Archive for September, 2011

September 28, 2011

Suzy Homemaker

It’s no secret that I turn into Suzy Homemaker when I’m stressed. I bake, I cook, I clean. Of course, I do these things when I’m not stressed – but when I kick it into over drive. Today, at 4:32 pm, I dust busted the inside of the laundry hamper. Yup, my day was that good.

School has me stressed out these days. I’m trying to get my user study up and off the ground. The problem is I’m working with different organizations. Neither organization has anything to gain from helping me (other than my undying gratitude.) Apparently my undying gratitude doesn’t go for much these days. I’ve been fighting road blocks for over a month. At about 2 in the afternoon, I got an email from my collaborator about an issue that only he could resolve. Due to other commitments, he won’t be getting around to it for an indefinite amount of time. I’m screwed.

Time to re-evaluate, and maybe come up with a different approach. At least my home will be spotless in the meantime.

September 25, 2011

Eating Well for Less

Eating well and not saving money are two ideas that seem to contradict. Fruits and veggies, extra lean meats, and organics all come with heftier price tags. Domingo and I haven’t mastered the balance yet – I don’t even know if it’s possible – but we have found little ways to save while still eating well.

Fresh Vs. Frozen:
Our first strategy is to buy frozen vegetables. A few studies have found frozen vegetables are typically no worse than fresh. They’re frozen at the peak of freshness, which helps lock in nutrients. Of course, the way they’re frozen (and the way their cooked) influences how many nutrients you can absorb from them.

While the typical recommendation is to buy in-season vegetables fresh, and off-season vegetables frozen, we always have our staple frozen vegetables (corn, peas, broccoli, etc) all year round. They last longer that way so we can stock up on sales, we always have vegetables, and no excuse to go without. On sale, a generic bag of veggies is usually only $1.20, and last for 2 meals. We still buy fresh for vegetables that just don’t taste the same frozen (ie asparagus.)

Using the same logic, we buy frozen meats as well. A bag of Tilapia can cost $8, and last for three dinners. Fresh, the same price would fetch only enough fish for one meal, and we’d have to buy it that day or the day before. Major inconvenience. We also have options for a super quick healthy meal for very busy days – just throw a meat in the oven to bake, steam a vegetable and done. Combined with half a bag of veggies, and we have a healthy, easy, no fuse meal for two for just $3.27!

We will also buy refrigerated meet in bulk, and throw it into the freezer. We’ll buy ground turkey and shape it into patties for burgers. It’s cheaper than buying pre-shaped patties, and we can make them as thick or as thin as we like. We can also freeze them individually, and thaw only what we need each meal.

Pick your healthy battles:
I love the idea of organic, but only buying organic and free range is expensive. We only purchase organic milk. I find a huge difference in taste between organic and non-organic. I can drink a glass of organic milk, but non-organic has a chalky taste. We also found organic milk lasts a lot longer. It may cost twice as much, but it lasts long enough for us to consume it all. I will never go back to non-organic milk.

Veggies and fruits are a different matter. I considered only buying organic for the dirty dozen, but I can never remember which fruits and veggies are on the list. However, sometimes organic can actually be cheaper. Since our grocery store tends to stock up on Sunday, they sometimes have sales to turn over stock. Our current philosophy is to buy organic when it’s close in price or cheaper than regular. This afternoon I bought organic spinach for my strawberry and spinach salad. I figure any vegetable is better than no vegetable, and some organic is better than no organics.

Have a Plan:
We’ll plan three or four meals for the week. By knowing what we want to make over the course of the week, we reduce the number of trips to the grocery store (and any impulse purchases.) We’ll also put meals back to back that use the same ingredients. For example, tonight is taco night. We’re making 3 lbs of meet (waaaay more than the two of us can eat.) Tomorrow we’ll make chili with some of the left over meet, and meaty spaghetti sauce with the rest which will be frozen for future meals.

