Compromises & Quandaries: Scheduling, Sleep & Profiteering

Last night I got a call from a woman who was referred to me by my massage therapist friend Bluejay. Bluejay needs 4-5 appointments a week to break even with her basic expenses, and she’s had some pretty bad weeks lately. In fact, after speaking to her this morning, I know that she fell short by about 20%, which this one client would have satisfied. She needs 4 appointments a week to make her basic expenses, whereas I need 7-8 appointments because I charge significantly less and have a higher expense baseline due to rent differentials. But this is where the rent pays off.

Bluejay doesn’t – and really can’t – do last minute appointments, nor does she work late at night. She lives just over the bridge in Brooklyn, so any Manhattan work involves taking the subway in, getting her table that she stores at a client’s (which you just can’t do at midnight on a Saturday anyway), cab to and from with table, then subway home. For me, it’s two 10-minute cab rides door-to-door. Normally I would absolutely agree that it’s an awful lot of hassle to go through for a one-hour client, but if you’ve fallen way short of making your minimum 3 weeks out of the last 4, why wouldn’t you call your MoneyMate Kate and ask to borrow her table and do it yourself? Okay, so it turns out she had an 8am client this morning, but still, I’d have sucked it up and done it even if I had made enough money that week.

When we spoke this morning, she asked how much I had charged the client, and it was about 35% less than she would have. I sort of knew her in-office rate, but had no idea her outcall rate was so much higher, like $50-70/hour (most of us have a $30-ish charge for that – or so I thought). Here’s my dilemma: she said that when she sends me referrals, I should charge her rate. Well sure, I’d have LOVED to have made $60 more last night than I did, but I gave that woman my card…card has website listed…website has rates listed…see the problem? Now if the woman had been an existing client of Bluejay’s, I could have justified charging her rate and not giving her a card – not nice to steal clients, and there’s something akin to an oath about that for massage therapists. However, she was a new inquiry and will probably never be able to arrange an appointment under Bluejay’s conditions (advance notice, before 9pm, etc).

Thinking out loud here, but I can sort of come up with most of a solution – still, I have a feeling my brilliant readers might have some very useful advice on this. I could buy another domain name, copy my existing website but change the rates to be in line with Bluejay’s, and get some cards printed up. I’d also need to get my hands on a wheelie thing for my massage table (I don’t normally bring it for outcalls, hence the justifiably lower rate – that thing is a major pain in the shoulder, back, etc). Total cost for all this would be about $100, and I don’t know if she’ll ever send me another referral between now and her departure from NYC sometime between August and January. The other big potential glitch is that if a referral googles my phone number, they’ll find my main site with the lower rates. I know a lot of them do that kind of search to confirm that I’m not a provider of naughtiness, so this is not a silly concern.

Any advice?

A lesson in the definition of “Working Poor”

Yesterday evening, I met up with Ayten, the single mother of two girls, 13 & 15, who isn’t quite making it paycheck-to-paycheck. She wouldn’t let me buy her a coffee, just sat with me while I sipped an iced tea to justify taking up a table. I’ll spare you the sadder details of her story and skip straight to the personal finance aspect.

After she took the kids and ran, her ex-husband ditched their home in upstate New York in the dead of winter. When she went back to try to sell or rent it, it was trashed by burst pipe damage. With no funds to fix it or pay for it, it’s now in forclosure. Upon leaving, she lived off credit cards to get their lives restarted. She also made the monumental error of taking out a $750 payday loan that is now up to $5000 with interest and penalties – she’s had it for less than a year. She lives in a housing project in Queens (rent determined by your income) and makes frequent use of the Craigslist Free page, where “curb alerts” became her favorite way to furnish her home and clothe her kids. She uses a recipe website where you put in what ingredients you have and exclude staples you don’t have in a search to figure out what she could make from what she had. She was down to a bag of flour, so they’d been living off homemade tortillas all week. Since no one gives away things like food and soap, she put up the ad on the Wanted page that I stumbled across. Here’s what I learned…

