Charity or Sharing: A dignified blurring of the lines

Last month, I picked up some Keebler Pecan Sandies on a drug store deal with the intention of giving them to Working Poor Mom/Family. But she didn’t come to collect her goodie bags fast enough, and I…I…I opened the package and ate some. For breakfast. In an effort to save my waistline, I taped up the package, put it back in the bags of groceries earmarked for her and gave her the option of rejecting the open cookies. Hah, as if – those cookies are too tasty. Her take on the cookies was “we’re sharing”. I liked that…we’re sharing.

Now fast-forward to this past weekend, where my mom observed my purchase of 4 medium-size bottles of Excedrin, 12 bottles of French’s mustard, 2 bags of Chex Mix, 3 lbs of hamburger meat, 1 lb. of mozzarella, 2 bags of salad and 2 big bottles of Kraft salad dressing for a grand total of … $9.09 (total based on sale prices but before coupons: $35.10). Although she knows I have this “adopted family”, she didn’t understand this grocery order — What are you going to do with 3 lbs of meat, you’re one person? That salad is only good until the 14th, you’d have to be a rabbit to get through it all! If you’re trying to lose weight, why are you buying ranch dressing and chocolate chex? All very valid questions until I explained stockpiling and my new concept of sharing.

I kept 3 of the 4 Excedrin, half the meat, half the cheese, half the salad, half the dressing. Even using coupons and sale prices, that alone would have cost me $14 in Manhattan in a very good week. So I felt like I got $6 off my stuff by shopping in the ‘burbs, and the rest of it was a bonus for my adopted family (well, not all the mustard – most of it goes to the shelter, which is always in need of condiments). I hauled it all back to NYC on the train, cooked or froze the meat, and bagged up the rest to give away. I explained this plan to my mom, and she asked on Wednesday after my weekly visit with Ayten (a.k.a. “Working Poor Mom”) how it went with the meat, etc. It must have gotten her wheels turning, because this morning…

Mom called to discuss a great deal on a big ham shank, wondering if there was a way to make it work for my “broke-ass family”. Hard not to laugh – there was a time when she and the rest were my broke-ass family! Anyway, back to the hunk o’ ham… It was just .49/lb but would weigh in at around 8-10 lbs. I told her to get it, cut off whatever she wants for her purposes, I’d cut off whatever I wanted for myself, and the rest would go to Ayten and her kids. If it turns out they’re not ham-lovers, then it could go to the teen shelter. Once she established that there was no such thing as a food shopping mistake, she sounded quite happy with herself over her “find”…and then, in order to appear less of a dork for getting all excited about cheap ham, threw in: 

“Well, we had to get them something to go with all that free mustard!”

Whole life policy: Good or bad decision?

Last summer, my financial advisor talked me into a whole life policy with an annual premium of $9K. Two weeks after signing on the dotted line, Lehman crashed and the value of our country and planet spiraled. I have since been questioning my ability to keep up the payments, whether it’s the right product for me, the security of Mass Mutual, etc. I still don’t have a clue, but I have an odd source of perspective in my even odder personal history…

I’m thinking that it was a much better decision now than when I made it for a number of reasons, the first being that it has a guaranteed minimum appreciation. The main reason I went ahead with it despite not entirely understanding the nuances of how it works is that it’s nearly identical to a very popular mortgage-attached product in the UK called a “with profits endowment”, with which I have significant familiarity. In the UK, instead of having a traditional repayment mortgage, you could opt for an interest-only deal and the portion that would have gone towards the principle is invested in this product. However your ability to repay the mortgage in full at the end of the term hinged on whether that endowment achieved it’s projected value, not its guaranteed value. Bonuses to the policy’s value are locked in annually (again a feature of both the US and the UK products) and therefore protected from future market fluctuations. The worst that can happen is that the policy only increases by the guaranteed minimum. It seems that the UK product was heavily marketed as a mortgage alternative in the 80s and early 90s (possibly the 70s too, but I honestly don’t know), and there were all these delicious news stories  in the late 1990s about people who’d chosen the 15-year term option getting massive windfalls upon cashing in the policy. Think about where the Dow was in 1982 (800) v. 1997 (9000) and you’ll understand what I mean. No, people didn’t increase their wealth by a factor of 10, but it was extremely common to hear of people whose policy value exceeded the minimum value by 100% and their mortgage needs by 30-50% when the time came to cash it in. Now do the math based on a $100,000 mortgage.

Which brings me to my second reason for liking this Whole Life decision:  the economy is in the toilet. Anything, ANYTHING that Mass Mutual invests in was already down significantly when my money went in, and dropped further. I think that over the next few years, those locked-in policy bonuses will be rather sweet, since there’s so much room for rebound – which is a wonderful thing this early in the life of such an instrument…right? Or am I missing something?

