Amazon, You Had Me At Free Shipping

Last November, I attempted to reduce my dependence on the behometh online retailer. I cancelled my Prime membership and my many subscriptions. I ordered less from Amazon and redirected my spending to other online retailers or actually stepped into a physical store.

I already did most of my grocery shopping at Walmart (delivery or pick-up) or regular markets, so no change in habit needed there. I thought I could shift most of my household goods spending at Target since I get free shipping via their Red card. Unfortunately, their inventory is much smaller and their website is a less user friendly than Amazon. By the way, Wal-Mart’s website is even worse! I don’t understand why these two mega chains don’t invest more into their site’s functionality.

30 days after cancellation, I rejoined Prime. It took just two Amazon purchases where I had to pay for full shipping (which is oddly painful) for me to run back to the fold.

I know there are many others who have qualms about Amazon due to its treatment of workers or just due to its monopolistic nature. I would love to hear how you or someone you know managed to cut Prime! The caveat is that I don’t have time to replace convenient online shopping with in-person trips to multiple stores.

The New York Times published this article about Amazon’s use of third party sellers. An interesting read. Let the buyer beware!

We Choose the Cheaper Option 99% of the Time

Despite my numerous posts about “hard choices” related to purchases, I recently realized that my husband and I usually choose the cheap option. If I had realized sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of time and headaches!

Some examples:

Patio cover – We considered a pergola, sail shades, expensive umbrellas, and even a wood or metal structure with retractable shades. In the end, after hours of research and deliberation, we bought a $300 umbrella from Wayfair!

Front yard pathway – We dreamt big on this way. At one point, we seriously considered and even got quotes for large, expensive stone or concrete pavers with floating steps. In the end, we bought smaller pavers from Home Depot and hired an unlicensed landscaper to install on the cheap. Note: We were not totally happy with the installation.

Garage door – Perhaps the silliest of “hard choices” was the garage door. It shows its age but works perfectly fine. We saw and fell in love with high end garage doors that costed upwards of $3,000+. Installation would not be cheap either. In the end, we didn’t replace our existing door.

Dresser – In this post, I go through my internal never ending struggle with a potential purchase. I wanted a vintage, wood piece but could not find anything I liked under $500 (not including shipping which often doubled the price), and most were priced closer to $1,000. After days and days of searching, we bought a new dresser that is part real wood and part veneer. The wood is not even a quality hardwood. However it fits our style and is the perfect size.

I have convinced myself that this $300 piece is truly the best option, since none of the vintage pieces I found waa the exact size I wanted.

Internal Dialogue Almost Everytime I Want To Splurge

This (expensive item, usually household) is perfect! BUT it is more expensive than typical (item). I could get the same thing much cheaper from Amazon or Target.

But I really love it. I don’t want (item) with (list of flaws). Example: I don’t want furniture made of fake wood or requires assembly. I will enjoy this for a long, long time.

Who am I kidding? I’ll probably get used to having it and then need to buy something else to get that shopping “high”. According to the majority of smart finance bloggers, I should only spend a lot for experiences.

I shouldn’t care about a stranger’s opinion, right? A blogger can’t really know me or my circumstances. I should ask (friend who likes to spend and almost always agrees with me).

I don’t know why I’m even debating this. My 2022 resolution is to be more mindful of my spending due to environmental reasons. I hate our cheap throwaway culture. Maybe I can find something nice on Craiglist or Offer Up.

Several days later…

I don’t have time for this! Plus, isn’t it sort of environmentally friendly to buy something that lasts? I should take another look at the (item). Maybe it’s on sale. If not, I’ll put it in my shopping cart and hope for a promo code.

Gawd, I could donate the same amount to a nonprofit. I could rescue an animal or buy supplies for an entire classroom with the same amount?!? Why is it so easy to spend $$$ on self and not so easy to donate $$$?

A day later...

No promo code. I am still thinking about the (item) so it’s not a temporary “want”. It would look really nice (or make life easier if tech- or organization- related.)

We have been doing pretty well money-wise for the past four years. We haven’t spent any money on traveling or going out! We are saving so much on gas. Those stimulus checks are still sitting in our accounts. If not now, when?

Of course it is never hurts to have a larger emergency fund or nest egg. With healthcare cost and a special needs kid, I should never splurge on frivolous things.

I need to get over my bag lady mentality. Splurging here and there won’t kill us. I deserve this!

That is not a good reason. I can rationalize any purchase by saying that I deserve it.

I am exhausted by this over-thinking. I wish I were rich.