  • If you’re not on some sort of public assistance, like medicaid or welfare, you qualify for nothing at all. She couldn’t get her kids into a summer progam because scholarships are only available for welfare families.
  • 15-year-olds with working papers can’t get jobs doing anything. When I was 15, I babysat my ass off so I could pay my own dental bills, replace my own sneakers, save for college. Apparently you’re an irresponsible parent if you leave your kids with a teenager, so it’s not even an option anymore.
  • Public schools are requiring expensive materials and classroom contributions. The examples she gave me were that each student at the beginning of the year was expected to bring in a large pack of toilet paper, a ream of loose leaf paper, a box of pencils and a pack of paper towels. And then a springtime science project demanded very specific supplies including a $16 board. No board = no project = an F for the student. Schools supplies are only on sale Aug/Sept. I’m thinking that the $30 of stupid craft crap she was forced to buy ultimately led to needing donated food.
  • Milk is liquid gold. I thought that was just the case at the teen shelter I donate to, but this was the #1 food item she mentioned as hard to live without. The #1 non-food item she got excited about was deodorant – again, just like the shelter.
  • Craigslist is an even nastier place for single mothers than it is for straight-shooting massage therapists. She had to go back and edit her original post to exclude her daughter’s ages because men were contacting her, offering money if she’d bring her daughters. I told her to join Freecycle – membership is controlled, that sort of crap doesn’t happen there.

This situation isn’t entirely comfortable for either Ayten or me, but I think we handled it well. For one thing, I hardly paid anything for the three huge bags of stuff I gave her (seriously, like maybe $10 worth of food and sales tax). I let her know about my parents’ bout with bankruptcy and my mother describing to me at the age of 11 what “check kiting” was. I listened to her story because she had no one to talk to about this stuff – she didn’t want her daughters to know more than they already did about how bad things were, tales of woe would only put off her friends and neighbors, and she has no living relatives other than her kids. At no point did she sound like she was begging. Remember, she wouldn’t even accept a cup of coffee from me. I asked her about her personal needs in case I came across any deals, and she said “anything for arthritis, like Bengay and aspirin”. Her daughter is turning 16 next week, so I suggested we meet up again soon so I could give her some things that would make nice little gifts:  Got2b hair styling products, fun socks, mascara, that sort of thing. I also said we should meet at Wendy’s because I’ve got these Buy 1 Get 1 Free coupons for coffee frosty drinks that expire on the 8th, and I couldn’t drink two by myself.

Most of my discomfort boils down to my motivation, more specifically what my motivation appears to be. It’s just really important to me that my money and efforts make a tangible difference, and it’s hard to get that by writing a check to UNICEF. In this particular case, I’m finding a way to do for someone else what my grandmother did for my mother, and what my mother does for my sisters – care packages. While this woman is in wayyy more need than anyone in my sphere, the contents of the packages aren’t that dissimilar. That I get to feel like a fairy godmother is both fun and…vain. I know that true charity is about giving without strings, giving without getting back — but while there are no strings, I’m getting an awful lot back. Weird as it may seem, this has turned out to be an unexpected form of therapy for my deep-seated misanthropy. And on a more socially conscious level, I like putting myself out there to prove that doing good has nothing to do with religion. Again, wasn’t expecting that to spring from this sort of activity, but after hearing “you’re a very good Christian” more than a few times, I’ve begun gently correcting them that I’m just a good human.

Oh, and lets not forget – I now have more room in my apartment for free stuff!! It was always about the closet space, people.

Teach a woman to shop…

I’ve got a ridiculous stockpile of stuff I’ve gotten for free from all of my couponing and rebate adventures. I have more than the teen shelter needs, but not enough to make a dent in the needs of bigger organizations. Plus, I don’t like bigger – it’s very impersonal, which might be what most people want from their giving experience, but not me. It’s not so much that I need to be thanked or feel like some big shot benefactor, it’s just that after you hear enough stories about fraud and embezzlement in the charity sector, well, I hate feeling duped.