Left-overs, Left-overs, Left-overs. Most recipes are designed for families, you can cut down on the ingredients, but then you’re using half a pepper and the other half is wasted. We have a couple recipes that reheat very well, and will deliberately make a double batch so we have easy lunches and dinners. It’s especially great for busy weeks where we would otherwise be springing for take-out.

Like I said, we haven’t mastered the art of saving while grocery shopping. Our food bill is still high. You can’t eat $3.27 meals every day – or at least we can’t – it gets boring! But I’ve noticed our grocery bill has dropped some since we’ve started doing all these things, and any savings is better than no savings.

September 24, 2011

Pre Season Sales

As I’ve mentioned before, I typically shop in the after holiday / after season sales. Usually you get the best deals and, aside from a few cases, I’ve never had a hard time finding what I want. Well, this year I’ve been introduced to something new – pre season sales.

I’ve been to Micheals, Jo-anns, Hallmark, all having sales for holidays that haven’t happened yet. 30% off for Halloween, 60% off for Thanksgiving, 25% off for Christmas! It’s not usually to see Christmas stuff so early. (Actually, they’ve been available since July). Crafters need to start early, so they can be ready in time to put their decorations out. But what shocks me is the sales. What’s usual is the number of good sales. It’s not just one item here or there. Jo-Anns had their entire Halloween section on sale, including customs and accessories.

It’s yet another sign that industry is predicting a sluggish sales this holiday season. Hopefully I can figure out how to capitalize on them. Nothing makes me more frustrated than realizing I missed out on the best possible deal, even if I got a good deal in the process.

September 18, 2011

DIY Wedding Invitation Ornament

I still can’t shake the Christmas feeling I’ve been having lately. I am also missing all the wedding related craft projects (Weddings are great excuses to craft!), so I decided to make a wedding invitation ornament. I’ve seen several of these on the internet lately, and it was too cute not to give it a try. Total cost was only $3.24, not including materials I already had on hand.

I only had a couple left over wedding invitations, so I decided to print a new one. Originally I purchased white metallic card stock with the anticipation of printing all the invitations myself, which I never ended up using. The metallic sheen reminded me of snow, it was perfect for this project.

I used a paper cutter to get nice, even strips. The strips were then wrapped around a pen to make loose curlicues, and inserted them into a clear plastic ornament from Micheal’s ($0.99). Once cut and inserted into the ornament, the metallic paper reminded me of a satin ribbon. It looks very delicate.

Don’t worry about getting every strip into the ornament. I had more strips than room in the ornament, so I kept only the strips with a non trivial number of words. I had a poem on my invitation, and one of the lines had only two words. The resulting strip looked blank, so I passed on it.

Insert some small curlicues first. I made the mistake of putting our names in first, which were on much larger strips. They blocked off access to the bottom of the ornament. A pair of tweezers can be used to maneuver the ribbons a little, but it’s a bit like making a ship in a bottle, and very time consuming. I couldn’t get the smaller curlicues in behind the bigger ones. I ended up pulling all the strips out of the ornament and trying again.

The invitation needed a little something extra to make it unique. I still had my wax seal for the invitations, so I bought some sculptey (a bankable clay) in order to create our very own monogram charm. The sculptey was $2.25, and I have a lot left over for future projects.

This is where I lucked out. There was a miscommunication when I ordered my custom seal and I ended up with two: one with the circle border and one without. I had only intended to order the borderless seal, which was the one I used for the invitations. It looked really nice with the faux wax (not from, but when working with the clay the missing border looked sloppy. I described it to my husband as “Dog Collar Like”. The seal with the circle looked just a touch more finished.

After working with the clay to soften it up, I pushed the seal down as hard as I could. I used an exacto knife to trim the edges. I found it easiest to pick up the seal, sculptey still attached, and trim the excess sculptey with a pealing motion. Lastly, I used a pin to puncture a hole above the “D”, and baked the charm for 15 minutes to harden.