This Explains It All (or link to an interesting post about U.S.economics in layman’s terms)

First, I want to give credit to J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly fame. This was one of several finance-related links in his e-newsletter.

This post by Morgan Housel for the Collaborative Fund is a very general examination of the U.S. economy after the Great Depression to today. Normally, economic articles bore or confound me, or both. This one, however, kept my interest til the end.

It is written in layman’s terms, without insulting the reader’s intelligence. I also liked that the writer tried to be as neutral as possible, which is quite a feat in these polarized times.

My main takeaway from the article is that the rich are getting richer while the middle class is getting decimated. We are moving back toward an unequal world where theĀ  few in power keep increasing their wealth while the rest of us make do with scraps. Soon there will not be a large middle class to bridge the gap between lower and upper classeses, especially the super wealthy.

Given the general tone of this piece, the author only touches upon racism. Based on other readings, however. I think that racist attitudes and policies have had a lasting impact on the black community. Black Americans were left out of the post-war boom that enriched the lives of their white peers. By the time that blacks were “allowed” to compete on more equal footing, it was harder to build wealth or move up up the ladder.

I am not at all sure about the political leanings of the website, which describes the Collaborative Fund as “an investment firm focused on supporting and investing in the shared future. Our funds center around two macro themes: the growth of the creative class, and the concept of the collaborative economy.”

They could be idealistic free market thinkers, anti-capitalists trying to subvert the system from within, or just a cover for the Koch brothers’ brand of dog eats dog capitalism.

At any rate, I hope readers will enjoy the article!

Donating vs. Buying

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For #GivingTuesday 2021, I gave $150 to my favorite nonprofit. This is a big amount for me. I’ve always given in small amounts to various charities, political candidates, and GofundMe campaigns throughout the year, whenever the mood struck.

My giving has changed this year. I now support a few nonprofits on a monthly basis (small amounts). I made a few “larger” donations with the highest amount on #GivingTuesday. I was motivated to give a higher amount for several reasons. One, I have been following this organization on social media and felt a strong connection not just to the cause but also to people behind the scenes. Plus, I was motivated by matching finds from Facebook.

Scarcity Mentality

According to this Forbes article, the term “scarcity mentality” was created by Stephen Covey in his famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This is the belief that resources and opportunities are limited, or scarce. Imagine if all the money in the world is represented one pie chart, and not everyone gets a slice.

In a world of self-help gurus and motivational speakers, the scarcity mentality is a bad thing. It is a negative, limiting, self defeating mindset that must be overcome.

I totally understand why this mindset can hold a person back. However, in reality, aren’t resources finite? There are only so many executive and managerial positions available at every company. The demand/need for houses is greater than supply.

My scarcity mentality is mostly related to personal finances, not career opportunities. Given my background, it’s not really surprising that I worry about money. While we were never hungry, my family did not have money for extras and we went through some lean times.

I also struggled in college and early 20s due to my lack of money management skills and low paying jobs. There were some “close calls” in terms of finances, including borrowing from a friend to pay rent, and constant worrying about overdraft fees due to my meager bank account.

Even though those days are long gone, and we are comfortable enough to have emergency savings and 401ks, I can’t shake the scarcity mentality and feeling that my family could end up in the poorhouse at any moment. In my mind, the next disaster was around the corner.

As I was writing this post, I realized that the scarcity mentality was not holding me back from splurging on myself. If I really want something, it takes me a second to add it to my shopping cart. Maybe my scarcity mentality is only partially to blame for my lack of giving!

Why is so much easier to click “Buy now” than “Donate”? Is anyone else in the same boat?

Pandemic Spending (and Drinking)

Now that many people are acting like the pandemic is almost over, I thought I would reflect on COVID-19′ s impact on my finances.

The Good (Big savings)

  1. I’ve spent zero on clothes, purses, and shoes for work.
  2. Working from home allowed us to cut down auto-related expenses. We sold one car, reducing wear and tear on our remaining car, and have lower insurance costs. As for gas, I fill up once a month, if that.
  3. Entertainment budget consisted of a Netflix subscription. No travel. No concerts. No meet-ups with friends. Nothing.
  4. While take out and grocery delivery added to our food cost, this was offset by zero restaurant excursions.
  5. I haven’t had a hair cut since March 2020.
  6. Like many people, I started taking fewer showers. Not only did this help reduce our water bill, this also extended the life of our soaps and shampoos.

