanged keys for a new room. We called the old room and her kids answered so we kicked them out for scamming so they could get a free room for the kids to sleep in while they partied in their own room.

One more thing that happens in hotels unfortunately is what is referred to as a crack whore. This is a deranged, drug addled and unkempt woman who frequents hotels but doesn't get a room of her own. The woman will walk up and down the walkway, knocking on doors at two to three in the morning looking for business. They look for hotels where large numbers of construction or road crews are staying, hoping to earn a little money from men who are far from home. Once again, you have to put your book away and call the police. Before I moved I got a room in the hotel where I worked. We had the moving van packed and we only had a few hours to sleep before we took off early in the morning. Sure enough, as soon as we fell asleep there was knock on the door.

Well there you have it. More strange stories from life in the lower class. Hey, If I hadn't have worked there, I wouldn't have known. This was a clean decent hotel too. It happens everywhere.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Temper Tantrums, They're Not Just for Children Anymore

By working retail you get a view of humanity. You watch children grow up, you see couples feud, and see your elderly customers go through medical dramas. Quite often you are a witness to odd or bad behavior. Small children prance through the aisles tossing candy in shopping carts when parents are distracted. Occasionally one when denied a treat will throw himself on the floor for a full body temper tantrum.

You see a lot of wardrobe disasters as well. One young girl came into the store one night in a black push up bra, a black thong, high heals and a see through white tee shirt worn as a dress. If she was my daughter she would have dragged home and locked in her room. Years ago a woman used to shop in the grocery store each week wearing the same outfit. She wore a black one piece swimsuit with the sides cut out to make it almost a two piece. She also weighed more than three hundred pounds. She would walk through the store doing her weeks shopping while her extremely thin man sauntered proudly next to her. I'll never forget him walking along and holding one of her rolls that hung out the side of that stretched too far swimsuit.

You see a lot of men popping into the store with no shoes and no shirts. When asked to leave sometimes they resort to shouting. I saw one man run in to pay for a pizza. He stood at the counter in shorts, no shirt or shoes and handed the worker his money. Then he had an itch. It was a deep and personal itch. He then proceeded to stick his hand down the back of his pants and tend to his itch. I bet they were sorry they didn't send him back out but sometimes they just get quick service to get them out quickly with no argument.

There is one elderly lady who shops occasionally who shaves her eyebrows completely off and draws them back on in the middle of her forehead with a purple eyeliner pencil. I have to bite the insides of my cheeks to keep a straight face when I wait on her. Another lady comes in with a makeup disaster. I call her Marilyn Manson's grandmother. She has black eyeshadow, thick black eyeliner and the heaviest mascara I've ever seen. She also wears black blush painted on in a thick oval circle on each cheekbone and black lip liner. Whatever dark lipstick she wore that day is usually worn off. She is probably in her seventies so the overall effect is very shocking. One day she asked me where the restroom was. Later she came through my line and there was a terrible smell. She held out her hand for her change and there was poop smeared on her palm.

Speaking of poop, that happens too. On "Little Britain" there is a character that pees in public and doesn't seem to notice. She holds conversations in a store and pees on the floor, it really is hilarious I can't give it justice, however this happens in real life as well. We had an incontinent shopper who always rode one of the motorized shopping carts. She would ride it out to her car and expect a bagger to ride it back into the store. They would always have to clean and sanitize it first because the seat would be covered in pee.

A produce person in another store went into the back room to work and found a female customer squatting over the floor drain and using the restroom. She said she thought she was in the restroom. Really? You keep cabbages and carrots in your restroom at home?

In one large store someone was pooping in the sink in the men's restroom. They had no idea who until one day a manager walked in and found a little old man crouched over the sink caught in the act. I don't think they knew what to do because he was just obviously out of his mind.

A second hand store had a customer referred to as the poop pocket bandit. They came in weekly and put little chopped up bits of poop in the jacket pockets. They finally caught them one day and discovered it was a disgruntled former employee.

You don't think the world is this twisted? Think I made it up? You only see the retail world in fifteen minute glimpses. Stay for several hours, several days a week and you will be here long enough to catch the bigger stories, see the weirdness. We see the good and the bad.

Those temper tantrums the kids have? That's a normal part of life. How you handle it as a parent will help determine the character of the child for the rest of his or her life. Don't give in. I have a feeling some of my older customers throwing adult tantrums were indulged too often as a child.