Last Christmas, I found three families on Craigslist who wanted Christmas for their kids. Two of them were in legitimate need, it was pretty obvious. The third, eh, not so much, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt because it’s not always easy to recognize the concept of “the working poor”. Well, I think it’s kind of sad that we only look after people at Christmas, and I’ve got a closet full of surplus necessities that food stamps don’t cover…so back to Craigslist I went. I searched in Volunteers and Goods Wanted, and found this:

I am a single mom with 2 kids. I am employed but I am having a hard time making it to this payday. I hate to do this, but I really need just some basics to make it to Friday. Anything you can spare will be appreciated. Maybe you have some canned goods that you don’t like or maybe detergent to wash clothes that you don’t like. Thanks for helping.

Apparently these women get bombarded with anonymous hate email either telling them they should have kept their legs closed or suggesting they exchange sex for money, because I always get responses that sound so incredibly relieved that there’s someone decent out there. There were one or two other worthwhile results for my searches – terms used were simply “milk”, “need” (lots of results, but that’s how I found this one), “shampoo”, that sort of thing – but they were geographically impossible for me. Anyway, I emailed her a long list of the kinds of things I could offer her – toothpaste, deodorant, cheese, mustard, toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, etc. – mentioned name brands so she would know it wasn’t scary dollar-store stuff, and explained that I got all these things from my shopping-for-free hobby. I threw that last bit in there because if I were to spend “real” money doing this, I would definitely lean more towards food.

She didn’t reply for 3 days, which of course puts us at her payday and beyond her immediate but not ongoing need, but I guess she unsurprisingly doesn’t have regular internet access. She emailed me her phone number and asked if I could show her how to shop like I do. I left a voicemail last night and also replied by email. I hope she gets in touch this weekend. I love that she asked to learn how to shop for free – I took it as a sign that she hates asking for charity and would be happy to do all this for herself if she could just figure out how. Too bad a lot of if involves double-coupon shopping in the suburbs – something she doesn’t have access to. I didn’t get into all the pharmacy stuff because it’s hard to make it work well without regular internet access and $20 of “start-up capital”, neither of which she has.

I hope she follows up. I like the idea of adopting a family so informally – asking for help is hard, and it probably feels like failure to sign up for some kind of program for ongoing charitable assistance. And someone asking for partial containers of laundry detergent and random unwanted cans of food – things that wouldn’t cost us anything – is not scamming.

A morning of customer service fun

Over the last few days, I’ve been accumulating customer service issues to deal with. Magically, I found myself in the mood to deal with them all this morning…maybe because I got started last night with the snotty email to that massage school I’m hoping to attend next month. Anyway, here’s what I’ve got on the go…

Rite Aid
Actually the easiest on my list. I got my receipts confused and doubled-down on one offer accidentally. I had them remove it from my rebate account so I could resubmit it to my mother’s via fax. I just set my mother up with all the materials to take care of it with nothing but a cut-paste job and some scotch tape. I also submitted for my monthly rebate check:  $61.95 for stuff I only paid $38 for.  Hehe.

Right Guard
One of the cans of professional strength aerosol deodorant I picked up on a deal (meaning I got it for free) had leaked about 2/3 of the product – everything I’d kept in that bag was covered in a greasy film. This somehow came up in one of the coupon forums I haunt – a lot of people who’d done that deal were having the same problem. So I emailed Dial Corp. and gave them what looked like the lot number stamped at the base of the can. If a problem has been reported, maybe I’ll get a big coupon for something in their line of products. If I don’t, no biggie – it only took 2 minutes.

CVS
Major headache on Monday trying to use a raincheck – monumental lack of reasoning skills on their part. It was for Crest Enamel Shield products @ $3.49, get back $3.49, amount 4. So I got 3 toothpastes and a mouthwash, and they only issued one ExtraCare Buck for $3.49 (well, it came out $4, but that’s because the machine is set up that way). I pointed out it was for 3.49 each, and employee upon employee back up the first interpretation. God, I get so sick of blustery ego crap that prevails in this city. Even pointing out that they NEVER offer a deal where you get $3.49 back on 4 products (seriously, it would be a normal number like Buy 4 Get 10 ECB, not 3.49), got me nowhere. So I emailed CVS customer service giving as many names as I could remember as well as the transaction number on the receipt. If they don’t stump up the $10 in ECBs that I’m owed, I’ll return two of the products. I’d return 3, but I used a special coupon where you buy one toothpaste and one mouthwash, and you get a toothbrush for free. I could probably do it, but I’m just not that into sticking it to the pharmacy with the best loyalty program out there.