The major hurdle for me is the monstrous premium. I based my level of savings/investment on my income not dropping more than 10% from its 2007 to mid-2008 levels, and it has dropped more like 25%. The premium will be due sometime in September, and right now I’ve got $5K out of the full $9K set aside. I thought I had two ways to make up the slack this year, but neither has come through – one being my brother’s huge bonus upon the sale of the company he works for (which fell through), the other being Bridezilla repaying a $6K car loan. She doesn’t start her first job as a nurse until August, is getting married in September…yeah, that’s not going to start coming through in time.

So here are my options for handling an anticipated shortfall of about $2500:

  1. Pay the full annual premium, making up the amount I’m short from my savings account (emergency fund), and cross my fingers that this is the only year I’ll have to do such a thing.
  2. Opt to pay in installments. The downside of this is that it’ll cost about 2-5% more because I’ll lose the little discount I get for paying up-front. The less frequent the installments, the smaller the extra amount. I could conceivably choose semi-annually with the next chunk due in March, but I really don’t like the proximity to tax time and IRA contribution deadlines.
  3. Pay what I can, call that the new premium, have the policy value adjusted accordingly. I hate this one because I get no benefit from the difference between what I paid last year and what I pay this year; the money just goes poof.
  4. Do 15 “naughty” massages in the next 10 weeks. Okay, that’s an absolute 100% joke – I just put that in there because this post needed something to wake you all up. And to shock any relatives who ignored my instructions from two posts ago to never ever visit my blog again. Heh. Serves you all right for ignoring my wishes.

Stockpile Distribution Etiquette

My recent post about working the drug store games attracted a very thoughtful and relevant comment from one of my readers:

The down side [of bargain-hunting] is that as much as [my mother] loves a bargain, she looks for things not only for herself, but for everyone who lives close enough to her for her to give things to them. It drives my brothers crazy, because there comes a point at which her bargains– even the food ones– are junk coming into the house that they need to get rid of or find a place for. I’m glad that I don’t live close enough to her for her to be foisting so much stuff off on me. As it is, she’s sent me a few boxes of things that–yes, they’ll be useful eventually, but I didn’t really want them at that moment. It’s not always a bonus. Even if you’ll eventually use 10 bottles of glass cleaner, you only need one for now. The other 9 are a pain if you don’t have space for them. And sometimes, the reason a person doesn’t have an item is because he or she doesn’t really want to have it. Cost isn’t a factor– desire is.

I’m not saying that your family isn’t grateful and I’m not saying that you (or my mother, for that matter) shouldn’t enjoy what you do. I’m just saying that as a sometimes recipient and as a sibling of more-frequent recipients, there are times when “take it, it was free!” or “here, it was a bargain!” can be a nuisance.

Actually, I’ve never been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior so I can’t relate perfectly. However, I have had friends who would, for example, get tired of a hair product when only 1/4 of the way through it and foist it on me with “we have the same hair type, you’ll love this”. I’d have folks clean out their closets and make like they were being wonderfully generous by giving me the dusty, unwanted crap that they never found a use for.

I caught myself going down this road early on and changed my behavior. I went CVSing with a friend who appreciates a good deal, and I got 2 bottles of contact lens solution as a “money-maker”. Well, it takes me a long time to get through a whole bottle of contact lens solution, so I gave her the other one. She started to explain that it’s not the brand she prefers and then just shut up and took it. To this day, I’m not sure if she took it because (a) it’s hard to turn away “free”, (b) she re-thought her brand loyalty and realized it wasn’t that important to her, or (c) it would make me happy. So here’s what I’ve done to make sure I don’t annoy the people I distribute my freebies to:

Mom:  She’s with me for a lot of my shopping. I spread it all out before packing it up to bring back to NYC, and she takes what she wants. We occasionally come to blows over brownie mix.

Sisters:  In addition to their silly-but-useful “color boxes” that I’m preparing for Christmas, I set aside anything I know they use. Or more accurately, anything our mom knows they use – the woman has a shopping list in her head for each of us. When she doesn’t know, she defaults back to what we liked/used in 1985.

Brother:  He likes smelly things in general and is a very happy recipient for all the free air freshener contraptions that Glade keeps putting out. He’s also something of a naive new homeowner, so anything household-y will not go amiss. Heck, unlike the commentator above, he could actually used a few bottles of glass cleaner – the house has 4 levels and a whole lotta windows.