One customer comes in and tries to cut in line every time. He feels I should run his lottery tickets before the other five people already in line are served. I remind him there is only one of me and therefore only one line for everything. One day before the holidays we were understandably very busy and lines were longer than normal. He was next in line but the woman in front of him was buying lottery for the first time and had some questions. I patiently but quickly waited on her but it wasn't good enough for him. He threw himself across my counter and shouted "Oh for the love of god, for crying out loud, what is wrong with people." I ignored him as he banged his head on my counter and finished waiting on the other customer. When it was his turn he stuck his finger in my face and said, "You are great, but you have some of the worst, most selfish, rude customers on the planet." I just smiled and ran his tickets quickly. I didn't tell him he just described himself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Frugal Gone Bad, The Dark Side of Saving Money

You may have watched a day time talk show about a cheap family that saved their aluminum foil or washed out sandwich baggies or shared one tub of water in order to save a few pennies on their budget. I remember cringing when I heard a story about a dad who stood outside the bathroom door and asked his kids if they were going #one or #two so he could hand them the toilet paper. They just couldn't be trusted with that fabulous toilet paper. They were allowed two squares for #one and eight squares for #two.

Some people allow their frugality to run amok. They start saving and it becomes an addiction or a competition for them, and then they turn into that toilet paper guy or worse. I heard of one man who would hang a strand of dental floss across a towel rack so he could reuse it several times.

Occasionally frugal folks put their own health at risk to save money. I remember a news article in which a nurse said she thought a bird was an excellent pet for a senior citizen. She had witnessed some of the elderly die from the cold because they were not willing to put the heat on. She said they would not be worried for themselves but they would keep a home at a safe temperature for their bird.

I'm frugal myself but not that far gone into it, I enjoy life too much. I may not have turned on the more expensive overhead heating, but I do use a space heater on cold nights. I can't live without air conditioning in the summer. I do eat out occasionally as well. Sometimes I even purchase fast food because I am just too tired or rushed to cook.

My father was an extremist at times and his point was completely lost on his children. He actually went as far as searching our trash to make sure we didn't throw anything out that still held value. My favorite story involved a simple lunch time meal. I came in the door to find my father making a sandwich. He had two slices of bread which he was covering with sliced ham. Then he grabbed a bottle of barbecue sauce and started pouring it on his sandwich.

"Ewe Dad," I gasped, "Why are you putting barbecue sauce on your ham sandwich?"

"I have to have something to cover up the taste of this rotting meat." he replied.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

High Finances for the Lower Incomed

I used to earn triple the income I have now. Everything was financed and I worked to pay the bills. Clothes were on credit, gifts were on credit, a vehicle and a house were financed. I thought the job was there to stay and as long as I could make at least the minimum payments I would be okay. The only thing I never put on credit was groceries. At least I knew that was a bad thing to do. Added to the debt was disorganization. Bills would be brought into the house and placed in a different spot each day and sometimes be paid late because of this.

Simple organization and refusal to fall into debt are all that is needed to pull a family out of a bad situation like this. Some people are quite happy to put everything into a computer program and make charts and graphs. Some have special apps on their cell phones to remind them when payments are due. Others track their net worth every day. I don't carry a cell phone (one less bill, plus more freedom from distractions) and I like to keep things very simple.

I have one three ring binder to keep me organized. If I complicate things too much, I know I won't keep up with it. Find what works for you and do it. When mail comes into the house it goes on the kitchen table. It took a while to drill this in but it works now. Junk mail is shredded and recycled immediately. Bills are recorded on the calendar in the binder and placed in the pocket in the binder. I don't bother to buy a calendar anymore. Why pay between $10.00 and $20.00 when I can print one for free from the web? I place it in the binder and use it daily. I haven't paid a late fee since I started this system.

Track your debt. At the bottom of the calendar on the right had side I keep a list of all the bills that come due monthly. This way if I don't get one in the mail I will remember it is due and call to find out what happened. It is also nice to see these reduce in number as I pay them off. In January 2010 I had fourteen bills and in December 2010 I had six , only one of these was a credit card. The other five were regularly occurring expenses like rent and electricity.

At the bottom of the left hand side of the calendar I keep a running total of the amount of my debt. During the past year I have watched in shrink several thousand dollars. It helps to keep you motivated to remain frugal and get rid of debt when you watch it shrink. This year I'm pretty sure I will get rid of debt completely and I can't wait!

I know that it makes sense and there are people out there who can automate their finances and have automatic withdrawals for savings and bill paying. I am on an extremely low income so this does not make sense for me. Sometimes I have $500.00 in my checking account and sometimes I have $5.00. This is how people end up with overdraft fees. If I look at my checkbook and send out the bills myself I can avoid these problems.

