Housekeeping

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Getting rid of stuff

I am absolutely fanatical about decluttering. A big part of the effort of decluttering is what to do with the clutter. You can toss it, but this is wasteful for items that are useful to someone (just not you). Further, many items are worth money to someone; anyone who has held a yard sale knows that people will pay for things that many would consider valueless. So, what to do with your clutter?
  • Hold a yard sale (aka a tag sale). This is the tried-and-true method; however, it requires a lot of work, and worse, a lot of saving up your clutter until you have a critical mass that is worth yard-saling. This is probably still the most expedient, if not the most profitable, if you happen to have a lot of clutter all at once (e.g. if you are about to move).
  • eBay. If you are, more typically, parting with just a few items at a time, you can auction them on eBay. This is particularly well-suited to items whose value you really aren't sure about; if it is something that more than one of the many eBay visitors wants, the auction process tends to produce a fair price. Packing and shipping is a bit of a hassle, but it's manageable if you don't have too much stuff. Of course, this isn't really practical for large, unwieldy items like furniture that are impractical to ship.
  • Amazon.com Marketplace. You may have noticed that when you look at most items on Amazon, there is a button on the right that says, "Buy it Used." Those used items are being sold by regular people just like us. Just set up a marketplace account, list your items, and ship them when (if) they sell. Amazon pays you your sale price, minus a commission, plus a shipping allowance based on the size/weight of the item (which, of course, they already know). This is good for commodity items whose price is easy to establish, such as books and electronics.
If, for whatever reason, the item isn't worth selling (its value is low, or it can't be shipped), but it's too good to be trash, there are several options for just getting rid of it that are better than putting things in the trash.
  • FreeCycle. This is an email-based organization that connects people with stuff to give away with people who want that stuff and are willing to come get it. The web site hooks you up with your local organization(s), where you then sign up for an emailing list. People send to the list when they have something to give away, choose which of the respondents to give it to, and you go get it. This is great for hard-to-move stuff, since you can insist that the receiver move it from where it sits.
  • Charity. Certainly the most noble way to get rid of it, but typically you have to do the schlepping. Some organizations (e.g. in my area, Salvation Army) will pick up, but typically they want you to either have a lot of stuff or stuff of some clear value (e.g. decent furniture). Plus, there is often a long wait until the next pickup. However, stuff that's easy to move (and often, a piece at a time, low in value) is generally appreciated by someone. We give clothes, shoes, blankets, and the like to women's or homeless shelters. Low-value books like paperbacks go to the local public library, who sells them.
Go to it! You packrats out there, I cannot express how satisfying it is to live a clutter-free life.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Big ziplocs

Ziploc bags now come in a couple of really big sizes: 2ft x 1.7ft or 2ft x 2.7ft. I'm not even sure what I need them for, but I'm pretty sure I need them.

Shopping online

Though internet retailing is now fairly mature, many people are still skittish about shopping the internet. In part this is because people are slow to change, and are uncertain of how to get the best deals on the 'net. However, it isn't difficult; unlike the old days, when comparison shopping meant driving all over town or poring over the advertising inserts in the Sunday newspaper, on the internet you can visit different stores as quickly as you can surf. Better yet, you can use one of the many sites that will do the comparison shopping for you.

For just about anything, the first place I check is Amazon.com. For the inexperienced, Amazon.com probably sells a much larger variety of wares than you realize, and it is fairly rare for me to run across something they just do not sell. Look it up on Amazon.com, and use this as a baseline for your price comparisons. Amazon is also one of the better sources of customer reviews, so I always start with Amazon when researching exactly which item I want to purchase. Amazon's prices are generally quite low, so if you just want to go to one place and buy, they're the one. But you can often do much better with just a little work.

Once you know exactly which item you want, there are a variety of comparison-shopping sites that will point you to the retailers with the best prices on that item. I generally use Shopping.com (formerly Dealtime), Froogle, Pricescan, or MySimon. Sometimes I check more than one of these. These sites will show you each retailer's prices, their shipping charges, and will offer ratings of the reputability of each retailer.