The Bad ( Spending increases)

  1. I bought some comfy home clothes since working from home allows me to live in tshirts and sweatpants.
  2. We ramped up home renovation spending, although this was mostly for outside projects.
  3. We bought toys and things to keep kids from getting too bored. I even considered getting a bounce house!
  4. We splurged on higher end food items to make up for lack of entertainment and restaurant outings.
  5. Electric bills have increased. We try to be frugal in this area but with four people being home all the time, this was bound to go up.

The Ugly (Pandemic drinking)

Wine and beer consumption went way up for both of us, which I attributed to the sudden lack of entertainment options.

However as the months dragged on, I think the stress and isolation were the true culprits. I had the same workload and a boss who did not sympathize at all with the plight of parents. I was frequently interrupted by kids and spouse. While my husband did the bulk of zoom classes, there were times when I had to fit in a school zoom session between meetings. I should also mention that we didn’t have a nanny for a few months which increased our childcare load at the worse time possible.

It also seemed like pandemic drinking was one big joke.

I began looking forward to the evenings because of the cold beer or red wine waiting for me at the end of a hard day. One drink per night increased to one per weekday and two per night from Fridays through Sundays. I made special trips to the drugstore or market to ensure I had alcohol on hand at night.

A close friend expressed concern, which I ignored.

That same friend later emailed me an article about the effects of even moderate alcohol consumption on the human brain, including increased risk of Alzheimer’s. I started to worry a bit, but did not stop drinking.

What finally make me cut back? Money!

Financial gurus would be proud that saving money was the main incentive for quitting. I calculated that I could save roughly $60 per month by drinking less.

The secondary reason is altruism. I wanted to expand my giving to animal rescues and this was a simple, concrete way to make it possible.

Did you succumb to pandemic drinking or any orher vices? Did money ever motivated you to quit a bad habit?

Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom on Pexels.com

Owning a home is like having a child

My good friends warned me. Once you buy a house/have a kid, all your money and energies will be absorbed by that entity. Obviously I did not listen.

Here are some ways that the two experiences are alike:

Never-ending Upkeep

Before we bought a house, I noticed that my home-owning friends always seemed to be in the middle of repairs or renovations for their house. And in the rare moments of peace, they were doing the upkeep — re-staining decks, caulking, polishing, sanding — or searching for a good handyman.

How is this similar to kids? Well, apparently there is a lot of upkeep after the hazy, sleepless newborn/infant years.

Kids

  1. Feedings – three meals. plus snacks per day
  2. Cleaning – of bodies, bodily fluids, and general mess

House

  1. Cleaning – of kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms
  2. Gardening – water, prune, and fertilize plants you want. Kill plants you don’t want.

You also need to make improvements! Most of this work falls on you.

Kids

  1. Basics – reading.writing, arts and crafts
  2. Social skills – sharing is caring
  3. Hygiene – No, you cannot pee in your pants. Yes, you must wash hands.
  4. Educational – If you have extra funds, you can outsource improvements via coding class, swim lessons, karate, piano…the list is unlimited!

House

  1. Insulation of entire house
  2. Landscaping ($7,000+)
  3. Replace light and bathroom fixtures
  4. Repaint kid bedrooms

Let’s not forget repairs, which are not fun and often expensive. Below is the tally so far.

Kids

  1. A playtime accident that resulted in an ER trip and stitches.
  2. Two emergency room visits

House

  1. Water heater repair ($200)
  2. Fence and gate repairs ($250)

Pride of ownership

Yes, I know that we don’t own our children. However I am using that phrase because the feeling of pride is commonly caused by home ownership and having kids.

Home ownership does feel different than then renting, just as being a parent feels different than being the aunt or uncle.

I have to restrain myself from talking about my home renovations and kids too much, which brings me to…

Bragging rights

Excessive pride of progeny or homes is common, resulting in long, boring conversations about either topic. Yes, some people may be genuinely interested. Unfortunately, parents and homeowners are unable to recognize signs of disinterest.

For many people, pride also leads to competition. I suppose it’s natural to compare your kid’s development with others. However,this unhealthy obsession can lead to escalating expenses.

You know what I mean. Your neighbor’s kid has bouncy houses and magicians at his/her birthday party. Now you feel the need to do better or at least match their party. Your neighbor builds a beautiful redwood deck and now your outdoor set-up suddenly seems sad.

Have I missed out on any other similarities?

The Missing $6,000

Last week I logged into my online broker to make my 2021 Roth Ira contribution. As I scanned past transactions, I realized that I had NOT contributed in 2020! I’ve been contributing yearly for ages. Even when money was tight, I contributed something.

2020 was obviously a traumatic year but I should not have skipped a year.