And now it’s time to dig through the unruly stack of papers behind my computer and see if there’s anything else I can chase up. And to be fair, I should give some thought to complimenting an employee or product, just so I don’t turn into one of those chronic complainers. Hm, what have I been impressed with lately…oh, I rather like the John Frieda Luxurious Volume shampoo/conditioner – the first volume product I’ve tried that actually feels like it delivers. And I like the Garnier Nutritioniste face scrub too – does a great job of dealing with cruddiness from sweat. And I was also very impressed with the cashier staff at the CVS in Astoria, who are clearly more used to handling coupons than their Manhattan counterparts. Okay, that should keep me going for a bit…
Update:  also sent kudos to Glade for their Fragrance Collection candles and Softsoap for their new body scrub/wash.

Finally, some progress on professional training

January through March, I contacted a massage school in NJ every week by voicemail (they never answer the phone) and email about their Rolf Structural Integration program.  As if it wasn’t bad enough waiting 7 weeks to get nothing but a “we’ll let you know” email, they didn’t let me know. I kept in touch with the Rolfer who fixed the problem that 4 months of chiropractic adjustments and neurological testing could not resolve because he teaches at this school – otherwise, I wouldn’t know about the two-day intro workshop that starts in 12 days. I sent a pissy email to the “info” address about what it takes to get on their contact list, and dropped the person handling registration a direct email (already established that calling is futile). If they weren’t the only place to learn this particular skill this side of The Continental Divide, I’d have given up and walked away in response to their complete failure in communication and administration.

Okay, done venting. Now I’m freaking EXCITED that I will finally be taking the first step towards the closest thing my profession has to security: mastering a style where demand significantly outstrips supply, especially when it comes to female practitioners. The rough plan is to have all this training under my belt and the beginnings of a practice built by the time my lease is up for renewal again so I won’t pass out when the offer arrives in the mail…like I’ve done the last three years.

So fingers crossed that the registration email gets a better response than my inquiry emails. I’m guessing it will, since it will immediately add $325 to their bottom line.

Weekly-Patterned Thinking

I spent a few hours yesterday with my massage therapist friend, Bluejay, teaching her the CVS system and dropping in on her friend’s barbecue in a riverside park. Of course we touched briefly on our personal economics, and she mentioned how much she needs to earn each week to scrape by. Interesting, she thinks in terms of weekly too. Most people I know are paid either every two weeks or twice a month, though we tend to think of our larger expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, credit card bills, insurance, etc) in monthly terms. She and I are both paid on the spot when we work, but daily is a fairly ridiculous way to think of finances.

When I lived and worked in Scotland, Spain and Japan, I was always paid monthly. I didn’t like it because I always had this niggling fear that the company would disappear the day before payday and I’d end up with nothing for the previous 4 weeks’ work and no recourse. And yet, it made really good sense from a budget perspective and, I suspect, made people more aware of sticking to a budget because a payday-to-payday lifestyle involved a rather long stretch of time. Aye, those Scots are a canny bunch (sorry, slipped into my other dialect for a wee moment – doh, did it again!).

I chose weekly because it’s easier to keep my finger on the pulse of my immediate finances. At any moment, I can answer how much I’ve made so far this week, what I made last week and for several weeks before that. To. The. Dollar. Some might think that’s obsessive, others might think freakish. The truth of the matter is that in boom times, it’s a constant reminder of how I can afford my travel addiction and in lean times, it’s a reminder to keep an eye on the pennies as well as the dollars. That’s a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift.