Another resource of which few people take advantage is promotional coupons. Many sites offer promotions in the form of free shipping or dollars or percentages off of an item or an entire purchase. As with comparing prices, there are many sites that consolidate these promotional offers for one-stop service. The one I generally check is Amazing-Bargains.com. If I don't find anything there (or if I'm feeling exceptionally greedy), I do a web search for "retailer name coupon." These promotions are not as common, nor typically as lucrative, as they were in the earlier days when internet retailers were desperate to attract customers, but often they can still be found, especially at the less well-established sites that are hungrier for business. Generally these coupons take the form of a code (a string of letters and/or numbers) that you enter in a field on the order page.

A weakness of this strategy is that the best price produced by the comparison shopping sites may not be the best after whatever promotions you can find, so a little work is required to get the very best deal, if you're so inclined.

A case study: Recently I wanted to buy a piece of luggage, a Travelpro TPro 36 rolling duffel. The first place I checked was eBags, because I happen to know that luggage is one of the few areas where Amazon.com's prices and selection are weak. eBags's price was $139.95. I found a promotion that gave me free shipping, but for some reason eBags felt the need to charge me sales tax, bringing the total to $146.25. (Amazon.com's price is the same, but no sales tax.)

Now, I check Shopping.com. It tells me that the same bag is available at Luggage Online for $124.95. I visit their site, and see that they offer free shipping and no sales tax, so I'm already about $20 ahead. But I'm not done yet.

Amazing-Bargains.com doesn't show any coupons, so I do a Google search, and turn up a coupon for Luggage Online that gives 10% off my purchase. So I bought the bag for a total of $112.46, a savings of $33.79, or 23%, off of the first place I looked.

The extra time I spent searching for the best price was maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Investing that much time to save $34 makes sense no matter who you are.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Shower care

If your shower has curtains, be sure to close them when you're done showering. Not only does it look better that way, but when the curtain is left open, water stands in the folds where the curtain touches itself, and mildew grows there. If you get in the habit of closing the curtain, you will have to clean it far less frequently. When you do clean it, you can just take it down and put it in the washer on gentle cycle with a little bleach.

If you have glass shower doors, get a squeegee and wipe the water off of the doors after you turn off the shower but before you get out. Again, this will help prevent mildew from growing, plus (for clear glass) eliminate unsightly water spots.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Saving for college

pfBlog has an interesting series of posts about saving for your childrens' college. He does a good job covering all of the options, though my conclusions about where to save differ a little from his. (I have one third of my savings in a prepaid tuition plan, and the other two thirds in 529 savings plans. The prepaid portion is in my oldest daughter's name so that it can be used by her younger sisters if she doesn't qualify, such as if she goes to college out of state.)

Parents thinking about their childrens' college would also be well-served to read Ric Edelman's advice on the subject; namely, think hard before sending your kid(s) to an expensive school. College should be viewed as an investment, and you should carefully consider whether the additional expense of Harvard instead of State U. makes sense. As an aside, a study I once read showed that while Ivy League graduates do earn more money, so do people who were admitted to Ivy League schools but did not attend. In other words, the kind of people who would attend Ivy League schools tend to earn more, regardless of where they go to college.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Passing gas

I was getting gas at Costco, and noted that, for the first time in my memory (for the first time ever?), a gallon of gas cost more than a gallon of milk. (At Costco, that is -- gas is still well below my grocery stores' milk prices.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Personal finance blogs

A recent WSJ column mentions six good finance blogs. Four are (more or less) about personal finance, and all four look interesting: The other two are on investing and the stock market; these I have not checked out: (Via Frugal for Life.)

Better drying through chemistry

Wired News reports that researchers at the University of Florida have formulated a chemical compound that reduces the surface tension of laundry water, thus allowing more of it to wring out during the spin cycle. This reduces the energy required to dry the clothes, currently by about 20%, though they hope to improve that number with further research. Once it becomes productized (the research was funded by Proctor and Gamble), I'll be sure to try this out.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Silencing annoying toys

LifeHacker describes how to silence an annoying electronic toy. If you don't want the operation to be permanent, you can follow their directions and then attach the two cut ends to the two connections on a low-voltage single-pole switch (available, for example, from Radio Shack). I remember doing that to my Merlin when I was about 10 years old after my parents told me that I couldn't bring it on vacation with us unless there was a way to silence it. It also works for electronics other than toys; I performed this same surgery on a coffeemaker that beeped loudly when it finished brewing (at which time the rest of my family is generally still asleep!).

