Cheap Christmas Weekend

I am a Christmas dork, which is really quite something for an atheist, albeit of the Catholic-born persuasion. I mentioned before that I love love LOVE wrapping, and my second favorite thing is putting the tree up. My best friend lives on Long Island, and every year we drive out to her local Christmas tree farm where you can cut your own for about $25. We have had many misadventures, yet we persist. This year, the freaking farm was closed – on a Saturday, 5 days before Christmas. We spat, we cursed, and I joined her in her pissed-offness at having to pay full price for a tree somewhere else. She managed to negotiate a $15 discount, then the bastard outwitted her by adding on $5 in “tax”. Um…never in my life has there been tax added on to the price quoted for a tree. And this after she worked the Sicilian connection and promised him homemade Sicilian treats – which we delivered 20 minutes later. She’s better at letting these things go than I am, but honestly, that $10 saved is probably what it cost her in ingredients to make her gourmet treats.

We were planning to go dutch on a nice dinner and call it our Christmas gift to each other. She’s been unemployed since March, but made a crapload of money in the first 10 weeks of the year and isn’t hurting yet – she even said this weekend that the best habit she ever developed was living below her means. Anyway, one of her good friends flew in that evening for the holidays and suggested we all get together – his dad joined us and paid. She covered the tip and we made a joke about me repaying her for half and calling it a Depression-era Christmas.

The next morning, we hit CVS for a ton of freebies that impressed the hell out of her. I totally messed it up though, mostly on my Mom’s club account. Darn those sneaky slightly-different eye shadows! I should have left CVS with at least $25 in ECBs for my mom to use and came away with just $7. I couldn’t return the mistakes because I’d paid for them with ECBs and…ugh, I won’t bore you with the adminny ins-and-outs of returns. Anyway, I texted her the bad news, and she replied “Istillloveyouanyway”…yeah, Mom hasn’t figured out how to make a space in a phone text. I’m getting over the mistake though. I came away with $113 worth of Listerine, clinical-strength deodorant, energy bars and drink mixes, eye shadow (my nemesis!), nail polish, contact lens solution, Zantac (for Starfish), Excedrin and Halls cough drops – for $1.27 out of pocket and left with $30 in ECBs. I started with $18 in ECBs and would have come away with $8 more if I hadn’t screwed up the eye shadow. Mom, in absentia, got $95 worth of stuff for $4 out of (my) pocket. Because we drove the young cashier crazy with 8 trips to the register to pull this off, and she was very patient and helpful (and impressed!), we gave her one of the eyeshadows because, looking at her, it was clearly her favorite cosmetic item. She seemed genuinely touched. As for the haul, well, everyone is getting Listerine in their stocking – good thing Mom knits huge stockings!

Christmas Tipping: Your Massage Therapist

Full disclosure: I am a massage therapist. I am self-employed and have never worked any other way, so take this advice with that in mind.

I do not expect tips or bonuses from my clients at Christmas. A few choose to do so anyway (very few – maybe half a dozen of my regulars, just to give you a benchmark), and it ranges anywhere from an extra $20 to a full session’s fee. I didn’t even know that people were “supposed to” include their massage therapists in the list of people to tip as Christmas until I read a few tipping guideline articles online. Really, if you tip your therapist all year long, there is no need. Even if you’re a non-tipper, we’re not expecting it — but we do know there are a few who’d prefer to hand over a chunk at once than do it in dribs and drabs throughout the year.

I believe if someone works in a spa or other massage establishment, Christmas bonuses come from their employer as they do in other industries. Certainly that has been the case for a few of my friends who have chosen to work in spas or gyms. So tipping in this situation makes even less sense than in mine.

My advice to anyone with a regular massage therapist: if you tip all year long, don’t bother. If you don’t, I suggest giving 1-2x the cost of your usual session depending on how often you see him/her. If you can’t bear the idea of ignoring your personal pain alleviator at Christmas, slip in a higher-than-usual tip and say something like, “there’s a little extra in there this time to get yourself a little something from me”. That way (a) we don’t start thinking you’ve decided to multiply your usual tip, and (b) we don’t come running after you to give it back, thinking you made a mistake…yup, I’ve done that. Sometimes my honesty borders on foolish.

