Jack Frost is interfering with my couponics

I’m done with winter. We still have two more months of this crap ahead of us, but I am sick to my chattering back teeth with temperatures in the teens, and now it’s getting in the way of my shopping plans. Yes, I know this is petty, but it’s my blog and and I’ll whine if I want to.

The overwhelming response I got from the kids at the shelter on Friday night just makes me want to do more, but I really can’t spend more. Imagine my delight when one of my readers suggested we team up to buy and cook dinner for them one night soon (Dani, you rock and I haven’t even met you yet!).  Well, it also makes me want to gather as much as possible to donate, and there are some unbelievable deals at ShopRite…but there isn’t one in Manhattan.  They’ve got this deal on Kelloggs cereals – buy 7 and get $5 back, and they’re $1.88 a box. I have $1 coupons for all of them, making it $1.16 for 7 boxes of Rice Krispies, Corn Pops, etc. Dude, that’s like 17 cents a box! 2 cents a serving! I was all set to mail my mom the coupons and have her do the deal in her neighborhood until I realized that the coupons expire today. Well, there’s a Shoprite in Jersey City that I can get to with public transportation as well as one in Brooklyn, but that one doesn’t double coupons under $1…but man, the Brooklyn one will require minimal exposure to the elements and the deal I’m going for doesn’t involve doubled coupons anyway. I can take the subway right outside my door and come out at the other end right outside the supermarket. I’m tempted to throw in a side trip to CVS, but I’m just not willing to be outside for the extra 20 minutes it would take to walk between the two. However, I can’t pass up free shampoo and cheap Wisk detergent…hm, maybe I can mail the coupons and get my mom to do those for me in the burbs. Not sure I can talk her into the double coupon deal on Mueller’s elbow macarone that will bag me 8 boxes @ 22 cents each. Now who says a quarter doesn’t get you anything these days?

My $20 Friday Night

No, I did not do anything remotely social, which is the norm for me. Wait, let me revise that – I actually had more interaction than usual, it just wasn’t terribly Friday-flavored.

Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to suck, so I dragged myself to the super-cheap supermarket to scoop some bargains for the teen shelter – 20 lbs of chicken legs, 2.5 dozen eggs and (for me) some Thomas’s English muffins for a grand total of $11.65.  Then I went home, packed up a big wheelie suitcase with the haul from the supermarket plus the bounty from last weekend’s couponics, and strolled on down to the shelter. For the full story (which touched me deeply — me, a jaded New Yorker), click here … it’s my charity blog, but I’m worried about boring you all with my bleeding heart stories.

On the way home I picked up some take-out treats, which I really didn’t deserve, for $8.20. I participated in a lively discussion with my fellow pizza-munchers about how the nice Italian lady manager (who has vastly improved the quality of the pizza there since taking over) should handle a prank caller who keeps ringing up to call her a bitch. I thought she should own it and shout back “that’s BEEyotch to you, little boy”, but she decided to go with the men’s suggestion to strike back with “you’re mother’s a bitch”. Yeah, real original. But hey, that was a lot of social activity for a wiseass hermit like me!

Facing an Unemployment Hearing?

With so many people losing their jobs and dealing with our unemployment system for the first time in their lives, I thought some might find this useful…

I spent about a year unemployed from 2002-2003. I couldn’t even get a secretarial job at a 25% paycut (from an already low salary) despite 10 years’ experience and wayyyy too much education. Temp work was incredibly thin on the ground. I wasn’t too worried at first because I knew I could live perfectly well on unemployment benefits and had 39 weeks to find something. I got $405 a week and my rent was $500/month, my COBRA was $320/month, my MetroCard and utilities were another $100/month…and I had no debt.

The BackStory
Three months into my jobless stint, I finally got a trial-basis job offer doing something fairly lame in publishing. At the end of the first week, the boss said she wanted to extend my trial period by a week. Fine, no problem. Along comes payday at the end of those two weeks, and they sprung some nasty financial suprises on me: I’d be paid on a 1099 (self-employed/contract basis), and I’d continue on this basis for an indefinite period of time, sometimes not even full-time. In other words, a very cheap temp. I asked for $2/hr more than we’d originally agreed on to cover the extra Social Security, etc. that I’d have to pay on the 1099 arrangement, and got laughed at. Not prone to rash decisions, I waited until Monday to quit. She bullied me into two weeks’ notice, and then I left. I figured if nothing else, it helped extend my unemployment benefits by 4 weeks.