But the ornament still didn’t feel complete. The monogram pendent was a nice touch, but the sculptey doesn’t have the same finishing touch as, say, a real charm. We had a subtle wine theme at our wedding. Our favors were wine charms. I made TONS of charms. We wanted to have enough that every couple or family could take home a complete set. Of course, not everyone wanted one, so we had a few left over. I found one of the blue ones (to match our wedding colors). Call me crazy, but it actually reminds me of a vineyard label. I think I have a new favorite ornament.

* I did buy the ornament hook this weekend ($1.50 pre 20% off coupon at JoAnns). Since I’m working on multiple Christmas ornaments, I figured the hook would make the work easier. It’s not necessary. Pre-ornament hook I used a wine glass, which worked just fine.

September 12, 2011

From Registry to Wish List

Where do we get all this stuff?? I’m getting ready to make our fourth trip to Good Will this year. It’s not like we buy a lot, so where do all these things come from?! Actually, I know where it comes from this time. I’m still buying stuff off our registry, 18 months after we were married.

Back then, one of the things we registered for was a medium sized pot and pan set. Even though we cooked a fair amount, I wasn’t sure what we would need. At the time we were using two hobbled collections of assorted pots. Neither of us could tell you what each pot’s original function was, or what the size, other than “big”, “not so big” and “wish it were bigger.” We weren’t exactly sure which pots and pans we would actually use, so we registered for a starter set. Now that we’re cooking together, when ever we discover we need something else, I would add it to the registry and wait for the 20% coupon. Anything that we think we want goes to the registry.

I love lists. There are many pros with keeping around the registry. I keep track of items I am considering buying, which makes comparison shopping easier. When a coupon comes in, we purchase the item we want the most. It’s a good way to curb impulse buying. We have only the pots and pans we need, which is great when space is a premium in our kitchen. Bed, Bath and Beyond has a 10% off coupon to complete your registry. 10% is fine, but 20% is better.

It appears that the line of pots and pans we registered for is being dropped from both the store and the website. The whole line is now on sale for 20%, and still eligible for the 20% coupon (effectively 36% off). Sweet! If only we hadn’t bought the griddle just two weeks ago, we could have saved an additional $6. I’ve been searching online, but it doesn’t look like they’ll price match themselves. Bummer.

I would have never noticed the sale on pots and pans if we didn’t have the registry. I just happened to be on it when I noticed a pot previously listed as a $99 pot was listed for $79. The website didn’t say anything like clearance or reduced price, which surprised me. Normally stores don’t shy away from the big “S” word (“sale”). Everyone likes a good sale. It wasn’t until we were in the store and all the products in the line were marked down 20% that it was clear what was going on.

So we finished off the pots and pans. All two of them. At this point, we have pretty much everything we want. Only a few odds and ends remain. It only took us 18 months to do it, but we got it at all at least 20% off.

Initially, when we started purchasing Hallmark ornaments we used ornament hooks. Hooks are convenient, but can scratch the ornament. While I don’t intend for my ornaments to remain “collectables”, I do want them to stay nice. They will get scratched from use, but we can reduce the exposure to scratches. So every year we remove the hooks before packing up our ornaments back in their boxes.

Between the eBay, Amazon and in store purchases of Hallmark ornaments, our collection has finally grown to a non-trivial number of ornaments. It was time to replace the standard hook with something that could be more permanent, ribbon.

2008 Grillin and Chillin and 2009 Snow Much Fun to Cook

I wanted a color that would disappear from view, and not detract from the ornaments, a “Go Away Green.” For those of you who aren’t Disney fans, “Go Away Green” is the dull green color term for the color they pain the trash cans, fences and other things they don’t want to emphasize in their parks. The color helps the objects blend into the background and go unnoticed. We wanted something similar with our ribbon.