What to do with a $100 Christmas tip?

My most committed client (weekly for almost 5 years – that’s about 2 months’ rent out of 12) gave me a $100 Christmas bonus. Last year I just plopped it in the fireproof lockbox with the rest of my income and didn’t do anything special with it.

Last weekend, my mom told me that she spent last year’s $100 Christmas bonus from her 3 hours/week extra job on a nice leather jacket, deeply discounted in the after-Christmas sales. When her boss complimented her on it, she said “you have good taste”. It pleased him to know that she actually got something with it instead of just letting it get absorbed into the household. So I’d like to take a leaf from her book and get something with the money that he can see evidence of.

There’s only one material thing I can think of that I want or need around the price tag…some kind of artsy wall clock or mirror, maybe with a colorful mosaic around it, something like that. Preferably one I find on my world travels, even though it would be a major pain in the, well, back and shoulders and baggage allowance, to bring something like that back with me. I have almost nothing on my walls as it is, so it doesn’t matter what kind of place I move into next year, I’ll still need something. Mm, leaning towards a clock – less likely to break, and I don’t really like catching random scary glimpses of myself in the mirror. Wonder what I’ll stumble across in Africa, since I suspect Plan B (6-week gap between leases) is the most likely path I’ll be taking.

There, that’s my best attempt at materialism. And I can tell him “all the better to pace your massage sessions with”.

The Annual Money Hemorrhage

It was painful handing out $800 in Christmas tips to my building staff and cleaning lady, especially when about 2/3 of them make more than I do even without tips and have great union benefits on top that. But I work from home and bend the “no short term subletting” rule rather a lot, so suck it up I must. And to be fair, the staff in my building is truly excellent (I’ve been to lots of doorman buildings, and they can be a weird bunch). It’s just that I would rather go out and give 8 poor families a great Christmas with that money, because apparently I’ve become a real softie in the past year.

I’m typing this as I wait for one of those families to return for “round 2” of not-so-Secret Santa giving.  I’ve filled two large Toys-R-Us bags with all kinds of goodies, including some of the weird sensible stuff my mom always puts in our stocking because we laugh and know we’ll use it. Like there’s a little package of cold/cough medicines (quote from Mom: “Nobody likes spending money on that stuff and waits until they need it, which means full price”), another one of toothpaste and toothbrushes, and a kitchen care package of sponges, a dishtowel, potscrubbers and Palmolive. I figure if four people are living on $240/month, they probably don’t refresh these things as often as they should.

And should you feel so inclined, check out my recent attempt at a Random Act of Kindness. It was…interesting.

Credit Card Trickery

My mother has a balance on one of my two credit cards – it’s all hers, and she’s doing a good job of paying it off because the interest rate is Prime + 1%. With interest rates, what, practically negative these days, the balance is tumbling down quite nicely. Even if she just paid the minimum (which she doesn’t), most of it goes towards the principle.

The card is a Bank of America Visa which I’ve had on the go solely for her to pay off a chunk of debt for about 8 years, and the rate has always been this really good deal. It’s fascinating that I even got such a CC offer because I’d been out of the country for 8 years before that – no income tax returns, no credit history, nothing. Just a social security number lying fairly dormant. Of course, BofA wants to change those terms desperately, so they’re playing the Payment Due date game. It varies within a 10-day range. My mom had been alerted to this sort of nonsense by a co-worker who got screwed by such shenanigans a couple of years ago, and has been vigilant for such things ever since.

After my experience a few weeks ago with Citibank jacking up my rate just because they can just in time to go all Scrooge on their customers, I’m wondering what other skullduggery you’ve all experiences with your credit card companies in the past year…?

Aspen on the cheap

Monday evening, I leave for six days in Aspen for the first full family Christmas since 1991. I know you hear “Aspen” and think snowy peaks, celebrity ski bunnies, apres ski decadence, designer boutiques, and of course ass-biting cold (yesterday it was -11 degrees). You might wonder how an affordable week is possible during prime season at the playground of the rich and famous….