Ayten (aka Working Poor Mom + 2 teens):  The first delivery, she was so desperate for anything and everything from unwanted laundry detergent to milk that there was just no getting it wrong. But since I’ve established an ongoing care package relationship with her, I’ve gotten a wish list and also check that she and her kids actually use/need what I give her. I told her that if I ever give her something that doesn’t suit them for whatever reason, to tell me or even give it back – I won’t be offended. She then went on to describe how several of the items I’d supplied (peanut butter, Knorr pasta sides, etc) were making life a whole lot easier for her because they were things that her kids could make on their own while she’s at work.

Friend:  I asked my best friend for a list of her health/beauty/household stuff she uses – this is the same friend I gave the contact lens solution to last year. She indicated brands, which things she was brand loyal to and which ones whe wasn’t picky about. It was kind of funny how quickly she rattled things off:  Dawn but only the blue kind, Lysol but only the orange pourable, Tresemme for colored hair (really? it’s kinda cheap…), Satin Care or really any shave gel as long as it’s girlie, any toothpaste in a whitening formula, etc. Wow, I’ve got half her list committed to memory. Now that’s friendship.

Client:  Okay, so Ms Phone Sex is really turning out to be more friend than client, but I figured the odd things I’ve given her warrant a mention. I don’t think she’s all that picky she likes a bargain – especially one she doesn’t even have to go out and get herself. And heck, she’d actually requested dishwashing liquid. I loved showing up with odd bits and pieces that she needed, like Dawn and Nivea shower gel. It firmly established a lack of pretention early on in the friendship, which is really important to me.

So there – that’s how avoid turning my adventures in de-cluttering into someone else’s reluctant re-cluttering.

Welcome, MSN MoneyCentral readers … Family, Go away!!

Someone over at MoneyCentral, who thinks it’s unfair of me to call my sister “Bridezilla”(!), thought my post on some of the unusual things she’s doing for her wedding were worth a larger audience. Thanks, MSN! And welcome to everyone who has clicked through for a poke around my blog…


Some of the details in my piece were unmistakeable to those who know about the wedding. I’m not sure who stumbled across it first on MoneyCentral, but I suspect it was you, Aunt Lolly (aka Bridezilla’s godmother). Don’t take it personally that I blocked you on Twitter – I only talk to strangers there about some of my silly money-related shenanigans. I’d reject my mother if she tried! Now do everyone a favor and forget you ever found me here. Go on now, go. All of you. Shoo!

The Lazy Way to Work the Drug Store Deals

Because not everybody enjoys spending their weekends doing coupon origamy…

Plenty of people drool over the deals us coupon crazies (yes, I figure I’m one of them) manage to swing, but the effort involved – pouring over sales circulars, clipping & filing coupons, joining manufacturers’ email lists, etc – is rather intimidating despite the wealth of sites that help you pull it all together. Every chain has its own policy and reward system, but worse than that is how much your experience and savings vary depending on what manager and cashier you get. I’ve had such hassles with Manhattan CVSes lately that I’ve pulled way back on my shopping-for-free because the deals haven’t been good enough to brave the suspicion and arguments [Note: heard from district manager yesterday about my rejected coupons – I was completely right, for whatever that’s worth since I didn’t get the stuff]. The funny thing is, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation:  I don’t get the product, the store doesn’t get the boost to their bottom line (the money may not come out of my pocket, but it doesn’t come out of theirs either), and the manufacturer doesn’t get their promotion, well, promoted.

I have a friend who lives across the street from Walgreens and tends to do a lot of her shopping there. She’s not a coupon clipper and always forgets to use any Register Rewards earned (not familiar with these? it’s like an instant rebate at checkout, full or partial, that can only be spent in Walgreens). From that, I came up with:

No matter what you’re there to buy, if there’s something on special that gives you back the full price, you should buy that first, get the reward, and then go buy what you came for. It’s kind of like…recycling.

But what if it’s something I don’t need/want/use, you might ask. I won’t even go the “donate it” route, because that can be a lot of hassle for a few things a month. However, I would advise you to hang onto it because you’d be surprised at the opportunities to give this stuff a good home. For example, I got a lot of household cleaning products and Glade room scent thingies for free back in February – more than I’ll use in 2 years. Then in April, my brother bought his first house and moved in. They all laughed when I showed up with a big bag of Lysol Bowl, Pledge, Glade Sense & Spray, Fantastik, Dawn, Scrubbing Bubbles, etc…but then found themselves dipping into it several times a day during the organization of his swanky new pad.

I poke fun at myself around my family about all the “free crap” I snaffle up. They just shake their heads and say “but it’s not crap, it’s good stuff”. They still think I’m nuts, but I’ve bought their reluctant respect with a year’s supply of Secret, Listerine, Always, Pantene, Chapstick, Dawn, Ziploc, Windex, Dove, you name it. I guess it’s hard to make fun of someone else’s hobby when it saves you hundreds a year on stuff you actually need.