Don't forget your savings. Having some money in savings protects you from having to resort to credit card use for unknown emergencies. When your car breaks down and you have enough to cover the mechanics fees it keeps that money from being added to your debt. Debt repayment is important but so is boosting your savings little by little. I always place what I need for bills and keep cash for gas and groceries. I shop carefully through the week and any cash left over when the next paycheck arrives goes into savings.

If I've bored you to death by now, please forgive me. I just want to let the unorganized, or the debt laden, or the poor, or newly poor know that there is a way out. You aren't stuck here forever, and you can live a satisfying life on less money. It may take more work, and a fresh look at consumerism, and thinking about what is really important to you. A little work and a fresh perspective can pull you out of the grasp of the debt monster.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Small Moments in a Frugal Life

I worked the morning shift a few days ago and after I came home I decided to tidy up the kitchen. I did the dishes, cleaned the cabinets and counter tops, emptied a bookcase I was planning on giving to my son, and swept and mopped the floor. Each task accomplished led to another item to clean. I usually run the coffee pot with vinegar to get it clean. I also use baking soda and vinegar to unclog the sink in the bathroom. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it cleaned out. This time I decided to re-use the hot vinegar from the coffee pot to clean the drain. I tossed a handful of baking soda in the sink and chased it with the hot vinegar and it worked in seconds.

As evening drew on it became chilly in the house, so I put on warm fuzzy socks and a sweater. I wanted something to eat but didn't feel like preparing anything time consuming so I decided some warm oatmeal would work. I don't buy the more expensive packets you add boiling water to. I like the old fashioned oatmeal you cook on the stove, but it isn't any more difficult to prepare. I have what I call the secret formula to oatmeal, but I'll share it with you. I place one cup of oatmeal and one half cup of milk and two cups of water in a pot. I stir it, put the lid on it, and then place it one the stove on medium heat. I leave it there for about fifteen to twenty minutes and then stir and serve. It is creamy enough so you don't have to add milk. You can add blueberries and cream, or brown sugar and cinnamon, or a swirl of maple syrup. This makes two servings to share or one large portion for a ravenous fiend.

So there you have it. I did my own cleaning, although it would be really cool to have servants. I cleaned with low cost, and green products. I discovered an even niftier way to avoid a plumbers fee, and I kept from turning the heat on by bundling up just a bit. I also avoided the sneaky cash stealing act of ordering dinner out by making a satisfying meal at home instead. It takes just a small bit of effort to find a frugal way to accomplish the tasks in life. If you take the time to be careful with money, you'll be happy at the end of the week or month when you are paying more towards your debt, or adding a bigger amount into savings.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Debt, A Hard Bargain

Debt used to be a way of life for me. I started with a student loan, added a department store card, mixed in a gas card, and then a few regular credit cards. I guess I just figured it was what people did. We needed stuff, we had jobs, and the bills were paid as they came in. The bills were paid as they came in but we also allowed many of the cards to carry a balance which tended to grow.

We had kids and we were poor, so we had earned income tax credit which gave us back a nice income tax check. This income tax check became our emergency fund. Cars were forced to limp along until February or March when the extra money would be available briefly for repairs. We tried to save some of it sometimes but those pesky bills kept showing up in the mailbox.

The bills kept coming but we had an addiction to stuff. We liked kid stuff, and kitchen stuff, and pretty stuff. Sometimes, working retail, we found fantastic deals on deeply marked down, previously quite expensive stuff. If we didn't have enough cash we would put some of these great bargains on credit, thereby cancelling out the "bargainness" of the product.

My stuff was super important but I didn't notice the value of my husbands stuff. My husband didn't understand just how clever I was to buy all of the stuff I found on clearance. We filled our house with bargains, not to the point of hoarding but to the point of realizing finally that we had too many of everything and a nice vacation and a savings account would have been a better use of our money. We were caught up in lower class consumerism, keeping up with the Smith's.

We've reversed our thinking. It took a while, we had a long lesson to learn. I was raised by Depression babies but they never discussed money, or why they lived as they did. They never explained why they only went to the dollar theater, or wore old clothes, or rarely went out to eat. They never said why they bought toilet paper in bulk, on a super sale, or why they kept their old car running. I was young and didn't know any better. I just thought they were cheap and sometimes stingy. They never really shared their quiet lessons.

I was told stories of my mothers youth. I knew about her owning two dresses, one to wash and one to wear. I heard about the one room schoolhouse and only having shoes in winter. How quaint. They never really shared their current stories. They sat smiling while we joked about a nuclear holocaust where wounded people would beat at our door for our toilet paper hoard. They never once said, "This is why we do what we do..." I wonder if they would have spoken if the lessons would have been learned earlier in life or if some lessons just have to be learned the hard way.