Then I looked at my checkbook records and saw an entry in the amount of $6,000 toward my Roth account in March 2020.

My heart dropped. I quickly went through my bank account to see if the check had been cashed. Luckily not!

Another thought hit me. How could I not noticed that my 2020 contribution was never received? This means I did not try to allocate the money; $6,000 would have sat in my account for more than a year as a cash balance (with a low interest rate).

In a way, that is more unbelievable than not noticing the missing check. I knew I was overwhelmed but surely I could have moved the money at some point before June 2021!

I still need to put a stop payment, right?

Not so Great Expectations (of the Middle Class)

I started this post more than three years ago. My main argument was that today’s middle class (non-Boomer generation) could no longer aspire to a “typical” middle class life: Own a house, afford to help kids with college tuition, have a healthy retirement fund (maybe even a pension!) and take one ‘big’ vacation per year.

Due to increased cost of living, healthcare costs, wage stagnation and other factors, owning a house is simply out of reach for the middle class, especially in high cost of living areas. Renting is the new reality for the middle class, and I wanted to argue that this might not be a bad thing.

However, several years and big rent increases later, I no longer believe renting is a feasible longterm option for middle class families with school age kids. For many families, rent takes more than 30% of income. Yearly rent increases are the norm while pay increases are not.

Home ownership hasn’t gotten more affordable either.

Does this mean the middle class is completely screwed? Yes and no, and yes.

In urban areas, a common solution for middle income families is to buy or rent way outside the city center. You could be fortunate to work at a company that is located in the suburbs, too. For me and most of my dual-income friends, at least one spouse always ends up with a hellish, hour plus commute.

My spouse and I settled on another option in order to purchase a house without adding a long commute. We sacrificed our children’s future…. By this I mean we picked a neighborhood with a subpar school district, knowing we can’t afford private school.

We have a special needs child and school rankings do not take that into consideration. However, it is reasonable to assume that well-funded schools will have more resources for both regular and special needs kids.

We have not started a college fund and won’t be able help much with tuition. Our special needs kid will probably have to rely on the kindness of government and strangers…a scary thought. At this point, our priority is saving enough for retirement and paying off the mortgage (which we hope can be sold at some point to support our special needs kid).

From the blogs I read, our decision is NOT common among PF bloggers, who tend to have 529 accounts and prioritize school district when buying homes. However, this was one of the few areas we could afford to buy. Even renting in a better school district was out of our reach.

Don’t get me wrong. The area is safe. The majority of our neighbors are gainfully employed, quickly remove their trash cans from view, and keep their lawns immaculately green and trim. We have a quiet life and can still take part in all that a major city has to offer.

I tell myself that I went to so-so schools and turned out okay. Even if we could pay for college, wealthier families have already upped the game by supporting their progeny way beyond our reach anyway.

Upper middle class parents can fund science camps and a wide array of extacurricular activities and pay for college tuition, enabling their kids to focus on studies and unpaid or low paid internships if needed to get a foor in the door.

Wealthier families can easily support their kids through grad school (which in case you haven’t heard is the new B.A) or even bribe their way to top tier universities. Their kids are graduates, they can connect them to resume-building internships, anything to give their kid an advantage.

I guess we will have to see how our choice affects our kids’ future.

Random Updates about Money

1) Why do I tempt myself by browsing Nordstrom’s half-yearly sales? Under $80 for cute leopard print boots!

2) It turns out that my husband has been donating on his own. We both do small amounts (max. $30) but it adds up. We have to coordinate to avoid duplicate gifts. His favorite causes seem to be political campaigns and system changes. I tend to donate to political campaigns, kids related causes, racial equality groups and random gofundme recipients based on their story.

3) Husband went on his own health plan. It is much cheaper but we don’t know if this also means less coverage. However we will save almost $4,000 per year. My work plan isn’t great anyway.

4) A will is #1 priority for 2021. However I am not even sure we have enough money left for a trust, assuming most of our money will be eaten up by retirement and healthcare costs. Maybe we also need a financial advisor.

5) Layoffs are coming. I think maybe 1-2 more months… Can I retire early? The answer is no.

6) I was thinking about working for a non profit even if pay is low. Then I read in a Slate advice column (of all places) that the weirdest work related questions come from the non profit world. Anyone with insights on this? I imagine that non profits attract certain types of people. However, people working for racial equality would be very different, I think, from someone promoting animal adoption, right?

7) I almost maxed out my retirement last year, and I am counting the catchup amount for people 50+.

I started writing about recent purchases that I love or regret, but that deserves an entire post.