I stalked an NYC-Aspen fare for a month over the summer until it suddenly dropped to the realm of reality: $570, which quite honestly I shocked to get anything under $750. I had massive hassles with United Airlines the other day when I found my itinerary completely effed up, but I sorted it out to an even better schedule than originally planned.

Lucky us – two sisters live there, in employee housing that they call “the projects”. Just means that they’re rent-controlled, otherwise no one could afford to live close enough to work the restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc. Pretty much anyone not living off a trust fund qualifies. To give you an idea of what “the projects” are like in Aspen, they have a front porch, a back patio, a large equipment storage closet outside, skylight, the most unbelievable double-sink vanity, a communal brick BBQ pit, and a babbling brook running through the back yard. What a ghetto, eh?

Neither of my sisters has a dining room table – just breakfast bar set-ups. This means going out for Christmas dinner, which I’m not crazy about because it feels mean to make someone work and serve you on big holiday like that. For non-Christmas meals, we’re totally hooked up: my sisters waitress at a casual restaurant, and Starfish’s boyfriend tends bar at a yummy Mexican place. This is how you get $100 worth of food and $150 of drinks for $100 – there’s the official bill for $40 plus a $60 tip to the wait staff. The easiest way for us to get free drinks is to order a single bottle of wine for the table, and then the waiter-friend refills our glasses from other bottles at the bar. As a family of 5 plus 2 boyfriends, that’s a savings of no less than $100 right there. Sometimes the manager comps the whole bill. I think I’ll be coughing up about $150 for two special meals at places my sisters can’t get discounts, and maybe $50-100 at places they do. I know that doesn’t sound economical, but it is Aspen and it’s my only real expense other than the airfare. Mom & I are seriously campaigning to get Starfish’s boyfriend to cook for us, because Starfish tells us about some of the amazing dinners he has made for her. We drool. No joke.

Airport transfers
The airport is barely outside of town, and Bridezilla has a car (that she still owes me for and will start paying back in 4 months). Even if she didn’t, there’s a free town bus that services the airport.

My sister has most of the equipment and multiple outerwear items to borrow for crosscountry skiing, snowmobiling and target shooting. Plus, they’re my Christmas present from her! And she also got a free lesson with something she bought last year, never used the lesson (skiing), and is going to see if she can transfer it to me.

Total anticipated trip expenses for 6 days in Luxurious Winter Wonderland: $850

Unplanned Christmas Spending – The Good Kind

A week ago, I posted about some of the charitable things I’d been up to in the past month, and I’ve got a few updates. I had very little work last week (Friday was the only day worth getting out of bed, seriously), and I was getting crazy about my lease renewal with no distractions. I mentioned answering a post on Craigslist Volunteer page from a woman begging for presents for her three kids, since they live on free rent + $240/month until her job starts. I went on to answer 2 more ads – one for a pair of 7-year-old twin boys whose father lost his job a few months ago, and a single-mom with a 3-month-old girl and a 2-year-old boy who is couch-surfing in Queens. So off I went with $80-100 earmarked for this, determined to get a lot of bang for my buck…

First stop: The Dollar Stores
I went with the intention of loading up on multi-packs of craft supplies to make cute little kits of markers, glitter, craftsticks, scissors, glue, construction paper, funky pens, etc. I made two boxes’ worth for the families with older kids above, and then divided up the remainder into little silver sacks (12/$1) to donate to my building’s toy drive for Children’s Aid Society. Cost: $50 for 12 kits (15 kids).

Second stop:  Toys R Us
Nightmare store here in Times Square – enormous, with a HUGE 3-story ferris wheel in the middle. However, the prospect of getting my hands on quality board games like Clue, Sorry, Twister, etc. for $5-6 after mail-in rebate was worth it. Last Thursday I went out at 9pm in the driving rain for the 8-block walk, knowing the crowds would be minimal. I also threw in a stuffed “Lounging Elmo” for the 3-month-old who doesn’t have any dolls. I refuse to go too cheap on things like stuffed animals because of the risk of toy toxicity. He was only $7, and about the size of the baby who’s getting it. Total:  $25, but I’m getting $6 back…so $19.