Green hooks are also a dull green, designed to blend in with the tree. I took a hook to JoAnns and found a matching thin green ribbon for our ornaments, and spent the afternoon adding ribbon to each. and. every. ornament. It took forever, but it’s done and now I will only have to add ribbons to new ornaments. I was a little worried about clashing, but the greens used on the ornaments are designed to complement the ever green color, which matches the ribbon pretty closely.

I singed the ends of the ribbons so they wouldn’t fray. Singing the ends also makes it less likely that the knot will unravel, since the edge is now a bit firmer and can’t slip through the knot. After all, a scratch from a hook is far better than a break from a fall!

September 8, 2011

Re-Thinking 3D

Now that we’re considering a 3D TV, it seems like every other day there’s a new article about them. Domingo found one about a commercially available 55 inch 3D TV in Europe. This is much sooner (and bigger) than the previous article we found, and making me question whether now is the right time to get any 3D TV. The Toshiba is listed at $11,400, and only available in Europe. My guess is it will be available in the states for the same price as the first flat panels by 2012’s holiday season. My concern is that if we buy a TV that requires glasses, and glasses become passé within a year, we’ll be stuck if the glasses break. Our rear projection TV lasted 10 years. Yes, it’s antiquated, but it still works! I want our next TV to function for at a while too.

There’s no way we’re not spending $11,000 on a new TV. Not even close. I can already find 3D ready TVs for under a thousand before the shopping season really gets under way. Then there are the periphery costs to consider. In order to utilize the 3D we’ll need a 3d ready DVD player (an extra $150-200), 3d glasses ($300) we’ll want to upgrade our cable and DVR capabilities to support at least HD, ($10-25 per month). We’re talking about an extra $600-750 the first year alone. In fairness, we’ll need many of those things if we get an HDTV anyway. I have been thinking of canceling Cable in favor of Netflix and Hulu, but it looks like Comcast is the only player in town with 3D content. At least for now.

Of course, the HDTV deals have already started this past labor day, 2.5 months before black Friday. And it’s no wonder. According to one report, only 13% of households are considering a new TV in the next 12 months. Yet, retailers don’t seem to be able to make up their mind whether this is going to be a boom or bust shopping year. Extra stock and fewer customers usually means better deals.

We still have time to make up our mind. Given the amount of money we’re going to have to spend on the “extras” in order to utilize the 3D technology, it’s going to have to be a really good deal to get me to pull the trigger.

September 6, 2011

Photography on the Go

For anyone who enjoys photography on the go, the “go bag” is essential.

Okay, so this bag isn’t actually designed for photography. It’s a small knit purse. Don’t let that fool you. By bringing this bag with me I have a spare lens easily at my finger tips. The purse fits my largest lens (55-200mm kit lens), if but just barely, a spare battery, memory card and a shower cap. It’s small enough that I can bring it into most museums and sporting events without anyone fusing over it and light enough that it’s not bothersome for long hikes.

The “go bag” also folds up small, and fits inside my full-sized camera bag. Now when we go on travel, I bring my regular camera bag with all my favorite lenses. I then pick what lenses I want for the day, pack up my “go bag” and leave the camera bag locked up in the hotel room safe.

Oh sure, it would be nice to have all my lenses with me at all time. Large camera bags can be heavy. And be honest, how often do you need more than a few lenses, anyway? I mean really need them.

I got this idea while we were honeymooning in Greece. We were visiting Olympia during a tour of the Peloponnese. The historical site had recently had some vandalism, so they were no longer allowing large purses or camera bags. Like most DSLR users, my camera bag is large. Our tour guide warned us that I would not be able to bring it in to the stadium, and there was a short supply of lockers. They had a designated space for oversized bags when the lockers were full, but it was out in the sun and exposed. I was worried about my equipment.

The night before we were to go to Olympia, Domingo and I went looking for a smaller bag that could hold a minimalist set of camera equipment and wouldn’t upset security. The “go bag” worked out so perfectly, I used it for the rest of our tour. The rest, as they say, is history.