The Problem
You don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit. However, I felt I’d been duped into a job that was worth far less than promised – no health insurance because I wasn’t an employee, I paid all payroll taxes, I had no guarantee of hours, and it paid an unbelievably crappy $15/hr, but really $11-12/hr because of all the stuff I had to pay for that my employer should have.

The Hearing
Unemployment administration court was really just a small office with a conference table and a judge. I didn’t have a lawyer, and neither did my boss and her boss. She asked me questions, I asked her questions. She claimed to have no recollection of me asking her daily about handing over my W-2 (she was avoiding telling me I wasn’t a real employee), but was otherwise pretty honest.

The Verdict
Bad Employer – Shame On You, Pay Up. Because they had unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of my employment (that’s verbatim), I was under no obligation to remain in the position and therefore retained my unemployment benefits – for which they were now responsible.

The Result
I had gone nearly 3 months without any income or unemployment benefits. Within two weeks of the hearing, I got 11 weeks worth of benefit checks…$4455.

The Lessons Learned

1)  Get a written contract for any job, no matter how reputable the company is. Thank god these folks rather obviously didn’t consult a lawyer and weren’t very bright, because all they had to do was lie and say “we never offered her benefits or implied there was an actual job on offer”, and I might not have won.

2)  Having no debt and a lifelong habit of living below my means meant that I could make it just fine on 2 weeks’ severance from a $40K/year job and then $405 a week for 10 months with health insurance and without incurring any consumer debt. And during that time I spent a week in Brazil, a long weekend in San Francisco & Las Vegas, and a week in Germany. Also, in the 3 months preceeding my getting the sack, I spent a week in Aspen (off-season) and a 5-day weekend in Paris.

Yet Another United Airlines Update

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I sent a snippy email to United Airlines customer relations about their failure to deal with my Refund request, only to find out that a refund had actually been made to my credit card (even though they were supposed to call to discuss first)? And then CR followed up asking for ticket info? Well, as suspected, their failure to communicate with each other looks as though it might result in a double refund for me. It’s due to hit my card in the next day or two. Hm, the refund amount is greater than my current balance…if only that meant Citibank would be paying me 19.99% interest!

Meanwhile, my mother continues to get the royal runaround for her refund/compensation. Some kind of “certificate” was supposedly sent in the last email, but there was no insert or attachment…and she really needed it. Bridezilla begged her to come out for her not-quite-mother-in-law’s memorial service next week, so we looked into using airmiles for the ticket. She needed 25,000 for the ticket but only had 21,000. To transfer miles from Bridezilla’s account, United would charge $196. Alternatively, she could buy 5000 miles for $100. Then to cash in the miles, that would cost another $100-110. So that “free” ticket was going to cost $200-300. To buy a ticket from a site like Orbitz, UA, Travelocity, etc., we were looking at $650ish.

For the hell of it, and for the first time in years, Mom went to Priceline and put in a low-ball bid of $250 — and to her great surprise, got it for a total (incl fees and taxes) of $299. I guess it’s a quiet time for Aspen, given that last week was Gay Ski Week and this week is the X Games. Too bad I don’t like winter sports, because after her bid was accepted, she was offered another ticket on the same itinerary at the same price for a friend. Hm, new features and you can save more than $30…maybe I should see if Priceline has found a way to bid on international flights that takes into consideration the huge differences in the way airlines classify fares v. fees (two tickets can cost the same, say $1000, but one will be $500 ticket + $500 taxes while the other is $800 ticket + $200 taxes). That’s why I gave up on the site years ago.

Old Blighty’s Plight = Right Time to Book Flight?