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Mattress manipulation mathematics

An American Scientist article addresses a question I've long wondered about: Whether there is a single mattress-flipping operation that, applied repeatedly, would step the mattress through all of its valid orientations? The answer, sadly, is no; however, they do provide a solution (the one my wife and I have used for years): Label the mattress with numbers, and each time rotate it so as to increment the number at the head of the bed. Along the way, the article provides a basic introduction to the branch of mathematics known as group theory. [via LifeHacker.]

Moving in

The 43 Folders discussion group has a good thread going about moving into a new house. Excerpts (with a few additions of my own):
  • Label well the first boxes you're going to need: Sheets and towels, critical dishes, etc.
  • If you're going to paint, do it before you move in. And if you're ripping out carpet, paint first -- the carpet will act as a drop-cloth to protect the floor.
  • Do your furniture layouts using scale drawings and furniture cutouts; it's faster than using a computer.
  • Rekey all of the locks. You never know who might have keys to the existing locks.
There is also extensive discussion on the current state of the art regarding land-lines versus VoIP versus cellular phones.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

What's in a name?

One thing I'm not happy with is the title "Housekeeping." Partly I'm not satisfied with it because it has connotations both negative and feminine, but also because it only describes a part of what I hope to cover in this blog. I will also write a great deal about personal finance, home improvement, general life hacks, and a number of other topics somewhat far afield from "keeping house." I'd love to hear suggestions for a different title; extra credit if it is an available .com domain.

Credit cards

A reader asked me to discuss the fundamentals of credit cards. Many sites have done this far better than I would; see BankRate or CreditCards.com, or Google "credit card basics."

While we're here, a couple of pieces of my own credit-card philosophies. This advice applies to those with good credit; I expect those with bad or no credit have fewer options.

  • You should be getting money back. It may be cash, or frequent-flier miles, or merchant gift certificates, or whatever, but you should use a credit card that pays you. The typical dividend is 1%. If you are considering a card that pays in something other than money, try to convert the payout into dollars so that you can compare; for example, conventional wisdom is that a frequent-flier mile is worth about two cents; the real number is probably a bit lower.
  • You should not be paying an annual fee. If you are, the card should be paying enough above what a typical card pays to cover the fee. Most don't. For example, the United frequent-flier card has an annual fee, but still pays at most 1%.
On the other side, for those who are in credit-card debt trouble, help is available. Be careful, though; while there are many legitimate debt counseling services, there are also a fair number of crooks in this space. A relative of mine founded Myvesta, a nonprofit debt-counseling service, so I can vouch for their legitimacy. Their site also includes a lot of good basic information about credit cards.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Promotional balance transfers: Careful!

Credit-card companies are so aggressive with those promotional free or very-low-interest balance transfers that I have always assumed that they make money somehow even if you pay off the balance at the end of the promotional period. I just figured out how: If you read the fine print of your agreement, low-interest balances are paid off before high-interest ones. What that means is that after you've opened a card and transferred a balance to it at some very low or zero interest rate, if you charge anything else on that card, you're going to pay interest on those items at your normal purchase rate until after you've paid off the entire balance transfer amount! Well, I'll show them: I put the card in a drawer, unused, and I just won't use it until the balance transfer is paid off. By the way, this is a Citibank card that pays not only the usual 1% cash back that many cards offer, but pays 5% at supermarkers, drugstores, and gas stations. Email me if you'd like to know more.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Buying in bulk

I've seen a number of personal-finance articles that caution that depending on your specific shopping habits, warehouse clubs like Costco may not be a particularly good deal, especially when compared to careful shopping with both sales and coupons at your grocery store. I'm beginning to collect data to quantify this claim a little more finely. So far, it appears that there are some items (e.g. butter, coffee, milk, peanut butter) where Costco's prices are excellent even compared to the best sale-plus-coupon prices at the grocery store. For other products (e.g. most paper products, such as toilet paper, paper towels, and the like), Costco's price can be handily beaten by careful sale-plus-coupon grocery shopping. I haven't yet found anything at Costco that is more expensive than the regular grocery-store price. And of course, shopping at Costco is much less labor-intensive than careful sale-watching and coupon-clipping. On the other hand, you have to store these large quantities, and you should always keep in mind that if something costs half as much, but goes bad before you've eaten half of it, you're losing money. I'll post a more detailed report when my data collection is complete.