September 1, 2011

Mathematics of Insurance


A recently engaged friend and I were discussing engagement rings, and she was shocked when I told her we did not insure our ring. “But doesn’t it have sentimental value to you?” She asked. Why yes, yes it does. But you can’t insure sentimental value, you can only insure monetary value. The insurance company won’t break out a search party should you lose your ring, or help in the police investigation if your ring gets stolen. They will write you a check to buy a new one.

Mathematically speaking, insurance doesn’t always make sense.

Insurance for possessions is similar extended warranties. Let’s consider an example from 2007. I purchased a Wii for $250. The store offered me a $10 extended warranty. Let’s say the store estimates the failure rate was 1 in a 100. Then for every 100 warranties sold, the store expects one customer’s Wii to break and to have to pay that customer the full price of a new wii, or $250. The store’s expected profit from selling 100 warranties is then $10×100 (the cost of the warranties) – $250×1 (the payout to one customer), or $750. This expectation is called the expected value. When the store sells tens of thousands of warranties, the statistical property called the Law of Large Numbers shows it is unlikely for a much larger percentage of wii’s to fail. Thus the store is not likely to lose money by paying out on the warranties. The store is a business, after all, not a charity and the goal of any business is revenue.

The expected value (EV) can be calculated for an individual warranty. This value represents the monetary worth of the warranty. The equation is: probability of failure x monetary value of failure + probability of no failure x monetary value of no failure
For the store:

EV(Store’s Value of the Warranty) = 1%x(-$250+$10) + 99%*($10) = -$2.40 + $9.90 = $7.50

In the first expression, the term -$250+$10 is the payout minus the revenue gained from the sale of the warranty. The monetary value of no failure, in the second expression, is simply the revenue from the sale of the warranty. Thus the store expects to earn $7.50 per warranty sold. Not coincidentally, it’s 1/100 of the expected value of selling 100 warranties.

We can also compute an individual consumer’s expected value of purchasing the warranty:

EV(Consumer’s Value of the Warranty) = 1%x($250-$10) + 99%*($10) = $2.40 + -$9.90 = -$7.50

The store’s expected gain is the customer’s expected loss. Each dollar the customer loses is a dollar the store gains.

We can also compare the expected value of the consumer not purchasing the warranty. In this case, the consumer does not pay the $10 fee, but is out of luck and must pay an additional $250 to replace the console, should it break. The consumer’s expected value of no warranty is:

EV(Consumer Value of No Warranty) = 1%x(-$250) + 99%*($0) = -$2.50

The expected value still negative, but the consumer’s expected value of not purchasing the warranty is less negative than the expected value of purchasing the warranty. Mathematically speaking, this means the consumer is expected to lose less money by not purchasing the warranty.

Engagement ring insurance works mostly the same way. A jewelry insurance company computes the probability that my ring will get lost, damaged or stolen. Many factors go into the calculation, including facts like the crime rate where I live, or whether or not I’ve ever reported a claim. The insurance company sets their rate accordingly, so their expected value is positive. In fact, they set their rate high enough that they can expect to be profitable and still pay their staffs wages, fixed costs for operating their business, and the women who file a claim on their rings. Again, they’re a business, not a charity. As before, the money the company is expected to make from me as a customer is equal to the money I am expected to lose.

This isn’t to say that insurance is never a good idea. In fact, it’s often a very good idea! Insurance and extended warranties are designed to provide protection for the worst case scenario, not the average case. Home, Auto, Health Insurance all have expensive worst case scenarios, beyond the financial capabilities of most people, which is why they are considered necessary. The worst case scenario when not purchasing the extended warranty is the Wii breaks, which would cost me $250 to replace. If you can afford the worst case (ie purchase a new Wii), you are usually better off not insuring. This is sometimes referred to as self insuring meaning you are setting money aside and relying on yourself to cover the financial burden should the worst case happen.

Should the worst case occur, and I lose my engagement ring, I will be okay financially speaking. Therefore, I expect to come out financially ahead by not insuring.