I’ve been stalking airfares to Nairobi for the month of April on Kayak.com for a couple of months now, and today the price dropped $150 to fly British Airways for both legs ($1169) instead in conjunction with American Airlines, the previous best price @ $1311. And this happens on the day that I see the pound sterling hit $1.38. I’m thinking that at least part of this price drop can be attributed to the currency fluctuation. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I was trying to put off booking it until February 16ish because (a) I’ll have to make decisions about my apartment around then, and (b) my credit card statement closes on the 15th, so that maximized the interest-free period…not that I pay interest because I pay it off in full every month, but I like the time cushion and Citibank doesn’t deserve to be treated with any more fairness than absolutely necessary. Anyway, on the principle of “you snooze, you lose”, I’m probably going to buy it within the next few days. And payment on it won’t be due until March 9. Heh.

The week of New Year’s, I made more money than I’ve ever made in a week, and the previous record was from about 3 years ago. To put a number to it: $2510. Now I’m thinking that it would be very, very satisfying to keep the costs of this trip to the earnings for that week. Of course I’ll be bringing a donation to the charity I’ll be helping out at, but that will be garnered primarily from my ThaiForGood takings and any other fundraising ideas I can come up with that don’t feel like “begging”.

Since some of you have expressed interest in my travel plans for East Africa, here’s the outline:  20-25 days in Kenya and Tanzania, maybe Uganda. Must-sees are Olduvai Gorge (cradle of life), Serengeti Plain, Ngorongoro Crater. Would love to climb Kilimanjaro, but I was so ill from altitude sickness at 14,000 feet in the Andes that I’m just not willing to risk 20,000 feet in Africa. I’m also planning to volunteer 1-2 weeks at The Baobab Home, which looks very likely because April is not a popular month. I’m also hoping to do some “fair tourism” hiking in Tanzanian tea country. Zanzibar is a possibility, if I have time. I’m not too jazzed about a big overpriced safari thing, but I do intend to do that for at least a few days. I might also try to visit the community garden project in Kenya that I donated about $170 to last year.

My athletic nurse Bridezilla sister called me last weekend from an outdoor gear store, where a friend was willing to pass on her employee/wholesale price on a good backpack. She wanted to know what capacity I wanted – I told her to pick for me. After all, I know NOTHING about this sort of equipment and it’s really her area of expertise. Normally I’d just borrow from her, but I’ve done that often enough to realize I need one of my own. Plus, I liked the one she lent me for Peru (30-liter, so too small for this trip), so her judgment is proven. I’ll either reimburse her for it or tell her to get the other sibs to chip in and call it an early birthday present (I’ll be away roughly April 4-26, my birthday is April 30). However, I can’t discuss this with her at the moment because the woman who was supposed to become her mother-in-law later this year died unexpectedly on Sunday night.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has been to Kenya or Tanzania — I have no fixed itinerary and am pretty open to suggestions that don’t involve a $500 balloon ride over the Serengeti (seriously, that’s highway robbery).

Alternative Medicine: What’s worth the dough?

In yesterday’s post about underusing my health insurance, I mentioned a medical problem I’m developing. I had daily chiropractic for 2 months with no lasting results, and the neurologist found nothing useful (meaning no structural abnormalities, tumors, etc). The chiro suggested manipulation under general anesthesia, but since my insurance won’t cover that and I’m not convinced it’ll make a difference, I’ll pass. The neuro gave me a prescription for muscle relaxants and sent me on my way, apologetic that neurology had nothing better to offer me.

It’s time to go Alternative without getting stupid.

ROLFING
My first port of call will be a Rolfer, meaning a practioner of Rolf Structural Integration. I did the 10 series back in 2004, and even got my mom one session for Mother’s Day to help with her bad carpal tunnel syndrome – totally cured her! Unfortunately, the Rolfer I used at the time now charges $200/session and incorporates some hippy dippy stuff (sorry, I just don’t buy into Reiki even though I’ve had lots of clients tell me I’d be a natural for giving it). If you don’t know what it is, imagine getting 6 weeks worth of physical therapy in 80 minutes. It’s very deep, very painful, and it’s common to be nauseous afterwards. I have a barter request posted on Craigslist at the moment, but so far I’ve only heard from a couple of no-nothing idiots who just want to feel up a stranger.

ACUPUNCTURE
I’ve been through this before with tepid results and too much pain, so bad that the acupuncturist removed the needles and put them in secondary points because even the slight movement that happens from breathing was excruciating. I think this practice works very well for certain conditions (has unbelievable results with asthma) and certain people (with higher pain thresholds!), but not really for me. Still, I’ll leave it on the radar.