Third Stop:  The suburbs, Day 1 — Michael’s, CVS, Target
I decided I needed a change of scenery for a night and visited my mom. She had a party to go to that evening that I was welcome to attend as well (my aunt…so lots of family), but I can only stand my rellies for about an hour and didn’t want to be a drag on my mom. So I had her drop me off at a strip mall that closed at 11pm. Beforehand, we hit CVS for some strategic ECB’ing, and I scored a $5-off-$15 purchase coupon attached to my receipt, which, along with the $4-off sale price and the $2 ECB back on the purchase, meant I was able to get an electric can opener for the teen shelter for $1. They use a lot of canned goods, and the hand-twist ones are always breaking from constant use. A lot of the other stuff I got from the Thanksgiving sales rainchecks also make great little gifts for the mothers of the kids I’m playing Santa for. Well, sort of…bear in mind that my mom used to put a lot of practical stuff in our stockings, basically anything we ran out of in December, like toothpaste, deodorant, tampons, razors. Total out of pocket: $1.57 for $29 worth of stuff. At Michael’s, I scored an 80pc paint set for $2.99, glitter stickers for 49 cents, wooden model kits for $1 each, a Hanna Montana pencil case for $1, and a couple of other little things (total: $10). Then I went to Target and was very disappointed in their toy deals, much as I was in Toys-R-Us. I’m horrified at how much they charge for plastic, basically. The 2-year-old boy wanted a truck and some toy tools. Yeah, try to find them for less than $20 each. Ouch! So I picked up a little hoodie for him and a cute dress for his sister, $14. Total for the day: $25.

Fourth Stop:  The suburbs, Day 2 — Shop Rite, Family Dollar, another dollar store, Dunkin Donuts
Inspired by some great coupons, a sale on two major brands, and my mother informing me that Shop Rite always doubles coupons under $1, I thought it might be fun to buy cake mixes and frosting either for a Christmas treat or a future birthday (for the family of 3 kids, I threw in candles). And who could resist yummy brownie mix for $1 a box? I got $26 (based on sales prices!) worth of cake mix, frosting, cookie mix, and brownie mix for $17. I was drooling over getting cake frosting that is $2.49 full price in my neighborhood for 3/$5 and then 3 x 50-cent coupons doubled…so 65 cents a container. We’re taking the carrot cake supplies plus some other bits and pieces to Aspen for our own use, the rest goes to the families and teen shelter. Speaking of which, I hopped into the huge dollar store next to the supermarket and found a great deal on thick socks – 3/$1! – so I grabbed $5 worth for the teenagers with cold, sockless feet. Delightfully, Family Dollar wasn’t a dollar store, and I found the perfect, age-appropriate truck and tool set for $5 each – and they’re not rough or flimsy. Yay! The day’s total was $40, and my mom picked up $21 worth of the tab because…

Charity is contagious
I told my mother about meeting the mom and 3 kids, how sweet and well-behaved they were and how you could tell that the mom was a really good one (she got the kids away from their molestor-father, his family has money to help them out but she can’t risk contact no matter what, they attend family therapy through social services weekly, she’s a believer in thank-you notes, etc…it all adds up). So my mom decided not to participate in her office Secret Santa that is now basically just a gift card swap and put that money towards this family. She picked up the tab at Shop Rite and Family Dollar, and asked me to get a $5 Dunkin Donuts gift card and give it to her with a “Buy 6 Get 6 Free” coupon so they could have double the treat. I told her about how some offices do Secret Santa for disadvantaged kids instead of each other, and I have a feeling she might suggest that next year.

The Total Damage
So I blew $113 on charity stuff this past week, and I’m thinking about giving the mom+3 the makings of Christmas breakfast, since I’m guessing she relies on food pantries and I know from the shelter that they don’t supply dairy for fruit at all, and I think very little meat. Bacon, eggs, english muffins, butter, oranges…pretty sure I can put that together for about $7. And then I know she’ll have eggs for the brownie mix 🙂