While I no longer get super-stressed about a dire week of business, I’m still trying to find a way to feel comfortable about earmarking any amount for discretionary spending. Not that I’m a shopaholic (unless you include my shop-for-free hobby), but there are things I semi-need that I’ve been putting off. So for those of you who are self-employed or have a sideline or for any other reason earn inconsistently, how do you approach your income needs and goals?

This Week in Freebies, Both Giving & Getting

Here’s an odd little round-up of all the giving and getting of freebies I’ve partaken of in the past week. What can I say – I have quite a bit of downtime these days, and this gives me something to do…

– An elderly couple was working a few deals at CVS, including two little containers of Mentos (lousy gum – loses flavor in 10 chomps). They handed over two $1 coupons for the Mentos, but they had expired. I fished out two current ones, and they were quite tickled. Value $2.

– M&M/Mars is having a Free Chocolate Friday campaign, and this is the second Friday I registered to receive a coupon for a free chocolate bar. Mm, Twix. Value $2.

– I got a haircut on the barter system. At first I felt a bit gypped, but I’ve since discovered what a great cut it really is. Score! Value $40.

– I’ve managed to get free subscriptions to Ode (a travel magazine) and Shape through Rewards Gold. I think I got one a couple of weeks ago for…darn, can’t remember, BusinessWeek? I don’t entirely understand how all that works, but assuming it does, I should start getting issues of assorted mags in my pigeonhole in 4-6 weeks. Value: $50.

– Exchanged Thai massages with a fellow therapist, then gave her 2 boxes of Raisin Bran and Alaway eye drops. She wants to learn how to CVS, so I gave her coupons to match up with Sunday’s deals and will guide her through it either in person or by email. Value: $100 for the massage, gave $15 of products that cost me -$4 (meaning I made money on the purchases).

– New client on Thursday night has her own web/phone-based business and offered to optimize my work website for search engine traffic, and then gave me a container of her too-big batch of homemade bruschetta to take with me. Value $3 and we’ll see about the SEO.

– Snagged free products or coupons for free products: Oscar Meyer hot dogs, popcorn (from Yahoo), DiGiorno Flatbread Melt, sample-size Hawaiian Tropic body butter, o.b. tampons & Fancy Feast cat food (on behalf of littlest sister, Starfish). Value: $13.

– Not sure if it counts, but I got two Buy-1-Get-1 coupons for Wendy’s Frosties, and will either share with my mom or, more likely, ask the doorman which of the two flavors on offer he’d prefer. Also got two BOGO coupons for Snapple. And tomorrow night, my mom is looking forward to the Ruby Tuesday’s BOGO entree deal, which includes some tasty “handcrafted” steaks. Odd word to describe food – I’m anticipating a rib-eye shaped like a daisy. Values:  $5, $3, $12-18 respectively.

– I dropped off the raincheck forms for that KFC free unfried chicken deal fiasco. And when I went in with my $3.99 two-piece meal coupon late last night, Shefaly the cashier loaded me up wih 2 drumsticks, 2 wing, 1 breast, and 2 containers of mashed potatoes. Value $16 for the raincheck items, $5 for the extra food.

– Hit up a street coffee cart around 11am for my favorite donut, and he gave me an extra one because he was closing up shop and would have just thrown it away. My waistline didn’t even need the first donut, so my doorman benefitted from the sticky nut-encrusted bun. This happens quite often. Value $1.

– Had a 9am client on Thursday, and my deal for working so early is that they have to bring me coffee. Value $2.

– In addition to my usual shelter delivery, I made a special trip for a boy with sensitive skin – Neutrogena hypoallergenic soap and a bundle of washcloths. Value: Soap will be free after rebate ($14 before coupons, $8 after, $8 rebate), 12 washcloths $3.

– Requested a free reuseable tote bag from Mantra Energy. Anticipating the usual quality of such things, so Value $1.

– In response to my complaint about a product that gave me pimples on my usually flawless cheeks (I get small pimples at my temples and on my chin, that’s about it), Olay sent me a coupon for a free Olay Total Effects product. Value $20.

– In the mail, I received a coupon booklet from Con Agra with one for a free bottle of Hunts ketchup. Also got a Schick Titanium razor. Value $12.