OSTEOPATHIC MANIPULATION
I think this is considered only mildly alternative, and my experiences were in the UK (not covered by the National Health Service at the time, not sure about now). It was by far the most successful solution my back and neck have ever had. My treatment was basically a 30-40 minute deep tissue massage, often deep enough to leave bruises, followed by a chiropractic adjustment. Unlike all chiro experiences I’ve ever had, this combination stuck for 5 weeks rather than 5 hours…or 5 minutes on a really bad day. If I don’t make any headway with Rolfing, I’ll take a flight route through London on my way to Africa and arrange at least a 6-hour layover so I can see an osteopath (whom I will happily bribe to work on a Sunday, especially now that the pound sterling is at the lowest exchange rate I’ve seen in the 22 years I’ve been watching it).

COLONIC IRRIGATION
Not suitable for this problem, but I thought I’d mention it because I’ve tried it and most people are a little curious. It’s overrated and did nothing for me (and I had a series, not just one).

HYPNOSIS
I got so relaxed I slept. As in, snoring and not answering the questions. It didn’t take.

PILATES
Most people think of this as a form of exercise, a class you take at the gym. But it was developed as a form of rehab around World War 1. I got 5-7 private lessons with an apprentice (half the price of a fully qualified instructor, and super-eager to sink their teeth into a real problem and not just another person who wants to get ab definition) to fix my “dropped foot” problem, which they determined was caused by a turned-out trocanter (femur head). Hey, it worked like a charm! And I’d had problems walking down flights of stairs or even just plain walking for 6 months by the time I gave up on the podiatrist and gave this a shot. However, I don’t think it’s aggressive enough for my current problem.

THINGS I WON’T TRY
…and not just because they’re not relevant to my issue at hand:  moxabustion, cupping, ear candling, magnets/crystals, energy healing, or prayer.

WHAT HAVE YOU TRIED?
I’d love to hear about the wacky, the wonderful, the useful, and the useless non-standard therapies you’ve put yourself through. Remember, we’re all anonymous so it’s okay to admit you’ve stuck a neti pot up your nose! The point is that that sharing might help me (and others) figure out what steps to take and maybe save money on things that won’t work.

Underused my health insurance, dagnabit

I get a $1000 per calendar year allowance for MRIs, but I could not get an answer out of ANYONE how much the radiology facility would be paid for one. I needed two: cervical and thoracic spine. I spoke to my insurance company, the pre-cert company, the union I have my insurance through, my neurologist, my chiropractor, the radiology billing department and my mom (who does bookkeeping for a chiropractor). Most didn’t want to give me so much as a ballpark figure, and the others (mom, chiro, neuro) all said that I’d use up most of the allowance with one MRI. So I only had my cervical spine done and figured that if it didn’t show anything helpful, I’d get my thoracic spine done in 2009.

Well, I got my Statement of Benefits today…the “official fee” was $1200, but the agreed insurance arrangement was $440. DAMN IT – I could have had both parts of my spine done in 2008 and then my shoulders in 2009 if I still got no useful diagnosis. Ooo, I hate when I mess this sort of thing up!

To tie up loose ends…the MRI and EMG (most godawful scream-inducing diagnostic test ever invented – seriously, more suitable to Gitmo inmates!) didn’t find the source of my pain. I wake up every morning with a very stiff, sore neck; there has been a mild tingling in my left pinky and ring finger for about 9 months; and the range of motion in my left shoulder is increasingly limited. All the tests taught me were that I had a little osteoarthritis in the lower half of my neck (which explains the stiffness, but not the other stuff), and a borderline diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand/wrist (which I’d noticed developing a few years ago and took measures to reverse it – successfully, I might add). 

I’m almost afraid of what an MRI of my thoracic spine (from the knob at the bottom of your neck to about the bottom of your shoulder blades – 12 vertebrae) will show. I’ve had a lot of problems with T1-T7 since 1993. I’m also thinking that the best solutions are probably in alternative medicine, but I’m not sure where to start. Maybe I’ll just stick to our western ways and get stoned on prescription muscle relaxants every night. Now where did I tuck that scrip…